Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 14, 2019
Colossians 1:1-14 Commentary
When my family and I first moved to the Washington D.C. area to serve the church I pastor, a wise colleague told me to read a lot of books. He said members of area churches like it when their pastors quote books. “They’re smart people who like to learn things,” my colleague told me.
The intellectual hunger of the members of the church I pastor is one of the many things that make my ministry with and to them so enjoyable. Yet when I think about what I see God doing in our church, knowledge is no longer what I first think about. I’m mainly impressed by her service to God and love for her neighbors.
Paul begins his letter to Colosse’s Christians by telling them that when he prays for them, he always thanks God for them. Why? Because they’re so smart or wise? No, the apostle thanks God for the Colossians’ faith and love that are growing out of the fertile soil that is their hope in Jesus Christ.
Now that doesn’t necessarily mean the Colossian Christians like each other. Paul thanks God because God is replacing the their anger and lies that divide groups with gentleness and forgiveness. Colosse’s Christians are learning to lovingly accept even people who come from different races, backgrounds and cultures.
That love along with their Christian faith that receives what God offers in Christ Jesus grows out of the gospel. The gospel isn’t, after all, just a set of truths about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. It’s also a power through which God works. The gospel, says Paul in verse 6, bears fruit and grows. It produces not just a new understanding of who God and God’s adopted sons and daughters are, but also the new creation that is faith, love and hope in action.
Paul has probably never met the Colossian Christians to whom he writes our text. He’s only ever heard of them from his colleague Epraphas who planted their church. Yet what Paul has heard about the Colossian Christians fills him with thanksgiving that he pours out in his prayers to God. So is there any reason for him to keep writing to the Colossians?
Those who proclaim Colossians 1 might do well to talk about the faith and love that’s concretely growing out of our hearers’ own hope in Jesus Christ. We might mention the ways we see they’re loving and caring for each other in their church, neighborhoods, workplaces and communities.
Yet the apostle doesn’t just pray his thanks to God for the Colossian Christians. He says he also never stops praying for them. Verse 9’s “We have not stopped … asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will…” at least suggests that something is still lacking in Colosse’s Christians, in spite of all the amazing things they’re doing. After all, you don’t need to fill a gas tank that’s already full of gasoline.
So Paul is at least suggesting the Colossian Christians don’t yet fully know God’s will. Though they’re faithful, loving and hopeful, they aren’t yet completely wise or understanding. Colosse’s Christians still need more wisdom.
However, the apostle also implies this is something they can’t do on their own. After all, he prays that God will fill them with the knowledge of God’s will. That suggests the Colossian Christians need God to give them complete spiritual wisdom and understanding.
God’s adopted sons and daughters naturally want to hurry to consider what God wants us to do. However, Paul reminds us that before we can do any of that, we first need God to act in and on us.
On Pentecost the Church celebrated the Holy Spirit’s equipping of Jesus’ followers to boldly speak the gospel in a variety of languages. We remembered how Peter insisted God pours out that Spirit on all who call on God’s name through Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit equips us, he adds, to prophecy, dream dreams and see visions.
Now Paul describes to Colosse’s faithful brothers and sisters in Christ the tools the Spirit gives us in order to speak and obey God’s Word in that way. The Holy Spirit graciously fills us with the knowledge of God’s will, as well as spiritual wisdom and understanding.
Here, really, is Paul’s first allusion to why he writes to Colosse’s Christians. Heresy seems to have grown deep roots in their young church. So the apostle is trying to dig up those roots by disproving that false doctrine. Yet Paul also understands he can’t do that by himself. So he tells the Colossian Christians he’s praying God will fill them with the knowledge of God’s will, as well as spiritual wisdom and understanding.
Jesus’ followers long to live what Paul calls in verse 10 “a life worthy of the Lord.” We want to bear fruit in every good work, grow in the knowledge of God, as well as endure and be patient. Yet Paul insists that begins with God’s filling us with the knowledge of God’s will, spiritual wisdom and understanding. While one key to growing in godly speech and behavior is knowledge, they don’t grow out of just any kind of knowledge. They grow out of the “knowledge of” God’s “will.”
