Over the past couple of months the Sunday evening congregation here have been looking at Paul’s letter to the Colossians, and if you’ve been coming along regularly I hope you have been both excited and challenged by what you have heard. Because the book of Colossians is one that is designed specifically to stretch and expand our vision of what the Christian faith is all about. I guess if you went out and asked your fellow students or neighbours or colleagues who Jesus is, they might talk about Him as a good man, or a teacher, or even some kind of Saviour. And when you mentioned to them the word “church” they would perhaps get as far as talking about a group of people who met once a week to worship Jesus, but they would have no understanding that Jesus could be in any way relevant to their lives, or that what happened in church bore any relation to 21st century living 24-7. We live, it seems to me, in an age where most people have a small view of Jesus, and a limited understanding of what church is all about.
That’s why Paul’s letter to the Colossians is so important to us today. He begins in chapter 1, verses 15-20, by setting out the big picture about Jesus, by making the claim that He is before all things and above all things, and that the purpose of His death on the cross is to reconcile all things to Himself. Paul is uncompromising in his assertion that Jesus is Lord over all. He is not just a good teacher who lived 2000 years ago, or even someone who lives today as the Saviour for some people. He is the firstborn over everything, both seen and unseen, and unless you grasp this fact you will not gain a true understanding of who Jesus is or the reason for His death and resurrection.
But Paul isn’t interested in making theoretical statements about Jesus or providing interesting arguments for New Testament scholars to write vast commentaries about. He wants to show how this big view of Jesus has a direct and practical impact on the life of the church. And so in chapter 1, 15-20, which are really the key to the whole book, he not only talks generally about Jesus being the firstborn over all things, but more specifically about Jesus being the head of His body, the church. Now if we’ve been brought up in church, I expect many of us are familiar with the idea that we are the body of Christ. It’s one of those good churchy expressions that we use many times, especially in our Communion Services. Normally we use it as an excuse to start that free for all and scrum us Anglicans call the peace.
But Paul wants us to see that the image of the church as the body of Christ is far more important than that. Because if we are the body of Christ, then firstly, we need to look to Jesus and His word for wisdom and understanding. That’s the point Paul makes in chapter 2 as he warns the Colossians against false teaching. But not only that, if we are the body of Christ who has died and risen for us, then we are called to share in His resurrection life. As Paul spells out in chapter 3 this has direct consequences for the way we relate to one another in the church, in our marriages, in our families, and in our work. Paul’s challenge in chapter 3:1-2 could hardly be clearer: Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. And if you haven’t done so already, maybe it would be good for you some time to sit down and reflect how the fact Jesus died and rose again for you impacts on your relationships and what evidence there is you follow the risen Christ.
And so today we come to chapter 4. At first glance it looks like we are dealing with a set of random instructions and a rather unpromising list of names, but actually I believe that if we probe a little deeper, we will find there are some important lessons here about how as a church we should live out our calling as the body of Christ.
The first and most obvious lesson is the priority of prayer. Paul writes plainly in verse 2: Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And of course prayer needs to be right at the heart of the church’s life. For if Jesus is the head, and we are His body, then prayer is the natural means of communication between the two. Prayer, if you like, is the central nervous system of the church. It’s how we communicate to Jesus our joys, our sorrows, our requests, our petitions. But just as importantly, it’s how we also receive instructions from Jesus about what we should do, where we should go, how we should respond to the riches of His grace. And so it’s not too surprising that Paul tells us to devote ourselves to prayer. Prayer should be a priority on which we spend effort and energy and time. For when the prayer life of a church is weak, it’s then that we start to lose touch with Jesus’ specific plans and intentions for us, it’s then we start to drift away from the gospel of God’s wonderful, saving grace. Sad to say, there are too many examples to mention of churches where exactly this has happened.
But what kind of prayer is Paul talking about here? After all, every church, at least in theory, believes in the importance of prayer. But the type of prayer each individual church offers may be very different. There are for example some churches where the prayer meeting seems to be the spiritual equivalent of walking into a doctor’s waiting room and the sole focus of the prayers is the aches and pains of those present. When there is talk of bearing your cross, it’s more about living with your arthritis or your dodgy knee than anything else. Is that the kind of prayer Paul is talking about here? Or again there are other churches where prayer seems to be intensely mystical, and focused on the contemplation of divine mysteries. Prayer is seen not so much as simple communication with God, but a profoundly difficult spiritual exercise only to be practised by those who have the knowledge and the wisdom. Is that the kind of prayer Paul is talking about here?
