St Barnabas & St Michael, Sunday May 17th 2009
You may also like to read a sketch written for the occasion … click to download … Sketch 17 May 09
At St Michael’s Café Church on Sunday we asked the question …
How does Jesus’ command “to love each other as I have loved you” (John 15:12) tie in with Paul’s commands to
(a) wives and husbands
(b) children and fathers
(c) employees and employers?
(see Colossians 3:18 – 4:1) and we linked these questions to the opening of the new church, and how we can build a community of relationships that will attract others to Jesus.
At St Barnabas I tried to answer the question with the following sermon …
The problem with Jesus’ great command is not that it is hard to understand. Nor is the problem that we are unwilling to obey it. We all want – at least in theory – to love each other as Jesus has loved us. No, the problem is we have tamed and neutered His command so that it only means what we want it to mean. We reduce being church to those safe activities like cleaning the brass, or making the tea – both of which are important, but not the whole story. We turn mission into a cheap, painless activity like putting up posters or keeping the noticeboard up to date. We make our fellowship an hour and a half of worship on Sunday morning where we can get to know our fellow Christians – but not so well as for it to be inconvenient. Whereas I believe when Jesus told us to love each other He meant something far more radical and far more profound, something shaped, moulded and patterned on His death and resurrection that would be so distinct and revolutionary all those knotty questions Christians struggle with – like how to attract newcomers, how to make disciples – would almost disappear overnight.
And I also believe that when Paul wrote to the church in Colossae he had a similar understanding. Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. (Colossians 3:1) For as far as he was concerned being a Christian was far more than believing in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – although he would have agreed that was a good starting point. For him being a Christian was actually in some small way sharing in the death of Jesus Christ and living His risen life. So, two weeks ago, we looked at how being a Christian involves putting to death the attitudes and behaviour of the old nature, and we considered the importance of breaking with habits such as sexual immorality, lies, anger, filthy language, and a whole host of other things mentioned in Col 3:5-10. We then moved on last week to consider how more positively being a Christian is about putting on the new habits of the risen Lord. And although we didn’t have time to deal with the passage fully, we need to note that central to all of Paul’s teaching at this point is the self-same call to love, And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Colossians 3:14).
Paul – the Apostle of Love
Because as far as Paul was concerned, the love of Christ was no wishy-washy ideal or warm feeling that he sometimes experienced in worship. For him the love of Christ was an irresistible force that had taken hold of his life in the most unexpected and most dramatic way possible. It was the love of Christ that shaped his understanding of how to follow Jesus, and just as importantly, how the local church is meant to the body of Christ. And unless you realise just how much the love of Christ underpins Paul’s teaching you will not understand just what he is talking about when he tells us to bear with one another, to forgive one another, to live at peace with each other, to live a life of constant gratitude to God. The love of Christ that caused Him to die for us and to bear our sins on the cross should radically and permanently change our relationships at the very deepest level, and mean that we become a community where reconciliation, transformation, and all those other big words are not just ideals or grand aspirations but things that happen naturally and spontaneously through the power of the Holy Spirit.
And unless you understand the love of Christ you will also fail to understand Paul’s teaching in today’s passage. Paul has in some quarters an undeserved reputation as a misogynist, as a bigot, as an advocate of slavery. But those accusations levelled at Paul come from a failure to realise why Paul writes as He does. Paul moves on in this passage to tackle relationships at home and at work, not in order to support the current inequalities of a male-dominated, patriarchal society, but because for Him the love of Christ was something so real, so powerful it impacted on every area of life. And so for him to declare Jesus as Lord was not simply about singing songs on a Sunday morning, or attending the midweek prayer meeting. It was about the way you behaved in the kitchen, in the bedroom, or when you slipped out to the shops. Do you, I wonder, think about the Lordship of Christ in such terms?
Maybe the real problem for us is that in many Bibles there is a big white space after verse 17, and a new subject heading before verse 18. Let me say right away these are not part of the inspired text of Holy Scripture. I know why they are there. It would be hard on the eye to read the letter as a continuous whole – but maybe its something we ought to do. Because these instructions Paul gives about wives and husbands, children and parents, slaves and masters all flow on from Paul’s instruction in Colossians 3:17 – And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Wives and Husbands
Does that surprise you? I’m half expecting someone at this point to jump up and down and ask how wives submitting to husbands can be anything to do with joyful thanksgiving to God the Father. All the current wisdom of the age is that submission is a great evil, that for too long society – often with the connivance of the church has suppressed the rights of women – and denied them equality, and that part of our responsibility as Christians is to work for liberation, and repent for the wrongful attitudes of the past. Well, to some extent that is true. No-one can deny that for too many centuries women were simply looked upon as goods and chattels traded in marriage and treated as second-class citizens. And, yes, verses like Colossians 3:18 were often used in support of such attitudes.
