What God requires of you to enter his Kingdom – Colossians 1:9-14, Part 5

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I love traveling internationally, collecting immigration stamps from other countries in my passport. Maybe you’ve caught that bug too, or you dream about it. I know this is a distinctly first-world privilege, as so many around the world have little realistic opportunity for such travel. But permit me to describe it. For citizens of the USA, like myself, we have the opportunity to drive to neighboring countries like Mexico and Canada, but for the most part people around the world arrive in another country via air travel. Once inside the terminal, travelers follow the hallways to an immigration room, often packed with people waiting in lines, holding their passports. When it is finally your turn, you walk to the passport control officer at their desk, and hand them your passport and perhaps other paperwork, such as an immigration form. That officer reviews your documents, scans your passport into a computer database, and if everything is in order, they pull out their stamper and give you their seal of approval! It is an exhilarating moment, as they look at you, hand you back your passport and say, “Welcome! Enter in. Enjoy your stay.”

Your next stop is luggage retrieval, then customs, where more officials make sure you’re not bringing anything illegal into their country. Once you get the all-clear, you are free to enjoy your vacation, mission trip, relocation for work, or whatever brings you to that nation.

Though you have gone through this process of planning, packing, travel, immigration, and customs, and though you have approval to experience the wonders of that country, you are still you. You are still a citizen of your country. You haven’t changed.

As we continue our study in Colossians 1:9-14, we learn that entrance into God’s country is not like that. What is it like?

Imagine with me a country that says, “You can come here, but you need to be different. You will have to learn our language, our customs, and all about us, before you can set foot here.” Before you go there? How does that work?, you wonder. Well, once you arrive, before you get that all-important passport stamp, you have to pass their stringent test to show you are worthy to enter. It is both a written and oral test. You have to speak in their language, answering questions written in their language, all about their history, government and culture. You must be wearing their clothes.

While that sounds intimidating, it is a very wonder-filled country, or so you have been told, and you really want to go there, so you get to work. You download a language-learning app on your phone, and you use it every day. Then you search online for clothing styles from that country, and you have them shipped, at great cost, to your home. You attend classes to learn their history, culture and customs. You discover online practice tests, also not cheap, but you take them anyway because you do not want to fail. You work hard at this.

Then the day arrives. You’ve invested a lot of time and money, you’ve purchased your airline tickets, you’ve packed. Collecting all your travel bags and your documentation, including your passport, you embark on the journey. Many hours later, you arrive. As you file along with the other passengers from your flight, your passports in hand, you learn that they don’t want to see your passports at all. Instead, they immediately usher you into a series of private rooms where they begin your test. It is grueling. The test goes on for a couple nerve-wracking hours, and finally it is over. There you wait for the official tester to return with your result. Did you pass? Or did you fail? If you fail, you will never pull out your passport, as they will immediately funnel you to the departing flights terminal where you will fly back home.

Imagine that.

I know some countries in the world are quite difficult to get into, but nothing like that. Is that what God expects of us to get into heaven? To do a whole bunch of work?

Hear this: entrance into the Kingdom of God is a very different scenario from the one I just described. We cannot put in the work to transform ourselves into citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. Read Colossians 1:12-14. There we see how God has done the work to make it possible for us to enter his Kingdom.

As Paul says, God rescued us! God made it possible for us to be transformed from people who are part of the dominion of darkness into people who have entrance in his Kingdom of Light. He did this, Paul writes in verse 14, through redemption, by forgiving our sins. Paul is talking about Jesus. Through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, God made a new hope possible for all humans. The new hope is that we can experience both abundant life now in his Kingdom, and eternal life in heaven.

The Kingdom of God, therefore, should not be understood simply as a place where we go after we die. Notice how Paul describes it in verses 12-14. Read them again. Do you see all the present tense activity?

We are qualified now.

We are rescued now.

We are transformed now.

We have redemption now.

We should be becoming new now.

Always growing, learning new things, bearing new fruit, becoming more alive in him. God had done this! We experience this now!

So put verses 9-14 together, as we have seen in the blog series this week, and we have a powerful statement about the kind of relationship that God wants to have with us, and the astounding benefits of that relationship. God not only want us to know his will, but he also wants us to have the power to accomplish his will, and that will bring great abundance and rejoicing in our lives. Furthermore, God has gone to great lengths to make this possible!

We have, then, significant motivation to cultivate a relationship with God. He is so good. Life connected to him is an adventure for sure, and it is full and alive and done side-by-side with the living and all-powerful God.

What steps will you take this week to make space to connect with God more? Who can you talk with about the goal of having a deeper relationship with God?

How to measure if God’s power is at work in your life – Colossians 1:9-14, Part 4

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If you are a Christian, have you ever wondered if the Holy Spirit was working in your life? I wish I could pull out the church’s Holy Spirit power meter, strap it to your head, and measure how much of the Spirit’s power is at work in you. But I can’t. Such a thing doesn’t exist. There’s a far different, and I think better, way to know the power of God in our lives.