Well, to answer this question, it’s worth asking what Paul was thankful for when he prayed. And the answer takes us right back to the beginning of the book to chapter 1 and verse 3 onwards: We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints - the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard about in the word of truth, the gospel that has come to you. In other words Paul’s focus was on the grace of God, and the evidence of faith, hope and love in the lives of others. And this is what Paul means when he talks here about devoting yourselves in prayer. Of course it’s right to pray for the healing of physical ailments, and to recognise the mystery involved in prayer, but our focus in prayer should surely be on the gospel of Jesus Christ and the power of His salvation.
And that explains the link between verse 2 and the following verses. Despite the NIV heading, this paragraph is not a set of random instructions. Paul’s desire for the Colossian church is that they look outwards when they pray, and that they concentrate on the spread of the good news of Jesus Christ. And that should mean two things. Firstly in verses 3 and 4, when they pray for Paul who, - let’s not forget - is sitting in a Roman prison, their first concern should not be for his well-being and safety, but that even in spite of his perilous circumstances he might proclaim the mystery of Christ (verse 3) and proclaim it clearly (verse 4). And secondly in verses 5 and 6, when they think about life beyond their fellowship meetings, and their informal evening services, they should pray for wisdom so that they make the most of every opportunity (verse 5) and that their conversation should be seasoned with salt (verse 6) so that you may know how to answer everyone.
And of course Paul’s words aren’t just directed at the Colossians. Through the work of the Holy Spirit they are also directed at us. So let me ask, is this how you pray? When you pray for fellow believers across the world, what is your greatest desire for them? And when you pray about the coming working week, what is your deepest prayer? “Oh Lord, please bless missionaries everywhere and help me to do well in my exams. Amen”. Well, I’m sure that God honours such prayers, and if we are new to the Christian faith, that kind of prayer is absolutely fine. But if we are serious about growing in our faith, serious about living with Jesus as our head, then I suggest we need rather more of a gospel focus than that.
However having said all that, I think it is important we are clear what Paul does and does not tell the Colossians to do. Paul is not asking that they all suddenly discover the gift of evangelism, or that they fulfil a certain quota of conversions each week. Instead he says in verse 6: Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. And this takes us right back to Paul’s instructions about Christian living in chapter 3. Paul’s vision is that by the grace of God our relationships are so transformed that others start asking questions. Why is this group of people so caring and compassionate towards each other? What makes them give up their time to do street pastors or the soup run? How do they seem to be able to keep going even when they’re having a rough time? Our task, in other words, is not so much pushing the gospel onto reluctant listeners, but providing the gospel when those around us are curious. And not, if you’re anything like me, thinking of the right thing to say, fifteen minutes later, when the opportunity has passed.
So Paul stresses the priority of prayer. Secondly, and perhaps more indirectly, he stresses the importance of people.
Now I don’t know if you have one of those Bibles which have an atlas at the back showing the various missionary journeys of Paul across the Roman Empire. They’re a very useful visual aid, and they certainly help us work out the geography of the time, but they can give the impression Paul rode into town, preached the gospel and then moseyed off into the sunset, having planted yet another church. Actually, Paul’s approach was far more pastoral and people-centred than is often realised. As far as circumstances allowed, he spent time pastoring the new believers, and rooting them firmly in the Christian faith. He identified key leaders who could carry on the gospel work after he left, and he trained evangelists such as Epaphras who could take the gospel into new areas and plant churches by themselves. Paul after all knew that the best argument for the truth of the gospel he was proclaiming was not this or that mission strategy, or that particular expression of church, or even the number of conversions. The best evidence was the lives of individuals who had accepted Jesus as their Lord and Saviour and been transformed by His grace.
And this leads me on to this list of names in verses 7-18. At first glance they seem rather dry and uninspiring, and I am sure it’s not the passage most readers in church would choose as their favourite. But when you look at it closely, you begin to see just how much the grace of God impacted on the lives Paul mentions here.
