[pre talk notice: #1 #2 #3]
How do you make progress as a Christian?
It’s a question I imagine many of us will have wondered about from time to time; and sometimes perhaps with a great deal of frustration.
• Surely there must be more than this. How can I go forwards from where I am?
• How can I break out of this period of spiritual stagnation I seem to have fallen into?
• How can I recover that keenness and fervour I used to have about serving Jesus?
• What’s the solution to this feeling of just “coasting along in neutral” in my Christian life?
You ever pondered questions like that? Frankly, I’d be surprised if you hadn’t – especially if you’ve been living as a Christian believer for any length of time. I know I for one have spent long periods of my life in that sort of zone.
And I suppose it’s the frequency with which the question is asked that explains the multiplicity of answers that come back from – well, spiritual guides everywhere.
If you’ve been here over the past few weeks, you’ll know it’s the question that has really been lurking in the background right the way through this book of Colossians we’ve been studying together. People talk about having a one-track mind. This is really a one-track letter. It’s all about how to progress as a Christian. But it comes to a head in our passage this morning because it’s here that Paul finally gives an actual instruction. Something to do.
It’s there in verse 6, half way through. But be warned: it might come as a bit of an anticlimax.
‘Continue to live your lives’.
Really? That, Paul, is the big instruction we’ve been waiting for? ‘Continue to live your lives?’ The alternative being – what exactly?
Well, it may seem a bit bland, but actually there are clues that he has something more specific in mind.
• The first is the word he uses for ‘live your lives’. If you’ve got a different version, you may be able to see it for yourself. The word is actually ‘walk’. ‘Continue to walk’. So there’s an idea of going somewhere. Making progress.
• The second clue is that tiny little phrase at the end of the verse: ‘in him’. That is ‘in Christ’. We’re going to think a bit more about that later on. But for now, it’s clear he’s talking not just about progress in general, but spiritual progress.
In other words, what Paul is talking about here is the very thing we’ve been asking about: going forwards in our Christian lives. He touches on a few different subjects, but essentially he’s got two things to say: a ‘how’ and a ‘why’.
First, there’s the how: Depth and consistency beat breadth and novelty.
Did you get that? When it comes to making spiritually progress, says Paul, go for depth and consistency. They beat breadth and novelty hand’s down.
6 So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, 7 rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.
If you’re a business, you need to change and adapt just to survive, don’t you? And certainly to grow. You need to try new things. Just ask the long-term shareholders of Apple. If you stay still you’ll likely wither and die. Why is that? Because businesses depend on changing markets.
But believers are not businesses. The believer doesn’t depend on a changing market, but an unchanging Father. So if we want to grow, the directions of our growth will not be sideways, but in depth and height and strength. In other words by establishing ourselves more and more in the response we first made to Christ: ‘Just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue’. And you see the positive pictures he uses here:
• There’s the picture of a tree taking root. Imagine you’re a tree. I feel like a primary school teacher saying that, but we’ll go with it anyway. You’re a tree, but as you look around, you see other trees who seem to be much more vigorous and green and fruitbearing than you. It might be tempting to think: well I need to move, and get myself replanted over there. The soil there must be much more nutritious than mine. So let’s go and set up over there. But of course, that’s a load of nonsense. It’d be disastrous. What you need to do is stick where you are and - bit by bit - take deeper and deeper root, and you will thrive. Don’t believe the lie that says staying still means not growing. Some bamboo trees can grow 3 feet a day. 3 feet a day! Just by bring rooted. That’s the kind of growth Paul is commending: the growth that comes from firmer roots.
• And then there’s the picture of a building project. Again, imagine you’re a building under construction. Maybe one of these student halls of residence that seems to be going up all over the place. But you’re thinking: can’t we crack on the pace a bit? I’m only one story high so far. How about just getting a few of those long things pole vaulters use. What are they called? Poles I suppose! How about just standing a few of them on top of me, and then building on top of them. That’s probably – what 7 or 8 metres in one go. That’d be skipping weeks of building work! But again that’s a laughable strategy for growth isn’t it? It would lead to catastrophe. The whole thing would collapse. The way a building grows is one brick at a time. One row at a time. One storey at a time. There are no short-cuts in constructing a building. At least none that work in the long term. And it’s the same in spiritual growth.
A tree taking root. An edifice being built up. If you imitate them, when it comes to your spiritual progress, says Paul, you will find yourself stronger in the faith. And what’s more, all the more grateful for what God has done for you in Christ. Do you see that at the end of verse ? Overflowing with thankfulness.