As I mentioned in the conclusion of the previous post in our five-part series on Colossians 1:9-14, God knows humans. God knows our weakness. And Paul, the writer of the letter to the Christians in Colosse, knew it too. So while he wants those Christians to make no mistake about what is expected of them as followers of Jesus. It is a high bar! “Die to yourself, and follow me,” Jesus said.

Does that sound like an impossible standard? Or just too difficult? Well, it is too difficult for any person to achieve of their own power and will. Paul is quite aware of this conundrum: God wants us to be followers of Jesus, but we don’t have the strength within us to be followers of Jesus. So Paul knows that the Christians need encouragement that this is not all on them.

Look at verse 11, “Being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience.”

How about that? God wants to power us up with his might. He doesn’t want us to get the mistaken idea that he expects us to follow him all by ourselves.

But how does he power us with his might?

Perhaps we need to remember some things we studied in last year’s blog series through the book of Acts. In Acts 1:8, for example, just before he ascends to heaven, Jesus tells his disciples that they will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them. Then in Acts 2, we read that Jesus’ promise came true, when the Holy Spirit descended upon them and filled them. Amazingly in Acts 4 it happened again!

As Paul writes in another letter, 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, Christians are the temple of God’s Spirit. God has not left us alone to fend for ourselves. Instead he desires to live with us, to fill us, and he wants us to experience and benefit from his power.

We Christians can struggle, though, with accessing God’s power. Does it just come upon us at God’s whim? As if we have nothing to do with it, and randomly he chooses some people to get power, while skipping over others? Or does God want everyone to experience this strengthening by his power? If so, doesn’t it seem that many Christians never or rarely experience his power?

If you’re wondering this, you’re not alone. Throughout the history of the church there have been many who have also wondered about this. Clearly, God can choose to bless people with a blast of his power if wants to, whether they want it or not. But that would be the extremely rare exception to the rule. The rule, it seems to me, is that God chooses to work inside the confines of human free will. So how do we use our free will to choose his power, and how does God convey his power without overriding free will?

The first step is to want to be empowered by him. This is a desire within us to seek him.

Next we choose to ask him for his power. In so doing, we admit that we do not have the power in and of ourselves to be what he wants us to be.

I read a statement like Paul’s in verse 10, which we studied in the previous post, the statement in which Paul talks about bearing fruit, and I have to admit that I have no power within me to do this. What Paul writes there is in line with what Jesus taught in John 15:1-8, the analogy of the vine and the branches:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes[a] so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

“I am the vine; 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. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”

So if we want to know the power of God in our lives, if we want to be strengthened by his power, we need to remain in him, because he is the source of power. This is crucial to understanding what it means to be filled with the Spirit. How, then, do we remain in him, so that we experience his power?

We have to do something about it. We fix our hearts and minds on emptying our lives of sin and making space for hearing him, then choosing to live the kind of life that we see Jesus living. What I am referring to are spiritual practices or habits, ones that Jesus himself practiced. This will involve opening up time in our lives, both individually and corporately with other Christians, to spend time with God. We also place ourselves in situations of service to God where we need him to come through for us. This will likely involve sacrificial love for others.

When we practice these kinds of habits, God empowers us, and we can recognize that it was through reliance on him, on his strength and wisdom, that both our lives and the lives of others experience transformation.

There is definitely a mystery to this. Remember that there isn’t a Holy Spirit Power Meter that we can use to see how much of God’s power is at work in us. Instead by faith, we practice the habits of Jesus, asking God to empower us to serve him and live like Jesus. And God does it!

Genuine Christianity – Colossians 1:9-14, Part 3

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As I mentioned in this post, it was deeply discouraging to see rioters at the US Capitol insurrection on January 6, 2021 holding Christian flags and banners that said “Jesus Saves.” I will admit that I don’t know for sure what each and every one of those people were attempting. It could be that some were trying to stop the insurrection. It seems that, for at least some, they felt no discrepancy between their acts of violence to property and people and their expression of Christianity. If I am right about this, they showed by their actions that they did not have a deep relational knowledge of God’s heart. The evidence was right there in living color for us all to see. What, then, is genuine Christianity?

We learned in the previous post that a deep relational knowledge of God is critical for determining God’s will. Yes we can know a lot about God and his will by reading his word, but Paul, in Colossians 1:9, prays for Christians to learn God’s will through an intimacy with God. Through that close relationship with God, a person is also changed. They not only have an understanding of his will, but also by knowing his heart, God transforms them.

The person who has a close relationship with God, then, is transformed by the Spirit of God who is at work in that person’s life. But what kind of transformation does Paul envision? Look at Colossians 1:10 to see how Paul describes this. Paul says a person with that kind of deep relational knowledge of God, “will walk worthily of the Lord, always pleasing, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.” That person makes the pattern of their life a following after the example of Jesus.

That’s the bar.

That’s the standard for Christians.

We who are disciples of Jesus will walk worthily of him. Jesus is our example, our standard. I wonder, have we set the bar too low? Have we made Christianity too easy, diluted, so that we are not truly what Jesus wants us to be? So that we don’t see any or much fruit, good work, or increasing knowledge of God in our lives?

