St Michael’s, 20th November 2016
Readings – Colossians 3:12-4:1; Luke 18:9-17
At the recent church away day we were invited to consider the whole theme of the Kingdom of God. We covered a lot of ground, too much to cover in one service, but one of the most useful exercises was simply to write down on a Post-it Note what we thought the Kingdom of God was all about. We quickly discovered once we started writing that the Kingdom of God meant a lot of different things to different people …
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Now I am sure that if we had the time, we could easily fill up a third slide with aspects of God’s kingdom we haven’t even considered, and when you see the number of post-it notes it can be very easy to feel overwhelmed. So how do we begin to make sense of all these different themes and sum up all this valuable input?
I believe the answer lies with the very first Post-it note which simply said “relationships”. Because whatever else the kingdom of God is about, it is at the most basic level about relationships. You see, the term “the kingdom of God” is really a kind of shorthand to describe the way God relates to us as our king. So the reason we say, for example, that the kingdom of God is about welcome or love or acceptance is because we have a God who welcomes us in Christ and through Him shows us His love and acceptance.
Now for reasons we can never fathom we here at St Michael’s are, as Paul says in verse 12, God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved. So our mission as the church of Jesus Christ is to reflect who God is in the way we relate to one another, so that what we know and experience of God touches and transforms our attitudes and our behaviour at the deepest level. That is what Paul is also saying in our passage this morning and we could spend a long time analysing His words in great detail.
But what He is saying in essence boils down to this: if we have a God who sees us as so precious that He sent His Son Jesus to die for us, then we should be prepared to show similar love to our brothers and sisters in Christ. We may or may not feel they are worthy of such love, but that is in many ways beside the point. God loves us in spite of all our faults and shortcomings, and that is how we are to love those around us, no matter how hard it may seem.
Again, if Jesus willingly went to the cross so that all our rebellion against God could be forgiven, then surely we should be prepared to forgive others. One of the supreme marks of God’s kingdom should be the willingness of its citizens to forgive. No-one is saying, of course, that such forgiveness is easy. It cost Jesus His life so that we could be forgiven. But costly, radical forgiveness is the only alternative to the bitterness and conflict around us, and it is the sign to a watching world we really are God’s people.
Or to take another example, if God teaches us and indeed admonishes us through His word, then we need to teach and admonish one another by that selfsame word of God. The Bible was never meant to be a dry, theoretical textbook only to be opened on Sundays or in emergencies. God gave us His word so that as citizens of His kingdom we might instruct one another and help all of us to understand His good will and purposes.
I could go on. But I hope you can see the basic pattern. We are called to mirror the character of God in our relationships with each other. Or to put it another way, if God is a God of love, we need to be loving. If God is a holy God, we need to be holy. If God is a God of peace, we too need to live at peace with each other.
Let’s listen again to Paul’s words in Colossians 3:12-17:
12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.
13 Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.
14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.
16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.
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.
There are two further points I need to add at this stage.
First of all, if we are to reflect the character of God, we need the help of the Holy Spirit. Our church Bibles title Colossians 3:1-17 as “rules for holy living” but that spectacularly misses the point of the passage. We cannot be more loving, or more forgiving, for example, simply by trying harder to obey God’s commands. So when Paul talks about clothing yourselves in verse 12, or putting on love in verse 14, he is telling us to allow the Holy Spirit to change and transform our nature from the inside out. That is why at the heart of the kingdom of God is worship (something not on any of the Post-it notes). Because it is as we worship, responding to God’s words and praising God’s name, that the Holy Spirit works within us and makes us more like Jesus. That is one very good reason why belonging to a church is just such an important of belonging to the kingdom of God.
But secondly, we mustn’t make the mistake of thinking the kingdom of God is only about what happens at church. If God really is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords then he has the right to rule over every part of our life. That may sound an obvious point but sadly too many Christians have a sort of disconnect between how they are in church and how they act the rest of the time, with the result that their life actually sends out the message that Jesus isn’t really their King at all.
It doesn’t help, however, that in so many of our Bibles there is a blank space after verse 17, and a new title heading at verse 18. So when we come to read Colossians 3:18 we treat Paul’s instructions as if they were completely separate from what he’s just written, and we joke about how shocking it is that Paul asks wives to submit to their husbands, and children to obey their parents. Actually if you realise that Paul’s teaching here follows on from what he has just said about the Kingdom of God, then what he is writing isn’t so awful after all. He is simply saying that just as our relationships at church should mirror the character of God, so should our marriages, our family life and our relationships at work. And that, I hope, isn’t controversial to anyone here. Paul is simply making a plea that our life should all be of one piece, pointing to the love of Christ at work in our lives.
So what about wives, submit to your husbands? It is really, really important to note that Paul adds the words as is fitting in the Lord. Paul never wrote these words as a way of putting women down, or giving men an excuse to dominate or abuse them. I know some women here have suffered from broken relationships, so let me stress as clearly as I can: Paul is not asking anyone here to become a doormat. He is asking women, however, to put into practice all that he has taught in verse 13 about bearing with and forgiving one another – right where it is most difficult. But only in as far as such forbearance and forgiveness actually honours the Lord and points to Him as our king.
