[You can find the slide pack here: 2010-07-18 HTG Colossians 3.12-17 - slides]
Don't take this the wrong way, but why are you here? I don't mean that in a what's-the-meaning-of-life-and-the-universe sort of way. I mean, why did you come here tonight? When you walked through the doors at about 6.15, what were you hoping to achieve or experience with the next couple of hours?
We're finishing off Paul's letter to the Colossians this summer but in case you weren't here last summer and the summer before that, here's a recap.
Chapter 1: Christ reigns supreme. His death and resurrection are all we need for salvation.
Chapter 2: Therefore, set your hope in Christ alone, not in man-made regulations or super-spiritual experiences.
Chapter 3: Since you are raised with Christ, live to please him, not your sinful nature.
In tonight's passage Paul gets on to talking about church. What are we aiming for when we meet? And more to the point, what is God aiming for when we meet? So under the title of God's Chosen People, I want to look at three ideas, and the first, perhaps unsurprisingly, is this:
God chooses us to be his people
This is most obvious in verse 12 where Paul calls the Colossians God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved. We also get hints of it in verse 13 which says they're forgiven and in verse 15 which says they are members of one body, called to peace.
But verse 12 is the key, and it's a description with history behind it. Firstly, it echoes the description given to the people of Israel after God had brought them out of slavery in Egypt. We read that in Deuteronomy 7 earlier tonight:
v6 you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.
Verse 12 also echoes descriptions of Jesus himself, who is called the Chosen One (Luke 23), Holy One (Mark 1 and Luke 4) and My Son whom I love (Matthew 3). Paul has chosen this phrase very much on purpose and it's the weight behind it that helps indicate just how huge an effect God's saving grace has on us.
Previously our identity was tied up with who we are in worldly terms. V11: Greek, Jew, circumcised, uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free – lots of different identities, identities that caused us to clash with or disassociate from one another as fallen human beings. But now that we have been raised with Christ our whole identity is no longer of this world, but now it is of Christ. V11 again: Christ is all and is in all. Like Israel, we have been chosen out of every conceivable human grouping and made citizens of the heavenly kingdom and given a new allegiance to its King, Jesus Christ.
It's important to understand this before we go on. We're delighted that we often have people in our services who aren't yet Christians, and trust that if that's you, you're feeling welcomed. However this passage doesn't apply directly to you. These verses aren't a moral guide to a better society without God. They are God's commands to God's people to show us how we are to live to please him. Hopefully this will be an interesting window for you onto God's purposes for church.
Many of us here tonight are Christians, and we need to be reminded that we are all chosen by God. We are holy, that is, blameless in God's sight because Jesus has paid for our sin. We are dearly loved, not because we are lovely, but despite our unloveliness. As Paul puts it in Romans 5.8:
God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
My wife, Steph, has a cousin who works as a footman at Buckingham Palace. Now, to be chosen as a footman to the Royal Family (which is a kind of junior butler), applicants go through a rigorous selection and security vetting procedure, until the most suitable candidate is chosen for employment. Once employed, a high standard of performance will be required for the footman to keep the job – it is the Queen he is serving after all. But it's not like that with God. He doesn't choose us according to our merit at all. When Christ died for us, we were still God's enemies. God is King, we should have been his loyal subjects but were instead his enemies, but he gave his own Son to take the punishment for our rebellion, even before we were sorry for it. It's like the Queen selecting some militant republicans, pardoning them and inviting them to live in the palace as princes, then lovingly and patiently instructing them how to live to please her. It's humanly inconceivable.
Nonetheless, it's important to grasp this before we go on. We're going to hear tough challenges tonight about how we relate to one another as God's people. It helps a great deal to remember that our brothers and sisters in Christ in the humble, ordinary local congregation are people chosen by God. In fact it's right here in the humble, ordinary, imperfect local congregation that God is cultivating a community of people whose identity is in Christ and who are to live for Christ at all times.
So what will that look like?