Let’s set the bar where it ought to be: in line with Jesus.

When I think about a statement like we read in verse 10, I can get frustrated though. It is too hard! That bar is set too high! Have you ever thought something like that about the Christian life?

It reminds me of the famous phrase by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor during the Nazi regime which eventually murdered him in a concentration camp. Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

That stops you in your tracks, doesn’t it? Sounds dire if you ask me. Here’s the thing, Bonhoeffer wasn’t talking about a calling to be a pastor or a missionary. He was talking about Jesus’ call to every person to believe in and follow him, to be his disciple. In other words, Bonhoeffer wasn’t making this up, simply because he himself had it tough trying to be a pastor in Nazi Germany. Bonhoeffer got this phrase from Jesus! Jesus taught his disciples that true discipleship is when we die to ourselves and follow him.

Well, I don’t like the sound of that. It’s too hard, and left to myself, I would opt for an easier form of Christianity. But Bonhoeffer, Paul and Jesus tell us that there is no easier form of Christianity. Either we live according to the description Paul gives here in Colossians 1:10, or we don’t.

Thankfully, God knows us humans, and our weakness. Paul brings that up, as we will see in the next post. For now, I encourage you to evaluate your practice of following Jesus based on Colossians 1:10. Are you walking worthily of the Lord, always pleasing, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God? If you’re not sure, let’s talk about it. Comment below!

A prayer for spiritual wisdom and understanding – Colossians 1:9-14, Part 2

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Have you ever been so confused and so frustrated about a situation in life, that you had no idea what to do? Most of us have been there. It could be that you are getting near the end of high school, and you really don’t know what you want to do with your life. Should you take a gap year? Should you go to college? College sounds fun, and many of your friends are going. But how do they have so much confidence in their choice? What major should you pick? (What career do you want to pursue?) What if you get a year into your major, and you decide you don’t like it? And furthermore, what if you choose a college based on their reputation for educating people in your major, and you change majors? Or maybe there are five colleges and universities that all seem equally appealing to you, and you just don’t know how to narrow it down and pick one?

Then there are relationships. Who should you date? Who should marry? Who should you go into business with? Once you’re married, should you have kids? When should you have kids? And how many? Should you wait till you’re settled enough to purchase a home? How long should you rent? Where should you live? What kind of school district are you looking for? What kind of church?

The list of choices in life goes on and on, and whether big or small choices, decisions in life can be intimidating. Have you ever thought, “I wish I could sit down and talk with Jesus and just have him tell me what to do”? Maybe you’re experiencing some of that right now. If so, I encourage you to start praying the prayer in Colossians 1:9.

There Paul prays the Christians in the town of Colosse would be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding. Now that is a powerful prayer! We’ve been studying the letter to the Colossians, and this week we are looking at Colossians 1:9-14, starting here.

Last week I suggested that you might create a list of people that you pray for on a consistent basis. When you pray for those people, what should you pray for them? I would recommend that you pray what Paul prayed for the Colossian Christians, that they would be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.

But maybe you’re like me, and you’re thinking, “I not only want to pray that prayer for the people in my life, I want that for myself!” I want to know God’s will. And I want to know it like Paul describes it: in ALL spiritual wisdom and understanding. That is a deep knowledge, isn’t it? What does he mean, thought, “knowing God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding”?

What Paul is referring to is a deep relational knowledge. He envisions a person who has a close personal relationship with God, and it is from that relationship that spiritual wisdom and understanding flows.

Paul is not talking about someone with a photographic memory who can crush in Bible trivia.

Paul is not talking about someone who has read the Bible cover-to-cover, or who reads lots of books about the Bible, Christianity and spirituality.

Paul is not talking about a person who has put in a lot of time attending worship services, Sunday School, small group and watching TV preachers.

Through those things a person can get to know about God, which is a good thing. But that is not what Paul prays for the Colossian Christians, in his desire for them to know the will of God.

Paul is describing wisdom and understanding that flows forth from someone who actually knows God. If we want to know God’s will, yes, we can learn it in Scripture. But Paul is referring to a knowledge, a spiritual wisdom and understanding that comes from a close relationship with God himself!

Check in to the next post, as Paul will continue his flow of thought, because you might be wondering, “How do I start or grow that kind of close relationship with God?”

What happened when I submitted a regular quarterly report, and my boss and my boss’s boss both responded – Colossians 1:9-14, Part 1

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What does God expect of us?  Does he expect a lot?  A little?  Is there some way we can measure it?  And does he expect us to accomplish it on our own?  There are so many different expressions of Christianity that it can be confusing to know what God wants. Take gathered, corporate worship on Sundays.  When I was on my sabbatical three years ago, I visited a bunch of different church worship services.  From some local Mennonite churches, to a large megachurch, to a Roman Catholic church in the city of Lancaster, and an American Orthodox church in Harrisburg.  They were so very different.  What kind of worship does God expect of us? 