Now we might wish that Paul would give more guidelines about when to submit and when to challenge, but he doesn’t. In the end knowing how to put all of this teaching into practice depends very much on the guidance of the Holy Spirit, both as He speaks to us directly and through the wise counsel of our fellow church members. But one thing does come to me very clearly out of this passage. We could and should spend a lot more time supporting and encouraging one another in our personal relationships, and allowing the word of God to dwell in us richly as we consider how to honour God in our marriages.
And don’t think that husbands have it any easier. It can be tempting to read Paul’s words in verse 19 and think he is giving men an easy beat: Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them. But what is the standard of love that our Lord wants us to show in our marriages? Nothing less than the costly, sacrificial love that took Jesus Himself to the cross. That’s why when I read this verse I find myself challenged to go back to verse 12 and think how it applies to my marriage: Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Because it seems to me that these are the fruits of the Spirit that men find particularly hard to show in their relationships, and we can instead all too easy be insensitive, unkind, proud, harsh and quick-tempered. However Jesus our King does not reign over us like this, and how much do we need the help of His Holy Spirit to become more like Him!
Let’s move on to what Paul says about children and fathers. Verse 20: Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Now again, please note Paul is not stressing blind obedience, but only as far as such obedience pleases the Lord. We could again easily distort his teaching to promote less than healthy relationships in a family, but as throughout this passage we need to connect Paul’s instructions with what he has already taught in the previous verses.
Now we began this morning by saying we are called to mirror the character of God in our relationships with each other. That is our mission and our calling as a church, so that when folk see us, they see exactly who God is. And when I mean folk, I don’t just mean grown-ups. Children will gauge whether what we teach them is true by how our lives match our words. That is why even though you may have nothing to do with the children’s work you still bear a huge responsibility to show the next generation who Jesus is like, simply by how you chat after coffee, for example, or how far we ourselves engage in worship. If they see a church full of boring or bored Christians, then no matter how great the children’s work they will quickly form their own conclusion what church is like, and decide it is not for them.
And for those of us who have the privilege of being parents it is also equally important that we mirror the character of God in the home. Lynda and I have a fridge magnet which says, “You can either be a good example or a terrible warning” and I think that applies to being a parent more than anything else! Again let’s be clear: Paul’s understanding of the family is that those care for the children are seeking to honour the Lord by the way they are bringing them up. So it’s against this background Paul is telling children to obey their parents in everything, because he is assuming that their Mum and Dad are aiming above else to put Jesus first. After all, no matter what our strategies to reach out to children, the surest way that children learn of Jesus is in the home, and I count it a massive honour and privilege to have been brought up by two parents who had a living faith in Christ.
What about those instructions in verse 21? Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged. Well, it seems to me that there are two ways you can bring up a child in the faith. One is to turn Jesus’ teaching into a series of rules and regulations as if following Jesus was a matter of always seeking to be good and keeping out of trouble. That, I suggest, is a surefire way of turning your children away from the Lord – indeed too many times I have come across people who were told where they were very little, “if you do this, Jesus will angry with you” or “Jesus knows when you are being naughty”. Such upbringing, I hope is clear, is the total opposite of all that Paul has said about the love and grace of God in this passage.
As parents, and this is something where we really need the help of the Holy Spirit, we have to show time after time patience, forgiveness, and all the other qualities that point to Jesus as our King. And right at the heart of our children’s upbringing has to be teaching them the word of God so that this word dwells richly in their hearts and they learn to sing psalms hymns and spiritual songs with thanksgiving to God. You cannot effectively bring children up in the faith unless you yourself regularly read the Bible with them and discuss with them how it relates to their lives.
Well, there is much, much more that I could say about this passage. I haven’t even touched what Paul says about slaves and employees – maybe the men’s group could look at these verses at some point, or the women round the table? But at this point I need to make three really important points.
First, there may be some who believe they have truly failed as a parent or a child, or a wife or a husband. I know I have to be sensitive handling a passage like this because it can sound as if somehow those who have broken relationships are second class citizens in the kingdom of God. Let me say – church is not the place for people who have got life sorted. The grace of God is only for people who know they have made a mess of things, and the reason why God calls you to follow Him is that you might know a community of welcome and love and acceptance where you too play a treasured and honoured part. There are in God’s eyes no second or first class citizens of His kingdom.
Secondly, however, it is important that somehow we do preach and teach clearly what the Bible says about relationships. So for those of you are married, let me encourage you to carve out some time to look carefully at what the Bible says about your relationship. If you are a parent or have the care of children, then take seriously what the Lord is saying about how to bring them up to know and to love Him. When I was a curate, I ran a parenting course for young parents. There is plenty of good material out there to support marriages and family relationships, and if there is enough demand I would be more than happy to set up such a course.
But thirdly, in whatever relationship you find yourself, please remember this. The kingdom of God is about every part of our life. It is about our life at church. It is about our marriage. It is about our life at home. It is about our life at work, and at school, and at the bus stop and down the pub. The kingdom of God is all about recognising how the Lord relates to us and mirroring His character in the way we relate to others.
That’s why when we pray, “Your kingdom come” we are in fact offering ourselves to be used by God, filled by His Spirit, so that our spouses, our parents, our children, our colleagues, and indeed everyone else sees Jesus in us. So let’s turn Paul’s words in Colossians 3 into a prayer so that in us and through us everything be done to the praise of His name. For the sake of His kingdom. Amen.