St Michael’s and St Barnabas
Readings – Colossians 3:18-4:1; Luke 10:38-42
In one sense the Christian faith is very easy to understand. It is about the love of God which He has shown us in the death and resurrection of His Son Jesus Christ, and it’s about our need to respond to that love in faith and in action. Now you might well want to add a few more details but in essence that’s it. The Christian faith is about knowing the love of God in Jesus Christ and sharing that love with others. That’s why Jesus tells us the two greatest commandments are to ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’… and to ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ And even though we might have a few questions about what these commands mean, the overall sense of what He is saying is pretty clear.
But in another sense the Christian faith can be very hard. Loving your neighbour as yourself sounds fine in principle, and in general I don’t have a problem loving my neighbours. I see them from time to time, I smile and say hello, and we get on pretty well. The issue is, however, that our neighbours also include our wife or our husband, our children or our parents, our brothers and our sisters, our boss at work or our colleagues. And to keep on loving like Jesus day in day out, well that can be incredibly hard. We simply know each other too well. And even the most devoted couple or the most loving family comes with a history that alongside the many special memories also includes things we may find hard to forgive; words that cannot be unsaid, no matter how much we wish we could take them back; patterns of behaviour we find hard to break.
Let’s name a truth here: sometimes loving our nearest and dearest can be incredibly tough. I don’t imagine there is a single person here this morning who has never had problems with this whole messy, complicated business of love. It’s the most real and the most pressing challenge that many of us face with our faith, and yet as I stand here this morning, I wonder how many of us have ever really had that much teaching and preaching on the subject. I realise of course that this whole area of love is also one which has caused so many of us an awful lot of pain and heartache, so please, if there’s anything I say this morning which you want to take further with me, do talk with afterwards. It’s high time we brought the subject of love out into the open, and took a long, hard look at what the Bible says on the subject.
So how does our reading from Colossians this morning help us? I expect for some of us Paul’s words raised a few hackles as they were being read this morning. The idea of wives submitting to husbands, or children obeying their parents in everything, really goes against the grain of today’s culture and perhaps with good reason. No-one wants to return to a Victorian set of values where wives had no rights of their own, and children were seen and not heard.
But is that really what Paul is advocating? The short answer is “no”. The slightly longer answer is that we need to connect what Paul is teaching here with all that he has said so far in this letter to the Colossians. After all, every single book in the Bible started out in life as one continuous piece of text, with no paragraphs, no white spaces, and definitely no headings. Our translations like to put them in so our Bibles are easier to read. But sometimes the paragraph breaks are in completely the wrong place and the headings utterly misleading. And this is certainly the case when it comes to Colossians 3:18.
Last week we saw how Paul urged his hearers to become more like Jesus, and we read those wonderful words from Colossians 3:12-15:
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.
Now despite the fact my Bible calls this previous passage “rules for holy living” what Paul is saying here has nothing to do with rules whatsoever. He wants us to understand that as Christians we have in a spiritual sense already died to an old way of life when we accepted Jesus into our lives and we have already risen to a new way of life in the Spirit. The challenge we face therefore is to live out that new life by allowing the Word of Christ to make us more like Jesus. So if Jesus is compassionate, kind, humble, gentle and patient, that is what we must be. If Jesus forgives us our sins completely and forever by dying for us on a cross, then we must be willing to offer complete forgiveness to one another. If Jesus reveals to us the love of God, then we must make that same kind of love known to others.
I hope you will agree, it is hard enough to put that kind of teaching into practice in a church setting, which is why I wanted us to look again at that passage at our prayer party last Thursday…But now from verses 18 onwards Paul takes his teaching a step further, by extending it into the home. In fact, what He is doing here is challenging Christian couples in the church to show nothing less than the love of Jesus in their marriages and in their home life. (I would love to go to the end of the passage and look at what he says about the workplace, but that we have to accept is another subject for another time).
