Knowing what we have received (part 1)
As we explore, over these next few weeks, this idea of the invitation, the invitation that we have received, from God, the invitation that we have to offer to the world around us, the invitation to taste and see that the Lord is good, to experience the love and welcome of Jesus Christ, we’re going to spend a bit of time just reflecting on what it is that we have ourselves received, what this ‘good news’ is that we have to share.
And it’s right there in the opening words of our reading from the letter to the Church in Colossae: you have received Jesus Christ the Lord, so live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him.
Now whenever you come across the word “Lord” being applied to Jesus, that really ought to sound an alarm in your mind. Because its one of those words that we’ve had a tendency to use so much in the Church that we’ve sort of adopted it without, sometimes, reflecting on what it means.
In particular, that the word “Lord”, when used by the writers of the New Testament, is inescapably both political and spiritual in meaning.
Political, because the declaration “Jesus is Lord” was
(and still should be today) a subversive refusal of the power and authority of
the empire. To declare Jesus as Lord was and is to declare that Caesar is not Lord.
But that political declaration, that refusal to honour the authority of the empire and of the emperor, was (and is) rooted in a fundamentally spiritual declaration. For the empire’s claim to the loyalty of its subjects was, by the time of Jesus, deeply intertwined with the spiritual claims of the emperor and of the Roman religious traditions. Of course, Rome was famously willing to allow the worship of other gods as part of their pantheon; but to declare a single deity, to the exclusion of the God’s of Rome, and eventually, of the divinity of the emperor, was not an option.
Which is why Paul’s words were both politically and spiritually subversive. “Don’t be taken captive by philosophies and deceits, by human traditions, by elemental spirits” – for “the whole fullness of deity dwells in Christ”. The whole fullness of deity. Christ is not, cannot be, one amongst many that you worship; this Lord is the one Lord, both temporally and spiritually.
And the exhortation with which we began our reading –
live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him – reaches out to touch every
part of our lives: live your lives rooted in this Lord:
let your decision as to how you live, what you do, who you welcome, what you
fight for, where you spend your time, your energy, your money, let all that
reflect that this, Christ Jesus, is the Lord
you have received. And let your spirituality too reflect that in this Lord all
the fullness of deity dwells – you need to look no further than Christ to find
all that you could ever need.
So how does this connect with our sense of invitation, with our desire to share the love and welcome of Jesus Christ with those in our community, those in our lives?
I think to get there we need to bring some of Paul’s empty traditions a little more up to date. For for all of the modern world’s seeming rejection of the Christian faith, there is no lack of desire for spiritual meaning in our wider community. The label “Spiritual but not religious” more-or-less accurately describes a sizable group in modern Australia. Whether that spirituality be expressed in meditative practices, in reverence for the created world, in deep engagement with others, in exploration of alternative, less formal, religious traditions, in a homegrown patchwork of beliefs, in horoscopes and healing crystals, or even just in a vague sense that maybe there is something more to life than meets the eye; whatever form this takes, it represents a real and deep hunger within the human spirit; the restlessness of the heart that St. Augustine describes in his confessions:
“you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our hearts are restless until it they find their rest in you”
We have something to offer, an invitation to share,
because we are the people of Jesus Christ, in whom dwells the whole fullness of
deity – in whom, that is, all of the answers to these questions, all the
fulfilments of these needs, are to be found.
So our temptation might be to decry all these alternative spiritual paths, to declare them to be, in Paul’s words, empty deceits. But Paul here is writing to believers, to Christians tempted to think that they need to add something else to their faith, that what they need is “Jesus plus”.
But when Paul encountered spirituality that was not of Jesus, as in Athens, his response was not of condemnation but of interest, even of approval. Perhaps you remember the story – Paul takes time to wander around the city, to see all the temples and monuments, and then joins in the conversation in the city square “I see you are a very religious people”, he says, approvingly it seems.
He recognised in these different expressions of
spirituality a genuine human need, a searching for meaning; he found a point of
connection between the need of others and the story of Jesus, and he offered
them another story. “I even saw that you have a statue to an unknown God – what
you worship as unknown I can tell you about”.
Perhaps Paul knew the story of the Unknown God – the God to whom the people prayed when nothing else had worked, and understood what it meant, and what need it represented, for he had taken the time to understand. He recognised the need that was represented by all the temples and places of worship, and understood that that need would be truly met in the story of Jesus that he had to share with them.
In the remainder of the passage from Colossians, Paul goes on to speak of one particular deep need that is met in Jesus: the need, the desire, for a life free from the bondage of sin and the demands of law.
For though the language of sin and guilt is rarely used in the modern world, the sense of disconnect, of damage, of incompleteness, is all very real; and with it, the desire to allocate blame. How much of our public discourse revolves around what is wrong in our society, and just whose fault it is? And how much of our personal lives are taken up with trying to forget things we have done (or that have been done to us) or to find ways of telling ourselves who is to blame for the hardships we experience?
Just the other day in the car we were talking about
the idea of a scapegoat, and the way that the word for finding someone to blame
actually went back to a Hebrew tradition, in which the people of a town would
gather together and symbolically place the sins of the town onto a goat, and
then drive it out, bearing their sins with it.
It’s an idea which on one level makes absolutely no sense at all; there is no justice in blaming the goat for whatever has gone or been done wrong in the town. But on another level it makes a deep sense: for in the absence of some mechanism to break the cycle we know that we get caught up in the ever rotating shifting of blame, that we spend far more energy trying to work out whose fault our problems are than we spend actually trying to find solutions.
And so the original scapegoat allowed the people to say “whoever was to blame, the guilt has been taken away” and then to move forwards, freed from the burden of the past.
And Christ, Paul write, has played that role for us.
All the trespasses, the record written against us, all the legal demands for
restitution, he took away and nailed to the cross. Again, on one level it makes
no sense, but on another, deeper level, it is the only thing that could make
sense. God’s willingness to forgive is so much greater than our ability to
receive forgiveness (or our preparedness to forgive others) that this great
symbolic removal of sin is needed to allow us to receive that forgiveness.
And by allowing us to receive, and in turn to give, forgiveness, he also broke the power that sin has over us – the power to cripple us with regret, to bind us into cycles of recrimination, to hold us hostage in the need for revenge.
From time to time the power of forgiveness will get a bit of run in the media of the day, when a victim offers forgiveness to the one who has hurt them, in the right circumstances it can be a powerful witness to the possibilities of a different way of living together.
But I think there is just as great a power that almost never gets talked about; the power of receiving forgiveness when it is offered to us; the power to forgive ourselves. It’s not that the one is greater than the other; but that the two go hand in hand. Only when we are able to forgive and to receive forgiveness can we fully break the cycle of blame and revenge and recrimination.
But that is what we are invited into – into the
fullness of him who has made our reconciliation a reality, who has played the
role of scapegoat, who has declared God’s forgiveness of all our sins.
This is the reality, the substance, that is Christ, and of which all other human efforts at spirituality are shadows. This is what we have to offer into those conversations; listening with respect to hear what it is that our friends and family and colleagues are seeking; hearing those needs for a future of meaning, a future not bound by the failings of our past nor by the things that have been done to us.
If we listen with care, with respect, to hear what others are looking for, then, and perhaps only then, will we be able to tell the story of Jesus as an answer to their questions, not as a religion, but as a reality.