2Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.
3And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message,
so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ,
for which I am in chains.
4Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.
5Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders;
make the most of every opportunity.
6Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt
so that you may know how to answer everyone.

I have been a morning person my whole life. In the evenings we have a family rule, “No major decisions after 9 p.m.” But in the morning, I feel almost invincible. This life pattern was enhanced last year while I was undergoing treatment for lung cancer. My best, most productive hours of the day were between 3 and 8 a.m., and then the day’s treatment would knock me flat again and keep me sleepy throughout the afternoon and evening.

This morning, my alarm clock went off at 3 a.m. Not for the same reason—something much more fun. In ten days I will be taking an early morning flight to Istanbul, for a two-week tour of New Testament sites in Turkey and Greece with a Fuller alumni group. There is a ten-hour time difference between California and Turkey, and I have learned over the years that a “cold turkey” time switch does not work for me. So beginning last week, I have been shortening my days by thirty minutes, adjusting the schedules for meds and meals gradually. By the time I leave, I will be on Istanbul time.

It’s getting tougher now, because as of today, my bedtime will be prior to Andy’s arrival home from work. I freely admit the social inconvenience of such a method. Andy is a very good sport even though he thinks I’m a little nutty. But the payoff is so completely worth it, I press on. Today, though, my eyes are a little heavy even here at the laptop.

The Apostle Paul has written a stellar letter to the church in Colossae, and now he can’t really finish the epistle without one more practical admonition to pray, to say awake, and to give thanks. He started the letter with a prayer for them and now circles back to that same theme, encouraging them to pray as he does and now especially for him.

It makes me wonder what was on Paul’s mind when he said to “be watchful” (literally, stay awake). Perhaps the embarrassing story of the three close disciples of Jesus, who fell asleep in prayer on Gethsemane, much to the Lord’s disappointment. Perhaps in his later years, Paul is having a harder time staying awake in periods of solitude and silence. Or maybe his joyful anticipation of Christ’s return is enough to keep him vigilant and on guard so as to be ready when the Lord shows up.

What I do know is that it is hard for me to stay awake through prolonged periods of prayer. So to “devote myself to prayer,” I have to turn in that direction several times a day until I have covered the bases. Paul asks that one of those bases be his needs and God’s advance preparation of people with whom Paul will later share the gospel. He is always on the lookout for opportunity, and when it crosses his path he is ready with speech “full of grace, seasoned with salt,” ready with an answer to any sort of question that might come his way. This is one very good reason to pray for one’s pastor—Paul’s need is universal.

And we really must be ready for whatever comes. The week’s news bombards us with “what if” scenarios: what if I had only eight minutes to live in a plane headed straight toward a mountain range? What if I were captured and my house burned to the ground by Muslims demanding my conversion? What if I were asked to officiate at a same-sex marriage, and ridiculed for holding to a traditional view of marriage? What if I got stuck on a railroad crossing as a train was approaching?

The fact is, if we are asleep at the wheel these days, there are plenty of things that can happen. Paul is clinging to the fact that prayer, alertness, and a spirit of thanksgiving are going to hold us fast in the Lord and help us acquire wisdom for the tough stands and the difficult work ahead. Where I live (San Francisco Bay Area), it is a challenge to maintain the freedom to worship and to demonstrate the Kingdom of God according to the Word of God. It’s a tough crowd, 95% unchurched, and liberalism of all kinds is status quo.

For this scenario, Paul simply asks for clarity in what he says, wisdom to navigate political/social waters, and the patience to engage in meaningful conversation with the goal in mind. We can ask for no less!


Finally I come ‘round again to the letter of Paul to the Colossians. I left off ten days ago with a general reflection on the idea that we are to clothe ourselves in Christ and his character. This week, I would like to use Paul’s list of admonitions as a springboard for discussion of the sorts of changes you anticipate Jesus might accomplish in you in today’s world. We’ll take this verse by verse through Colossians 3:17.

Though it may seem like a thought coming from left field, I start by expressing my outrage at the anti-Semitism that is rising in Europe. Prejudice is defined as preconceived bias against someone or a group, based on misunderstanding, misconception, or incomplete knowledge. For whatever reason—and I admit utter bafflement—France, for example, is becoming inhospitable to Jews. But please hear me: there is nothing in Christianity to justify hostility towards the Jewish people. If one points a suspicious or accusatory finger towards a Jew, one must point that same finger towards oneself, for we have all sinned—Israeli, Palestinian, Parisian, Jew, Gentile— and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). We all like sheep have gone astray (Isaiah 53:6). We have all been alienated from our Creator, and our sin resulted in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Jesus died at the hands of Romans (pagan Gentiles) and Jews who provoked them —no denying this fact of history. But we all bear a common burden of sin guilt. Reception of Christ’s grace and forgiveness does not make a person superior or in any way justify contempt for those who have not received this gift. We are called to treat one other as kin (in the sense that our faith and humanity is grounded in the same Old Testament roots), even as we await the coming return of Jesus Christ to make clear his identity as the Messiah and invite everyone to believe and receive him.

