Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Twelfth Sunday of Ordinary Time.
Lord, you were favorable to your land; you restored the fortunes of Jacob.
You forgave the iniquity of your people; you pardoned all their sin.
You withdrew all your wrath; you turned from your hot anger.
Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us.
Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger to all generations?
Will you not revive us again, so that your people may rejoice in you?
Show us your steadfast love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation.
Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.
Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.
Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.
The Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps.
Before our New Testament scripture, a bit of recap. For the last few weeks, we’ve been working our way through Paul’s letter to the church at Colossae. Two weeks ago, we read the first piece of the letter, where Paul introduces himself and explains his love for the people of Colossae, and that he has heard their faith is strong and growing all the time. Last week we read the beautiful Colossians Christ hymn that Paul included in the letter, which affirms that Christ is before all and through all and in all, that Christ is above anything else we can see or find or imagine. We talked about how easily we get distracted from Christ, how easily we forget Christ’s centrality in our lives. We looked at the story of Mary and Martha, who model how to learn to keep focus on Christ. This week, though, we get to the crux of Paul’s letter, to the reason he is writing in the first place. I’ll be reading from the Common English Bible translation. Listen for the word of the Lord.
So live in Christ Jesus the Lord in the same way as you received him. Be rooted and built up in him, be established in faith, and overflow with thanksgiving just as you were taught. 8 See to it that nobody enslaves you with philosophy and foolish deception, which conform to human traditions and the way the world thinks and acts rather than Christ. All the fullness of deity lives in Christ’s body. And you have been filled by him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. You were also circumcised by him. This wasn’t performed by human hands—the whole body was removed through this circumcision by Christ. You were buried with him through baptism and raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. When you were dead because of the things you had done wrong and because your body wasn’t circumcised, God made you alive with Christ and forgave all the things you had done wrong. He destroyed the record of the debt we owed, with its requirements that worked against us. He canceled it by nailing it to the cross. When he disarmed the rulers and authorities, he exposed them to public disgrace by leading them in a triumphal parade.
So don’t let anyone judge you about eating or drinking or about a festival, a new moon observance, or sabbaths. These religious practices are only a shadow of what was coming—the body that cast the shadow is Christ. Don’t let anyone who wants to practice harsh self-denial and worship angels rob you of the prize. They go into detail about what they have seen in visions and have become unjustifiably arrogant by their selfish way of thinking. They don’t stay connected to the head. The head nourishes and supports the whole body through the joints and ligaments, so the body grows with a growth that is from God.
So here we are, at last. Now we know why Paul has taken the time and trouble (and cost) of writing to the church at Colossae. He is worried.
Apparently, Paul has heard a rumor—how true the rumor really was is impossible to tell, but it was enough to trouble Paul. Paul has heard a rumor that the people of Colossae are getting distracted from Christ, and not just by all the regular hustle and bustle of life, but by folks offering alternative ways to be religious. The church at Colossae have learned about Christ, from people like Epaphras, a leader among them, learned how Christ died on the cross and rose again after three days, reconciling all people. They have learned the miracle of forgiveness. They have learned the mystery of God’s love.
But, apparently, that was all so last year.
The Colossians want more. Christ is not enough for them. Love is not enough. Forgiveness is not enough. Life and death and life again is not enough. They want more. Something flashier. Something cooler.
And in come the marketers of religion, each with that “something more” the people have been wanting. I can imagine them making their sales pitches:
“You already know Christ, but wait—there’s more! We’ve got philosophies! Cosmic powers! Forces of good and evil! Angels! Deities! Minor deities! Why stop with just one god when you can have the whole set?”
Or perhaps another:
“Tired of the same old, same old, just praying to Christ? Spice up your devotional life with festivals, new moons, special diets! Guaranteed to catapult you straight into heaven!”
Or a third:
“Ever wish scripture was a little more elaborate? Throw out that dusty old book and call your local vision-seer! He’ll tell you all the things Jesus told him and not you, only 99 cents per minute.”
Ok, I’m being a little factitious. There’s no reason to think the folks who advocated for these different religious practices were being anything but sincere, and faithful to their own understandings. But for the church at Colossae, they represented a huge temptation, a temptation the church has always wrestled with: shortcuts to faith.
Humans love shortcuts. And our desire to get more accomplished with less effort has led to all sorts of developments that I would never look down on, like pretty much all the technology we have. But anyone who’s ever ended up lost on a dark road at night because they were trying to find a shorter way home will tell you that shortcuts can get you into trouble. Actually, come to think of it, Eve could have told you that—Eve who chose to get knowledge from a piece of fruit, rather than living and learning and listening to God.