There is, for example, in verse 9, mention of a certain individual called Onesimus. The last time the church at Colossae had heard of him he was a good-for-nothing run-away slave who had formerly been in the service of Philemon. You can only imagine the shock when verse 9 was read out and folk heard Paul describing him as our faithful and dear brother. How on earth did Paul know about Onesimus? How exactly had Onesimus come to faith? Could he really be a changed person who knew and loved the Lord? Well, the letter Paul wrote to Philemon which almost certainly was sent alongside this letter to the Colossians would give the answers. But I am sure that when the initial shock died down, the congregation would have rejoiced that the body of Christ had one new member who had come to share in the resurrection life of Christ.
And the grace of God can be seen in this list in other ways. For example in verses 10-11 Paul mentions a number of people who are his fellow Jews. We tend to take for granted the fact that the early church was made up of both Jews and Gentiles, but in the first century this was a major and dramatic cultural shift that pointed to the mighty power of God overcoming human division. But then again, one of the supreme witnesses to the truth of the gospel message is the way folk who appear to have very little in common become united in love and fellowship by the good news of Jesus’ salvation. To put it perhaps more negatively, we cannot talk of being fully reconciled to God if we are not reconciled to our brother or sister in Christ, whatever their ethnic, religious or social background. The point Paul makes all throughout his letters is that a church which is divided on such lines can never truly be the body of Christ. As he writes earlier on in chapter 2, verse 2: My purpose (that is, the reason for his efforts on the Colossians’ behalf) is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ. Unity, in other words, is not an optional extra for keen Christians or for certain groups in the church. It is the key to fully apprehending the grace of God.
Now there’s more, much more, I could say about this list, but I must press on. Because I cannot finish looking at this passage without mention of Paul’s chains in verses 3 and 18. Why does Paul say remember my chains in verse 18? Well, as we have seen, Paul certainly wants the Colossians to pray for him. He wants to know their love and support as he deals with the harsh reality of imprisonment. But this doesn’t mean that he wants to be pitied, or even that he wants the Colossian church to pray for his release. As we also saw in verse 3, Paul’s concern is rather that he might use his present circumstances to proclaim the mystery of Christ. So when Paul says remember my chains I think rather he is challenging the Colossians about their willingness to persevere. As we know elsewhere Paul encouraged the churches he founded to follow his example, and I suggest he is doing the same here. After all, his overall concern for the church is as he says in 2:6 and 7: just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. Even when you are under attack from false teachers. Even when you are persecuted and vilified by outsiders. Even when like Paul you end up in chains.
And we know of at least one individual in Colossae who maybe was in danger of not completing the task God had given him. I am referring here to Archippus in verse 17. We don’t know much about Archippus other than the fact Paul refers to him as our fellow-soldier in Philemon 3, and we don’t know what work he had been commissioned to do. But I find it at least suggestive that Paul knew Archippus wasn’t going to be present when his letter arrived in Colossae. Where was Archippus? We simply don’t know. But it reminds us that when individuals become separate from the body of Christ, it’s then that sometimes they lose their willingness to persevere, their willingness to keep going in their faith.
And we need to recognise that one of the big enemies of our faith is not something large and dramatic like persecution or imprisonment, but quite simply drift. In my experience very few Christians wake up one day and suddenly stop believing in the good news of Jesus Christ. But what happens is that one Sunday they skip their church meeting. A few weeks later, they skip another one. And gradually they slide away from the fellowship, and lose their willingness to persevere in the Christian faith. I wonder, could this be true of anyone here this evening?
Well, I’ve covered a lot of ground so far, so let’s recap briefly where we’ve got to. I began by talking about Jesus being the firstborn over everything and the head over the church. And if Jesus is the head, then we are called to be His body, living humble, obediently and wisely in dependence on Him. What does this mean in practice?
First of all, we are to be devoted in prayer. We need to constantly watch and give thanks for the signs of God’s grace in the faithful witness of others and ourselves in our daily lives. We need to pray that our relationships point to the good news of Jesus Christ in such a way that others ask questions of us and we are able to answer.
Secondly, we need to remember the importance of people. Our focus should be above all on changed lives, and the gospel which reconciles men and women to Jesus Christ and to each other. Nothing else we do in church should deflect from this absolutely top priority.
And thirdly, we are called to persevere, by remaining within the body of Christ and being willing to complete the work God gives us.
So what does that mean for each one of us, and for the life of the church?
Let’s be still for a moment, and then I’ll pray…