August 22, 2010

Rooted and built up in him

Passage: Colossians 2:1-23, Luke 13:10-17, Colossians 2:6-7

As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives* in him, 7rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.


“Spanish authorities are warning travellers against the ‘balconing’ craze – jumping from hotel balconies into swimming pools – that has claimed four lives and left others seriously injured this summer, according to a report by British newspaper The Guardian,” “… Hotel owners told the paper that ‘balconing’ is increasingly popular among drunk guests, who often post videos of their jumps on YouTube and other websites. The number of accidents is already triple that of previous summers.

Setting aside the fact that inebriation clouds judgement, why do people do these sorts of dangerous things?  I wonder if there is not some current of thought that to do such things is to “live on the edge”; to have such stunts in your repertoire is to live life to the full.  It appears on some level to be an attempt to experience “real” life; the exhilaration of doing something dangerously stupid gives life a glow that can only be attained by doing it.  Real life is about having as many experiences as possible.

Columnist and author Christopher Hitchens—who is famously known as a strident atheist—was diagnosed this past June with esophageal cancer; in a recent CNN interview (Aug 5) with Anderson Cooper, Hitchens spoke candidly that the prognosis of surviving the kind of cancer he had was not good; he also spoke frankly of his years that he smoked heavily and of the connection of that behaviour with this cancer.  In speaking of his life Hitchens said, with what sounded as a certain satisfaction in his voice, “I burned the candle at both ends and it often gave a lovely light”.

1. What makes life real?  What do you consider to be really living life?  I recently saw an advertisement for a lottery that pictured a young couple sharing a hammock under a palm tree on a beautiful beach—is that it?  The Apostle said—in fact it is emblazoned everywhere in the New Testament—that real life is “to live your lives in Christ Jesus the Lord, rooted and built up in him.”  I fully understand that the lottery’s promise of the life of leisure looks more appealing than the Apostle’s pronouncements.  Let’s see—on the one hand a hammock at the beach, on the other hearing a sermon on a hot summer day in a sanctuary without air-conditioning—yes, I know I should pick the sermon but the hammock, the hammock seems to have my name on it.

When the first followers of Jesus tried to articulate the reality of Jesus’ identity they said things like; “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God and the Word was God… the Word became flesh and lived among us”; “he is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being”.  Last Sunday we reflected on Paul’s affirmation: “In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell”.  In our Colossians reading today Paul wrote of Christ as the one “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” and “in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily”.

There are incredible pronouncements to make about a person; so encompassing is the scope of who Jesus is said to be it is not much wonder people have difficulty comprehending Jesus’ identity.  I hinted at this point in last week’s sermon; a point I invite you to reflect a little more on today.  To say these things of Jesus is to say that existence—our existence—is both given and undergirded by him.  The One who makes our reality “real” is God himself in Jesus Christ.

Therefore, no other human and no thing could possibly make life real; only being rooted and grounded in the One who defines reality itself can do this—the very one who gave reality its existence.  Too often we hear texts like this one—that Christians are to live our lives rooted and built up in him—as a life-sentence to boredom when the opposite is the case.  If anything is boring surely it is endless leisure.  “All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ”; life in him is to discover treasures beyond anything we could imagine!  The gospel truth is that the wonders of the treasures hidden in the breadth of life’s experiences—work, family, leisure, study, volunteer service, nature—are revealed in Christ.

2. Clearly, the letter to the Colossians is written to combat false teaching about Christ.  Why is Paul so insistent on certain matters with respect to the identity of Jesus Christ?  One of the characteristics of the post-modern world we live in is suspicion of all dogma; insistence of this kind is viewed as extremist and therefore to be rejected.  One of the modern criticisms of the church is its insistence on Jesus’ identity as God come in the flesh; a criticism that is embraced even by many within the church.  Sadly, in some quarters of the United Church the name of Jesus has all but disappeared.

First, let me offer you a word about post-modernism’s hypocrisy to help you stand firm in the face of such criticism.  As Paul warned, “let no one take you captive through philosophy”.  Those who insist that all dogma be held in suspicion are curiously unsuspicious about their own dogma; namely the dogma that “all dogma is to be held in suspicion”.

Secondly, one of the driving reasons Paul is so insistent about Jesus’ identity is because the salvation declared in the gospel rests on the very matter.  Let me take a moment to elaborate.  I invite you to jump ahead to the fourth century when false teaching with respect to this matter of Jesus identity had necessitated the council of Nicaea; it was the bishop Athanasius who gave the church this important articulation that Jesus is “one Being (substance) with the Father” that is confessed everywhere the Nicene Creed is said.  The debate on this point hinged on an important difference between two Greek words.

The spelling difference between the English words “run” and “ruin” is the small letter i.  What's the difference between asking friends to run your business for you and asking them to ruin it? The survival of your business is "only" the difference of the smallest letter of the alphabet! The survival of the gospel hinges on the "iota", the smallest letter of the Greek alphabet. Athanasius knew that the difference between "homoousios" (same essence) and "homoiousios" (similar essence) is as unbridgeable as the difference between "run" and "ruin".

