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Sermon for Proper 11/Ordinary 16 C Colossians What is church for?

July 15, 2016

What’s the  church for?

42 per cent of Methodist ministers saw the chief job of the church as reconciliation. Sounds good.. If only people would listen to one another, sort out their differences, all would be sweetness and light.

The trouble is that it doesn’t work like that. Wars, disagreements still divide the world, divide churches, divide families.

When Paul wrote to the Colossians there was a group who thought like those ministers. Paul actually quotes one of their hymns in our second reading: A  hymn probably sung at baptisms. It proclaimed that at baptism you were moved from this kingdom of darkness to a kingdom of light. Christ was the head. Next to him came the angels. The believer was sucked up into this kingdom.  The job of the church, then, is to be like a magnet attracting all the people of the world up into this new kingdom of God.

A nice idea. Some clergy, especially bishops, talk of holding diverse people and tensions together in the church family even when they feel it is dragging them apart. But it’s not Paul’s gospel. Paul wrote to the Colossians who had seen better days. They had lived in an important city made wealthy by the weaving trade in the middle of trade routes but competition from other towns started a decline. An earthquake in AD 60 hastened the decline. This has-been town was full of people looking for a future role;  lots of religious cults reckoned they had the right to the secret knowledge. Just see the world as we do and you’ll find the key to prosperity again so they had all sorts of magic initiation rites – vaguely like our baptism. the true believer had the key to knowledge; instead of working in this declining world they should centre their energies on the cult, pray, meet, worship, don’t fret too much about the outside world.

Paul’s gospel didn’t demand escape from the world like this. It involved action IN the world and it wasn’t a cosy reconciliation. It involved conflict, involved the cross. Paul wrote to the Colossians. Hhe used their mystical hymn but he tweaked it here and there, added bits to spell out what he meant.

The Colossians claimed they had been transferred from the dominion of darkness to the kingdom of God’s son. Transferred. They used the word from the Greek version of the Old Testament for when a group of people were exiled. Babylon transferred some Jews from Israel to live in Babylon.  Transferred from one kingdom to another. The Colossians thought they’d already got there. So the world could go to hell – literally because they had the secret key to true living; living in a retreat from the world and all its mess.

Paul changes the tense of the verb. Paul says they’re still on the journey. So Christians are not to escape back to church and to cling to their faith when they have to go back out into the world to earn a living. They are to live out their faith in the midst of the world; earning their living is the chief way in which they do their Christianity. And while they’re still on the journey, on the road they need two things: endurance and patience. Endurance has the sense of coping with difficult circumstances; patience has the sense of coping with difficult people. And we know what that feels like, don’t we?

So God’s love IS like a magnet. And we ARE being drawn, seduced by, attracted to this love. We ARE on the journey to his kingdom. But wre not there yet. And we only get there if we fit a certain pattern. The pattern of Christ .Christ got there before us and made a space, if you like, for us to follow. Paul says that Christ is the firstbjorn of all creation, the image, or icon, of God. Firstborn is not a reference to some chronological date. Paul doesn’t mean that Christ was the first of a string of lesser gods created by God. The firstborn male in biblical times inherited most of his father’s possessions and responsibilities; firstborn status carried privilege, honour. They used to believe that the firstborn son shared more closely than other children in the father’s qualities

Christ an image, an icon of God. The Orthodox believe that an icon is more than a painting; it somehow partakes in the substance of the object or the saint which it symbolises. So Christ shows God’s nature – and so can we.

How did he achieve this status?  And how can we? Through the cross. The cross, for Paul, is the way God works. When he created this world, God gave himself. So the first cross is not on Calvary. It is in the very act of creation itself. And Jesus, the firstborn, dies on the   cross, conquers death by rising again and does it all on our behalf.

And we are called to share the cross not in some masochistic lifestyle but in service, in self-giving; sometimes standing out from the crowd and being deemed odd.

Picture the cross as a sort of black hole. – a black hole that sucked the very meaning of the universe into its collapsing vortex until the intensity of its compaction led to an explosive reversal and the stuff of which the galaxies were made was blown out into the universe.

Or, to change the image killing Jesus was like blowing a dandelion head.  The seeds of love spread and spread. New life is possible and is slowly taking over the world.

