20 November 2016

Sermon – “On His Majesty’s Service” (Colossians 1:1-14)

What a perfect day to celebrate an anniversary! I’m sure it wasn’t in anyone’s mind twenty-eight years ago, but this day is recognized in many church communities as the festival of Christ the King. (Some of you on your way here this morning may have noticed the sign outside St Thomas Aquinas proclaiming Jesus as King of all creation.) Many of those churches will be reading today from Colossians 1, beginning at verse 15, which runs as follows:
The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
Those verses call us to look upwards to the incomparable splendour of the risen, ascended, glorified Lord Jesus Christ, enthroned at the right hand of God the Father. Few other passages in Scripture give us such an exalted picture of Christ, the unrivalled Lord of the church and indeed of all creation.
This morning, however, I want us to lower our sights a little, if you don’t mind, to look at the verses that immediately precede that passage. The apostle Paul is writing to his fellow believers in Colossae—and if I could hazard a guess, I suspect that that church still had a way to go before they would reach their twenty-eighth anniversary. But I believe we can learn some significant lessons from what Paul says both to them and about them. So, if you have a Bible with you, you might want to turn to the opening verses of Colossians, chapter 1.


First-century letters always begin with the identity of the sender, followed by the name of the recipient. And take notice of how Paul addresses them in this case. They are “faithful brothers and sisters in Christ”. Now it seems to me that we must understand that word “faithful” in two senses. The first could almost go without saying: that is, that the brothers and sisters in Colossae were people of faith, men and women who had put their trust in Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. I have no need to tell you that faith in Jesus Christ is the foundation upon which the whole Christian life—and, by extension, the church—is built. The letter to the Hebrews makes it clear that “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6).
I well remember a young man who had begun attending a church where I once served. He was a genuine seeker and his quest went on for months and months. He joined us for one of our annual church retreats and at the closing service I noticed that he came forward to receive communion for the first time. Afterwards I asked him about it and he said to me, “John, I could have kicked myself. All this time I have been thinking that Christianity was about knowledge. Today it finally dawned upon me that it’s about faith—and I took that step.” Yes, it’s all about faith, putting our trust in Jesus Christ.
Yet if that were all Paul meant by “faithful”, he could just as easily have left the word out. Surely there has to be more to what he is saying. Surely what Paul is referring to is not merely their initial act of faith that brought them to Christ and into the church, but also their ongoing faithfulness to him. That’s why the Bible speaks of faith in terms of a race. It’s more than just getting off the starting line. It’s running with perseverance, keeping our eyes focused on Jesus, not giving in to exhaustion or to the world’s enticements, until we reach the goal.
This past week Maclean’s magazine published an article based on a recently conducted study of Protestant congregations in Canada. Their byline read, “An exclusive remarkable study finds that mainline Protestant churches that focus on the Gospel and prayer are growing, while those that don’t are in decline.” I consider that as something of a no-brainer, don’t you? However, the study concluded that churches were considerably more likely to be growing where the pastor and the congregation agreed with the statement, “Jesus rose from the dead with a real flesh-and-blood body leaving behind an empty tomb,” read their Bibles on a regular basis, believed that “God performs miracles in answer to prayers” and upheld that it was “very important to encourage non-Christians to become Christians”. The study also found that about two thirds of the attendees at churches where these statements were affirmed were under the age of sixty, whereas two thirds of those at churches that did not were over sixty.[1] If our churches are to prosper and grow, then faithfulness to Christ and to the gospel make all the difference.
Twenty-eight years ago First Congregational was born out of a spirit of faithfulness—out of a desire to be faithful to God’s word and obedient to Jesus Christ. God has blessed you over those years and I have no doubt that he will continue to bless you as you continue in faithfulness to Christ and to contend “with everything you have in you for this faith entrusted to us as a gift to guard and cherish” (Jude 3, The Message).


