Monday, 13 May 2019

Jesus is Enough: A Sermon on Colossians 1:24–2:23

Our church is going through Colossians at the moment. I’ve come to appreciate this letter afresh while reading up on it and I hope this sermon reflects that. I used the set Gospel reading for the day—John 10:22-30—as I thought I could integrate this with the Colossians passage, but I wasn’t able to do that as well as I’d hoped; the connection is rather tenuous—though not, I trust, too tenuous.

John 10:22-30; Colossians 1:24–2:23

‘See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe . . .’ Once more, the apostle Paul bangs the nail right on the head. But what is the nail—and what is its head? Or, putting it less oddly, what is Paul warning against here? What was going on in the city of Colossae?

It’s not clear precisely what was happening in or to the church in Colossae; Paul doesn’t spell it out for us. But there are hints scattered throughout his letter. In today’s passage, for example, we have three instances of the word ‘mystery’—why does Paul use this word in particular? There’s a suggestion that there are powerful forces at work in Colossae, the so-called ‘elemental spirits of the universe’. There’s a recurring theme of knowledge and understanding running through the passage, as well as motifs of wisdom and fullness. And there are references to ‘self-abasement’, ‘worship of angels’, and ‘dwelling on visions’. It’s all very enigmatic, isn’t it?—all very odd. Why does Paul mention all these things? Just what is going on in Colossae?

Perhaps the biggest clue as to what’s going on is Paul’s talk of circumcision, food and drink, and sabbaths. As we see in the Old Testament, the Jewish people circumcised their menfolk, they distinguished between clean and unclean foods, and they rested each week on the sabbath—all in accordance with the law of Moses. So does this mean that Paul is warning against Judaism? Were the Colossian believers, who were mostly non-Jewish, being persuaded to convert to Judaism? Perhaps . . . but we can’t leave it there, not without further elaboration. The focus on mystery, on visions, on elemental spirits, self-abasement, and the like—all these suggest that if Judaism is the issue, then it is a very specific variant of it—perhaps even a sect or a cult emphasising experience of God in all God’s fullness through specific rites and rituals. The problem in Colossae, then, could well be a kind of pick-’n’-mix religion with Jewish roots.

Is there anything wrong with this? It sounds pretty good, actually, doesn’t it?—being able to experience God through self-discipline and spirituality. Who here doesn’t want to be more self-disciplined? Who here doesn’t want to have a vibrant spirituality? Isn’t this what Christianity’s all about—life to the full, and all that? Well, ish . . . Even though there’s a valid and important place for self-discipline in our faith, even though we cannot express our faith without having some kind of spirituality, the problem Paul has here isn’t with trying to experience God, or with self-discipline, or with spirituality in and of itself; the problem Paul has is that the Colossians are being persuaded that Jesus Christ need not be at their centre. The believers at Colossae had heard the good news of Jesus but were now in danger of abandoning him to have apparently deeper or more powerful experiences of God by other means.

But Paul doesn’t take this sidelining of Jesus lightly! Notice how Paul deals with the situation: Are you intrigued by mystery? Well, says Paul, be intrigued no more: there is no mystery other than Jesus himself, whom you already know! Do you desire all knowledge, all understanding, and all wisdom? Well, says Paul, look no further: it’s all there in Jesus, whom you already know! Do you crave God in all God’s fullness? Well, says Paul, God’s fullness is found entirely in Jesus, whom you already know! If you want to know God, says Paul; if you want to know God for who God is, in all his glory and power—just focus on Jesus!

Paul pushes further. The law of Moses requires circumcision for membership in God’s covenant people, but you Colossians have already been circumcised, spiritually speaking, because you have been baptised in the name of Jesus. When you were baptised, you were given, and you received, a completely new identity—you are in Christ! And because you have been baptised in the name of Jesus, says Paul, because you are in Christ, it means you have already died with Jesus, you have already been buried with Jesus, and you have already been raised with Jesus. Whatever experiences of God you Colossians are being encouraged to have, let me be absolutely clear: You have already found what you’re looking for!—and it’s all in Jesus Christ, whom you already know.