Knowing that God has expectations for more than just worship services, I think about how Christians live their lives.  And how I live mine.  What does he expect of us? I’ve seen Christians in places around the world from as different as the very poor Christians in Guyana, to the urban Christians in Jamaica, to our EC sister churches in rural India and Nepal, to a multicultural church in the massive Muslim city of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and to Christians in a refugee camp in Kenya.  Each were quite different, and yet they had practices of discipleship and lived out their faith in ways similar to us in the USA.  In every place, of course, those Christians’ lives are impacted by the cultural and economic situation in their country and locale.  I mention that because I’m not just talking about language or worship services.  How we express our Christianity goes well beyond this one hour.  In fact, what about the other 167 hours in the week?  Those hours matter to God at least as much as the one hour we spend in gathered worship.   So what does God expect of us?  What is his will? 

As we continue our series through Colossians, the author, Paul, has something important to say about God’s will.  Turn to Colossians 1:9. Notice how Paul starts this section in verse 9, where he writes: “For this reason.”

For what reason?  The reason he just mentioned in the previous verses.  What did he just mention?  To learn what he just mentioned, we need to do a little review of verses 3-8.  Paul, in verses 3-8, talks about how the Christians in the town of Colosse had heard the good news of Jesus from another missionary named Epaphras.  They responded to that good news in faith, which they showed was a real faith by their practice of loving one another.  In other words, Paul had heard that the Christians in Colosse were true followers of Jesus.

And so he tells them in verse 9, “For that reason, since the day I heard, we have not stopped praying for you.”

This is an expansion of what Paul mentioned in verse 3.  See there he says that “when we pray for you,” and now in verse 9 he says “we have not stopped praying for you.”  Just he began this letter, as we saw in verses 1-8 last week, Paul in verse 9 continues to encourage the Christians in Colosse.  Imagine the reassurance the Colossian Christians felt, knowing that a leader of Paul’s stature prayed for them.  It reminds me of the reports that I have to fill out and send to the my denomination, the EC Church. 

Every quarter the EC Church asks all pastors to submit some basic stats such as our average worship attendance and our total income, and then they ask us to answer some questions about the joys and difficulties in the life of our church family during the past quarter.  Additionally, every year they ask us to complete an annual report.  I will admit that I have sometimes forgotten to fill out a report.  A couple months go by, and I’ll get an email reminder saying it is time for another quarterly report. Look back through the files on my computer, I realize, “Oh my…I forgot to send them reports the last two quarters!” 

This causes me to wonder, no one at the denomination headquarters seemed to care that I didn’t fill out those reports, so what does it matter, all this reporting?  Why am I taking the time to fill these things out anyway?  It can seem like a waste of time.  Does anyone ever read the reports.

I then think maybe I should have a little fun with a report.  What if I started submitting some bizarre stats, would it even matter?  What if I said this past quarter Faith Church averaged 10,000 people attending worship?  Then the next quarter what if I wrote to say that we only averaged 5 in worship?  Or what if I wrote that there was an earthquake in East Lampeter Township, and a giant crack opened up in the earth and swallowed our building?  Maybe then I would get a response!  I never submitted a creative report like that, but I still sometimes toy with the idea.

A couple years ago, though, something happened.  I submitted a regular quarterly reports, and later that day I got an email from my new district field director.  As district field director, he is not only my boss, but also the boss of about 10 other pastors in the churches that comprise our district. On top of that he is a full-time pastor of one of those churches. Simply put, he’s a busy guy, and yet he emailed me to say that he read my report, and was praying for me.  Not only that, in his email he mentioned the specific prayer requests I had written in my report, showing that he actually did read my report!  It was really cool.  I’ve had great district leaders before this, but this was was new.  It showed me that my reporting was being taken seriously. 

Then something else happened.  A few days later, the Bishop sent me an email.  The Bishop is my boss’s boss. He is in charge of the entire denomination, which includes about 125 churches.  Think about that.  125 pastors are submitting one of those quarterly reports, and the Bishop wrote me an email about my report.  It wasn’t like I put anything critical in the report.  No crisis was happening.  No need to call in the big guns, and thus it was highly unlikely that my boss said to the bishop, “Here’s a doozy of a report…you better respond to this.”  Nope, the Bishop simply wrote thanking me for serving, and like my boss, in his email to me the Bishop mentioned specific details from my report, showing he had read my report, and that he was praying. 

You know how those emails from my boss and from my boss’s boss made me feel?  Really good!  I don’t interact with them on any kind of regular basis.  Maybe once every month or so, usually less often than that.  But it was encouraging to hear from them.  That’s exactly how the Colossian Christians would have felt, knowing that Paul had heard about them, and he was writing them and praying for them. 

I know we don’t want to self-promote and come across as ultra-spiritual, but I wonder if we can miss out on genuine encouragement if we don’t tell people we’re praying for them? How can you be an encouragement to the people you pray for? I don’t think it would be wise to tell every day to them you’re praying for them. But it could be really encouraging to check in from time to time.