Pastors have long known that their congregations (and they themselves, if they’re honest) are going to look for shortcuts in faith. And in every age there have been folks ready to offer magical strategies for gaining heaven. Unfortunately, some pastors have tried to fight off these magical salesmen with some shortcuts of their own—pray hard enough and you’ll be miraculously healed! Give your money to the church and you’ll become a billionaire! Follow these ten tips and watch your numbers grow!
Paul is wiser, though. He doesn’t offer any counter-shortcuts to the church at Colossae. No grand promises, no new bonuses for following Christ. He only reiterates what he said before: Christ is at the center of all things. Nothing is more powerful than Christ—so nothing will make you better off. And more than that, Christ is available to you at all times, alive with you now, so there’s no need for stepping stones or intermediaries. You don’t need a shortcut to know Christ.
Stay rooted, Paul says. Stay rooted in Christ, growing in him the way you began. It’s a striking image, because once a plant is uprooted, it dies. Plants can’t go chasing every new fad the way people can. And so if we are planted in Christ, we have to stay put. Centered.
And the other thing about plants is that they grow slowly. Sure, wildflowers and saplings and vines may spring up in a matter of months or even days, but they don’t last. The strongest plants—I’m thinking about oak trees and the like—they grow slowly. Oak trees do not get to be mighty overnight, and there is no real shortcut to make them grow, but only the basics—light, water, good soil, plenty of room. If we want to grow in Christ, we have to be in it for the long haul, and we have to acknowledge that our growth is not going to happen through fancy gimmicks but through the basics: Prayer. Fellowship. Service. Worship. Reading scripture. Learning love, hope, patience.
Paul’s vision of Christianity would make a terrible magazine for the grocery store check-out line. There’s no get-spiritual-quick schemes here, no lose-sin-fast regimens. Just a promise that Christ is enough for us, and that when we root ourselves in Christ, we will grow—probably in ways we won’t even notice.
But what does it mean, to be rooted in Christ? What does the backside of that metaphor look like?
Paul gives us a clue:
All the fullness of deity lives in Christ’s body, he says. And you have been filled by him, circumcised by him, buried with him through baptism and raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.
The Colossians might have been a little embarrassed by all this body-talk. Isn’t the whole point of religion to get away from the physical world and be lifted up into spiritual realms? Not according to Paul. Not according to God, actually, who came down to live with us, in a body like ours, who chose to act out redemption in a body that died and rose again.
To root ourselves in Christ is to live as Christ lived, grow as Christ grew, serve as Christ served, love as Christ loved. It is to recognize that our faith will be human and messy and hard, and to remember that it will be transformative and beautiful, too. To root ourselves in Christ is to stand with our feet on the ground of loving God and our hands reaching out to love our neighbors, just as Christ showed us how to do. No tricks or cheats. Just Christ.
Paul wants the Colossians to remember that Christ is enough, that they do not need fancy charms or guardian angels or magical spells to grow in faith. But he also knew that there is a flip side to believing Christ is not enough for us, a belief that is just as tempting and in some ways harder to face: the idea that we are not enough for Christ.
“Don’t let anyone judge you” Paul says, for not living up to their standards of what it takes to be faithful. He knows the need for “more”—whether more stuff or more Jesus—often comes from a feeling of insecurity, that we are not enough as we are, that we need to bring more to Christ’s feet than just our meager selves. And so we come to Jesus: look Jesus, here I am with my extensive devotional collection. Look Jesus, here I am with my library of Christian music. Look Jesus, here I am with my knowledge of Greek and Hebrew. Look Jesus, here I am with my thousand hours of community service. Look Jesus, here I am with all my spiritual stuff. Am I impressive enough now to earn your love?
I am guilty of this as much as anyone. When I recognize the enormity of what Christ has done—forgiveness and grace and new life in abundance—I find myself scrabbling for ways to look better, ways to look like I’ve earned, even in some small way, the love I’ve been shown.
Friends, it doesn’t work that way. I believe that God is glad for the gifts we find along the way—prayer and music and service are all beautiful gifts from God, and helpful in our growth—but they do not earn us God’s love. We were always enough, as we were, all along.
There is no magic bullet for jumping the line for God’s love, because there is no line for God’s love. God has loved us from the beginning, loved us through our searching and foolishness, through our mistakes and shaky faith. Love first, then growth, over and over and over again.
This is what Paul says to the Colossians: root yourself in Christ. He is enough for you, and you are enough in him. This faith of yours is going to be messy, not magical. It is going to be dirt and sweat and work and food, not stars and signs. It is going to be slow. And it is going to be real, realer than anything else the world can offer.
There is no shortcut home, but there is a God who will be with us every long, messy, human step of the way. For Christ who walks beside us, I give thanks. Amen.