The world around us is determined to make malcontents of us. Isn’t that right? What you have is not enough. You need a new kitchen gadget, a different diet technique, a fresh experience, and so on. But Christian spirituality won’t have that. Don’t be itching for something new, says Paul; be grateful for what you’ve already got.
So that’s the positive: depth and consistency is the way to grow.
But Paul is just as clear on the negative.
8 See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy
• If you as a captain stray outside the main shipping channels in the Gulf of Aden, nobody’s going to stop you, but don’t be surprised if you get taken hostage by Somali pirates.
• If you as a westerner shake off your armed escort on the Columbia-Venezualan border, again that’s a choice you can make, but don’t be surprised if you get kidnapped by ELN rebel forces.
• And if you as a Christian believer, says Paul, leave behind the spirituality of the Bible and make even a minor foray into the territory of new ideas and approaches and techniques from outside the fold, don’t be surprised if you get taken captive by them.
So be warned, says Paul.
But here’s the thing. By and large, those who indulge in spiritual kidnap of Christian believers don’t brandish machetes and AK47s. No what they use to pull in their prey almost always starts with a friendly face and an irresistible offer. I mean that’s how children have always been taken in, isn’t it?
• Hey there, you must be getting soaked. Jump in the car and I’ll give you a lift to wherever you’re going!
• Hey, do you want to stroke my doggy? That’s it. I’ve got another one over there – follow me!
• Do you want a sweetie? There you go. And there are plenty more where that came from…
That’s how it goes with child kidnaps. And in effect it’s how it goes with the spiritual kidnap of Christian believers.
• Look at this: here’s a prayer technique that will give you an amazing shortcut to maturity
• Just read this new book, and you’ll find the secret to true spiritual power!
• Get going with this exotic spirituality, and you’ll finally you really start to go places with God.
Do you see what it is? It’s just lifts and doggies and sweeties, all over again, isn’t it? Offers of things that seem good, but actually lead to ruin. Why? Because in the end – close of verse 8 – all these things depend
on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces[a] of this world rather than on Christ.
Don’t do it, says Paul. Don’t go there. Don’t be taken in by the new spirituality that’s all the buzz. Or the latest new thing your friend brings back from their conference. Even if it uses Bible words, and quotes verses, and seems wonderful, it can still be harmful.
Go for depth and consistency, not breadth and novelty.
But why? Why be so conservative? Why stick to the old rather than try something new? Come on Paul, what’s the problem with a bit of outside the box, spiritual experimentation?
Well here it is. Here’s the problem. It’s this: you’ve already got it all. Second point here: Christ and your oneness with him means life and completeness are yours already.
And in abundance.
You’ve already got it all! You don’t need any of that stuff over there. If you’re a Christian, then whether or not you realise it, whatever they’re offering, you’ve already got it.
What’s the standard line when a door to door salesman comes to the house? What do you say?
‘Sorry I’ve already got one of those’.
• Would you like to buy this pack of drain cleaners? Sorry I’ve already got one of those.
• How about this set of Great ships of Southampton tea towels? Sorry I’ve already got one of those.
• Really? How about this 2019 edition iPad Professional plus with no-charge battery and superpowers? Sorry I’ve already got one of those.
It’s the ultimate defeater isn’t it to the sales rep? But it’s what the genuine believer can say hand on heart to whatever they’re offered by way of shortcuts to spiritual growth. ‘Sorry I’ve already got one of those’. And the reason is that we are so closely tied to Jesus that whatever Jesus has got, we’ve got. Wherever Jesus has been, we’ve been.
Imagine a couple expecting their first child. As a final treat to themselves before family life begins, they go for a weekend in Rome. They have a lovely time. Well, years later, the child is a bit older and they start talking over the dinner table different countries. ‘I’ve never been to Italy, have I, Mum?’, says the child. And Mum’s reply? ‘Actually you have, Jo. You went there in me’.
It’s like that with us. Well a bit like that, at least. Just as that baby in Mum’s tummy has been where Mum went and has experienced what Mum experienced, so we who are in Jesus, and that’s every Christian, have been where he’s gone and experienced what he’s experienced.
It’s an extraordinary thing to contemplate. But that inextricable link with Jesus is stressed again and again through this passage.
• Verse 10 – in Christ brought to fulness
• Verse 11 – in him circumcised
• Verse 12 – buried with him
• Verse 13 – made alive with Christ
You get the point! Paul says elsewhere we’re united to Christ as a wife is to her husband; or a body is to its head; or a vine branch is to the vine itself. You can’t get closer. But the point here is that: because of that oneness you and I have with Christ, however much growing we still have to do, we’ve got all we need to do it.