At this point we need to go farther. We need to recognize that faithfulness is not limited to adherence to a set of doctrinal standards or theological propositions. I know churches that are like that and they can be every bit as deadly as those that have left doctrinal standards behind—perhaps even more so! No, true faithfulness will inevitably lead us to action, or what Paul in this morning’s passage calls fruitfulness.
Twice he speaks about bearing fruit. In verse 6 he points to the gospel, the saving good news of Jesus, bearing fruit in their lives and growing throughout the whole world. Then in verses 9 and 10 he tells of his ongoing prayer that they “may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work…”
In all the world I can’t think of anything that I find more delicious than fresh fruit. What is usually the first section you encounter as you enter a supermarket? The fresh fruits. The grocery marketers know what they are doing when they place them right at the entrance. I remember when we lived in Halifax previously I planted a peach tree in our back yard. What a delight it was in late August to go out and pick a ripe, luscious peach warmed by the afternoon sun! So too, I believe, a church that is fruitful brings delight to the heart of God—Christian men and women and children in whose lives are seen those marvellous fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, what the New English Bible calls “the harvest of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23).
It is clear from what Jesus taught his disciples in John 15 that this kind of fruitfulness is a consequence of faithfulness: “I am the vine,” he says to us, “you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing… This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples” (John 15:5,8). It is as we remain connected to Jesus, as his life flows into us and through us, that we are able, as Paul teaches us in this morning’s passage, to “live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God”.
In its final chapter the Bible gives us a beautiful picture of the river of the water of life flowing through the city of God. “On each side of the river stood the tree of life,” John tells us, “bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2). Fruitfulness in the Bible is not just a matter of personal enrichment; it’s about making a difference in the world.
From the beginning you at First Congregational chose not to follow an isolationist route. Instead you chose to be fully engaged both with the wider Christian community (for example through Jesus to the Nations and Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship) and with the world (through such ventures as Sunday suppers and the Crisis Pregnancy Centre). There can be a sacrifice in that. It means that resources are often spread thin, people sometimes stretched to their limit. But I want to say that the sacrifice is worth it. And you here this morning are the living proof.


And so we have faithfulness and fruitfulness. And to these we can add a third “F”: fortitude. In far more ways than I can number the world is a very different place from what it was twenty-eight years ago. (And why should we expect otherwise?) The church that once was prominent on Canada’s social landscape has long been relegated to the sidelines. Indeed we are off the map altogether. A generation ago the church may have been regarded as outmoded or even comical. Today in many places Christians encounter overt hostility. I don’t need to tell you. You know as well as I do that as often as not nowadays Christianity is associated with narrow-mindedness, bigotry and intolerance—and, sad to admit, we have to take some of the blame for that.
Yet what we face in North America does not begin to compare with what many of our sisters and brothers are encountering in other parts of the globe. Last Sunday was the World Day of Prayer for Refugees. I am encouraged by the strength shown by our fellow believers in other parts of the world who find themselves under considerably greater pressure than we can imagine. When I was here a few weeks ago I told you how my previous congregation was “invaded” by more than a hundred Karen refugees from Burma. Some of them had spent their entire lives in a refugee camp. Others had been shot at and even shot, sliced with machetes, seen their relatives and neighbours murdered before their eyes. Their suffering for the cause of Christ at the hands of an authoritarian government is little known, and it has gone on for nearly seventy years. Yet their witness for Christ continues to burn brightly and in spite of vicious persecution the church continues to grow.
Their experience is replicated by believers in many other parts of the world, most notably in North Korea, Syria and Iraq. Compared to them, what we face in Canada are minor irritations. Nevertheless, it is easy to become disheartened. In our passage this morning, however, Paul says just the opposite. He challenges us to be strengthened—to look to the Holy Spirit to give us endurance and patience. He encourages us to remember that the darkness that surrounds us must inevitably yield to the kingdom of light. He reminds us that the frustrations of the present cannot begin to compare with the glory that awaits us.
As you look ahead to the next twenty-eight years, who knows what may await you around the corner? But one thing you can be sure of. You serve the King of heaven and earth and his will will not be thwarted. May you continue in faithfulness to him and to his word, in fruitfulness as you serve him in the world, and in fortitude as you learn to depend more and more on the power of the Holy Spirit.
I’d like to conclude with an old prayer that has been traditionally used on this Sunday and that seemed fitting for us this morning.
Stir up, O Lord, the wills of your faithful people;
that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works,
may by you be plenteously rewarded;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

08 November 2016

Sermon – “A Birthday Prayer” (2 Thessalonians 1:11-12)

