St Michael’s, 13th November 2016
Readings – Colossians 3:1-14; Luke 21:25-36
One of our favourite TV series Lynda and I like to watch is the American drama West Wing. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it features the fictional president Josiah Bartlett and his eight years in office in the White House. Despite President Bartlett’s all too obvious weaknesses, he is in many ways the ideal American leader, able to sort out international crises, bring progress to society and solve many of the big issues of the day.
It’s been interesting working our way through West Wing again during the current presidential race. Whatever you might think about the politics, there is no doubt that the recent campaign has been one of the most divisive and personally abusive in history. There have been times when we have both wished reality was a little bit more like the fictional drama we’ve just been watching.
But then again, I guess all of us have this longing for something better than what’s going around us. That’s why we love to watch films, read books, even follow soap operas. We are longing for a world where there are answers to the issues we face, where the good guy comes out on top and wrongdoers receive their just desserts.
And on Remembrance Sunday, as we stop to honour the fallen of wars past and present, this longing for a better world, it seems to me, is particularly intense. We all dream of a future where, in the words of the prophets, swords are beaten into ploughshares and nation speaks peace unto nation. But each year as the veterans of old conflicts pass away they are replaced by the casualties of new ones. We still live in an age of great fear and uncertainty where the end of warfare seems but a distant reality.
Now last Saturday some of us from the church spent the day looking at the whole theme of the kingdom of God. The thing about God’s kingdom is that it is not a physical piece of land which has to be defended by weapons and soldiers. It is a glorious spiritual reality of lives lived under the true and just rule of Jesus as King. And when we become part of that kingdom we are given a hope of a better future where there is no more pain or suffering or even death, a hope secured for us by the death of Jesus on the cross and resurrection.
That is why I believe that even as we gather to remember and to pray on this very special day, we need also to point to the hope that is ours through Jesus Christ. Because it is this hope that ultimately stills that longing for a better future. And unlike the dramas and the films that we might watch, this hope of the Christian faith is no fiction. It is real, and it is available for anyone who claims it in faith.
Yet I also believe that if we as a church are to share this hope with the world, it is important that we do not simply talk about this hope, but rather live it as well. After all, the world is tired of people who make empty promises and hollow claims. Folk want to see solid, real evidence that Jesus is king and does indeed rule over every part of us.
That’s why we need to take seriously Paul’s words at the start of our reading today. Verses: -3: Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.
You see, his purpose in writing these words is not that we are so heavenly minded that we are of no earthly use. Rather his greatest desire is that we are so focused on Christ our life as a church becomes a beacon of hope to those all around us.
So what does he mean when he talks about dying and rising with Christ? This is where I want to go back to the image I shared last week of a river. On this side of the river is our old way of life where basically we worship whatever god we want and live exactly as we please. On the other side is a new way of life where we worship Jesus as king and we intend to serve and obey Him only. The river in the middle stands for our profession of faith in Jesus as our Saviour. As we pass from the old to the new, we quite literally die to one way of life and are raised in resurrection power as children of the living God.
What, then, does this mean in practice? Well, if you have a Bible like mine, you will see this section is titled “Rules for holy living”. But Paul’s words are about as far from rules and regulations as you can get. Paul is not promoting another manmade religion which is all centred on our duty and effort. He is promoting a life lived in the power of the Holy Spirit where our focus day by day, hour by hour, is on the living Lord Jesus. No wonder the 2011 version changes the title to “Living as those made alive in Christ”.
Because that is the real challenge we face as a church. It is so easy to get distracted by all the pressures and business of the working day, or to despair at the violence and chaos around us. We need to set our hearts and our minds on Christ through prayer, through reading the Bible, through worship and fellowship together so that He might indeed truly reign in us and over us.
And we also need to allow King Jesus to challenge and to change us. We need to allow Him access to the deepest desires of our hearts and take seriously Pauls words in verse 5 to put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because these are the wrong desires that are responsible for so much conflict in the world today, and how can we proclaim Jesus as the Prince of Peace unless we let His Holy Spirit first transform us?
We also need to provide evidence of our new life in Christ by watching carefully what comes out of our mouths. Verse 8: But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander and filthy language from your lips. After all, words have great power to wound and to hurt, and once said, they can never be unsaid. This doesn’t mean, however, we should avoid speaking the truth to one another. Paul is clear that as those raised new life in Christ we should not lie to each other(verse 9) but our aim should also be to seek the good of others, and to treat them as brothers or sisters for whom Christ died.
You see, God has a very special plan for us as His people. In a world so often divided by race, or class, or wealth, His purpose for us is that we show a unity in Christ that crosses every human barrier. Talking about the church in verse 11 he says: Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.
That is a wonderful and breathtaking picture of what our new life in Christ should be like. But please note: this unity does not come about talking, or by setting up committees, or even being nice to each other. No, Paul tells us that if we are to live as children of God’s kingdom, then we need to seek the fruits and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Because it is only by the Holy Spirit working in and through us that our relationships with each other will truly point to Jesus. So when he says in verse 12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience, he isn’t encouraging us just to get on with each other. He is telling us to seek for more and more of the Holy Spirit’s work in our hearts.
Of course there will still be times when we get it wrong, when we fall out with each other and wind each other up. That is why a seeking after the Holy Spirit goes hand in hand with a desire to practise radical Christlike forgiveness where we leave our hurts and the hurt we have caused others at the foot of the cross. And so Paul goes on to say in verse 13: Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. Because in a world that is so often broken and wounded we as the church of Christ cannot afford to hold grudges, divide into factions or simply not speak to each other. If we want to provide evidence for the hope within us forgiveness is not just an option, it is a practical and urgent necessity.
It should by now be clear why Paul finishes this teaching by connecting love with the whole idea of unity. Verse 14: And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Now it is perhaps relatively easy to affirm in the safe space of a Sunday service our desire to love like Jesus. But what about when we wake up on Monday morning? Or reach Friday evening, tired and exhausted? We have to understand Paul’s teaching is not a one off set of instructions. We need to keep making the conscious decision to set our hearts and minds on Christ, keep seeking after the Holy Spirit, keep coming back to the cross. Only then will we really be that beacon of hope the world wants to see.
But back to today. After Holy Communion we will process with the cross to Devonport Park. We can just treat this as a religious gesture to indicate we are a church. Or we can carry the cross as a sign we want to live a new life under the authority of Jesus our king, and show the reality of our faith. This morning let me encourage all of us to consider our response so that when folk see our unity they also see Christ at work in us, and the living hope they need for themselves. To the glory of His name. Amen.