Last week, we looked at the centrality of Jesus, at why Jesus is the centre of everything we think and everything we do and everything we say. All things were created in Jesus, says Paul, all things hold together in Jesus, and all things are reconciled to God through Jesus, through his blood and cross. And this is why, says Paul, no experience of God outside of Jesus or apart from Jesus is necessary or valid. How can it be? If all things were created in Jesus, if all things hold together in Jesus, if all things are reconciled to God through Jesus—then how can we even begin to know or experience God unless Jesus is at the centre? Jesus alone, says Paul, is the image of the invisible God; and for this reason, Jesus is absolutely central to Christianity—central and sufficient. If we want to know God, if we want to experience God in all God’s fullness, Jesus is enough.

But what of today’s Gospel reading, where Jesus is once more confronted by the Jewish leadership? All I want to do here is to make a comparison with our reading from Colossians. In today’s Gospel reading, the Jewish leaders continually avoided recognising Jesus as the promised Messiah of God. ‘Stop messing us around,’ they said. ‘Just tell us plainly: Are you the Messiah?’ But Jesus merely points out that everything he has done in his Father’s name is evidence enough. Jesus was reshaping and redefining how God’s people would know and experience God, but the Jewish leaders refused to accept this—even though it was happening right in front of them! And in our main reading from Colossians, the believers at Colossae were tempted to look for experiences of God by using religious techniques to push Jesus to the sidelines of their faith—despite the fact they had already received Jesus himself through baptism. The Colossian believers were already defined by the risen Christ but were tempted to define themselves through human traditions and practices.

It seems that dislodging Jesus from the centre of our lives is an ever-present temptation. However deeply or sincerely we believe Jesus is central to our faith, however much we want to worship him or to be like him, in practice we struggle to accept Jesus is enough. And so we convince ourselves that we need something else to deepen our relationship with God: a particular style of worship; a certain way of praying; a distinct mode of preaching; a specific method or programme of evangelism; a perfect set of criteria for teaching the Bible to our children. None of these things is wrong in and of itself; we need all these sorts of things and more to support us as we grow to maturity in Christ. But we cannot insist on any particular thing being the sole way or the right way of growing mature in Christ because then we turn our beliefs into techniques and locate our identity in our personalities rather than in Christ himself, into whom we have been baptised. And this happens when Jesus is no longer central, when Jesus is no longer enough.

This is why Paul urges the Colossians—and this is why Paul urges us—to ‘continue to live your lives in [Jesus], rooted and built up in him and established in the faith’, that is, the good news about Jesus the Church has taught since at least the day of Pentecost. The faith of the first generation of Christians is the same faith as the latest generation’s, our generation, because it is faith in Jesus. And while it sounds obvious and far too simplistic, let me assure you: the way to avoid pushing Jesus aside is to keep him at the centre of our lives and to redefine everything else—everything else—in light of him.

There’s a challenge here; a challenge, but also a promise. The challenge is to accept the sufficiency of Jesus—Jesus is enough. Our search to supplement Jesus with other things to know and experience God is misguided because nothing and no one else can or will do the job. Only Jesus is enough. This is a challenge for us because our tendency is to redefine Jesus in light of our preferred form of Christianity.

But while this is the challenge, the promise is exactly the same: Jesus is sufficient—Jesus is enough. Our search to find God’s comfort in times of pain, God’s acceptance in times of failure, and God’s love in times of despair—these are all given to us in Jesus. And Jesus is certainly enough! This is a promise for us because we no longer need to look high and low or far and wide to know and experience God, for our knowledge of God and our experience of God are all right here—in Jesus.

So what does all this mean for us? What does it mean for us to say that Jesus is enough? You’ll have to come along next week to find out! In Colossians 3, Paul begins to spell out what being ‘in Christ’ means, what it means for us to recognise Jesus as both central and sufficient in our daily lives. So if you want to know how the sufficiency of Jesus impacts our everyday life, come along next week!

But for now—for now, know for sure that Jesus is enough. Come to the table where Jesus is present; eat the bread, drink the wine; be assured that God’s Holy Spirit makes them the body and blood of Jesus for us—for me, for you, for us all.

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