Keeping the Faith
(Colossians 1: 1-14)
I had another one of those conversations last week where partway through our conversation it was volunteered to me that they were religious but did not go to church because of a bad experience many years ago. They told me they were an agnostic. Well, according to Wikipedia, an agnostic is a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena; a person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in God. We talked further, and I don’t belief this person to be an actual agnostic. They just had one of those unfortunate “organized” religion experiences. I’ve come to the realization that you shouldn’t even try to defend what someone did in the name of God that put them off. What has been done has been done. I admitted that many times we can be our own worst enemy and suggested that perhaps we needed a second chance. I then gave my bad hamburger analogy about getting a bad burger over thirty years ago at Jack-In-The-Box. I never went back to Jack-In-The-Box, but the bad experience didn’t stop me from going to other burger joints. You just have to keep the faith that not all burgers are bad, and most are really good if you stick to the basics and not try to get fancy.
Bad burgers are not exactly what the Apostle Paul was writing about in our scripture reading for this morning. But he was talking about sticking to the basics. He wrote this letter sometime around 60 A.D. and probably while he was imprisoned in Rome. Word had gotten back to him that the church had been infiltrated by religious relativism, with some believers attempting to combine elements of paganism and secular philosophy with Christian doctrine. You know, things not Jesus or God approved for dissemination. It was like the simple Gospel of Jesus Christ wasn’t exciting enough. It was too simple, there had to me more to it. Let’s throw in some pagan rituals to spice things up along with a little high-brow philosophy for the deep thinkers keeping it mystical.
So, Paul writes them a letter to keep them focused and on task. He says; In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. In that opening line, he tells them that other believers are keeping them in their prayers and they have gotten good reports back about their faith and the love they have for other Followers of the Way. And he then assures them of their hope of eternal life. He reminds them that they’ve heard of this hope before in the word of truth, the gospel that has come to them. The gospel that they’ve received is all that they need. He tells them that this gospel is bearing fruit and growing in the world just as it has been bearing fruit in them from the day they heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God. Paul is gently reminding them that they are going in the right direction and that all they need to bear fruit is the gospel and not all of this other nonsense. He reminds them that they learned this from Epaphras, a beloved fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on their behalf and that Epaphras has made known to Paul their great love in the Spirit. It’s believed that Epaphras planted the church in Colosse and may have been converted by Paul when he was living in Ephesus. For this reason, Paul says, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so 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. Paul wants them to know that they are praying for them to be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, and not this other nonsense that is being infused to confuse and misinterpret the Word. He reassures them that if they do this they will bear fruit in every good work as they grow in the knowledge of God. He’s telling them that it’s the knowledge of God that counts, it’s the knowledge of God that is most important and that such knowledge comes from the Spirit. He says; May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He’s reminding them that their strength comes from God and with that strength they will be able to endure everything with patience giving joyful thanks to the Father who stands by them in the light. They don’t need all these false rituals and deep philosophical thinking. Keep it simple with the Spirit. He then reminds them that they’ve been rescued from the power of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of Jesus Christ, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
I think I’ve had enough conversations with people who’ve been turned off by organized religion to understand what Paul is trying to do. First, he can see that what these interlopers are tying to do is not spiritually and scripturally correct. They are intentionally adding things to the doctrine of Christ in order to fit their own ideas of religion. They’re tying to make it interesting, catchy, trendy or cool under the guise of being relevant and timely. Everyone has their own story of some authoritative religious figure, whether it be a priest, pastor, elder or a person self-professing superior religious knowledge, who says that if you don’t do this or if you do that, you’ll be banned from the church or, worse yet, go to hell. Some may actually believe what they’re saying and think their intentions are worthy, while others are just attempting to manipulate people for their own selfish purposes or for the good of the order.
Isn’t any wonder that our denomination is dwindling and growing smaller and less relevant. Every year, at Annual Conference, the Pacific Northwest Conference closes several churches due to a lack of interest. Sure, there are some new church plants, but the closures far outpace the start-ups. When I tell people how many people I have on any given Sunday they marvel at how large we are and wonder how we are doing what we do. Everybody laments and wishes for the good old days of the sixties and seventies when churches were full of families with young children. Where are they? Well, those children were us and our kids. It makes you ask the question: Have we lost our faith? As painful as it is to admit, our kids have pretty much stopped attending church regularly, if at all. Did they have some sort of bad experience with organized religion? If they did, think of how I must feel. I was a Sunday School teacher! There’s no one reason why they have no interest in attending. I believe it’s a combination of many reasons, some good and some bad.
So what do we do? If I knew, I’d write a book. But, I think the crux of the issue is that we have to remember that God’s word is not just for our information, it’s for our transformation. We have to show the skeptics that becoming a Christian means beginning a whole new relationship with God, not just turning over a new leaf or determining to do right if given another chance. A chance for a real change for the better. Becoming a Christian is a second chance, a second chance at life. We have to show that new believers have a changed purpose, direction, attitude, and behavior. We have to show them that they are no longer seeking to serve themselves but are bearing fruit for God that will not only make their lives fuller and richer but will make the lives of countless others so much better. And, it’s because we hear at Community United Methodist Church are not focused on serving our own self-interests, we are striving to make the lives of people we don’t even know and may never meet better.
Because of our love for one another, we Christians can have an impact that goes far beyond our neighborhoods and communities. We need to show people that our love is a by-product of our new life in Christ. It is important for us to remember that we have no excuse for not loving, because Christian love is a decision to act in the best interest of others. We have to remember what the Apostle Paul is telling us, keep it simple and don’t clutter up what you’re doing with anything that is not scripturally sound. Simply keep the faith and let your light shine brightly before everyone.
Please pray with me.
Most gracious and loving God keep us focused as a church on the beautiful simplicity of your gospel, the words, actions and teachings of your son, Jesus Christ. Use us to carry your light out into the darkness and to be a beacon of hope for the lost and searching. Employ us in your work to repair the damage done by others who intentionally or unintentionally hurt others in your name. Place us where we need to be so the people who need to know your love and mercy can have a second chance at a life of love and peace. We know there are people who want to know you. Equip us to be the servants who lead the hurting and hopeless back to you. In Jesus’ name, we pray, Amen.