And I suggest for those couples here today it is really important that we do take Paul’s teaching on board. Just as in Paul’s day we live in a world of broken relationships, where people are incredibly unkind to each other, where there is a total lack of forgiveness and trust and love. If you happen to be married to a believer, then your marriage needs to be a witness that there’s a positive alternative. Now I know from my own experience that’s easier said than done, but even if you get it wrong, the fact you continue to love each other and forgive each other is still in itself a sign that Jesus is Lord over your marriage.
Of course a huge issue in laying out Paul’s teaching is that for many of us here the whole area of relationships is one of pain, of regret and of failure. So I need to make it very clear – the purpose of Paul’s teaching is not to condemn those who for whatever reason know they fall short. Paul tells us back in Colossians 1:13-14 that God has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. And the good news of Jesus Christ is that this forgiveness is available to all who truly turn to him, no matter what burden of sin or shame you may happen to carry. In Jesus a fresh start is possible, and He wants to release you from whatever guilt or hurt you may be carrying in your heart. Because Jesus’ love is real love that never seeks to exploit or dominate or hurt, and it is there for you. Just ask in His name and allow Him to do His work by the power of the Holy Spirit, and again if for any reason that isn’t possible for you, please do have a word with me afterwards.
But in the meanwhile, what exactly are we to make of Paul’s teaching in verse 18? It really is so important we read right through to the end: Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Those words as is fitting in the Lord make so much difference. Paul isn’t asking wives to become doormats or domestic slaves. If there’s a choice between obeying Jesus and obeying your husband, obeying Jesus wins. So, going back to the start of the verse, what then does this word “submit” mean?
All the way through the passage we need to understand what Paul is saying in light of Jesus. Jesus was someone who submitted to the will of His Heavenly Father and resisted the temptation to go His own way. This didn’t mean that His submission was always easy. In the garden of Gethsemane, for example, it cost Him so much to say “Yet not my will, but yours be done”. But in the end He submitted because He knew His Heavenly Father wanted only the very best for Him and because He knew He could trust Him.
So what Paul is envisioning in this passage is a relationship where a wife can trust her husband to want only the very best for her life, because their whole marriage is a response to the love of Jesus Christ. It’s in that kind of relationship, built on a common faith, that he is commanding wives to submit. And, please, don’t imagine for one moment that husbands have it any easier.
Verse 19: Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them. Now, you may say, “What’s the problem? I buy flowers, I do the cooking, I sometimes even remember our anniversary. Of course I love my wife.” But once more we need to understand the word “love” in the light of Jesus. And that takes to the cross, for it is there the only Son of God gave up His life for you and for me, not just as interesting idea or as some kind of religious sacrifice, but as a solid, practical example we are called to follow.
So, men, how much are you prepared to give up for your other half? Paul here is calling men to be tough, not in a macho, shaven head and tattoos kind of way, but in sacrificing all you have for the good of your wife. It is the toughness that is shown through gentleness, not by being harsh, through kindness, and not always asserting your rights.
And let me add: we need many, many more Christian men who show this kind of love. After all, look around the churches today, and ask yourself, who’s missing? It’s the young men. They have never had positive role models that point to Christ. They see being a man all about as being tough on the outside, even if on the inside so many are suffering terribly from mental health issues. We need to show the young men there is another way to live, and another way to love.
For this to happen, I am more and more convinced this is why we all need to make church a safe space where we can talk through our relationships and support one another. We need to build relationships of trust and confidence among our church members, and promote a climate free of gossip and rumour. We need to find a way for the older men and women in our midst to share their experience with the younger men and women, and for the younger men and women sometimes to challenge those who are older. As always, I am struck how all of Paul’s teaching in Colossians is addressed not just to individuals or to couples, but to the whole church community, which means we all have a part to play as the body of Christ in this area.
And there’s another important reason why we need to talk about this whole issue of relationships. Too many children and grandchildren have never seen anything of the love of Christ. They have not seen the adults in their lives loving each other like Jesus. They have not seen compassion or kindness or humility or gentleness or patience in action. That again is the reality of the sinful world in which we live.
