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Worthy Living

Sermon - 7/11/10
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Colossians 1:1-14

We completed a study of Paul's letter to the Galatians a couple of weeks ago, and this morning I want to start a new study of Paul's letter to the Colossians. And so we'll be looking at that for the next several weeks. I would invite you to read the letter several times over the course of the next several weeks. It's a short letter, I promise :), only 4 chapters. Last time I promised there were only 5 chapters of Galatians, and someone caught me afterward and said there's really six! I was just testing you to see if you were really paying attention :).

In any case, it's not a very long letter, so you can read it a few times each week, as we take a walk through this letter of Paul's.

Let me make a couple of notes of introduction. First of all, about authorship itself. Whereas there is no scholar today (of any note) who questions that Paul wrote the letter to the Galatians, there are a number of scholars who have raised doubts whether or not Paul actually is the author of this letter to the Colossians. Some of the vocabulary, and the theology, and the themes, are very unlike the Paul of the undisputed letters, and hence the doubts in the minds of some scholars. And that may come up for us later, we'll see.

For now, we can just note that there's no consensus one way or another, either for or against Pauline authorship. And so either this is written by Paul, possibly late in his life (that might explain some of the changes) or, it's written by a close associate of his who knew him well. And had no difficulty, no qualms, about writing in his name -- which in fact was a very common practice in antiquity. It was a way of honoring a deceased person. Hence, the possibility that this may have been written after Paul's death, in his name.

Whatever the case, I'll refer to the author as Paul, just for the sake of simplicity, and trust that the authority of the text rests not in the person who is writing, but in the witness that is given.

Second, the location. Colossae was very much a metropolitan city, in that same area as Ephesus in what is today modern-day Turkey. It had a sizable Jewish population, but was largely a Gentile community. Very typical of Roman cities throughout much of the Mediterranean world, and had a very diverse religious community. And in many of those communities, and evidently especially in the case of Colossae, that diversity evolved into syncretism, in which those different religious traditions merged into a combined tradition with many gods, each offering their own piece (so to speak) of the divine picture.

And thus a common philosophy of the time was that to get the whole picture of the divine reality, you needed a little bit of each. Sort of like pieces of a puzzle. And Paul's response, when such was offered in the Church of Colossae (and in effect, subjugating Christ to one small piece of this larger puzzle) was an emphatic rejection. In Christ, the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, he writes in a section we'll look at next week. In other words, Christ is not just one small piece of the divine reality, Christ is the whole picture.

And as we will see next week, Christ is not the last name for Jesus, as we sometimes think of it (you know, Jesus was born into the Christ family :). But rather, Christ includes Jesus, and so much more. But that's a topic we'll explore next week.

Now, one side comment: this syncretism of the first century was vastly different from the interfaith work that we see happening today, especially in our community, such as the interfaith service held this evening here.

In the Roman world, one could be a follower of many different Gods, and would pay homage to a different God for a different purpose. In interfaith work, we come as people faithful to our respective traditions and we engage one another as Christians or Jews or Muslims or Buddhists, whatever the case may be. We may learn from one another, we main gain insight into our condition and into the divine reality from that interaction, but we remain within our own tradition, and do not take a little here and a little there, you know, to suit ourselves, like picking fruit from a tree, whatever suits our desires.

Thus, the religious context of this letter to the Colossians is vastly different from our own. In this cosmopolitan atmosphere, there were philosophers who taught a way of life that seemed reasonable and was attractive (and this may be similar to our context), but for Paul, it threatened to undermine the message of the Gospel, and hence the reason for writing this letter to that community in Colossae.

The letter begins in very typical Pauline fashion. First, the writer (or this case the writers) and recipients are identified. Then there is a thanksgiving and prayer in which the themes of the letter are introduced. And that is our text for this morning, I'm going to read just the first 10 verses:

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,

2 To the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father.

3 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. You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel 6that has come to you. Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God. 7This you learned from Epaphras, our beloved fellow-servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf, 8and he has made known to us your love in the Spirit.

9 For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of Godís will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.

 

So the context of the letter may be different, but the appeal of Paul is universal. In sum, the result of faith in Christ is worthy living. Here defined as that life pleasing to Christ, bearing fruit of good works.

And it is important to note, I think, the relationship portrayed by Paul between (as he describes it) the hope we have in heaven and our good works on earth. And as we saw in that letter to the Galatians, it is not the worthy life that gets us to that destination. Or, to put it in a slightly bit of a paradox, it's not the journey that gets us to the destination, rather it is the journey that reveals our destination.

That is, the hope that we have in heaven, whatever that reality may be, is made known in how we live on earth. If that doesn't make you stop and think, to think about that journey that you're on, well, think again. Living worthy lives, you see, is the evidence of our redemption, not the means to earn it.

Think how different that is from the message that we usually hear and practice in our world. If you're in the dog-house with your spouse because of something you said or did (I see a few nodding heads :), what do you do? You bring home flowers, chocolate, make a nice dinner. If it's really bad, season tickets for the Ducks :). And if that doesn't work, all is lost.

When a convict is released from prison, what do we say? They've paid their debt to society. In some cases, a person is required and make or pay restitution. A white transit officer is found guilty in Oakland for shooting a black man in the back, lying on the ground, killing him, and then his sentenced this week to five years for manslaughter. And the outraged community protests, demanding justice -- meaning a longer sentence in exchange for life wrongly taken.