How to bring hope to struggling people around you – Colossians 1:1-8, Part 5

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This week I hosted my local ministerium’s monthly meeting at Faith Church.  Throughout the year, we take turns, meeting at one another’s churches, and it was my turn. So I set up small round tables in our fellowship hall, spreading them out six feet apart, placing one chair per table, trying to make sure there was social distancing in line with CDC guidelines for the Covid pandemic.  The host pastor also leads a brief devotional, and I wondered what I should talk about. What should I say to a group of pastors and church leaders?

Maybe Paul’s letter to the Colossians can help me. As we conclude this five-part blog series through Colossians 1:1-8, notice what Paul talks about in verse 6: the message that came to the Colossian Christians is spreading all over the world. 

He uses a natural metaphor: it is bearing fruit, he says, growing.  I have mentioned before the bamboo in my family’s back yard.  I have a love/hate relationship with our bamboo.  I love, for example, what happens when it burns.  Each of those chambers in a stalk of bamboo is airtight, so when it gets hot enough, it explodes like a gun shot.  Bamboo is also a very effective natural fence row.  It is super strong and you can use it for posts, such as in a garden.  But my love for bamboo stops there.  If for any reason you ever want some, please let me know.  You can have it. Because it grows so incredibly fast, above ground, underground, in all directions.  It will grow right up through the middle of a pile of stacked firewood. 

The Kingdom of God is like that.  Paul says to the Colossians that message of good news in Jesus has been growing among them since the day they heard it, since the day they understood God’s grace in all its truth.

What he is referring to is the person who started the church in Colosse.  It wasn’t Paul, remember.  In verse 7, he reminds them that it was a guy named Epaphras, who Paul describes as his “dear fellow servant” and “faithful minister of Christ.”  So Epaphras was another traveling missionary like Paul and Timothy.  Epaphras, Paul says in verse 8, told Paul and Timothy about the “love in the Spirit” that the Christians in Colosse had for one another. 

Now has returned to the concept of love again.  Earlier in the passage, Paul described it as love for all the saints.  Now he writes that the Colossian Christians’ love is “in the Spirit.”  With that mention of the Spirit, Paul has, in these 8 verses, talked about all three members of the Trinity.  He has previously mentioned God the Father, God the Son Jesus Christ, and now God the Spirit.  This is one of many passages Christians use to promote a Trinitarian understanding of God.  The Trinity is called “The Three in One,” three equal co-existent persons of the Godhead.  Theologians far smarter than me have, through the ages, tried to explain it.  I’m not going to try today, because Paul doesn’t try to explain it.  Instead Paul mentions all three, showing that all three persons of the Trinity are vital, active and involved.  We pray to God the Father, we serve Christ, and are in Christ, and it is the Spirit who is in us. 

Paul’s introduction in his letter is such an encouragement to the Christians in Colosse.  As I mentioned in a previous post, Paul starts with encouragement for a reason.  He has not only heard good things about them, but also some very disconcerting things.  We’re not at the bad news part of the letter yet, so I will leave the bad news for another day, when Paul gets to it.  For now, he has focused on good news.  Very good news.  Good news in Jesus, and the good news of the faith the love that has flowed from the Christians in Colosse. 

Let us be a good news people.  That doesn’t mean we ignore bad news.  Not at all. We face the bad news, we admit it, and we talk about it, but in a faith-filled, hope in heaven, love in the Spirit kind of way. 

Back to my ministerium meeting, as I wrestled with what to talk about, Paul’s example was helpful to me. I thought I would talk about how many pastoral families struggled during 2020, and continue to do so. That struggle was my reality, and maybe some others were feeling the way too. Like Paul, I wanted to face the difficulty, and I wanted to bring good news and hope and love in the Spirit to that. I also wanted a Trinitarian focus, and I could think of no better passage than Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 3:14-20. I read the prayer and commented briefly about the amazing closeness that each member of our Trinitarian God wants to have with us.

One pastor wrote me back saying: “I really appreciated your acknowledgment that some of us may be struggling.  At various times during the pandemic I have some of my lowest, most discouraging and overwhelming experiences in pastoral ministry.   In the midst of the polarization of Covid, even among us as pastors, it hasn’t always felt like we’re allowed to acknowledge that.  Thanks for opening the door for that today by naming that reality.”

How you can you be like the Colossians, bringing your hope in heaven as good news to those struggling around you?  We can tend to lean one way or another on this. On the one hand, we can over-emphasize bad news and forget to talk about life in a hope-filled, perspective that Jesus brings to our circumstances.  On the other hand we can focus on joy and good news and not be honest about the struggles. 

Let’s remember the grace and peace we have available to us in Christ, let’s remember to be in prayer and for each other, and let’s remember that in the midst of struggles and hardships we have Good News.  We are IN Christ and he is IN us.  

“Words that bring smiles” – Colossians 1:1-8, Part 4

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Want some news to bring a smile to your face?