But the real question, to ask is this: what did Paul mean by submission? Because if I’m right, if it was the love of Christ that impacted on every area of his life, then the way he understood submission was very different from what we often assume. For him, the idea of submission quite simply came from the pattern of Jesus. After all, Jesus perfectly submitted to the will of His Father. He spent time finding out what His Heavenly Father wanted of Him, and He learnt to carry it out. But did that mean Jesus lived a second-class life oppressed by the weight of expectation and less than fully human? The answer is surely not. In the same vein when Paul says Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord he is very careful not to tell wives to submit come what may, but only as fitting in the Lord. In other words, your submission, wives, only comes from your love for Christ and for your desire to follow His example. When there is a choice between doing what pleases Jesus and what pleases your husband, the answer – at least in theory – is clear. Paul is not asking you to become a doormat, a slave or a skivvy. He is asking you simply to apply the love of Christ to your home situation. And sometimes that will involve not getting your own way, not always being right, because following Jesus is about following His example of humility and service.
And don’t believe that Paul is letting the husbands get off scot-free. When Paul writes in Colossians 3:19 Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them we need to understand he is laying as great a burden on husbands as he is on wives. At first glance you might think it rather redundant for Paul to tell husbands to love their wives. After all, most husbands most of the time love their wives, and surely isn’t he telling them to do what they are doing already!? Well, not if we realise this command too is all about the love of Christ. You, husbands, are to love your wives in the way Jesus loves you. That love as Paul has already said in verse 12 involves compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Now the world may say that to be a true man you have be to the big tough guy who goes out with his club each day to bring the mammoth home to the cave. But real manhood is about becoming like Jesus, who knew when to be angry, and when to be gentle, when to speak powerfully to a crowd of 5000, and when to whisper gently to the sick person in need. And that’s the kind of man Jesus wants you to be. A man not afraid to love with a costly, precious love which involves dying to self and a willingness to lay down your life for your other half.
I could preach a whole sermon on its own about verses 18-19, and maybe we ought to tackle this subject more fully in the future. But we must move on, and look at children and fathers, slaves and masters.
Children and Fathers
Because again these commands are ones that widely misunderstood. After all, just imagine what would happen if you were taking a school assembly and you stood up and read Colossians 3:20? Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Can you imagine what the reaction would be? And that’s before the press or the council or the OFSTED inspection team got hold of your words. Obedience is just so not cool. Obedience is about conforming to the system, is about losing your individuality, is about being a geek. About the worst thing you can say about a child nowadays is that he or she is obedient. In fact, obedience has such a poor reputation we only use the words “obedience training” when referring to dogs.
So what do we do with this verse? The answer, as we have already seen, is to go back to Jesus. Because unless you root what Paul says in the life and teaching of Jesus, then, yes, you are going to misunderstand and misapply this teaching, and you are going to use it to suppress and to humiliate others. But for Jesus, obedience, just like submission, was the path to a full and rich human life. He may have at one level been an embarrassed teenager when his parents showed up at the temple in Jerusalem while He was quizzing the teachers of the law, but He went along with them because He understood and respected their concern. It was through listening to Joseph and Mary that He first learnt the law of the Lord, and it was from their example He first began to see what doing His Father’s will might involve. This does not mean that we need wholeheartedly agree with the Christmas carol that says Christian children all should be, mild, obedient, good as he. Because again Paul is not advocating the unquestioning Victorian obedience, as is so often assumed, but, as in the case of wives and their submission, sets a clear boundary. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. (Colossians 3:20). So presumably when there is again a conflict between loving the Lord and loving your parents then there should be no choice. Although here I would add a note of caution and say that such situations are often less rare than children often imagine. To say you can’t tidy your bedroom because you have to go to church, or you can’t come and see Great-Aunt Gertrude because there is some Christian girl (or boy) the Lord is calling you to visit, I’m afraid doesn’t quite wash.
And what about the instruction to fathers in verse 21? Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged. Again, I see a clear link between this verse, and the instruction to husbands in verse 19. The way you show your love for your children, fathers, is not by being the dominant alpha-male who rules over his cubs with an iron rod. There is certainly a place for discipline, as other parts of the Bible make clear. But your love for the Lord again has to the dominant factor. And although it may be hard when your child disobeys you again and again, or fails to learn the simple wisdom you keep on teaching them, you keep on loving them. Why? Because God our Heavenly Father keeps on loving us even when we disobey Him again and again, and keeps on loving us even when we ignore His wisdom time after time. And if He loves us in such a profound, generous and gracious way, who are we to love our children in any other kind of way?
I should at this point say I am preaching this sermon more to myself than to anyone else. And if you think the vicar and his family live on a different plane, or should be put up on a pedestal for all to see, I beg you please to think again. When you are a husband and a father I think you become more conscious than you ever realised before just how easy it is to get things wrong, and how much you need the Lord’s forgiveness again and again. The fact you wear a dog collar in public as far as I am concerned is in comparison neither here or there. These verses in Colossians 3:18-21 apply to all of us equally, and it is up to all of us to work how to apply them in our own particular circumstances.