Actually I count 5 things that Paul says we’ve already got because of being in Christ. Have a look.
• Verse 9: you’ve already got all the fulness you need
in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, 10 and in Christ you have been brought to fullness.
You follow the logic: because Jesus has it all, you who are in him inevitably also have it all
That’s so often the selling point of spiritual novelty, isn’t it? It’s the spiritual version of the doggie or the sweetie: ‘Do you want more – dot dot dot – fill in the gap: victory, power, spiritual success – whatever it is. Let me show you how to fill up the tank. And here’s Paul saying: you don’t need filling up. You’re already full.
• Verse 11: you’ve already got all the religion you need
11 In him [Christ] you were also circumcised
All through the New Testament Paul finds himself battling people who are saying the next step in Christian growth is to be circumcised. In other words what they need is some religion. A ritual to go through. And he has to keep on saying: no no no! These kind of people don’t seem to be explicitly in the frame in Colosse, but nevertheless Paul draws on the language to make his point. You Christians, he says, have already had the biggest circumcision you could ever have. At your conversion, there was not just a bit of skin cut off; your whole being was cut off. The old you is gone. End of the verse there.
Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ,
It’s good to remember that. If somebody suggests some religious technique – whether it’s rosary beads or centering prayer or crystals or anything, just remember: we’ve got all the religion we need in Christ.
• Verse 12: you’ve already got all the life you need
buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.
13 When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ.
One of the reasons we still baptize people here at Christ Church by immersion is that it does retain the symbolism Paul points to here. Because Jesus came through death to life, we who are in Christ have experienced that death-to-life reality ourselves – which baptism captures so graphically. We’ve had our own resurrection. We’ve experienced that miraculous, divine, new life.
So when you and I find ourselves impressed by the appearance of real life over there (which we do from time to time, don’t we?) - when we feel a bit wooden and dead and envious of what they’ve got, it’s worth remembering that whatever we feel at this moment, new life is already ours. There’s always more of an emotional buzz to be had here and there. But there’s no more real life than we already have.
• Verse 13: you’ve already got all the pardon you need.
• Do you see that there – end of the verse?
He forgave us all our sins, 14 having cancelled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.
Many people, it seems to me, live their whole lives looking to make atonement for something. Even Christian people. We know in our heads that we’ve been forgiven, but the feeling of guilt remains. For that awful thing we did; that dreadful way we treated someone; the part we played in that event happening; or just the habit we can’t seem to break free of. We live weighed down by guilt. So we’re easy prey, aren’t we, for any suggestion of something we can do that will make us feel less guilty, something that might atone in some way for our behaviour.
But here is Paul saying: it’s all done. The pardon is complete. The slate is wiped clean. Yes it was a bad thing, yes it still is, but it’s been nailed to that cross. It can’t come back to bite you. It’s as though it’s been taken out into the ocean, weighed down, dropped and sunk to the bottom. And then a big sign hung up for good measure: no fishing here. You’ve got all the pardon you need.
• And finally, verse 15, you’ve got all the security you need.
• The forces of evil that want to make you feel a failure have been publicly and spectacularly defeated at the cross.
15 And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
That means they can’t come back to bite us. They can’t hurt us. Their accusations are hollow. We are safe forever from their grasp.
We’ve got it all. We’re complete in Christ. That’s why we don’t need to go somewhere else. As Jonny’s put it so helpfully in recent weeks, we don’t more than Jesus. We simply need more of Jesus.
So let’s hear Paul’s encouragement to grow in depth and consistency.
What will that look like? I guess it will mean: knowing Christ more, and knowing more about Christ.
And both those things are important, aren’t they? The relationship and the understanding. If I want to grow in my marriage, my claims to love my wife will sound hollow if I’m not interested in finding out what her name is, where she’s from, what makes her tick, the things she likes to do. On the other hand I could get 10 out of 10 on a test about my wife, while still not actually have any kind of intimate relationship with her. Do you see? Both are important.
In the language of verse 6, we want to be rooted and built up in him; and be strengthened in the faith.
So as a growing Christian,
• I will seek to know Christ better. To be struck more by the beauty of his character; to depend more on the power of his rescuing grace; to appreciate more the joy of his companionship - talking with him during my day, being aware of his presence with me. Because I want to be rooted and built up in him.
• And I will seek to know more about Christ. I’ll get back into that old Bible-reading routine; I’ll load up my mp3 player with good talks; I’ll throw some Christian books into my summer holiday suitcase. Because I long to be strengthened in the faith.
And so, in the power of God’s spirit, I’ll say farewell to stagnant and neutral; and discover afresh what true spiritual progress really is.