July 14, 2013

Of Your Faith in Christ Jesus and of the Love that You Have

Passage: Amos 7:7-17, Psalm 82, Colossians 1:1-14, Luke 10:25-37
Service Type:

In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, 4for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, 5because of the hope laid up for you in heaven.


Last October a member of the congregation sent me an email with the following story. (I am ever grateful for help with sermon illustration).  Reportedly, it is a true story.

A bar called Drummond's (in Mt Vernon, Texas) began construction on an expansion of their building, hoping to "grow" their business.  In response, the local Southern Baptist Church started a campaign to block the bar from expanding—petitions, prayers, etc.  About a week before the bar's grand re-opening, a bolt of lightning struck the bar and burned it to the ground!  Afterward, the church folks were rather smug—bragging about "the power of prayer". The angry bar owner eventually sued the church on grounds that the church ... "was ultimately responsible for the demise of his building, through direct actions or indirect means."  Of course, the church vehemently denied all responsibility or any connection to the building's demise.  The judge read carefully through the plaintiff's complaint and the defendant's reply.  He then opened the hearing by saying: "I don't know how I'm going to decide this, but it appears from the paperwork that what we have here is a bar owner who now believes in the power of prayer, and an entire church congregation that does not."

Whenever I read the first paragraphs of Paul’s letters I am both challenged and chastised by the Apostle’s fundamental commitment to prayer.  Paul begins many of his letters assuring the recipients that he is praying for them.  It seems that Paul’s first instinct is to pray.

The church at Colossae was founded through the preaching of one of Paul’s missionary compatriots named Epaphras.  Paul is in prison as he writes this letter (Ephesus or Rome); it appears that Epaphras has come to see Paul both to report on how things are going and to seek his advice regarding some of the challenges this church is facing.

Paul said that from the day he heard of their faith he had “not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding”.   “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective,” wrote the Apostle James.  The “righteous” means those who are rightly related to God; a relationship that is experienced by faith.  It is evident that Paul believes that those new to the faith need to be sustained in their faith and that he can contribute to their being sustained in the faith by prayer.

Paul is in prison yet his chains are no barrier to participating in the wellbeing of these believers.  I love Paul’s confidence in prayer and I long for the same.  When we consider the challenges of church life in this congregation this text—along with a host of others—teaches us to pray.  Pray for one another that God would sustain us in the faith.  Give thanks for one another—Paul opens by saying he gave God thanks for these Colossian believers.  Is it not a good—even strengthening—thing that we have one another with whom we can walk this way of faith?   When the numbers of people at worship drop we often feel a corresponding sense of discouragement.  Significant contribution to church life is made by prayer.

1. I invite you to turn your attention to two things Paul remarked on about these Colossian believers.  First, Paul wrote, on behalf of Timothy and himself, “we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus.”

In January of this year the first service of The Sunday Assembly was held.  “The Sunday Assembly” is billed as London’s (England) first atheist church.  Priding itself on its tagline “live better, help often, wonder more,” this Assembly aims to take the best things about religion and religious ceremonies, but to do it without all the god-talk.  The Assembly’s web page claims it is “a godless congregation that meets on the first Sunday of every month to hear great talks, sing songs and generally celebrate the wonder of life.”

Can we do this—“this” referring to our gathering together as the church—without all the talk of God?  I see congregations attempting to offer a “God lite” service in order to be more appealing to the public.  It is not uncommon that the name of Jesus is not even spoken during the worship portion of Presbytery meetings that I attend.  Can the church be the church without talk of Jesus?  The very thing for which Paul thanks God—the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ—is their “faith in Christ Jesus.”

Note with me that he does not stop after the word “faith”; as if to say he was glad the believers took their spirituality seriously or some such essence of the human faculty.  It is “faith in Christ Jesus”.  Christ Jesus is both the object of faith and the sphere in which faith operates.  In fact the “faith” he speaks about is a gift of God.  This faith comes into existence because of Jesus making incursion into our lives.  It never operates separate from Christ Jesus because it is a relationship with him.

As we noted already Paul’s letter to this church is written to address some challenges.  Epaphras has come seeking Paul’s counsel with respect to influences in the church that are undermining the gospel message.  Paul’s letter is aimed to combat false teaching or to correct ideas that would lead in a trajectory away from the gospel.  Paul will sometimes address these challenges positively—rather than say a particular idea is false he will highlight some aspect of the gospel articulating in some detail its logic. On other points he will say a certain teaching is not consistent with the gospel.