Slaves and Masters
And what about the commands to slaves and masters? Here once again we must tackle a great misunderstanding on the subject. Because when we think of slaves we quite reasonably think of Africans stuffed into the hold of ships and dragged out half-dead to work on sugar plantations, and the fact that many Christians supported this practice should be a source of eternal shame. But the world of the Roman slave was very different. It is true they were owned by their masters. It is true some masters treated their slaves appallingly. And we should also note Paul advised slaves to gain their freedom if they could (1 Corinthians 7:21). But on the whole slaves were a valued part of the Roman household and they were an important part of the economic and social infrastructure of the time. Most business was conducted in the family home, and slaves were crucial to the smooth running of operations.
That’s why for Paul the commands to slaves and masters follow on so seamlessly from his commands to wives and husbands, children and fathers. They are instructions about how to apply the love of Christ to the life of the home. And although our industrial society is set up very differently I nonetheless believe it is valid to transfer Paul’s teaching here to the workplace, and to the relationship between employee and employer. Because at the end of the day the employee owes the same duty of obedience to the employer as the child to the parent. And again although Paul at first sight seems to promote unquestioning loyalty, once again we need to note that Paul is careful to place limits to that obedience Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favour, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. (Colossians 3:22). In other words when there is a conflict between your love for Christ and the task you are called to do, it should be clear which takes priority. This doesn’t mean however that Christians should be marked out as trouble-makers who are forever raising objections on account of their faith. As Paul makes clear here, their main act of witness in the workplace is a willingness to knuckle down to the task even when they are not being watched. Why? Because once more our example is Jesus. And what does Jesus teach about the world of work? About a single-mindedness to the task in hand, a willingness to see your mission through, about giving your all without counting the cost. And if that is how Jesus approached his work, what then, about us?
Of course working like this will raise the objection we are trying to curry favour with the boss, or out to earn money, and really Christians are just looking out for number one like every one else. And that is why Paul goes on to say in Colossians 3:23-24 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. In other words, your focus, workers, should not be on the rewards of this life, whether it is the size of your wage packet or the employee of the month rewards. It should be following the example of your risen Saviour and looking to receive His reward. And in this sense Paul’s teaching takes us right back to the beginning of the chapter to Colossians 3:1 Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Being risen with Christ, you see, is not some abstract theological term. It’s about an attitude of heart and mind that radically alters our behaviour in our marriages, in our families, in our place of work. Our one desire above all else should be to please Jesus who died and rose again for us wherever we are, whatever we are called to do, aware that as it says in Colossians 3:25 Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, and there is no favouritism.
And what, finally, about the instructions to masters in Colossians 4:1? Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven. Really it all comes back down to that simple declaration that is at the heart of the Christian faith – that Jesus is Lord. And whenever we have responsibility for another person, whether as a master or parent or carer or whatever it might be, we need to look to Jesus to see how to exercise that responsibility. We all know examples of institutions and organisations that do not provide their employees or clients with what is right and fair. It is the way of the world to be partial, to treat people unequally, to make them second-class citizens, and sometimes the church is as guilty as anyone else. How we need to keep coming back to Jesus and His words in our gospel reading Greater love has no-one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.
Well, as I’ve said, there is just so much in these verses, and I feel I’ve only just scratched the surface. But let me finish with two final observations.
First of all, if there shouldn’t be a white space in our Bibles between verses 17 and 18 of chapter 3, neither should there be a white space between verses 1 and 2 of chapter 4. We can’t begin to obey Paul’s commands about wives and husbands, children and fathers, slaves and masters, unless we are devoted to prayer, and devoted to praying for one another. We need constantly to pray to Jesus that He show us how we submit, how we love, how obey, how we have responsibility towards each other, and we need to help one another as the body of Christ to live out His teaching. Paul’s words here are not meant to condemn us or set us an ideal we can never hope to meet, but to make us seek fellowship and bear one another’s burdens.
And secondly, although Paul’s teaching might be hard, although it might be challenging, it is as we put Jesus’ great command into practice, and as we lay down our lives for each other, that we will bear fruit – fruit that will last. Because the world is aching for genuine loving relationships free from abuse and domination and exploitation, and they want to see a community of people who can show them a better way. And we can be that community, providing we let that love of Christ shape, mould and pattern us in all that we do.
So let’s go back, finally, to that command of Jesus. Love each other as I have loved you. What does that command really mean to you – as you go back home, as you spend time with your families, as you return to work tomorrow? Spend some time thinking about the key relationships in your life and dare to ask the Lord that His revolutionary, life-changing and life-giving love might be at the heart of all you do. Let us pray …