God commands us live like Christ
12 Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
Don't these verses remind you of Jesus? Compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, patient, forgiving? This is the challenge. Our identity is now in Christ so we are commanded to become like him. We're to put on these qualities of Christ as if they were a new outfit, replacing the rags of verses 5 and 8. Someone has noticed that these identifying qualities seem to come in pairs – first an attitude and then an action.
So the first attitude: compassion. Don't be indifferent toward those who need help. Notice them and feel their hardship. The action? Kindness. Put yourself out for those in need and help them, not because you will get something out of it but because you care and because you are a servant of Jesus.
Next attitude: humility. Don't always seek your interests first. Remember you are one member of the body of Christ. And the action: Gentleness. Don't push yourself forward but be happy to take your place in the body. Be happy for others to take their place in the body too. You aren't the centre – Jesus is.
Next attitude: patience. Be graciously accepting of one another's faults, even when someone is desperately slow to change. How do we act patiently? Bear with one another. There will be grievances between us because that's what happens when sinful people come into contact with one another. But remember that Jesus is so very patient with us, even though we are desperately slow to change.
And love. Not an afterthought but the quality out of which all these others flow. Without love we would be selfish, not compassionate; proud, not humble; begrudging, not patient. These six qualities all come from a Christ-like love, and he loved us not because we are lovely, but despite our unloveliness. Jesus told his followers in John 13
34 Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.
We are commanded to live – and to love – like Christ.
Imagine those pardoned rebels now living as princes in the royal household. Imagine that even though they all claim to be reconciled to the Queen, they constantly fight with or shun one another. It wouldn't be right. Likewise, God isn't gathering a people for himself made up of individuals who keep on fighting one another or ignoring one another. He dealt with our sin so that our relationship with him might be restored and so that our relationships with one another might be renewed. Put another way, we have been adopted by a heavenly Father, and we are expected to develop a family resemblance and live at peace with our brothers and sisters.
I haven't explicitly said it yet, but these qualities are all relational. There isn't one that I can do on my own. Some people treat church services like the cinema. They come alone or in twos or threes, sit in isolation, watch the show and go home. If they don't come at all, well the show goes on without them. But church isn't like the cinema – it's about relationships. So come regularly, come early and stay late. Get to know each other and grow to love one another even though it's difficult. On those wet Wednesday nights in winter, let's not stay home for Eastenders or even for Champions League football, let's go to home group and encourage everyone there, even that annoying person who's always interrupting.
Let's not give up lightly on our local church family either. Being part of a local church, loving one another in these difficult and involved ways is hard, but this is how God is growing our understanding for the love he has shown us in Jesus. If loving each other was easy, what would that teach us about God's love for us? This is how God is shaping us into people who not only have a new identity in Christ, but who grow more like him.
So how do we become more like Christ?
God shows us how to do it
15Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 16Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. 17And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
I said earlier that this passage isn't a moral guide to a better society without God, and we see that again here. Not only are these verses meant for those whose identity is now in Christ, it is through him that we develop compassion, kindness and the rest.
Verse 15. We are commanded to let the peace of Christ rule. When every person wants to be god of his or her own life, that inevitably leads to relationship battles in which there are winners and losers. But as God's people, we are to let God be God and live at peace with each other. I wonder if you would describe HTG as peaceful. Would you describe your small group as peaceful? Not peace-and-quiet peaceful, not inner-contentment peaceful but war-and-peace peaceful. When I rub you up the wrong way, how can you let the peace of Christ rule? You will have to be humble and patient and quick to remember the cost of peace to Jesus.
