Sunday, November 20, 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.

Faithfulness

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).

Fruitfulness

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.

Fortitude

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.

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