God is attracting the whole world to himself. The black hole through which we have to travel is cross-shaped. But we live in an in-between time. We live with a different sort of attraction. Sin. Not just individual sins but a whole structure of sin. What Paul calls ‘the principalities and powers. In Christ, the principalities and powers hold together, says Paul. The word he uses is synistemi – systems. We are only just beginning to understand how we are all part of systems. If we pollute the water supply or the air it will poison us, our children, or our grandchildren. We are all part of the system.

If a factory pollutes a city, you can talk to the manager, try to get him to change the factory’s policies, but he is only part of the system. He may want better environmental safeguards, he may want better working conditions for his employees but if he does all this, and if he pays them better wages, his factory will lose out as people take their business to some third world sweat-shop. Where South Kore   an girls churn out the same goods for one tenth of the price. And he will go out of business; his employees will be out of work.

And that’s the world we live in; caught up in the systems. We haven’t got to the kingdom yet. But we will.  Christ’s power, the power of the cross, the power of love, will win. Meanwhile we just have to hang on and trust. And maybe not get into a guilt trip when we compromise with the systems.

Trust, while the systems are still in place. Paul details the different parts of the system: Thrones:  we still use words like chair and seat symbolically – chairman – someone who sits on the bench; country seat; even the bishops who have a cathedra – a chair and the pope who speaks ex cathedra. – from the chair

Dominions:  territories, empires

principalities:  a college principal is more that Mr. X.  It is the person in his or her office however charismatic a person might be, he has little power outside his holding of office.

authorities:  meant the way a culture is maintained through laws, customs, manners, taboos

Paul says that all these parts of the system, however evil, are created by God. They might cling like a parasitic cancer but the body they cling to is stronger so the destructive energies of the system will be healed- eventually – by the stronger organism – the kingdom of God.

Paul says that in Christ, all these things were created and have their being  . In him they hold together. What are the implications?

Firstly, every part of the system affects every other part of the system. It is a well-known scientific idea now that if a butterfly flaps its wings in the Atlantic, that might lead to gale-force winds in the Pacific. Everything we do effects others.

To say something is OK as long as it doesn’t do anyone else any harm is to misunderstand the way the world works. In the words of the 60s lefties:  the personal is political

Secondly, if all things hold together in Christ, the Church’s chief sphere of action is ‘out there’ in the world where the system holds sway. Too many church leaders spend too much time with church people, educated in church-run colleges, governing church schools, going to conferences with other church people. The chief agents of God’s kingdom are the laity – those who do business out there.  So – Christians are not meant to be members of a cult; not meant to focus their energies on the church; not meant to rush back for security as people who are already saved. We are on the road; on the journey to being saved. We are to live in the secular world; to do our jobs,   live our lives, in the system; the system whose values are different from our own. We have to operate in the system, sometimes going along with it;    sometimes standing out against it; living the way of the cross; living by self-giving love;  believing that the cross is the true secret about the way the universe is; not believing, with the musical cabaret that ‘money makes the world go round’ but believing that love makes the world go round.

Near the end of World War 2, Winston Churchill and Stalin were observing a procession of tank divisions.  As they watched, they discussed the prospects for a post-war Europe. At one point, Churchill made some comments about how he hoped that the Pope would have a good influence in putting Europe back together.   Stalin leaned over, gestured towards the tanks and asked, cynically, ‘Really, how many divisions has the Pope got?’

Stalin, like many people in our world, could only conceive of power in one way: brute force. = The only power many people recognise is the one which comes from the barrel of a gun.

Compared with tanks and guns, Jesus seems to be weak.  He doesn’t have much power. But Paul tells the Colossians that he DOES have powHer. The power to draw people back to God.

The power to reconcile all things to God but this can only come about through the cross, through self-giving love.  And the tragedy is that Christians don’t seem to realise it. They’re like the millionaire William Randolph Hearst. He invested a fortune in collecting great works of art. One day he read about some valuable pieces of art and decided he had to add them to his collection. He sent his agent abroad to find and buy them. Months went by before the agent returned and reported to Hearst that the items had at last been found. They were stored in Hearst’s own warehouse. He had purchased them years before.

We already have Christ at the centre. It is through him that reconciliation will happen. We have been, as it were, magnetised by his self-giving love but we’re to live in the world where the magnetic attraction points to a different pole to go further and further into the world in self-giving love finding fellowship along the way with other Christiavns and with Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and other religion with humanists, poets, mystics, and ecologically conscious people.

All living a life of self-giving love and service within the system but eventually overthrowing it.

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