As we continue studying Colossians 1:1-8, look at verse 4.  Paul says that he has heard good things about the Christians, news he is thankful for, and as a result he wants to keep encouraging them.  Word has spread through the Christian network, which relied on letter writing and word of mouth.  Paul mentions two things that the Colossian Christians were known for:  faith and love.  If you want to be known for something, those are two really good things! 

He had previously mentioned the first one.  Their faith in Christ Jesus, and now he adds to it, the love they have for all the saints.  Clearly the Christians in Colosse were pursuing a genuine expression of discipleship to Jesus.  It was marked by faith in Christ, faith which they demonstrated in active love for one another.  I wonder how people in your community would describe your church?  Would they say, “Oh those people clearly have faith in God, and I know it because they love one another.”?   

Thankfully, Paul helps us understand faith and love a bit more.  Look at verse 5: faith and love spring from hope!  Christians are a people of hope.  When our world is falling apart, we have hope.  Why?  Paul explains it for us: our hope is stored up for us in heaven.  We have hope beyond the world around us.  That doesn’t mean we despair of this broken, fallen world.  That doesn’t mean we look at the world as hopeless.  Instead Paul is saying that our hope in heaven translates to faith in Christ that flows out to loving one another, bringing that hope into the here and now. In other words, our hope in heaven radically transforms how we view and live in the world now!  It shapes our perspective. 

Paul goes on to remind the people that they had already heard about this hope in the word of truth, which is the gospel.  That was the message proclaimed to them, the true message of the gospel.  “Gospel” here is the word where we get our English word “evangelism” and “evangelical.”  In the language Paul wrote, the Gospel is the “evangel” or the “euangelion,” and what that means is a “the message of Good news.”  In Paul’s day, “evangel” was not an exclusively Christian term.  Paul borrowed the term from the larger culture.  “Evangel” was a common word that referred to the proclamation of good news.  One scholar says this: “the expression ‘the gospel’ or ‘the good news’ must be rendered by a phrase, for example, ‘news that makes one happy’ or ‘information that causes one joy’ or ‘words that bring smiles’ or ‘a message that causes the heart to be sweet’.” (Louw & Nida)

I love that!  We have a message of good news in Jesus, that through his life, death and resurrection, we have hope of abundant life now and eternal life in heaven, and that makes us happy, joyful, and brings smiles to our faces.  Paul personally experienced that hope, and could not stop talking about the good news.  We have the exact same hope!  We are good news people, and we should let it flow forth from our lips and in our actions with love! 

Finding grace and peace – Colossians 1:1-8, Part 3

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What are so many people in the world looking for, deep down inside? They are looking for things to be right. They want their lives to feel right. They want to feel wholeness. But where do we find it? I would suggest Paul gives us a clue in the greeting he writes in his letter to the Colossians.

As I mentioned in the previous post, Paul begins his letter to the Colossian Christians, intent on encouraging them, in verse 2b, he continues this encouragement by greeting them with a line that is very typical for him. “Grace and Peace to you from God our Father.”  Scholars note that “grace” was similar to a typical Greek greeting, and “peace” was similar to the typical Jewish greeting, “Shalom” which in Hebrew refers to peace.

Paul is not just interested in customary greetings, though.  Notice that he adds “from God our Father.”  Paul is building the framework of his letter on a foundation of the grace and peace that only comes from God.  Paul could have said that he himself was greeting them.  Instead he points them to God as the source of grace and peace. 

Let’s pause and think about the ramifications of that for a minute.  People don’t want to be caught up in sin and pain and turmoil it brings along with it.  They want wholeness, and so they know they need grace.  Grace is a posture of unearned favor toward someone, and here Paul specifically says it is from God.  This is how we can be declared holy.  God makes healing, wholeness and holiness possible through his gracious gift of Jesus. 

People are also longing for peace.  Most of us humans do not thrive under anxiety, stress, and uncertainty.  Peace, or shalom in the Hebrew, is a rather deep concept.  It is a sweeping idea of wholeness and flourishing, being at peace with God, with each other, with ourselves, with nature, even when life and circumstances are not calm.

Think about how rich that is.  Grace and peace is available to us from God! Isn’t that so encouraging?

The rest of the section, verses 3-8 are an Introduction, where Paul will continue his encouragement. 

In verse 3, he starts saying he always thanks God for them when he prays for them.  Thanking God for them and praying for them is such a good example that we can practice.  We can do what Paul did and pray for people. 

Do you have a practice of prayer?  Do you have a list of people that you pray for?  Paul clearly did, and I would encourage you to do the same.  There are great apps for that.  But what it will require, most importantly, is the carving out of time to pray.  I don’t know if Paul is referring to some time he did this all by himself, or if he is referring to prayer in groups.  Both are vital. 

I meet with my friend Chris about once a quarter, and we have lunch, talk about life, then go to one of our cars and pray together.  Our small group prays together.  And I also try to spend time every day praying alone.  But what should we pray for people?