Allow me to begin by saying what an honour and a joy it is to be among you at First Congregational this morning on the occasion of your pastor’s birthday. Doug Mott and I go back a long way. I treasure not only my friendship with him and Ann but also the privilege of having watched First Congregational grow from a little gathering in the Police Club to the vibrant community that you are today, playing a significant role in making a difference for Christ in this city.
Not many of you may be familiar with the name of Terry Fulham. But thirty-five years ago he was a major figure in the church renewal scene in North America. Over the course of a few years, under his remarkable teaching and leadership, he had seen his congregation at St Paul’s Church in Darien, Connecticut, grow from a couple of hundred worshippers to nearly three thousand. And people were flocking from all over to find out how it happened.
In response to this Terry Fulham and St Paul’s offered regular renewal conferences for clergy and for lay people. I was leading a church in suburban Montreal at the time. Darien was an easy six-hour drive away, all on Interstates, and so in the fall of 1982 I decided to make the journey.
Now one of the things about St Paul’s in Darien was that they were a praying church. And so if you wanted to participate in one of their conferences you had to register several weeks in advance so that they could have time to pray for you—and I mean really pray. There were a couple of things I was praying about too. One was that I would have a chance to get together with a gentleman named Peter Moore, who headed up a very effective ministry called FOCUS in a number of the east coast prep schools. The other was that I would have an opportunity to meet up with a man who at that time was writing a national syndicated column from an explicitly Christian perspective. Both of these men lived in Darien and both worshipped at St Paul’s.
Well, what should I find when I registered but that I had been booked in to stay at the home of Peter and Sandy Moore throughout the time of the conference? When I asked Peter about the possibility of meeting up with the columnist, he said to me, “Why he’s a member of our home group. You’ll be meeting with them tomorrow evening.” Clearly God was answering both my prayers and those of the good folk at St Paul’s. He had prepared the way before me in what I thought was quite a remarkable manner.
Yet there was a further surprise in store for me. That was that I would be sharing my room with another Canadian, a young associate pastor from a congregation in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Now I don’t think it will take you too long to figure out who that was: none other than your own Doug Mott. I had no idea of the significance of that meeting and the conversations we enjoyed after the conference each day until three years later, when I moved to Halifax and began to serve as rector of St Paul’s Church. And who was one of the first people to welcome me? Of course—Doug Mott.
One of the most precious and significant aspects of our friendship over the years that followed was to share together in a pastors’ prayer group that met over coffee every second Tuesday morning. Over my more than eighteen years in that group I don’t think there was a single one of us who did not go through some significant struggles. There was often laughter, there were sometimes tears, but there was always prayer. The result was that for most of us there was almost nothing that we would allow to get in the way of those precious Tuesday morning times. We were united in the unbreakable bonds of the fellowship of prayer and common ministry in Jesus’ name.
Now here we are, and more than thirty years have flowed under the bridge. Yet I know that you still have the same passion for Christ and the same desire to be of service to him, that you had all those years ago. Indeed, if anything, it glows only brighter. And so, what to preach on, on this significant birthday? Well, the verses I believe that the Lord has given to me are these, from 2 Thessalonians 1:11 and 12. They are the apostle Paul’s prayer for the Christian believers in Thessalonica, and I hope they may become the prayer of all of us for you on this auspicious occasion.
To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfil every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
There is a lot of prayer packed into those two little verses. But it seems to me that Paul is essentially praying for three things: that they may live up to God’s call on their lives; that they may see the fulfilment of their ministry and of their desire to serve Christ; and that the name of Jesus may be glorified in them. Let’s just pause there for a moment to take a brief look at each of them.

Made worthy

Paul’s first prayer for the Thessalonian believers was that they might be worthy of God’s calling. The word for “worthy” in the New Testament is axios. In the early church when the bishop was presenting a newly ordained priest or presbyter to the congregation, they would all exclaim in unison, “Axios! Axios! Axios!” to express their approval of the candidate. I can remember my ordination day and no doubt you can remember yours also, Doug. In my case I remember standing before the bishop as he read to me these words from the Book of Common Prayer:
Have always therefore printed in your remembrance, how great a treasure is committed to your charge. For they are the sheep of Christ, which he bought with his death, and for whom he shed his blood. The Church and Congregation whom you must serve, is his spouse and his body. And if it shall happen the same Church, or any member thereof, to take any hurt or hindrance by reason of your negligence, ye know the greatness of the fault, and also the horrible punishment that will ensue. Wherefore consider with yourselves the end of your ministry towards the children of God, towards the spouse and body of Christ; and see that you never cease your labour, your care and diligence, until you have done all that lieth in you, according to your bounden duty, to bring all such as are or shall be committed to your charge, unto that agreement in the faith and knowledge of God, and to that ripeness and perfectness of age in Christ, that there be no place left among you, either for error in religion, or for viciousness in life.
I think if I had had the least shred of wisdom at the time (and not the brashness of a twenty-something year-old fresh out of seminary), I ought to have made a dash for it right out of the service. I was having placed upon me responsibility for the spiritual well-being of men and women and children for whom Jesus had gone to the cross! I wonder, Doug, if you felt the same?
What does it mean to be worthy of our calling? If Peter and Andrew and James and John had had any idea of what they were getting into, would they have so quickly abandoned their boats on the shore of Lake Galilee in response to Jesus call to “Follow me”? Again and again they proved themselves not worthy of that calling: arguing over who was the greatest, asking to call down fire from heaven on the Samaritans who wouldn’t welcome them into their village, cowering before a servant girl and denying that he even knew Jesus, passing off the women’s reports of Jesus’ resurrection as nonsense… And the list goes on.
When it comes down to it, let’s be honest. Who really is worthy of God’s calling? Can anyone here this morning stand up and make that claim? I know for certain that I can’t. With the prodigal son I cry aloud, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am not worthy to be called your son.” But of course Paul’s prayer was not that the Thessalonians would make themselves worthy of God’s calling. It was that God would make them worthy. And between those two things there is a world—no, a universe—of difference.