Do hear how Paul begins his admonition:

“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,
clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness,
humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12).

So when Paul calls us “chosen ones,” we stand in spiritual solidarity with the people that were the first to live in covenant with Almighty God. Identifying believers as chosen ones, holy and beloved, puts Gentile Christians like the Colossians squarely in the circle of the covenant between God and the Chosen People. In our generation, it is a great honor to be numbered in the family of faith that started with Abraham. This honor is humbling and dangerous in certain parts of the world (and our country and neighborhoods) where Christians stand up against prejudice. We Christians, like Abraham, were called out of a worldly life into fellowship with the living God (hence, we are holy). We were embraced in mercy by our heavenly Father (hence, we are beloved). We were grafted into the covenant by Jesus’ death on the cross, allowing us to receive the same covenant blessing (hence, we are chosen). You can read more about that in Ephesians 2:11–22.

And since we are chosen, we are to clothe ourselves with virtues that should lead to gracious tolerance of others (more on that as Colossians 3 unfolds). Those virtues would include patience with others’ foibles or cultural practices, humility before God and one another, and costly kindness extended to those who need it.

Questions for your reflection:

  1. Watch this brief video. How would you feel about being this chap’s bodyguard?

  2. Can you cite any instance of anti-Semitism in your neighborhood or city? What can you do to call this out or model Christ’s way?

  3. If you were “clothed with compassion, humility, etc…” how would your behavior change in response to local or common vexations?

  4. Sojourners done with church: is there any element of prejudice embedded in your reaction against the church? How can you show kindness, patience, humility, or compassion to those who have disappointed, disillusioned, or injured you?


After a sugar fast during the month of January and a rather decadent self-indulgence on Super Bowl Sunday, today began my annual discipline of calorie cutting. I have had a life-long preoccupation with food, which I do not consider a virtue but more a matter of childhood conditioning. As Erma Bombeck wrote once, “I am not a glutton; I am an explorer of food.” No, honestly, I really am a glutton and I am not proud of it and pray regularly for deliverance from this one of the seven deadly sins. In the meantime, I am vulnerable to the promises of this diet or that cleanse; and now that I have had cancer, the cancer-prevention diets beckon as well.

I suppose everyone has that point of vulnerability, into which promises of health or even salvation are poured. If we just cultivate this habit or deny ourselves that food group, we will be happier and God will love us more. Or worse, God only saves vegetarians or those who keep kosher. Anyone who is insecure about his or her standing with God can be swayed into believing that salvation is found in Jesus Christ + {you fill in the blank}.

This is not a new problem in the spiritual life. From the first century, in western Turkey, among Gentile believers in Jesus Christ, people have been harassed by others to think their religious practice is incomplete, uncommitted, or incorrect. In light of what Paul has just written in the previous paragraph, his instruction starting at Colossians 2:16 packs a punch for those tempted to cling to something other than Jesus for their salvation.

16Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. 17These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, 19and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.
20If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, 21“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch.” 22All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. 23These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence.

Paul is giving a direct instruction now. To unpack the passage, do a couple of things before reading on:

  1. Go through the complete passage and highlight all the phrases that refer to something Paul is affirming or promoting with his readers.

  2. Go back and underline phrases that indicate what the problems are with the Colossians’ current way of thinking or acting.

  3. What is the underlying problem Paul is pointing out to the Colossians? Considering what the letter has been teaching up to this point, what is Paul suggesting is the solution? [Keep in mind that a direct answer to this question is going to appear in Chapter 3. No cheating! We’re following Paul’s flow here . . .]

  4. Describe any area in your life that is similar to the Colossian issue. What would God be saying to you by way of correction, redirection, or hope?

To sojourners I make the following application. See if it fits. I can only speak from direct experience within the PC(USA), but I have heard it said in presbytery pulpits and General Assembly debates that leaving the PC(USA) endangers a person’s spiritual position. To leave the church is to leave Christ (or something similar). What strikes me, in light of Colossians 2, is that this misplaced warning really presents a temptation to make the PC(USA) either a replacement for or an addition to the salvation we have in Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone.

Hear me when I say that participation in a church family is extremely important. There are so many benefits of communion with the saints that far outweigh the liabilities. But these benefits to not rise to the level of “essential for salvation,” even if I think it might be unwise in the long run to maintain a churchless existence.

To be absent from church is “unfinished business,” but I understand the pains that make such a hiatus necessary. For some of my readers who have been decommissioned or de-churched or are simply done with it, taking a respite for a time of healing can be a good thing. I talked with someone today who went through a period like this and diverted her time and attention to Habitat for Humanity for a season. But she is back at church, preparing for full-time Christian work, and ready to labor within the context of a denomination to pursue Kingdom purposes. Neither she nor I have any illusions of the church’s perfection, and keep its very human flaws in perspective.

So whatever it is that contends for “god” status in your life—food, asceticism, denominational loyalty, picayune legalisms, whatever—what does Paul say to do with that? Forsake it, and turn to Christ, who is wholly trustworthy, whose salvation is complete without add-ons, and whose love for you is unconditional. Grab hold, and grow into him!


Many years ago I saw a regional theater production of the Stephen Schwartz musical Children of Eden. A theatric rendition of the first few chapters of Genesis is certainly enough to bring me out on a Friday night! It was a fascinating interpretation of Eden, Adam and Eve, the snake, and the tragic human choice to sin against God’s will. What I remember most vividly is the form the temptation took:

The Garden on stage was fenced off around the edges, defining its parameters and focusing attention on God’s realm. But soon the snake starts talking to Eve, and introduces a new word to her vocabulary, the word “ beyond.” Look over there, Eve, beyond the fence is something you should examine! Yes, beyond the boundary that has limited your experience and deprived you of full knowledge. Yes, beyond this line is something beautiful, and bright, and so intriguing. It’s worth checking out!

The way Schwartz conveys the story, it is one word that opens the door to error. One concept just close enough to the truth but beyond the boundaries of orthodoxy opens the gates of Eden for her. The door opens not towards her enlightenment, it turns out, but to her exit.

The Apostle Paul understands the power of words, of rhetoric, and of ideas. If wrong (meaning incorrect) ideas lodge in our heads, the way out of orthodoxy is paved. Something along this line was happening in Colossae, though scholars disagree on which “wrong idea” was being promulgated there. Doesn’t matter. We all know that there are plenty of unsubstantiated but enticing ideas swirling about our airspace, so Paul’s word is just as important for us as it was to the first century church in Colossae:

8See to it that no one takes you captive through
philosophy and empty deceit (NIV: hollow and empty philosophy),
according to human tradition,
according to the elemental spirits of the universe (Gk. stoicheia),
and not according to Christ.
9For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,
10and you have come to fullness in him,
who is the head of every ruler and authority.

Paul’s first command in verses 6-7 was framed in the positive, an exhortation to continue our lives in Christ. The next command here is in the negative: “Be sure no one takes you captive . . ..” The language evokes a sense of urgency about preventing spiritual kidnapping. What makes a person vulnerable to such an attack? solitary travel, emotional neediness leading to gullibility, not paying attention to one’s surroundings, to name just a few factors. In spiritual terms, the Apostle Peter says elsewhere that God’s opponent (the evil one) is prowling like a lion to see whom it can devour (1 Peter 5:8). The image is apt here.

It is up to the believer to be on alert and to thwart intellectual captivity that uses “hollow and empty philosophy” as its snare. A strategy for spiritual safety includes traveling in groups, Christian fellowship that is rooted in biblical and historical faith; working through the events of life (with help if need be) that leave one scarred or hurt; continuing to learn from the Scriptures so you are very familiar with its vocabulary; and becoming aware of the hollow deceptions rampant within our culture. Do you hear the special word to the sojourner, the de-churched, those who are done with church? It is essential for our spiritual health to get back into fellowship that holds tightly to the gospel.

Paul here attributes the bad ideas not just to wayward, intellectually wandering humans, but to the stoicheia, the elementary principles of the spiritual realm that are opposed to Christ. He is telling the Colossians that they must reject the deceits and promises of an empty philosophy that are opposed to Christ’s person, work, and teaching.

Forget these other gods, Paul says, it is Christ in whom all the truth and goodness of deity dwells bodily! And you, my friends, have come to the spiritual place where you, too, find your spiritual completeness in him. Being found in him, you are aligned with the only One who has power and dominion over every other ruler or authority.

So just as one word, “beyond,” drew Eve and then Adam astray, so it is one Word, Jesus, who has brought us back to spiritual safety. With verses 3 and 4 of the great hymn “A Mighty Fortress,” we close:

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us.
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure;
One little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours, thru him who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still;
His kingdom is forever.


Almost forty years ago, my husband Andy and I agreed to receive each other as husband and wife. We made some commitments then that have, thankfully, stood the test of time. We were young; I had just turned 22 and Andy was not far behind at 21.8 years of age. But our vows were uttered with great confidence and joy. I’ve never been more sure of a decision in my life than that one.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the exchange of wedding vows was a defining moment for both of us. We were just starting out life as adults, and with marriage we understood that our lives would be lived together as a team. We knew full well that we were not perfect individuals, but ours was a good match and our faith in each other (not to mention God) was strong.

We had been taught well by the good examples of both our sets of parents. Our Christian community had provided marvelous resources, and even more role models, to help us visualize a good marriage that could withstand the rigors and pressures of everyday life. It was clear from the outset that this was to be a new lifestyle rooted in each other. That meant that our primary friend and top priority in time and attention would be our spouse. We shared each other’s problems, tackled homebuilding and childrearing as a couple, and defined life around an intimate union. We built something together: a relationship, a home, a family.

Over the years and decades, we have met various challenges and encouraged one another “for better and for worse, in sickness and in health.” We have both changed a lot, and yet because we have been so joined in spirit and in hope through the years, we have changed together. And for the most part, that change has been growth and maturity, as we became better able to handle the new challenges of a fifth decade together.

I share this not only to give thanks for the wonderful grace God has poured out on me through my husband, but also to use the illustration that the Apostle Paul did in describing the church. Not in Colossians, but most notably in Ephesians (a closely related letter), Paul likens the relationship between Christ and the Church to marriage (Ephesians 5:21ff).

So imagine, as Paul gives the following exhortation to the Colossians, that he is calling his readers to the life-defining relationship with Jesus, whom he has extolled in the previous chapter.

6As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord,
continue to live your lives in him,
7rooted and built up in him and established in the faith,
just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.

By receiving Christ, Paul means here that the young Christians in Colossae have taken hold of something (actually Someone) that was given, or transmitted to them, and they embraced the Lord as their own. The Christ Jesus he is talking about is the One who is God’s image, God’s wisdom, and God’s mystery (cf. N.T. Wright’s commentary)—the very one! If we are in union with this Christ, then, Paul says, continue to live “in him.” He is still alive—the Risen Lord—and by the pouring out and indwelling of his Spirit, we are joined to him in faith.

To live in Christ simply means that we align our lives with him, find our life’s encouragement and emotional stability in him, learn what we need to know from him, and draw upon the Spirit’s power to do this.

Paul is saying that if we have received Christ, then we are to live a new way, with a new set of habits and behaviors that are consistent with Christ’s way of life. [Later in the book, Paul will contrast the old life with the new.] This new life is possible because we have been “rooted and built up in him.” We have been planted in the rich soil of the Spirit’s life, where living water and spiritual nourishment sustain us. We have been matured under his guidance, in his light, and with his power. We have been taught the faith (and yes, I think this means the content of the Christian faith, centered on the person and work of Jesus Christ the Lord), so that we might know the difference between truth and falsehood.

As stewards of this treasure, life’s way is accompanied by gratitude. It is important for the saints (that’s us) to remember what it was like to “receive” Jesus and the difference he has made since that day or season to mature us. Our basic stance before the Living God is awe and thanksgiving.

Sojourners, in your desire to be done with the church (at least for now), please do not forget what God has done for you and how the Body of Christ, his Bride, has nurtured your understanding of God and established you in the faith. You got the gospel somehow, and you responded to it. Chances are, it was Christians who led you into an understanding of the Savior and his work, and who helped you align your life around him. It is also likely that you grew in faith because you were part of a learning community with faith as its subject. It is time to give thanks for that and to consider how your life can put into action the intent of their teaching and Christ’s call.

Measles is a hot topic here in California. Some children, enjoying themselves at Disneyland last month, apparently were exposed to the virus, and the disease is spreading in western states. This outbreak is particularly disappointing to the Centers for Disease Control, which had declared measles eradicated in the U.S. in 2000.

I remember getting measles when I was 8 or so, before the vaccine was available in the mid-1960s. The widespread use of the vaccine and firm public health policies, such as requiring proof of vaccination before entering school, all helped eradicate the illness by the turn of the millennium. However, in the last few years, some parents have refused to vaccinate their children because they believe the vaccine itself causes medical problems.

So let’s say the developers of the vaccine, Maurice Hilleman et al, were still alive today and could comment on the recent outbreak. They might write a letter outlining the incredible effort it took to come up with a vaccine (years worth of research and testing). But they would say it was all worth it, because so many kids were vaccinated and the measles scourge was eliminated in the U.S. Their whole goal, it could be said, was to keep kids safe and free of unnecessary suffering (and even death, when certain complications set in). All families have to do is provide two shots during their kids’ school years in order to be protected. Ah, but what is this we hear, that some people think the vaccine is bad for their children? We want you to have the key knowledge we gleaned, so that you can know the truth and act accordingly.

We can picture that sort of response, can we not? So it is with the Apostle Paul, who, long removed from Colossae’s presence, nevertheless is sure that his contending for the gospel had a direct, protective role in their spiritual lives.

1For I want you to know how much I am struggling for you,
and for those in Laodicea, and for all who have not seen me face to face.
2I want their hearts to be encouraged and united in love,
so that they may have all the riches of assured understanding
and have the knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ himself,
3in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
4I am saying this so that no one may deceive you with plausible arguments.
5For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit,
and I rejoice to see your morale and the firmness of your faith in Christ.

The chapter break here is unfortunate, as the thoughts expressed in chapter 2 are a direct continuation of 1:23b-29. Paul is disclosing his motivation for ministry in such a difficult environment and the purpose of his involvement. I don’t think Paul is tooting his own horn here, but he wants the Colossians to know that he has been working for a very long time on the gospel project, and they are receiving the benefit of his labor!

Paul is writing to the Colossians because apparently some sort of variation of the gospel is leading those Christians astray. Here’s what Paul wants them to know:

  1. Paul has been working (struggling, contending) for a long time on their behalf to secure the message of the gospel. Though he is not present with them, he is with them in spirit and is encouraged by their morale and the strength of their faith. But he is also concerned that something may be going sideways in their understanding and application of the gospel.

  2. Paul desires only that the Colossians continue to grow in spiritual maturity. Signs of this maturity would be three (that Paul indicates):

  • hearts encouraged and loving toward one another (i.e. relational/emotional health)

  • appropriating all the riches of confident understanding and knowledge of Christ (as described in the previous chapter, “the mystery of Christ in you, the hope of glory”)

  • a realization that knowing Christ means having access to his wisdom and knowledge, two essential components for maturity.

  1. If the Colossians can lay hold of this wisdom and knowledge, they will not be swayed by fine-sounding (but false) arguments others may use to derail them spiritually.

Knowledge is not only power, it is protection, according to Paul! There are facts to know, a person (Jesus) to stay close to, and people with whom you can grow and become immune to the falsehoods promulgated by others.

So, my dear fellow sojourners, if one of the urban legends you are incorporating into your faith is the belief that you don’t need the church in order to grow spiritually, listen up! I know the church has been hard on you and hasn’t been a very hospitable place for awhile. I get that, and I feel for you. But somehow, in light of all the falsehoods and denials of Jesus that surround us in the wider culture, we somehow need to find our way back into protective and nurturing fellowship. There we can study the Scriptures together, share our common life in Christ, and learn how to love even when it is difficult. It’s a new century, but Paul’s message is as fresh and relevant to us today as it was 2000 years ago in Asia Minor.

I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel.
24I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake,
and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions
for the sake of his body, that is, the church.
25I became its servant according to God’s commission that was given to me for you,
to make the word of God fully known,
26the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations
but has now been revealed to his saints.
27To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles
are the riches of the glory of this mystery,
which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.
28It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone
and teaching everyone in all wisdom,
so that we may present everyone mature in Christ.
29For this I toil and struggle with all the energy that he powerfully inspires within me.

Chapter 1 of Paul’s letter to the Colossians culminates in a testimony by the author. He offers a glimpse of his motivation for a very difficult ministry, a tenure that has required tenacity, courage, wisdom, and spiritual power to conduct. There are three themes woven together in today’s passage: the gospel as mystery revealed, Paul’s call as servant of this gospel, and how the gospel has been made known.

The Gospel as Mystery Revealed: The word of God—the Word written and the Word Become Flesh in Jesus—is God’s way of making known his eternal purposes. The Jews certainly had a lengthy and complete corpus of Writings (we call the Old Testament) that demonstrated God’s relationship with his creation (and with them) from the very beginning of time. In these writings, the history of Israel was laid out, God’s expectations for a covenant relationship were made clear, the Commandments were issued, and leadership was instructed and appointed for service over at least two thousand years. All of this activity pointed to the anticipation of a Messiah, the Savior, who would save the people from their sins. Jesus is that Savior. He is announced as the Word Become Flesh, in whom the fullness of God resides. In previous verses, Paul has eloquently expressed the majesty and realism of Jesus Christ and the meaning of his life and death. And now, Paul announces that the same Christ—eternal, present at creation, fully God and fully man, preeminent over all creation—is in you.

By virtue of his indwelling, he imparts the hope of glory. We get a taste of what is to come because the One Who Is, God himself known to us as Jesus Christ, is installing eternal life in us. This is the great news in two parts: Christ’s presence within us, and the knowledge that gives us of our own eternal destiny in the light and life of God’s glory.

What was a mystery to those who came before Jesus is now made known. This is knowledge for everybody, not just an elite few as the Gnostics taught.

Paul’s Call as Servant of This Gospel: We gain some insight into Paul’s motivation for proclaiming this message of hope in Jesus Christ. Remember that he is writing toward the end of his life (as far as we can tell) while under house arrest in Rome. He has been through a lot over a period of at least twenty years, traveling around Asia Minor and Greece, primarily, spreading the gospel. He has counted himself a servant to Christ and his message, and suffering has been a major part of his experience as an evangelist. He sees his afflictions over the years as the natural follow-on to Christ’s sacrifice. If Jesus had ventured forth from Israel, he would have encountered the same resistance Paul was experiencing in his name. It’s Paul’s turn and Paul’s time to continue in Christ’s footsteps doing Christ’s work to establish the church, equip its leadership, and secure its future. It is only Jesus Christ that Paul is serving, no other, and Paul is all in and rejoicing in the fruit of his labor.

Paul’s task as servant of the gospel is “to make the word of God fully known.” By this Paul means the Word Become Flesh, Jesus, himself; but Paul also means the content of the gospel as in transmittable information, interpretation of the Scriptures, and doctrine that will carry the church forward. We have ample evidence that Paul’s task includes both the Word Incarnate and the Word Written in his understanding of his commissioned duty. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 15: “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures . . .” and “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, . . .” (1 Corinthians 11:23). And one final example, in 2 Timothy 2: “Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.” Jesus acknowledged his role as conveying the words of truth given to him by the Father to share with his followers (John 17:8-17). Yes, indeed, God has made know the mystery of the gospel, so that it is hidden no longer!

The Characteristics of the Gospel Servant: Often in Paul’s letters, he writes personally about what it has cost him to proclaim the gospel in a hostile environment. The road has not been easy for him. So perseverance is the first quality of an evangelist. Prophetic faithfulness is evident in Paul’s ministry too, as he is willing to tell things as they are and help people see their need for the Savior. He is a patient teacher. The Colossians know that he spent three years in Ephesus, until he was sure that he had accurately and completely conveyed the truth about God, humanity, and Jesus Christ in order to build a church there. Paul focused on God’s goals rather than any professional career path the world would dictate. He was a great example of downward mobility, demonstrated by his imprisonment at the time of this letter. And finally, Paul would be the first to tell you how necessary it was to be empowered by the Holy Spirit. All these characteristics came into play to fulfill Paul’s purpose. He was always pouring knowledge and wisdom and insight into those he hoped some day to present to God mature in Christ.

For those of us who may not have a clear, institutionally blessed, position in the church from which to minister are nevertheless challenged. Paul didn’t have one, either, but he sought to uncover the mysteries of the gospel to people otherwise wrapped in worldly points of view. We certainly can do that as we go about our business each day. We can believe that our presence in our homes and communities makes a difference. We can act as though what we say is as important as how we live the life, and that the two messages must meet. We must also be prepared for the reality that gospel witness can be costly. Paul had the moral support of the people who had previously received his message and embraced Christ. Do you?

As we continue our study of Paul’s letter to the Colossians, we are struck with the contrasts he so vividly paints. In today’s passage, Paul connects the dots between the glorious accomplishments of the Lord Jesus Christ and us (all) who were alienated and hostile to God’s intents and purposes.

21And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind,
doing evil deeds, 22he has now reconciled in his fleshly body
through death, so as to present you holy and blameless
and irreproachable before him—
23provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith,
without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard,
which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven.
I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel.

Wrong thinking leads to wrong doing, and if one’s life is to be transformed, the process begins with a new way of thinking. (Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart, and N.T. Wright agree on this.) If our thinking is hostile toward God, our actions will not be friendly toward him either.

This is why debating ideas is an important sharpening exercise for believers. We may be tired of “church arguments,” but the fact is evident that spiritually corrupt ideas have crept into the church and changed actions. Undisciplined, unbiblical thinking creates a new thing— not God’s new thing of Revelation 21:5, but a human thing (that really isn’t new at all)—that brings round old sins into a 21st century context. This is what has happened in my tribe, the PC(USA) and perhaps in yours, too. Paul cares about where our thinking leads us, and we would do well to acknowledge the link between the mind and the hands.

Speaking as a fellow sojourner, what is hard to swallow is being surrounded by bad, unorthodox thinking, and having no real place to go. Staying in the midst of teaching that is contrary to Scripture is strongly discouraged by the Psalmist:

1              Happy are those
                        who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
            or take the path that sinners tread,
                        or sit in the seat of scoffers;
2           but their delight is in the law of the LORD,
                        and on his law they meditate day and night.

And yet, one can stay in the fray and debate at every turn if one’s faith is strong and one senses a call to the prophetic ministry within his or her church family. Those prophets are more often being dismissed, one way or another, in today’s church. The accusation (or quietly whispered indictment) is of failure to promote the peace and unity (forget the purity) of the church. Our current situation makes it easier to picture “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” and the strange antics Jeremiah, for instance, employed to get an urgent message across.

All people at one time or another were once alienated from God, but God took the initiative to reestablish a relationship with us. Again, Paul’s theme of Christ’s work on the Cross is reprised, the notion that our lives are hidden in Christ’s so that we can approach the Father “holy and blameless.” It is important to note here that it was in Jesus’ body and by means of his physical death that we were rescued and brought back into fellowship. It is in Jesus’ body that human frailty and divine mercy meet.

Verse 23 introduces an interesting caution to the mix: “provided that you continue . . . steadfast . . .” This faithfulness to God is contrasted with shifting away from the gospel’s hope. We cannot help but think that the Colossians themselves were observed drifting away from the message of the gospel that Paul (and his protégé Epaphras) preached and taught. The caution to continue steadfastly again links behavior with the mind’s thinking. If indeed the Colossians’ ideas about the gospel are changing, it is going to show up in how they act. If their acts are contrary to the gospel of hope, then Paul hints that they jeopardize their holiness. We will hear more about this is the passages to come. For now, as Paul concludes the introductory section of the letter, he drops a hint as to his main concern and the occasion of his writing.

It is very important for believers who have become disenchanted with the church, alienated from fellowship, to not go off and do their own thing out of fellowship. Loss of accountability puts one in a perilous position spiritually. I hear your protests that the church you once knew no longer disciplines sinners toward repentance and transformation. I agree that many of our mainline denominations are enforcing a politically correct party line on the new unholy trinity of tolerance, relativism, and self-actualization. The culturally assimilated now holding power in our churches will “hold us accountable” all right, to their way of thinking, as evidenced two weeks ago in the defrocking of a good friend, the Rev. Joe Rightmyer in Dallas.

But if we are not to become dismissed prophets wandering alone in the wilderness, how are we to find and participate in the Body of Christ? Who will hold us accountable to God’s way of thinking, as God has revealed it in his Word? It is a troubling question for Presbyterians, with whom I am most familiar; but anybody who has participated in the church over a period of time in any tribe is bound to feel the same sort of angst about being on their own. As we continue in our study, let us look for those pointers toward a solution to our dilemma.

In my last post, we contemplated the wonders of Jesus Christ, the very One who has known and loved us, as present and active at the creation. Thinking along these lines might be like realizing that someone you have known for years as, say, “Janie’s mom” was actually quite famous in a former life. In our relationship with Jesus, I fear that our familiarity with him may have caused us to forget the truly awesome role he has played in everything good, life-giving, and creative. He is not one among many, as perhaps the Colossians believed; and he is not just a friend. Jesus has, for all time, been God and worthy of all praise, worship, and respect.

What follows in Paul’s letter is an elaboration on the role Jesus has played to affect relationships:

18He is the head of the body, the church;
he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead,
so that he might come to have first place in everything.
19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,
20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself
all things, whether on earth or in heaven,
by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Jesus Christ is the church’s true head. The word here is “head,” not “source” or some other word to modify the concept that Jesus functions as the authority of the church. This is important to us because the unrivaled Lordship of Jesus Christ is the fixed point, the True North, of the church’s compass. Jesus has the authority to carry out his will; it is his personality and point of view with which everything else is to align.

Imagine a body without a head: first of all, that body is now dead, because the governing functions of brain and nervous system all reside within the skull. That body has lost the sensing organs for sight, hearing, taste, and smell. That body cannot communicate verbally, cannot plan, cannot experience emotion, cannot pray or commune with God. But with its head, a body can function in a coordinated fashion, allowing all senses to work in concert to accomplish the feats a headless corpse cannot. The control center of the head is essential for the rest of the body to have its being. For the church, Jesus is that control center, so add to the list infinite wisdom, goodness, and omniscience. You can see from this illustration why the church needs Jesus Christ as head of the body.

Further, Jesus is the beginning (present before anything else came to be, the “firstborn from the dead.” This interesting phrase refers to the resurrection; Jesus was the first to be raised bodily to everlasting life after physical dying. His death on the cross sent him to be counted among the dead, but on the third day, he rose from the grave as the firstborn of redeemed and reclaimed humanity. As the firstborn, he claims the rights and privileges of “oldest son,” as mentioned before.

The reality continues in this way: Jesus of Nazareth—Jesus the Christ, God come in the flesh—was and is no mere human character in a play. He embodied “the fullness of God,” that is, everything divine in nature, personality, abilities, and wisdom was found to reside in Jesus. The second Person of the Trinity declined, for a time, all the perquisites of divinity in order to be a visible embodiment of God. We humans would not have been able to withstand the glory (think light and power) of the unveiled presence of God, so Jesus “put a lid on it,” so to speak, and his disciples lived to tell the tale of the Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension. While “the lid” held God’s glory at bay, Jesus was no less God. It was the fullness of God that dwelt in him.

Because Jesus Christ was fully God and fully human, he was able to accomplish the distinct mission that only God could do to God’s satisfaction: redeem the world by virtue of the perfect, atoning sacrifice in our place. Jesus, effectively representing all of us mere mortals yet without sin, took upon himself what our sin deserved; and for the satisfaction of his holiness, out of unmatched love, and hopeful of reconciliation between alienated parties, he died and rose again.

We owe everything to Jesus. Our struggles to feel at home in a church congregation are pale compared to the glory of what our Lord has done for us and for the church universal. This means that the church—flawed and disappointing—is in as much need for the Savior as you and I are. God is still engaged in the work Christ brought to earth, the ministry of reconciliation, because the church remains at war with itself and consequently with God. The body is still uncoordinated, easily bruised, and its circulation wanting. Whether we like it or not, we sojourners are part of the Body of Christ and therefore part of what is not functioning properly. In our present (alienated) state we may be a bruised limb to which healing need be applied, but as long as the Holy Spirit dwells in our hearts by faith in Jesus Christ we are still in union with Christ and a part of his Body.

