Thanksgiving and Prayer
Colossians 1: 14
The city of Colossae was situated 100 miles east of coastal Ephesus in the middle of an earthquake region. This may explain why it has never been excavated. Maybe it was destroyed at some point. Paul had not visited there on his missionary journeys. He wrote this letter at some point between 60 and 62 AD while he was a prisoner in Rome. He says in verse 4 'we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus'. Do you think that people say that of us? 'I have heard of the Christian congregation Blackburn & Seafield'. I'm not sure that people think that way. They may have their own associations which they value more highly than the local parish Church. They may see these associations as being in some kind of rivalry with, or being at odds with Christianity. Or they may think that it is us who are exclusive, making distinctions between the Church of Jesus and other societies and belongings. We know that some are always saying 'You don't have to go to Church to be a Christian'. It's true that you don't ever need to go to Ibrox to claim that you are a Rangers supporter. But you cannot say that you are a fully committed Rangers supporter unless you attend matches. The evidence is only seen in your visible physical attendance at games. To be a good Christian you have to identify with other Christians. There has to be some evidence of your commitment to Jesus Christ. It would be good if people had a clear impression that they had heard of our faith in Christ Jesus and that that is what we are about. I am not sure we have got there though. I think our worship, our conversation, our body language, our values do not offer a ringing endorsement of Jesus Christ. We give a muted tone, an uncertain sound. In the old Scottish phrase', we are feart'.
Paul says that he has also heard of 'the love you have for all the saints' and that would normally mean that the people in the Church at Colossae made gifts of money to other churches and congregations where there was particular need through suffering or persecution as in the case of Jerusalem itself. The churches of West Lothian are not that good at supporting one another's events and endeavours. When we put on that debate between representatives of Christianity and Islam, hardly anyone from all the other churches came along – even though it was free! We receive all sorts of invitations to things but how many of us take the trouble to go along to other churches? Church of Scotland congregations can be insular and introverted and maybe at times a bit competitive towards one another. Its because of our human nature not being able to rise above ourselves sufficiently in Jesus Christ. We think of Jesus locally, not regionally, nationally or internationally.
Paul understands why the Christians at Colossae have a good reputation. It is because of what he says in verse 5, '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'. This is what distinguishes Christianity from other faiths and philosophies. It is what used to be called mockingly 'pie in the sky when you die'. Muhammad Ali the great boxer succinctly expressed the difference between Christian hope and Muslim aspiration as 'something here on the ground when I'm still around'. In our greedy and materialistic age it is exceptional for human nature to invest anything in what is unseen and yet that is what we do in following and serving Jesus Christ. That is why we sometimes grudge giving our offerings. We find it difficult to and unnatural to part with hard earned money to our invisible Maker. Yet – for the Christian – this is mostly a joyful practice, inspiring, liberating and renewing within because we have the hope, the truth, the Gospel within us convincing and convicting us of the amazing reality of God in our lives.
But it is also about more important things than money. You may have seen on TV news two stories of interest this past week. A pupil, described as a low-achieving cannabis user with a criminal record, was 14 when he stabbed Vincent Uzomah, 50, a black supply teacher, at Dixon Kings Academy in Bradford on 11 June following an argument about an iPhone. The attack was described as racially motivated. The boy is Asian. Vincent Uzomah saw the 14-year-old boy given an extended sentence of 11 years – but the teenager could be released after just three years. The schoolboy had muttered the ‘n’ word before stabbing Mr Uzomah, and garnered 69 likes on his Facebook profile for his “bragging” status update about the incident. Yet outside Bradford Crown Court yesterday, the 50-year-old teacher said: “As a Christian I have forgiven this boy who has inflicted this trauma and pain on me and my family. Our prayer for him is that he will make use of the opportunities and support that will be provided to him to become a changed person who will make a positive contribution to the society.”