The second part of Paul’s prayer for the Thessalonians was that God might “fulfil every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power”. I find that an interesting combination of words: “every resolve for good and every work of faith”. I rather like the way Eugene Peterson put it in his translation in The Message: “I pray that he’ll fill your good ideas and acts of faith with his own energy so that it all amounts to something.”
The words suggest to me that essential to any church, any ministry, is a desire, a vision—we might even say, a passion. There was a fad not so long ago that every church had to have a “mission statement”. And that’s not always a bad thing. The problem is that, from what I’ve seen, many such statements are either so vague and general that they don’t lead you anywhere or they are so specific that they don’t allow for flexibility when circumstances change or the Holy Spirit is calling us to something new. A case in point is the church where I served until a couple of years ago. We found ourselves and our mission radically altered when our ranks were swollen by more than a hundred refugees from Burma.
We never know what surprises God may have for us around the corner. The apostles never dreamed that the church should grow to include non-Jews, or that persecution should only make the church stronger and not destroy it. And Doug, I can’t imagine that when you were first ordained you could have predicted all the twists and turns along the way that have brought you to where you are now.
Some of you may remember Tom Robinson, the founding director of City Centre Ministry here in Halifax. Tom was also the founder of the All Souls’ Clubhouse, an outreach and resource centre to young people in central London. In its early days Tom and his colleagues spent countless hours and gallons of sweat to put together an attractive facility that would house its various activities. Many years later, when he went back for a visit, he found to his horror that almost no evidence of that hard work remained. The building was a shambles. That disappointment quickly evaporated, however, when he visited some of the original members of the club, who were continuing to follow and serve Christ faithfully and devotedly. He was forced to realize that the Holy Spirit is not nearly as interested in building institutions as he is in changing lives.
Doug, I suspect that your experience is the same as mine—that God has taken my “good ideas” (as Peterson put it) and my very limited acts of faith and used them in ways that I might never have imagined. And so, “straining towards what is ahead,” as Paul writes elsewhere, “we press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” (Philippians 3:12-13).


All of this brings us to the third part of Paul’s prayer for the Thessalonians: that the name of the Lord Jesus might be glorified in them. And really that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? It’s not me or even the church in the final outcome. It’s Jesus that we’re all about. Like John the Baptist standing in the waters of the Jordan, we recognize that we must decrease if he is to increase.
One of the qualities I have always appreciated in Doug is that he is genuine. I know when he is annoyed about something, or amused, or discouraged, or overjoyed. And I believe that is a quality that the Holy Spirit has used in him (and continues to use) to make Jesus real to others.
Jesus is not going to be glorified by our trying to appear better or holier or more righteous than we are. That is the way of the Pharisees and it will always end in failure. No, as the Bible teaches us again and again, it will only be though God’s grace. By grace we are made right with him; by grace we have heard his call; by grace we have been raised to new life; by grace we are able to enter his presence; by grace we are heirs of eternal life; by grace we have been given the power and gifts of the Holy Spirit; and by grace that same Holy Spirit will somehow take our faltering words and feeble actions that the Lord Jesus might be glorified in us. This was a lesson that none less than the apostle Paul himself had to learn, when he wrote,
But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)
Doug, I am grateful for the many ways in which the Lord has displayed and continues to display his grace in you. May he empower you to continue to use both your strengths and your weaknesses to draw others to him—and at this point I think the best thing I can do is to step aside and invite you all to join with me as we bring our brother Doug before the Lord in prayer.
May our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfil every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.