When Paul prays, he thanks God for his friends.  I suggest that you not only establish a prayer practice, but also that you thank God for each person on your prayer list.  This might be especially helpful and potentially life-changing if you take the sacrificial step of putting people on your prayer list who you have a difficult time with.  Start praying for them.   Thank God for them, and watch God transform your heart and mind toward them. Ask him to do just that!

But why is Paul so thankful for the Christians in Colosse? We’ll see what he has to say about that in the next post. Furthermore we’ll learn whether or not he would be thankful for us.

Calling people “holy” or “saints” – Colossians 1:1-8, Part 2

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What do you think about calling a person “holy”? To many of us, calling people “holy” sounds wrong. Only God is truly holy, not people, right?  If we happen to use the word “holy” about a person, we might be describing them as, “holier than thou,” and we’re not complimenting them.  Paul, however, uses “holy” to refer to all of the true Christians in the town of Colosse, and he is complimenting them. So what gives? Let’s talk about that, as we’ll learn something I believe is quite important for Christians to know in our day.

This week I started a series studying the New Testament letter of Colossians. In the previous post I suggest that the Apostle Paul, perhaps assisted by his associate Timothy, writes the letter, but to whom and why?  Look at verse 2a, and there we meet the recipients: “The Christians in Colosse.” Colosse is located in modern-day Turkey, and you can still visit the ruins of the city.  Of the many cities mentioned in the New Testament, very little archaeology has been done in Colosse.  A couple hundred years before Paul, Colosse had been a fairly important city, but in Paul’s day Colosse had declined somewhat. In the vicinity of 5-10 years after Paul wrote this letter, it seems the city suffered a devastating earthquake from which it never recovered. 

More importantly for Paul, there is a church in Colosse.  Not a building, but a church family.   Paul wrote this letter about 25 years after Jesus returned to heaven, so the Christian movement is still quite new, and not accepted in most of the Roman Empire.  They didn’t have official status, and thus primarily operated as a somewhat underground or informal movement of friends.  Also, Paul did not start this church.  In a future post, we’ll learn who did.  For now, we need to see Paul writing as a leader who was widely-respected in the Christian movement, and he has heard something about this church family that, as a leader, he needs to address.   

What has he heard?  There was good news and there was bad news.  Pretty typical for any church, even in our day, right?  No church is perfect.  All churches have room to improve, but we also have many wonderful things about us. 

So Paul is writing, as he always did, to address concerns that he heard about the Christians in Colosse, but he starts with encouragement.  Look at the three ways he describes the church in verse 2.  They are holy, faithful and in Christ.

A better word to describe what Paul is talking about is “saint.”  Peek down to verse 4, and you’ll see it there too.  In the original language, he uses the same word in both verses.  In our day, we use the word “saint” in a formal way, maybe to refer to the 12 Apostles of Jesus, or as in some Christian denominations, to people who achieve sainthood.  Paul is not using the word “holy” that way.  He is using it to describe all the people in the church. Is Paul describing the Colossian Christians as holy or as saints, such as when we say to someone “Well, aren’t you a saint?”, when they help us out or give generously to a cause? Maybe, but it seems there is more to what Paul intends.

“Holy ones” or “Saints” was a way of talking about all the Christians in the church, though it was not indicating that Paul thought they were perfect or holy like God is holy.  Instead God declares that we are holy, because Jesus, through his death and resurrection made it possible for us to put on his holiness.  In that sense, we are declared holy, we are saints, in Christ.  That doesn’t mean we should get big heads and walk around saying “Hear that, I am holy, I am righteous.”  No, the opposite is true.  We should be exceedingly humble and grateful that God in his mercy, grace and love, sent Jesus who willingly died for us, to make it possible for us to have his holiness.  Otherwise, we would be stuck in our sins, separated from God. 

So what should be pouring from us is a joyful gratitude that lives in a perpetual willingness to serve our Lord.  For Paul, writing in the Roman empire, this is a very subversive concept, which he talks about constantly in this letter.  It is a concept we might need to hear too.  Jesus is Lord.  Not the Roman Emperor.  Not the American President.  Not any King or Queen or Prime Minister.  Not any coach or teacher or boss.  For Christians, Jesus alone is Lord, and we give ourselves, all of ourselves, to serve him. We are in Christ. His ways are what we use to determine our steps and our decisions, and His ways are always be the best ways for us to choose.

Serving him is exactly what Paul means when he describes the Colossian Christians with the word “faithful.”  This word could also be translated “believing.”  It seems to me that both English words are needed to capture the essence of what Paul likely intends to explain about a person’s relationship with Jesus.

First, “believing” relates to the mind, the facts or propositions, the content of what one considers to be truth.  As we might say, “In my heart and mind, I believe that Jesus is God, and that he died for my sin, and rose again from the dead, and that his way is the best way to live.”  But as my denomination’s Bishop, Bruce Hill, once said, “Jesus doesn’t want believers, he wants disciples.”  What the Bishop meant was that people can say they believe in Jesus, but if their lives are unchanged, by their actions you wouldn’t know they were disciples of Jesus.  Whereas true disciples of Jesus show by the actions of their lives that they are true believers. 

