August 4, 2019, Sermon
“Private or Public Sin?”
Old Testament Scripture: Hosea 11:1-11
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.
They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me. The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes. My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all.
How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.
They shall go after the LORD, who roars like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west. They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the LORD.
New Testament Scripture Reading: Colossians 3:1-11
So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.
Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. But now you must get rid of all such things-anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth.
Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!
Sermon: "Private or Public Sin?"
Read Colossians 3:12-16
"As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God."
It struck me, as I was looking back at the last few weeks of our discussion of Colossians, that trying to figure what was going on in that church is like reading a detective novel. We don't have any background on the church. We haven't been given a brochure. There is no website to surf.
We have to reconstruct what's been going in the church at Colossae. We have to follow clues left in Paul's writing, retrace the theological steps of his arguments, put together a picture of the life and worship of this congregation. We depend on Police Detective Paul of Taurus to tell us the who, what, where, when, how, and why of what's going on.
Paul has obviously been alerted to some sort of strange activity going on in the lives of this congregation. Reports of have reached him of behavior ranging from exotic worship practices, to hedonistic and ascetic lifestyles, to a disconnect between faith and practice, all pointing to a sense that salvation depends on the actions or knowledge of believers. He writes to the church knowing that the lives of the members of the congregation are out of control.
But, he doesn't begin by addressing the behavior of the congregation, because he knows that behavior is just the outward expression of what we believe to be true, deep down inside ourselves. Our behavior reflects those things that we believe about ourselves, and what we believe about God.
And so, Paul begins with that. Who are we? Who is God? When can we know that we are accepted by God? How do we worship this God? What are we supposed to do with our lives.
Paul doesn't begin with throwing around commandments, waving the flaming sword of righteousness, telling everyone how they should live their lives. Rather, like a good detective, Paul applies standard police procedure to sort through the Colossians' congregational life.
Today, the case is about to close, and we're about to find out the motive behind their behavior.
Why do they do the things they do? Why do they act the way they do? Why should they act differently?
Our mystery began a few weeks ago, during the first part of Paul's investigation into what is really going on in the church. We watched as he tried to determine 'who' it was that the Colossians really worshiped.
They say that they worship Jesus Christ, but Paul pushes them a little bit. Do they really worship Christ, or do they also worship spirits, philosophy, knowledge, angels, emanations of light? Do they want to add to Christ, to be on the safe side, just to fill in the gaps? Do they take a cafeteria approach, a Golden Corral of spiritual things to worship, stocking up on all kinds of deities and ideas until their plates runneth over?
Or, is Christ enough?
A week later, we watched as Paul moved into stage two of his investigation of the Colossians: "What?" If Christ is the fullness of our worship, what do we need to know to approach him? Secret passwords? Ecstatic visions that no-only else can see? Are there symbols, like in the DaVinci Code, that lead us to God? Are there certain prayers that are more effective than others, certain words that carry spiritual freight, certain claims that will ensure prosperity, holiness?
Or, is Christ enough?
Paul moved on to stage three by questioning them about the 'how' of their worship. Apparently, they had become pretty ritualized, and he wonders if that's really necessary. Do they really need to be circumcised? Do they really need to follow special diets? Do they really need to observe special festivals, or create new ones? Are there habits that will make them more attractive to God? Regular patterns of behavior that will make up for the times they fail?
Or, is Christ enough?
There's a pattern emerging. Paul is systematically addressing the questions that have been plaguing the life of the Colossian congregation, the burning questions of how, and what, and when, and answering them with the word 'who', and that 'who' is Jesus.
It turns out that Jesus really is the answer, on so many levels.
But now, it gets complicated. Because today, we're moving out of the sphere of theology, and into the real world of behavior, of choices, of actions. Decisions about words to say or to swallow, desires to fulfill or resist, impulses to obey or deny.
And, so, to help us out, Paul gives us a list. A list of do's and don'ts. Finally, a hardline accounting of right and wrong. After weeks of theological detective work, we have something to show for it, concrete examples of correct behavior.
And boy, do we appreciate it. It's nice to have something we can hang our hat on. Something memorable. An inventory of vice and virtue, a holy manifest of sin and goodness.
Don't be sexually promiscuous. Don't be greedy. Don't lie. Don't gossip. These things bring the wrath of God.
Do be compassionate. Do be patient. Do forgive. Do love. These things grow out of your new life in Christ.
Ahh. A list of what and what not to do. Finally. Paul is finally living up to his reputation.
But I wonder: why didn't Paul just start with this list? It seems like he took a long time getting here. Why not just write a short letter to the church saying something like, "Listen, you guys are messing up, here's what you're supposed to do, now go do it!"?
Isn't that what we need?
Isn't that what we want?
Obviously, Paul thinks the Colossians need this list, or he wouldn't have written it. And I admit, there are times that I need a simple kick in the pants, a clear-cut description of my mistakes and a no-nonsense path to better behavior. I suppose that most of us appreciate the directness that Paul finally uses to describe our worst and best behavior.
But if Paul wanted to list all the ways we do or don't live out our covenantal relationship with God and with his children, it seems he left out an awful lot. I know that I personally could have gone on and on with the evil he seems to have forgotten. And oh, the stuff I could have written about the things I think other people should do!
I feel cheated.
But, you know what? Paul has more respect for the Colossians than that. He could have listed more sins, but he didn't. He could have listed more virtues, but he didn't. He could have endlessly beaten the Church over the head with right and wrong ways of living. But he didn't.
Because he loves the church. And he knows that love isn't about rules and regulations. It's not about quid-pro-quo relationships. It's about trust, and acceptance, and forgiveness. It’s about community, and living with one another.
Paul is giving the Colossians room to examine their own reasons for doing the things that they do.
Do they make decisions out of fear? Out of apathy? Out of a sense of entitlement?
Or do they make decisions out of grace, compassion, or gratitude?
Do they live well out of sense of earning God’s favor, or do the make right decisions out of a sense of gratitude?
Is their sense of righteousness a personal point of pride, or is it a result of living out their faith with one another?
Paul is giving them room to look inside their heart for their own reasons for living, rather than insisting on a new set of rules for their lives.
And this makes it difficult.
Paul's emphasis on Christ being the alpha and omega of our faith has shifted the agency for our behavior from an outer code of conduct to an inner desire for goodness. For those whose lives have been given to Christ, behavior is not enforced, it's in response. It's not ruled by regulation, it's governed by gratitude.
Paul is calling to the Colossians to give up their idea, their fear of an angry, unapproachable God that can only be placated by knowledge and perfect worship. Paul is calling the Colossians to look for God in the face of Jesus Christ, who comes to us with open arms, in all the messiness of our everyday lives.
This why we worship. This is how we worship. Because, this is who we worship: Jesus Christ.
By whom we are saved.
In whom we are changed.
Through whom we are made one with God.
To whom we sing.
For whom we live our lives in ways that forever express our thanks and praise.
Glory be to God. Amen.