"Homo" is Greek for "same" or "one" or "identical"; "ousios" for "nature" or "being" or "substance" or "essence". Is the Son identical with the Father, possessed of the same substance as the Father? Or is the Son merely similar to the Father, only like Him? (And if only like the Father, how like: a little bit like or a lot like? And if even a lot like, is a "miss" here "as good as a mile"?)

To apprehend the glory of Athanasius's faithfulness we must understand the two heresies he refuted. Ebionitism insisted that Jesus Christ is certainly human but only seemingly divine; docetism, that Jesus Christ is certainly divine but only seemingly human.  It is this second error which Paul is addressing in the Colossian church—that Jesus only seemed human.  Why does this matter so much.

All of us bristle at being deceived. Deception is a particularly irksome kind of dishonesty. Yet the coming of Jesus into the world would have been a deception if God had merely come among us in the form of man. Instead the Church confesses that Jesus Christ is God coming among us as man.  The difference is crucial.

If God were to come in the form of man, God would have been masquerading as human without actually being human. The doctrine of the incarnation, on the other hand, states unambiguously that there’s no disguise, no duplicity. God hasn’t cloaked Himself with our humanity so that He merely seems human, as we sometimes cloak ourselves on Halloween to leave acquaintances uncertain who we are.

Rather, God has come among us as man precisely to end all guesswork about who He is. Never surrendering His lofty transcendence, He simultaneously assumes our humanity in order to identify Himself with us utterly.

3. When Paul calls us to live lives “rooted” and “built up” in Christ he uses metaphors from horticulture and construction.  Jesus’ parables and teaching are filled with such metaphors as well.  What plants are rooted in has much to do with the life of the plant.  Similarly, as Jesus noted in his parable about the house built on the rock, the foundation on which the building is being constructed is crucial. Where the plant is rooted and the house built is particularly important when the winds and storms come; and the winds of life will surely come.

It is interesting to note that in the text these two participles are in the passive voice which implies that a crucial component of being rooted and built up is the work Christ is doing in us.  The means we have for being rooted and built up in him—worship, study, prayer, Christian fellowship, obedience to his will to love people—become the very vehicle for the work Christ does in us; he roots us and builds us up which is to say that his grip on us is always stronger that our strongest grip on him.  He will hold you in the storm.

Paul writes: “see to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy”.  Does this mean we should not study philosophy or related fields of inquiry like psychology, psychiatry, sociology, or ecology?  Sometimes Christians have spurned what we call higher education for that reason—it appears they lead us away from Christ.  I think it is apparent that Paul was well aware of Greek philosophy implying that he must have studied it somewhere.

I think that all of these academic fields of inquiry provide an angle of vision on the human situation and that many things that are good can be derived from their contributions.  What Paul says is that we should never let them dissuade us from Christ; from living our lives rooted and built up in him.  While these academic disciplines can tell us much about the human situation the gospel says that they cannot reveal to us the human condition.

While the human situation changes from era to era the human condition never changes.  The human condition, in the wake of the Fall can be spoken of bluntly and briefly; having denied God’s holiness and having contradicted their own, sinners now live before the Just Judge who, in his astounding mercy, has made provision for them.

Soren Kierkegaard was an intellectual giant; possibly the greatest Christian thinker.  He rightly observed that all philosophies are systems of thought and that you cannot reduce life or reality to a system of thought.  This is not to say that such systems are unhelpful; it is to say they are not reality.  I have read lots of philosophy and I can tell you this; none compare to faith in Christ Jesus.

From time to time people tell me of their reluctance to embrace Christian faith because they have intellectual trouble with this or that doctrine; what they imply is that it does not make sense to them.  This is to believe in a system of thought (philosophy) and to insist that before I will believe anything it needs to fit into the system; it is to trust your life to your intellectual abilities.

Consider a beautiful freshly-picked tomato sitting in front of you ready to be enjoyed for lunch.  Can you explain how that tomato has its life or fully comprehend how it grew?  You might be able to describe a detail or two recalling something about photosynthesis from science class, but can you explain how it has life such that it grew?  And even in the face of such intellectual trouble you likely go ahead and eat that tomato anyway.  Never let intellectual systems of though prevent you from the reality of experiencing Christ in your life through faith.  Eat!

4. The title of a recent article caught my attention: The Prepper Movement—a Growing Network Preparing for the World’s end.  The prepper’s collective goal is quite simple: to carry on as usual, even when catastrophe strikes.  Over recent years, a huge community of preppers has developed; an internet search will find plenty of prepper related stuff including Prepper TV, survival blogs, podcasts like Doctor Prepper, and forums on various related subjects.

The letter to the Colossian church was written by Paul in the early 50’s (CE). Colossae was located in a region know as the Lycus Valley and in 60 or 61 (CE), within 10 years of receiving Paul’s letter, an earthquake struck this region; the destructive force of the earth quake was sufficient that Colossae was never rebuilt.  The name of the city is not seen in historic records after that period.

It seems to me that to truly be prepared for life we need to have the life to come in full view.  To be rooted and built up in Christ is to meet whatever comes in life solidly in the grasp of the One whose power and scope for our existence transcends any catastrophe.  He frees you to live life to the full.

As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives* in him, 7rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.