My point is that we think of redemption as something that we earn, something that we have to do, through our actions. And Paul's point is precisely that such is not God's way. It is not the good we do that earns us God's favor. Rather, it's more of the reverse: God's love for us, revealed through Jesus, calls us, even demands us, to do what is good in return.

Yesterday, one of my favorite columnists, Nicholas Kristof, wrote in the Register Guard about the work of Rabbi Arik Ascherman (you can see him there):


In Israel, the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights, and his efforts and that of his organization to protect the rights of Palestinians, for which he has been beaten, arrested, and has received all kinds of death threats. And Kristof describes his work as the clash between the ugly side of Israel with the noble side of Israel. This noble Israel, he writes, "refusing to retreat from its values even in times of fear and stress is a model for the world". Working to rebuild Palestinian homes and re-plant Palestinian orchards, Ascherman says: 'Who is doing more for Israel's physical survival, those who demolish homes and uprooted trees? Or those who rebuild homes and re-plant trees?'

Rabbi Ascherman is living the worthy life.

In his book, "Half the Sky", co-authored with his wife Sheryl WuDunn, Kristof tells another story of an amazing, worthy life, that of of Mukhtar Mai, a Pakistani woman:

The story you may recognize. She was gang-raped in 2002, in her village, by members of a rival tribe, in order to restore honor to that tribe, in response to an unproven accusation of something done by a member of Mukhtar's family. So, no accusation against her, yet she is raped to restore honor to her family. And it is a common practice that poor, rural women such as Mukhtar Mai would commit suicide because of the shame that rape would bring upon her and her family. And thus, you know, it's almost the perfect crime, so to speak.

Instead, Mukhtar chose to speak out against her attackers, filed charges against them, won her case in lower courts (although it's been appealed to the Pakistani Supreme Court) and in the process Mukhtar became an international heroine. When the government paid her over $8,000 in a settlement, she used that money to establish an organization to educate Pakistani women about their rights. And has just recently built a school for rural Pakistani women. Her slogan is to end oppression through education.

She has endured many death threats. Her passport has been confiscated. She has been under house arrest, in order to silence her criticism of the government in the case. At the same time, she has been credited with a significant reduction of such honor crimes, rape, and subsequent suicide among rural Pakistani women.

Now, I cite these two examples because the lectionary (if you were following along, you will note) pairs this reading of the letter to the Colossians with the reading that John read us from Luke, that very familiar story of the good Samaritan. It is as if the lectionary is telling us that that story is the illustration for the worthy life.

A man beaten by robbers, left for dead alongside the road, a clergymen and a religious scholar passing by, but the Samaritan--a person of mixed race, despised by the Judeans, who are the primary audience hearing this story, and surely were shocked by it -- is the one who then takes him in, binds up his wounds, pays for his care.

And so, the illustration of the worthy life, of what it means to do good works, to bear that fruit.

Kristof tells of a modern-day good Samaritan story, only with the roles somewhat reversed. A 13-year-old Palestinian boy was being beaten by Israeli soldiers. Only this time it was a Rabbi. The Rabbi Arik Ascherman, who rushed to his aid and was himself tear-gassed, head-butted, arrested by soldiers. And later the boy recounted in amazement how a tall Jewish stranger rushed to his aid and comforted him, as they were both being arrested, telling him "Do not be afraid, I'm here with you".

You see, pleasing to God is not so much about our religious beliefs as our moral actions. It's not about how right we are, it's about how loving we are. It's not about what we do for ourselves, it's what we do for others. It's not about making our lives just right, it's about making our world rightly just.

As that old hymn I grew up on proclaims, "Living for Jesus a life that is true, trying to please him in all that I do".

You know, we have a reputation in this town. Is it a good one? You be the judge. But I hear, frequently, as I hope you do, from people in our community thanking us for the many things that we do. A reputation of a church that is willing to put itself out there for others. Be it housing the homeless on those cold nights, providing clothing for those in need (now for over 60 years), feeding the hungry in our newest ministry on the last Sunday of the month (our planning retreat set a goal to move that up to twice a month), speaking up for the rights and dignity of the marginalized, honoring and respecting people of different faiths, taking in a homeless charter school for teenagers who don't fit the mold of traditional education this Fall, sometimes just providing a listening ear for those who have nowhere else to turn, through our Good Samaritan ministry. And it's a lot, and so much more.

Sometimes it makes my head spin of all that we are doing. But it is enough? Not by a long shot. Does it make a difference? Absolutely.

Ask any one of those 60-plus folk who spent that night in our basement when those temperatures were in the low 20s, possibly life-saving. Ask any of the families who stay for those three weeks during the interfaith shelter. Ask those teenage students in the network charter school of what it means to them to know that they are going to have a place where they can come to school this fall if no one else will rent to them. Read Mary Robertson's column in our newsletter this month on what means to find such a church that would welcome her and embrace as a lesbian. Ask Mary Ann, who spent eight years living in that trailer behind the church, who is now moved into her own apartment at Olive Plaza, and we stood by her al those 8 years. Praise God.

What we do, especially what we do for others, matters. Indeed, it may be all that matters.

Is God pleased by what we do? When we put our faith into action, Paul says, God is. God is.

May we so live such worthy lives.

 


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