That’s something our Christian ancestors perhaps understood better than we do. They talked more about doctrine and theology than we do. Yet our Christian ancestors sometimes stressed a kind of intellectual Christianity that focused on ideas and doctrines but neglected Spirit-empowered love.
Now, however, we’ve perhaps swung too far away from that emphasis on the content of our Christian faith. Modern Christians sometimes tend to focus on experience and relationships. It’s almost as if we’ve come to assume we grow through spirituality, not through knowledge. This Sunday’s RCL Epistolary Lesson calls God’s adopted children back to a kind of middle way that centers on the true knowledge that God graciously gives us.
The apostle identifies some of that essential knowledge in verse 13. There he talks about our rescue from “the dominion of darkness.” In doing so the apostle reminds us that while God created us for a faithful relationship with himself, we’ve made ourselves Satan and his allies, sin and death’s slaves. God, however, Paul continues, “brought us into the kingdom of the Son” God “loves.” In other words, God has freed God’s dearly beloved children to love and serve the Lord through his beloved Son, Jesus Christ.
Of course, God graciously chooses to use us to expand our understanding of God’s will. So God’s adopted sons and daughters read and study the Bible, as well as participate in the sacraments. We learn and sing Christian songs and hymns. We read the Christian classics like C.S. Lewis Mere Christianity and Augustine’s Confessions. We learn and recite our creeds and confessions. Yet none of that will help complete our understanding of God’s will without God’s help.
However, we don’t need God to complete our knowledge of God’s will so we can win Bible trivia contests. We want God to expand our knowledge so that we can live more Christ-like lives. God wants to use our right knowledge of God’s to lead to right behavior.
Consider, after all, how some wrong ideas about God might lead to wrong behavior. If, for example, God is not somehow the creator of everything that is created, then we may assume that it doesn’t matter how we treat the creation. And if God hasn’t saved our whole selves to serve God and each other, it doesn’t matter how we use, for example, our bodies or money.
In verses 10 and 11 Paul insists full knowledge of God’s will produces all sorts of tasty “fruits.” Living lives worthy of the Lord. Pleasing God in every good way. Doing every good work. Great endurance and patience.
Yet Paul basically ends the text the RCL appoints for this Sunday by suggesting that complete spiritual wisdom and understanding primarily produces thanksgiving. When we learn more about God and God’s will we become more fully thankful for every good thing God gives us.
In fact, the apostle repeatedly mentions thanksgiving to Colosse’s Christians. It doesn’t just basically bracket our text. Thanksgiving is also one of this letter’s central themes.
Paul most longs to see in the church gratitude to God for the extraordinary things God has done in Jesus Christ. He longs to see the sign of the healthy Christian life that is gratitude to God for the great things God continues to do in the world and in our lives.
Apparently Garrison Keillor once said we’d all be better off it we started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. Yet our strong sense of entitlement makes us reluctant to take that advice.
The television show “Family Guy’s” creator Seth McFarlane booked a seat on 9/11 on American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston to Los Angeles. But because he arrived late at the airport, he missed his flight that hijackers flew into the North Tower of New York’s World Trade Center.
Yet when someone asked him if that made him think of the rest of his life as a gift, McFarlane answered, “That experience didn’t change me at all. It made no difference in the way I live my life. It made no difference in the way I look at things. It was just a coincidence.”
Lew Smedes defied the 20-1 odds of surviving lungs spattered with blood clots. When his doctor congratulated him, he didn’t feel particularly grateful, partly because he hadn’t thought at all about dying.
A couple of nights later, however, Smedes felt himself what he called “seized with a frenzy of gratitude.” He recalls, “My arms rose straight up by themselves, a hundred-pound weight could not have held them at my side. My hands open, my fingers spread, waving, twisting, while I blessed the Lord above for the almost unbearable goodness of being alive on this good earth in this good body at this present time.”
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