Take, for example, this paragraph Paul writes on the supremacy of Christ.  (It follows after what we read today; we will read it next Sunday.)  This text simply soars in superlatives in its description of the identity of Jesus.  It is stunning in its affirmation that the person we meet in Jesus is God come in the flesh.  The portrait that Paul paints line after line leaves one breathless because of its scope; without doubt Paul knows that one he met that day on the road to Damascus was none other than the God with whom every human has to do.

Listen to a portion of the text: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16for in* him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17He himself is before all things, and in* him all things hold together. … 18…For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”

Why does Paul write this to these believers?  In this church the divinity of Jesus is being challenged or undermined.  I am not sure of the source of the challenge but it is not unlike what we see today; a dualism that separates the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith; a dualism that separates the two natures of Christ.  Paul says Christ Jesus cannot be divided.  He is both God and human.  Here Paul underlines Jesus’ divinity because that is what is under attack in this church.  It breaks my heart to see in many places today the church of Jesus Christ sideline Jesus.

I wonder if Paul were writing to us—Central United Church—would he say in his prayer that he thanked God because he heard of “our faith in Christ Jesus.”

2. Paul also remarked, of these Colossian believers, that he had heard not only of their faith in Christ Jesus but also “of the love that you have for all the saints”.

In August of 2012 a news story (United Press International) reported that a Swedish man filed a complaint with officials because he wasn’t satisfied with the size of the reward he received.  The Skane, Sweden, man filed a report with the Parliamentary Ombudsman saying that he found a bicycle and took it to the police station, where it was claimed by its owner.  The man said he received a notice from the police that he could collect a finder’s fee of about $6.  The complaint argues that finder’s fees should amount to about 10 percent of value of the lost or stolen object.  “To underestimate the value of people’s time in this manner is risking decreasing the rate of solving cases …” the man said in his complaint.  This news story title was “the underpaid Samaritan?”

When I saw the title of the article “the underpaid Samaritan”, it struck me how extensively Jesus’ parable has penetrated into the general consciousness of society.  Even a newspaper used an illusion to one of Jesus’ parables assuming that its readers would be able to make connection with the title.

Of course, this story bears little resemblance to Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan.  The dissimilarity between the Swedish man and the Samaritan Jesus spoke about is striking.  We applaud any person who aids in returning stolen property to its rightful owner; but the heart that expects a reward for doing such is not in keeping with the heart of the person Jesus described in his parable.  This is not to say that rewards are bad things; after all it was our Lord who said, with respect to giving alms, “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

The Greek word for love that Paul uses when he remarks about these Colossian believers of the “love that you have for all the saints”, is the strong word for love agape.  It is the word that is used to speak of the self-giving, self-forgetful love of Christ for people.  The full character of this love is seen most clearly in the cross of Christ as he gives up his life for us that we might be freed from sin.  It is the same sort of love that Jesus speaks of when he described the actions of the good Samaritan. Our world has very different ideas of what love is or what love looks like in action.  Faith in Christ Jesus gives rise to a love for one another that is formed, normed and informed by Jesus—who we have come to know is love.

I read the story of a Las Vegas cab driver who turned in a briefcase that was left in his cab stuffed with $221,510 in cash.  The briefcase owner had what some might regard as a productive day at the casinos and was on his way to the airport.  The cab driver received a $2000 tip for his honest deed—although his cab-driver friends complained that it was less than a measly one percent tip.

As soon as calculation enters the story the love being spoken of is no longer self-forgetful.  Jesus Christ gave himself without remainder for our sakes.  Self-forgetful, self-giving is the character of this love we are to live towards one another.  According to the Apostles “faith in Christ Jesus” and “love for all the saints” are inextricably bound together.  Both faith and love are verbs—action words.  The vertical—“faith in Christ Jesus”—and horizontal—“love for all the saints” operate together.  Some churches have so emphasized the faith side of this equation that it has turned faith in Christ Jesus into a piety uninvolved in the world.  Other churches have so emphasized the love side of the equation that Jesus has been forgotten and the love has become characterized by diversity or inclusion rather that he self-forgetful self-giving of Christ.  These two need to be held together by the church in her obedience to Christ.

In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, 4for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints ….