Sermon: 28th July 2019

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Colossians 2:6-19

According to a 19th century legend, the Truth and the Lie meet one day. The Lie says to the Truth: “It’s a marvellous day today”! The Truth looks up to the skies and sighs, for the day was really beautiful.

They spend a lot of time together, ultimately arriving beside a well. The Lie tells the Truth: “The water is very nice, let’s bathe together!” The Truth, once again suspicious, tests the water and discovers that it indeed is very nice. They undress and start bathing. Suddenly, the Lie comes out of the water, puts on the clothes of the Truth and runs away. The furious Truth comes out of the well and runs everywhere to find the Lie and to get her clothes back.

The World, seeing the Truth naked, turns its gaze away, with contempt and rage. The poor Truth returns to the well and disappears forever, hiding therein, its shame.

Since then, the Lie travels around the world, dressed as the Truth, satisfying the needs of society, because, the World, in any case, harbours no wish at all to meet the naked Truth…

~ From “The Truth coming out of the well”; Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1896.

Now, in our own day, the lie that’s doing the rounds, which is satisfying the needs of society is that you have no debt to pay: the lie is that you can cheat, lie, steal, hate, reject & be proud & it doesn’t matter

Of course, it does. The truth which the world today ignores is first of all that these actions damage us. When we lie, we harm ourselves; it has been wisely said that the first victim of hatred is he who does the hating; when we are proud, we distance ourselves from others & break the bond of friendship and fellowship which we naturally have with everyone in creation. & 2ndly, these actions damage others – when we lie about someone, it hurts them; when we reject someone, it lessens their sense of worth; when we steal – even if we steal from the taxman by not paying enough tax – obviously, we gain, but someone loses.

But 3rdly it impacts the relationship we have with God; not to put too fine a point on it, we are dead, in the eyes of God. At least that’s what the apostle Paul says: v13: when you were dead in trespasses… & it’s only through faith in Christ that we come alive – spiritually.

The lie that’s doing the rounds is that you have no debt to pay. This passage is about what that debt is; sin, failure, brokenness; its impact upon us & the way that God deals with it. 

We saw in Galatians and in the opening of Colossians that Paul was very concerned about the state of the church fellowship, the way that believers related to each other; & we’ve seen that he had identified a pretty serious problem underlying things – what they believed. They were being led astray by Greek ideas about secret knowledge and codes and passwords which had their place, maybe, in a masonic lodge or a novel like the Da Vinci Code, but not in a Christian church. 

So now he’s explaining what the truth is; having identified the errors into which they had fallen, he now provides a remedy, a corrective. 

& again & again he uses the expression “in Christ, Gk “en Xristou”; often we use the term “Christian” or “Catholic” or “protestant” or whatever, but these words describe us individually; they are self-centred, if you like, whereas when Paul speaks about the believers as we are together; & we’re together in Christ; we are the Body of Christ. That’s one reason why I find it strange & sad that so many members of this fellowship only come occasionally to Church. 

This is more than a trivial thing. Paul would have been horrified at the thought that we could be a solitary Christian; the idea that you could believe in Jesus and not be an active member of the fellowship would have been ridiculous, because for him – & this passage makes that abundantly clear – because being a Christian is about being part of the Body; an active member of a fellowship. So, continue to live your lives in Him, v6. Be active in the body of Christ.

I read this little story, a true story, which illustrates very well something about what Church is meant to be & what being in Christ is all about. It’s a lady who writes this:  

“I have to admit that in life before cancer, I didn’t give the universal body of Christ much thought.  I could – and would – extol the virtues of being part of Christ’s body.

I’ve often heard it said that when the church is really being the church it is especially present with those who suffer, and as the daughter of a pastor, I’ve witnessed local churches time and again embody the hands and feet of Christ in their ministries to those in pain. 

While my defence of the value of the local church used to come primarily from watching congregations bring Christ’s love and care to others in need, I now am a recipient of the church being the church in an intimately personal way. 

In the weeks following my diagnosis of stage IV cancer, I slowly made my way back to Sunday morning worship at our church.  Gentle hugs, warm hands grasping for ours, made my family and me aware in tactile ways of God’s embrace of us during this time of despair.  When we came to the “Prayers of the People” during worship, my daughters’ arms often found their way to my shoulders, while other friends seated nearby extended their arms, touching my back and arms.  As we continue to hear my name offered up each week in prayer, we are reminded that our prayers are joined by the chorus of prayers surrounding us.  To be accompanied by the church on this journey reassures me that we’re not walking alone.  Their hands and feet have become the hands and feet of a healing Christ.

The power of the local church has become even more palpable to me.

But through this cancer journey, I’ve also been awakened to a new – indeed, almost mystical – understanding of the universal body of Christ and of the healing effects it has had on the lives of me and my family.  The body of Christ is no longer an abstract, intangible concept glossed over during the reciting of the creed.

Instead I’ve been surprised and humbled by the way in which, as the author of Colossians says, the fullness of God dwells bodily in Christ (Col. 2.9).  The church, as the embodiment of Christ, has become an agent of grace in my life, a gift of support that has accompanied me through the valley of the shadow of cancer.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this were said about St Andrew’s Scots Kirk? Wouldn’t that be great? When we are forgiven, we are welcomed into the fellowship of believers.

Secondly, & more briefly, let’s look at the image Paul uses to describe our forgiveness. We’ve seen how we’re called to truly be part of a living, caring body of Christ; a fellowship of believers. That is a deep & important truth.  

But there’s a truth he wants the Colossians to know, again a corrective to the false teaching they had fallen prey to & it’s about forgiveness. You’ll find it at v14. You see, in Paul’s day, someone could get you arrested if you owed money. In fact, it wasn’t so long ago in Britain that you could get thrown into jail for debt: it was called “Debtors’ Prison.” & it scared people. & it worked like this. You needed money; you were hungry, or you wanted to buy wheat seed to sow in your land. So you went to the moneylender & you asked for 100 rupees or 50 rupees or whatever it was. & if the moneylender thought that he’d get his money back (plus the interest) he would make you write out an IOU: this was a letter in your handwriting, stating that you owed 50 or 100 rupees or whatever it was. It was called a promissary note. Your debt was written in your own writing. Now, Paul says, we owed a debt to God because we have sinned against him – we even pray it every week in the Lord’s Prayer: forgive us our debts… We owed a debt to God; it was personal, written in our own handwriting. & it stood as a judgment against us; people were scared because it was also an entry letter to debtors’ prison. Now, Paul writes, Jesus has taken that debt & in public, nailed it to the Cross. & that means that it’s paid off; cancelled. 

On the cross all the debt we owed has been paid off; only Jesus was pure enough, good enough & true enough to do that.

You may remember that Paul was writing to the Colossians because they had false beliefs; & one of those beliefs, v8, was that there were elemental spirits which controlled every aspect of their lives & so they lived every day as if they were walking on eggshells, trying to appease these powers with spells & rites & so-called magic words. 

But – & with this I’ll conclude – Paul says this is nonsense. The Cross is the final proof that the victory has been won; that’s what Paul’s saying. We don’t need to worry about keeping God happy; Jesus has done that. All we need to do is trust. I can’t imagine doing that on my own; we need to be part of a living, thriving fellowship whom we meet with Sunday by Sunday. That fellowship enables us to trust. & that’s the truth – the naked truth.

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