The second story is about the conviction of Alexander Pacteau aged 21 for the murder of Karen Buckley a nurse aged 24 in Glasgow on 12 April. It was a brutal killing and Pacteau's attempts to dispose of her body were gruesome. But I noted some words in Karen Buckley's father John Buckley's statement to the press outside the court. “It is every parent’s worst nightmare. There are no words to describe what we went through...Being told Karen was brutally murdered and having to phone our three sons and tell them Karen was dead was one of the hardest things we’ve had to do. What a waste of a young life, it all seemed unreal, we were devastated...All Karen was doing that night was making her way home when she was randomly targeted by and murdered by a cowardly, vicious criminal...He is truly evil and we hope he spends the rest of his life behind bars.” He also said that Karen was now in heaven. The family are Roman Catholic. This crime is much more serious than an attempted murder which was unsuccessful but the murderous intent is not that much different. John Buckley could not find any words of Christian forgiveness for Alexander Pacteau. It is understandable from a human point of view but from Christ's point of view, forgiveness is essential for the Christian. The Christians in Charleston America expressed their forgiveness for Dylan Roof who killed 9 of their family members and friends attending their prayer meeting in Church on June 17. This is the meaning of the hope that Christians have in the love and truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is what Paul is talking about here. Could you do it? Could you forgive such an atrocity against one of your own? Would you be like the the Charleston Christians and Vincent Ozumah or would you be like John Buckley – without forgiveness - expressing no hope of redemption for Pacteau?
Paul goes on in verse 6 'all over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing'. That is still true today. The World Factbook gives the human population as 7,095,217,980 (July 2013 est.) and the distribution of religions as Christian 31.50% (of which Roman Catholic 16.85%, Protestant 6.15%, Orthodox 3.96%, Anglican 1.26%), Muslim 22.74%, Hindu 13.8%, Buddhist 6.77%, Sikh 0.35%, Jewish 0.22%, Baha'i 0.11%, other religions 10.95%. Some forecasts suggest that even in 2050, 35 years away, Christians will still outnumber Muslims. These bare figures do not in any way describe the huge range of activities and interests that these Christian represent or contribute to the world community. How many good deeds do they indicate? Too many to count. I wonder what the gross international product of all Christians in the world is? No-one knows. It fair puts the claims of our politicians in perspective, don't you think? Jesus told his disciples 'You will do greater works than I have done because I am going to the Father'. In their desperate circumstances the disciples neither understood or believed him but his words have come true. Christians will still be doing great things in Scotland in centuries to come.
Epaphras is mentioned in verse 7. It was he who had evangelised Colossae. When Paul was a prisoner in Rome, Epaphras came to him with a favourable account of the Church at Colossae. He remained with Paul in Rome and was, in a sense, his "fellow prisoner" mentioned again in the Letter of Philemon 1:23. he had brought news of the Christians at Colossae to Paul. Epaphras is regarded highly as a man of prayer, diligence and devotion to Christ. Tradition says he became Bishop of Colossae in later years.
Paul writes to the Church at Colossae to encourage them and to let them know he is praying for them and will continue to do so. He asks specifically that God will fill them with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding but this is not an end in itself. Its purpose is so that they may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way. Christianity is not a mystic cult. It is not yoga. It is not meditation. Christianity is relating to the Risen Jesus. He is our focus and our inspiration. Paul says that it is Jesus who provides the spiritual power to overcome trials, problems and struggles. It is Jesus who gives the strength for endurance and the joy and thanksgiving that defies opposition and persecution. With Christianity you do get pie in the sky when you die but you also get the living Lord Jesus Christ here on the ground when you are still around.
Paul concludes the portion of his letter by affirming the Colossian Christians as true inheritors of God's kingdom. For him this was the most amazing thing. He, that strict orthodox Jew, member of the chosen race, initial persecutor of Christians, marvelled at the outgoing providence of God towards all humanity. Those who availed themselves of Jesus Christ were blessed fully and for all time. 'For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins'. This is the pie in the sky – the feast of spiritual food that fills, completes and satisfies given through the incarnation of God in Jesus. To you.