As we pray for our own healing, let us pray for the healing of the church. As we pray for the church to get its act together, let us pray for ourselves, too, that we may be full participants (someday if not yet) in the church’s movement toward health and wholeness.

We move on to the extension of Paul’s prayer, which in essence is a plea for knowledge of God’s will and the strength to carry it out. What follows is a riff (that goes through verse 23) on how that knowledge, wisdom, understanding, and strength was made available to us and by whom:

11May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully 12giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. 13He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

As we joyfully receive the gifts of strength and endurance for life’s tests, it is appropriate that we give thanks to the giver, our heavenly Father. It is he who established the relationship that qualifies us to receive these gifts! God has included us in his will, so that we might inherit what is intended for “the saints in the light.” God intends that we hear and receive the gospel, which notifies us of the salvation made available through Christ’s redeeming work. God gives us the passcode, so to speak, so that we might gain access to a secure source of blessing, all that God promised his people.

God’s salvation is nothing short of rescue, that is, retrieval from a dangerous, life-threatening situation (the consequences of our sin) and transfer into Christ’s kingdom. In other words, in Christ, we have been brought out of the kingdom of darkness (the world under a different ruler in opposition to God) and into the kingdom of light, godly rule, and mercy (forgiveness of sins).

We would do well to cultivate appreciation for what God has done, even when we are stuck in difficult or dangerous conditions for which we need strength and wisdom. Paul’s run-on sentence here ties together our need for strength with the One who can give it by bringing to bear all the resources of his magnificent kingdom. The saints’ inheritance is a new kingdom in which Jesus’ values are embraced, God’s intentions are fulfilled, and the saints’ lives are turned around.

Please understand that the word “saint” is Paul’s normal name for those who have trusted Jesus Christ and believed in his Name. No other special virtue is implied. A saint is one who has been rescued and transferred, redeemed, and forgiven.

For the sojourner, this passage might reinforce the thinking that says, “Hey, I know that I am saved, and that is all that is important. I don’t need the church in order to be just fine spiritually.” However, note that Paul’s prayer includes praise to God for transferring us from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light. A kingdom is not a “bubble-realm,” a collection of individuals separated into their own little pietistic bubbles. No, the kingdom of God is a robust, interdependent, relational community of saints who work together for God’s glory and purposes. We see this in the great choruses and communities of praise in the book of Revelation (e.g. Revelation 5:9–12). I think there will also be great, awesome silences and every person will feel himself to be loved and singled out in one-on-one relationship with the Father. But I am pretty sure we will never be alone, isolated, or out of community. We are called to practice that in this life so that we can stand it in the next!

Nevertheless, there are decommissioned, de-churched saints among us in the here and now, and we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ, we are accompanied on the journey by the One who set the path with his own footsteps. But we also need healing, the laying on of hands, the growing sense that the quality of our life and the focus of our activity is not dependent merely on our own comfort.

I just had a conversation today with the director of pastoral care services at John Muir Medical Center. In the background, I am proud to say that the hospital has had a strong, community-based, chaplaincy program for over twenty-five years. I and many other local pastors have been invited to help provide on-call spiritual care. We have received training and information that enable us to cooperate with the overall treatment given to patients. Anyway, the director and I were commenting on the fact that many of the people who are admitted to the hospital have not been recent church attenders, a lot like the unchurched, de-churched, and decommissioned Christians I am addressing in this blog. And yet, under the distressing circumstances of hospitalization, they realize they need spiritual care as well as physical cure and indicate a denominational affiliation on their admittance forms. Consequently, we community-based chaplains (pastors of local congregations who volunteer some hours at the medical center) become a temporary safe havenm spiritually-speaking. We get to remind people of Whose they are and the availability of a local faith community. [Our program, by the way, engages mostly Christian pastoral care givers, because the vast majority of the patient population identifies as Christian; but we are also committed to helping Jewish patients, Muslim patients, and other groups get the spiritual care that they request.]

If Paul were praying for them—patients and staff at a regional trauma center like ours—Paul would be asking God for a reassuring knowledge that they were part of a spiritual family that promotes healing so vividly evident in the kingdom of light. And we can pray for that for one another, too.  

So church without walls, think about this: how can you show loving care to other Christians in exile around you? What can you do to bring healing: Listen well? Intercede? Anoint with oil? Share mission? Study the Word? Venture forth to sit in the back row of a new church for awhile? Weep in lament? Visit in the hospital? Utter reassurances of pardon? Think creatively about this, my friends, because some day the Lord is going to say, “Okay, it is time to transfer into fellowship with the saints in light. Take up your pallet and walk!”