Verse 16. We are commanded to let the word of Christ dwell richly in us. Well, we shape our services around preaching God's word, and we meet in small groups through the week to study it together. So I guess we've got that covered. But does that equate to dwelling richly in us? Does the word of God saturate the way we relate to one another? Verse 16 is slightly better translated 16Letthe word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom,singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,with thankfulness in your hearts to God. In other words the rich indwelling of the word of Christ happens in three ways: teaching, admonishing, singing. Teaching is saying what is true. Admonishing is correcting what is false. So this definitely includes sermons and midweek studies but there's room for so much more. How about arriving 10 minutes before the service, taking a service sheet and quietly reading through the song lyrics and the Bible readings in preparation? In a few minutes there's a question and answer session on this passage. Mildly terrifying from up here but it's the church grappling with the word together. In our conversations after the service, as well as getting to know one another, are we going to talk about how scripture applies in the detail of our daily lives, what difference it should make to our time, money, parenting, work, relationships? How should I readjust my priorities to shift the focus of everything I do to be for the King who will one day return in glory and judgment. Could there be anything more important to talk about? As Paul puts it in ch 1v28 We proclaim [Christ], admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect [or mature] in [him].
And what about singing. 16Letthe word of Christ dwell in you richly […]singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs... Part of that word ministry we all have to one another is singing. I wonder how well you think we're doing in this ministry area. I wonder if we even think of singing as ministry to one another. Do you realise that at every service you spend ten to fifteen minutes in direct word ministry to everyone else in the room. There is much the musicians can do in practical terms to make that ministry easier for us but it is down to each of us to read what we're singing and make the most of it. Moving on…
Verse 17. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. We are to let the peace of Christ rule in our relationships with each other. We are to let the word of Christ saturate our meetings and our conversations. And we are to do all things in the name of the Lord Jesus. What difference will it make to my behaviour towards you if I keep Jesus' reputation in mind at all times?
And did you notice the thread of thankfulness through v15, 16 and 17? What is thankfulness? Thankfulness is a response to what someone has done for me or what someone means to me. Gospel thankfulness comes from thinking about Jesus' death in our place and his work in us. If I'm struggling to have the humility and patience to bear with someone who is desperately slow to change, I need to be thankful for the humiliation of the cross. God made me, I rejected him and he sacrificed his son to offer me peace with him. I need to be thankful for God's patience, forgiving me time and again for the same failings.
You may have seen this illustration of what is going on when Christians meet together:
[see slide pack]
Vaughan Roberts describes it like this: The ministry of God's word to us is primary, for it equips all church members to engage in ministry to one another by the exercise of spiritual gifts. As we grow together in the knowledge and love of God through Christ that, in turn, will lead to praise and prayer.
Our passage tonight looks more like this:
[see slide pack]
God's word works in us as his Spirit gives understanding and prompts obedience. God's word saturates our relationships as we teach, admonish and sing. Growing appreciation of God's love for us produces thanksgiving and gratitude, not to mention love for one another.
I want to finish by focussing in a little more closely on the concept of God's word saturating the way we relate to one another. What can we actually do to be more obedient to v16? Here are some ideas that I've borrowed from The Trellis and The Vine by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne.
They suggest three spheres of life: at home, at church and in the wider community. And they suggest three sizes of groups of people in each context: one-to-one, small groups and large groups. How can God's word dwell richly here? Home Church Community One-to-one Bible reading with spouseBringing the bible to bear in daily conversations Basic bible studies with a new ChristianDiscussing the sermon over coffee after the service Inviting someone to next week's invitation serviceReading the bible with a non-christian colleague at work one lunchtime each week Small groups Family bible reading & prayer Small group bible studiesTeaching Sunday school Conversations at work when asked about your weekendChristianity Explored etc Large groups Sharing a bible verse & praying at family gatherings Bible readings in servicesSinging Giving a talk or testimony at a guest event It's far from an exhaustive list, but it'd be great to aim to develop these sorts of habits. It would be like a bible-reading movement, in families, churches, neighbourhoods and workplaces – Christians bringing the bible to bear in all spheres of our lives and God's Spirit moulding us to be more like Christ and convicting others of their need for him. Christians at peace with one another, working in loving unity, motivated by deep gratitude to God for new life in Christ.