What Jesus wants is believers who are faithful.  Faithfulness is a living, active pattern of following the way of Jesus.  It is the regular actions that are the life and outpouring of true belief.

Also, when Paul says that the Colossian disciples are “in Christ,” he has in mind something that goes beyond what I already mentioned, about putting on the righteous clothes of Jesus.  Paul’s concept of “in Christ” is wider than that.  He is not just referring to the individual Christian who individually puts on Christ’s righteousness, and thus is in Christ.  Paul is referring to the whole group.  We Christians are, as Paul would write in 1 Corinthians 12 part of the body of Christ, together.  We are a family, connected with all those everywhere, across the millennia who are also in Christ.  Yes, he is talking to a specific local church in the city of Colosse, but he wants them and us to remember that being “in Christ” is much more broad, to the point where some scholars refer to it as cosmic, meaning there is no place in the universe where Jesus is not Lord.  And we are a part of him.  We are in Christ. My hope and prayer, as we study Colossians, is that we get to understand Jesus better, that we have an expanding view of being “in Christ”.

Creativity can set you free – Colossians 1:1-8, Part 1

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I heard from some in my congregation, after the events of this past Wednesday January 6, 2021, the breaching of the US Capitol building by Trump-supporting extremists, that they were really struggling.  What is going on in our country?  How do we Christians respond?  We can feel trapped in our uncertainty about how to respond. What will set us free?

With this post, I start a blog series through the New Testament book of Colossians, and right out of the gate, the message that we will hear is so helpful, I believe, to how we can be set free from the feelings of being trapped by the trauma in today’s world.

Scan through Colossians, and you’ll notice it is fairly short.  I said it was a book, but it is actually a letter. Look at verse 1 where the writer introduces himself: Paul.  Remember the blog series through the New Testament book of Acts last year?  We spent a lot of time getting to know Paul in the book of Acts.  Paul, also called Saul, was a Jew who was a member of the Pharisees, that group of religious leaders who constantly confronted Jesus and the earliest Christians.  Acts describes Paul as a kind of a super-Pharisee, traveling around Palestine rounding up Christians and throwing them in jail.  But one day, Jesus broke into Paul’s life in a miraculous vision that stopped Paul in his tracks.  Jesus changed Paul’s life 180 degrees.  All the passion and vigor, with which he had previously persecuted Christians, he now marshaled into an energetic life of proclaiming that Jesus was alive, truly risen from the dead as the Christians taught. 

This is why Paul describes himself in verse 1 as, “An apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.”  Jesus did it. Jesus intervened and changed Paul’s life.  Now Paul is Jesus’ apostle, which means he is a special messenger for Jesus himself.  An apostle is one who goes into new areas to tell the story of Jesus’ good news, an entrepreneur for the Kingdom of God.  That was Paul to a T.  As we saw in Acts, he traveled, like a missionary, all over the Roman Empire, seeking to tell people about Jesus and start churches

Note that Paul is not alone, and possibly not writing all by himself.  Timothy is also there with him.  We met Timothy a few years ago when I preached through 1st Timothy.  Here Paul calls him “brother,” but in other places he calls Timothy “son.”  Why? Because Paul was instrumental in bringing Timothy to Jesus, and Paul discipled him.  Paul, in other words, taught Timothy how to follow Jesus.  Timothy would go on to become leader of the church in the city of Ephesus.  Who is your Timothy?  Who is your Paul?  Christians should have both in our lives. 

Even though the letter-writer self-identifies as Paul, there is much scholarly discussion, as there is about every book of the Bible, as to who actually wrote the letter to the Colossians.  I’d be glad to talk further with anyone who would like to get into the nitty-gritty of the debate, but my conclusion is that it is highly likely that Paul, perhaps with some assistance from Timothy, wrote this letter.  Along with the letters to the Ephesians, Philippians and Philemon, Colossians is one in a group of Paul’s letters called The Prison Epistles, written in the late 50s first century, when Paul was in prison. 

Pause on that detail for a minute.  Paul is writing from prison.  He is the apostle of Jesus, but now he is under lock and key, incarcerated by the Romans for proclaiming Jesus.  Has the mission of the apostle been shut down by the Roman Empire which imprisoned him?  Can the empire halt the advancement of the Kingdom?  No! The empire cannot stop the Kingdom of God.  And yet it appears to be doing just that, with Paul in chains.  So what does Paul do?  What will set him free?

Perhaps the most enduring facet of Paul’s ministry was his use of communication technology.  He traveled by boat, and he wrote letters, two important technologies in the ancient world.  He saw technology as a means for advancing the kingdom.  Stuck in prison?  Paul doesn’t despair.  He writes letters.  Not only were those letters impactful in his day, they remain so because here we are reading them, studying them, and learning from them!  Paul’s example can be very instructive for us. Are there any situations in our world that seem to hold back the Kingdom of God?  Are there ways we can think outside the box, creatively, and experimentally to continue to advance the Kingdom? Creativity can set you free.