Now I understand how difficult it can be to parent children and I know from my own experience it can be so easy to get it wrong. As I often observe, “If you want to have a guilt trip, become a parent” because there are times when nothing you do seems to be right. But at least within the families of the church we need to do all we can to make the love of Christ a reality in our homes. And it is against this kind of background we need to understand Paul’s words in Colossians 3:20: Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.
Paul here is writing to children who can see the love of Jesus through their parents and who know something of what it means to follow Him. It is in this context that He talks about obedience because again He is working on the basis that such parents want only the very best for the children. And once more we need to understand He is not talking about blind obedience. If there is a choice between obeying Jesus or your parents, then Jesus wins. But He is saying that where parents love and know Jesus, and are seeking in turn to bring children up to love and know Jesus, then in this environment children are called to do what they ask of them.
That’s pretty radical teaching, isn’t it? After all, when did you last watch a music video or see a television programme or find a Facebook post promoting the theme of obedience? Obedience is so not cool nowadays. Doing what your parents says – especially if your parents happen to be Christians – goes completely against the idea children should be free to express themselves, find their own identity, decide their own path through life. But yet again I go back to the example of Jesus. Was Jesus any less a person because He grew up quietly in Nazareth, being obedient to His parents? Or was Jesus somehow unfulfilled because while on earth He did whatever His Heavenly Father asked of Him? Of course not. Jesus still grew to full maturity, Jesus still asked questions, but Jesus was still also obedient.
So how do we help our children and our grandchildren grow up like Jesus? Well, for a start we all have a responsibility to pray for the children who are part of this church. We all need to invest in our children’s work and support those who lead that ministry. And we need again to make sure that this church really is a safe space for whatever children come through this door.
But for those of us who are parents and carers, there is also of course a more specific responsibility to the children in our charge. Now Paul’s words in verse 21 are extremely interesting: Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged. Why does he specifically mention fathers? And what is he telling them not to do? Well, we know from verse 19 that men can have a tendency to be harsh with their wives, to make unrealistic or unreasonable expectations of them. And in the same kind of way, fathers can sometimes make unrealistic or unreasonable demands of their children which can all too easily discourage them. A child who is constantly being told that he or she is a disappointment or who is never good enough carries huge scars through into adult life. No, it is really important that fathers – and mothers, for that matter, value their children as they are, and not to try and make them into something they are not.
And, as with everything else in this matter, Paul’s teaching is rooted upon the example of Jesus. Jesus took little children in His arms and blessed them. He welcomed the outcast, the lost and the vulnerable. This didn’t mean He never challenged them. They all heard the call to repent and to make a fresh start with God, and many of them responded because they knew Jesus enabled them to make the change they needed in their lives. Paul here is calling upon fathers to love their children in such a way they will respond positively to instruction and to advice, and not simply give up or get discouraged.
So I hope you can see from all I’ve been saying that behind all these instructions to wives and husbands, to children and to fathers, Paul is really issuing a call to reflect Jesus in the way each relate to the other. He is addressing those who are already believers and challenging them to make their relationships a witness to presence of Jesus living and among them. Now, on one level what Paul is saying is quite easy to understand. On another it can be quite hard to put into practice. So let’s support, encourage and pray for one another. Let’s ask Jesus to forgive us when we get it wrong, and to give us the strength of the Holy Spirit that we need day by day. And let’s not be afraid to pray that even though we may sometimes get it wrong, that above else we can show a hurting, broken world there is an alternative way to live and to love, and that through us, maybe even despite us, many more nonetheless discover the power of Jesus to renew and restore. For His name’s sake. Amen.
QUESTIONS to consider
- What does it mean to put Jesus at the centre of family life?
- How can we make a church a safe place to share our challenges and difficulties?
- How can we make Paul’s teaching about relationships relevant today?