Notes from a sermon preached on 22.03.09am
Do you want to know a secret?,
Do you promise not to tell?, whoa oh, oh.
Let me whisper in your ear,
Say the words you long to hear,
I’m in love with you.
I’ve got a secret for you, do you want to know it?… Just by saying those words I’ve got power over you haven’t I. You want to know what it is, and the only way you can discover it is if I tell you.
Usually secrets only for those in the know. Those with the money. Those in the right positions. Those in the right countries. Those in the right social class. Those with the right looks. Those in the know have power over those who don’t. The haves and have nots
Life itself is a mystery.
Where does life come from? Does it have meaning beyond survival? Is there a Creator behind it? If so, what is this god like? Do we have to earn his favour? If so how?
These are the secrets at the heart of existence. Religion has always claimed answers to these questions.
So often, though, religion has sadly used this as a source of power.
• Priests become those who have the power to bring the people to god and so can use this position to gain favour, influence and finance. Abuse of their position.
• We, those who belong to this religion, are better than those who are not. Or indeed, we who belong to this religion, hate those who do not.
• To be part of our religion and discover our secrets you have to behave a certain way, undergo particular rituals, behave like us, talk like us, dress like us, put your brain to one side and blindly take on all that we say…
It’s not wonder than people say that religion has been the cause of so much ill in the world, is it!
So what does the Bible have to say about this? Where does Christianity fit into this? Sitting in his cell, writing to the Colossians, Paul has a lot to say about that. As Michael and Alison have said before me, a teaching was beginning to influence the church there, talking about inner secrets of faith available for those who were permitted to them, superior Christians.
What does he say: 1:24-27 ‘Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. 25 I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness— 26the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints. 27To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.’
Paul acknowledges that at the heart of our existence are these big questions about meaning and significance. He answers that the answers to these questions have remained hidden for ages and generations. For all time human beings have looked to the skies and asked if there is a god, wondered what life was all about. For all time we have endured suffering and pain and called out in frustration if it will it always continue and complained that it is not fair. There is wisdom in this. There is the danger when talking to people that we rush to our answers and the gospel without acknowledging their struggles and their questions. This can come across as rude, and says that we don’t take what they’re saying and feeling seriously.
But Paul then says that the mystery that has been hidden away, stored out of sight, until the time came for it to be revealed – has now be revealed! He says in verse 26 that the mystery ‘is now disclosed to the saints’ But wait a minute! Doesn’t that sound like the same old story? The mystery is given to a select group who can then use it as power over others? Not at all!
In verse 27 Paul talks about it being revealed to the Gentiles. In the Old Testament, the Jews turned the revelation of God from something that was to bless all nations into a national possession, a close held treasure that made them superior to others, a well guarded mystery. But God, in Christ, has over-turned that. No longer is the mystery of God disclosed just to the Jews through their priests, but in and through Christ, this mystery is disclosed to all people, even those outside the ‘People of God’. When in verse 25 Paul talks about the word of God being presented in all its fullness, what does he mean by this fullness? I believe on the one hand he is talking about the revelation of God in Jesus being a complete, perfect one – Jesus is the manifestation of God – but more than that, by fullness, Paul is talking about the all encompassing nature of the revelation, that perfect revelation of God, being for all people, not just the Jews. Through Christ, God has overturned the exclusiveness of faith, opening it to all people.
This is at the heart of our faith. The Gospel is not just for the select few, but for all people. Jesus offered himself to religious leaders such a Nicodemus, women of allegedly dubious nature such as Mary Magdelene, foreigners such as the Centurion and the Samaritan woman, thieves and collaborators with the enemies of God’s People such as Mark, the tax collector. He even offered himself, dare I say it, to a terrorist being executed alongside him, offering him a place in paradise.
This is what is behind what Paul says in Galatians 3:28: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ There are no barriers, no rituals to fulfil, no background checks. You don’t need to come through any other person but Jesus.
Peter writes something similar in 1 Peter 4:10 when he says, ‘Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.’ The word here for various forms is pikilos which literally means many-coloured. God’s rainbow coloured grace is for all people, it is not monotone or restricted in its scope.
But what is to stop the same thing happening now that happened before to God’s revelation to the his people in the Old Testament? What is to stop the religious leaders, the scholars, those in power, those in church, in the know, using it as a tool to power, to position, holding on to it and not sharing it? This was one of the concerns behind the Reformation, that too much power was being invested in the Priests who because of their privileged position could hold sway over their laity and general populace.
The heretical teachers at Colossae were saying that they had a higher knowledge than that possessed by ordinary believers. Paul cuts through that. The mystery he says is now ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory’ (27).
Jesus Christ offered his life to all people, so that they may have a relationship with God. Today, through the Holy Spirit living in believers, all may have that direct relationship with God. No other intermediary is needed. This indwelling of Christ, the Holy Spirit coming to live in all believers is an incredibly liberating thing! There are no people prohibited from faith, and no people prohibited from knowing God, anyone can have the Spirit in them. By hope of glory, Paul is referring to the security of our eternal relationship with God that the Spirit brings us, that goes beyond this life and into the next.
So much of what we do and how we live is about securing our positions at the expense of others. Gossip is about putting others down, so that we can be promoted at their expense. Politics is often about seeking the best for us and those like us at the expense of others. Our economics is set up in such a way that those who have money can enjoy that which those who don’t can’t. God and his gospel however, are not like that, instead it shatters the barriers and liberates, bringing all who want to respond directly to God. In this God is saying that all are equal, all are valued, all count.
As this is the way we normally behave, its easy to revert to type. Its too easy for us to kid ourselves into believing that Jesus wants us to sign up to a list of behaviour, a list of doctrines, to wear the right clothes, to speak the right language, to go to the right services and sing the right songs, but this is to miss the point and to try and convert Jesus’ liberating message into a power tool again of we’re in you’re out.
This was the big lesson that Paul had to learn on the Damascus Road. Paul was the one who was so sure that following the rules was what it was about, the one who was so proud of being part of the chosen people who God had called and yet, on the Damascus Road when he met with the Risen Jesus, this was turned upside-down. His value system was thrown out as he was told that God loved the world, everyone, and wanted all to have a relationship with him. It was not about following the rules but accepting that love and beginning to love in the same way. Paul literally became a new man, revelling in his new freedom. This explains why he wrote:
‘We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. To this end I labour, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me.’ (28-29)
Paul is so often misunderstood as saying these are all the things you must do to follow Jesus, but that’s not it at all. Instead his revolutionary message is that there is nothing we need to do to follow Jesus other than say yes. There are no barriers, no conditions, no sense of some being better than others. God’s Gospel is for all. Yes Paul calls us to holy living – but that’s not as a prerequisite, but instead as a response, a thank you, not because we have to, but because we want to, for what Jesus has done for us.