Christ Is At The Centre Of Life
Colossians 1 : 15 – 23
Just over a year ago there was a controversy in The Herald newspaper about someone called Jack Spong. John Shelby "Jack" Spong, an American was born June 16, 1931 and is a retired bishop of the Episcopal Church. From 1979 to 2000 he was Bishop of Newark, New Jersey. His name is interesting. According to one dictionary a spong is a word for someone, especially someone playing a sport, who messes up and then blames something, someone else, or a supposed injury. A spong was also a narrow strip of land. Jack Spong is a liberal theologian, religious commentator and author. He calls for a fundamental rethinking of Christian belief. He had been invited to speak at Cairns Church of Scotland in Milngavie. Some people raised objections to him being there and it is not hard to understand why. Here is an outline of his thinking. He wants a new Reformation. His "Twelve Points for Reform" are found in his book “A New Christianity for a New World”:
1. God, is dead. So most theological God-talk is today meaningless. A new way to speak of God must be found.
2. It is nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of God. The idea is bankrupt.
3. The Genesis story is nonsense.
4. The virgin birth is impossible.
5. The miracle stories make no sense in today's scientifically aware world.
6. The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed.
7. Jesus' resurrection cannot be a physical resuscitation occurring inside human history.
8. The story of the Ascension makes no sense today.
9. The Bible has no authority for all time.
10. Prayer cannot be a request made to God to act in human history in a particular way.
11. The hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behaviour control mentality of reward and punishment. The Church must abandon, therefore, its reliance on guilt as a motivator of behaviour.
12. All human beings bear God's image and must be respected for what each person is. Therefore, no external description of one's being, whether based on race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, can properly be used as the basis for either rejection or discrimination.
The Minister of Cairns Church Andrew Frater wrote to The Herald to defend inviting Jack Spong to speak. I and others wrote in reply. He is my short letter which The Herald published. “The flaw in Rev Andrew Frater's reduction of New Testament record to metaphor is that it replaces Jesus Christ with human intelligence thereby reducing access to God only to clever well educated people. This forms the basis of a cult distinctive from living knowledge of and faith in Jesus Christ which is available universally to the humble hearted”.
I mention all this because in Colossians Paul was dealing with the same kind of thing. People wanted to reinvent Christianity to suit the culture of the time and place. You might say that the prevailing cultural standard today is agnosticism or secularism. So you can re-write Christianity to suit. That's what Spong does. You are left with humanism. God, the supernatural-spiritual, the life of Jesus as recorded, the history of the Church hitherto must all be rejected. So in the passage which we heard read earlier, Paul affirms the central living truths of Christianity in the face of alternative world views which prevailed at the time. These were not agnostic or secular like ours. They were a bit like Scientology. Through techniques you could elevate yourself into higher realms of understanding. You needed to do this because human life is grim and you need a way out. The world is grim, earth is grim, the human body is grim. It wasn't just grim up north. It was all grim. God could never have become incarnate. No God would never visit our human condition, etc., etc.
That is why Paul says “He is the image of the invisible God”. Paul develops what became the standard thinking of the Church over the centuries. Jesus was not just a man, he was not just one of the many divinities Greeks believed in (such as they have also in Hinduism for example). Jesus was and is part of God himself from before time, there at creation itself, continuing as guarantor of the universe as we know it. What Paul was doing was to take the Incarnation and explain its consequences for the views that people had in Colossae and throughout the Greek-speaking world. Unlike Jack Spong, Paul did not jettison the Incarnation to salvage something of Jesus for that culture, he thoughtfully interpreted the Incarnation in ways that answered the views that people held.
Paul went on to connect this same Jesus as Lord of the Church on the basis of His resurrection, the first and only one to be resurrected. For Paul Christianity is not a religion at all. It is an aspect of creation as fundamental as living and breathing and consciousness. Creation and resurrection are together as facts of existence. Resurrection gives the full meaning of the purpose of creation, of our life. Reconciliation and peace were made possible by the historical fact of Jesus' crucifixion and the actual shedding of his blood and his dying. This is not theology or philosophy. This is flesh and blood connecting our flesh and blood with eternal life and living. Because it is our dying that happens. As it will be our resurrection in Christ. But for Paul and for Christianity human life is worth the saving and redeeming here on earth in the days given to us. Human existence is good, it is beautiful, it is worthy dying for. The opposite of what Greek religion taught.
Paul does not hold back on criticism of human wrong-doing. He calls it evil. It was interesting to hear Andrew McLellan use that same word to describe the abuse of children in the Roman Catholic Church – not the abuse only – but the culture of denial and protectionism which has been endemic for decades. Not much these days is described as evil. Certainly the tabloid newspapers will use the term for a murderer or child abuser but the common life and living of today is not usually described as evil. That's because is is the sea in which we all swim. It's so familiar. Pervasive. Part and parcel. It's subtle too. Insinuating. Gradualist. But it hooks us all. We are all bemused, taken in, confused, hypnotised, overtaken. Our national life is polluted with false values, false gods, false worship, false allegiance. The Churches try to point a way out of the morass but are themselves culture bound and compromised. We do however have Jesus Christ to look to. He is the gold standard. The highest and best. Islam cannot get any better because when it goes back to its origins, they are not that exemplary. They are worse than the best we can aspire to. Jack Spong has missed the whole point of the life of Jesus, simply put, that Jesus Himself believed in God and prayed to him morning noon and night.
By what power is a human being made good? Liberated from sin? Freed from guilt? Enabled to be like Christ? Only by the power of Christ. That is Paul's message of encouragement. Paul tells the Colossians that they are holy, without blemish and free from accusation. Martin Luther grasped this understanding. 'God looks at me', he said, 'with Jesus Christ within me. That is why I am saved'. This is what Paul meant when he said 'I am a new creation'. As Dave Bilbrough's song says: “I am a new creation, no more in condemnation, here in the grace of God I stand. My heart is overflowing, my love just keeps on growing, here in the grace of God I stand. And I will praise You, Lord, yes I will praise You, Lord, and I will sing of all that You have done. A joy that knows no limit, a lightness in my spirit”.
'If', says Paul. 'If'. If you continue in your faith. We are not automatons. We are not granted immunity without a condition. We cannot accept the forgiving love of God and think that it makes no difference to the way we live. We must live out and exercise our saving faith. In all that we are and say and do we must hold on to that precious truth that Jesus Christ lives within us. He is no kill joy, no mealy-mouthed hypocrite. He is the Lord of life, of abundant life, of eternal life. He is the Lord of resurrection, the Giver of the Holy Spirit. We are to be established in Him. We are not be driven one way and the next. We are to have the constant hope of the Christian Gospel as our inspiration day and night. Jack Spong is wrong. We are called to be good because God is good. If there is any good news in the world it is that God is good. God need not have been good but in Jesus Christ we are shown just how good God is.
So Paul tells the Colossian Christians. And so he tells us today. The universal Good News of God's love, which we can know and apprehend and understand. Because it is personal. Because it is in Jesus, the person of God incarnate. The Bread of Life, the Light of the world, the Good Shepherd, the Lamb of God who actually does take away the sin of the world. He takes your sins away. He takes my sins away. It works. Christianity is true. Jesus Christ is true. Effective. Powerful. Unchanging. Consistent. Lasting. Eternal.