Colossians 1v1-8: The message that grows - 11th January 2015 - Dave Walker

Bible reading: Colossians 1:1-8

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I love Christ Church North Finchley. It’s four years since I first stood up here as vicar, and I can honestly say this more than ever. I love Christ Church North Finchley. And you know, don’t you, when I say that I don’t mean the building. I mean the people. You.

I’ll be honest: I don’t always feel like that. I don’t always feel encouraged or excited when I think about all of you, sometimes I feel worried or discouraged or frustrated or tired. Sometimes my own selfishness is the cause of those feelings. But actually again and again the Lord is teaching me that you are precious to him. Some of the biggest encouragements I’ve had have come from seeing him at work amongst you.

And this week, I don’t know how it’s been for you, for me in some ways it’s been a bit hectic and stressful, in the middle of it as I’ve studied this bit of Colossians, the book we begin today, God has been once more teaching me of how much of his goodness is on display here. Of what wonderful reasons I have to give thanks when I think about you. My prayer this morning is that as we spend this time listening to God’s word now and during the week, God will cause each of us to give thanks as we think about each other. Because there is good reason to give thanks. There really is.

So, Colossians. A wonderful, powerful, heartfelt letter. Read it. It doesn’t take long. When you’ve read it once, read it again. This term we’re going to be immersed in the wonderful gospel truth found here in Colossians. It’s written by the Apostle Paul to some Christians living in a place called Colossae, in Turkey, and he’s never met them. Did you hear that in the reading? Verse 7 – they hadn’t met Paul, but they’d heard the gospel from someone else, a man named Epaphras, and they’d become Christians; followers of Jesus. Last week we were looking at the heart of the letter, the key message – our memory verse. Just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. Do you remember that? That’s why Paul is writing this whole letter, because he wants this church to grow in Jesus. They’re in danger of drifting away, being distracted, led off down some blind alleys. Paul really doesn’t want that to happen; he wants them to stay with Jesus and grow in Jesus. Growing together in Christ.

But he begins, doesn’t he, not with a warning, not by telling them off or pointing out where they’ve gone wrong, but with a huge warm hearted thanksgiving.

Verse 3: “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you.” That carries the sense of always praying for them, and always giving thanks, whenever they pray. Paul and Timothy pray for this church a lot, and their prayers are always bursting with thanks.

Why? Why all the thanks? Verse 4: “because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and your love for all the saints.” That’s the stuff. That’s the trigger. This group of Christians are marked by their faith in Jesus, and their love for each other. Where it says “all the saints” it means “all Christians.” Saints in the Bible always means “all believers in Jesus” – it doesn’t mean some special dead believers. So he sees their faith and their love and he gives thanks.

So here’s our first big challenge: Give thanks for real faith and real love.

Notice it’s real faith and real love, isn’t it? Not just any old faith and love – this is distinctively Christian faith and love. Faith in Christ Jesus. In our time we often hear of people being categorised as “people of faith” don’t we? Like there are the people of faith over there with all their religions, and the people of no faith over there. That’s not at all what Paul is talking about. He’s not saying that he gives thanks wherever he sees religious people, people with some faith or other. No, he gives thanks when he sees people leaning their all on Jesus. To have faith is to rest your weight on something. To trust something, to depend upon something. Everything hinges on what you rest upon. Everyone depends upon something; the important question is not “are you trusting something?” but “what are you trusting?” The attackers we’ve heard about this last week were clearly people of faith; it’s just that their faith was spectacularly badly placed.

Paul sees these Christians and says “you’ve got faith in Christ Jesus! Not on something else! That’s wonderful! Thank the Lord for that!” because their faith could not be better placed. Jesus is genuinely dependable. Worth trusting.

And their love, likewise, it’s not just a vague sense of friendliness towards everything, like the drunk guy on New Year’s Eve, it’s real practical self-giving love for other believers in Jesus. They love each other. Like Jesus himself said to his disciples “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” It’s not that they don’t love other people too, Christian love is always love that overflows to others too, it’s just that followers of Jesus are a family of love, marked out by loving each other, just like the three persons of the one true God, Father Son and Holy Spirit, are marked out by their overflowing love for each other. Paul sees that in these believers, and he’s bursting with thanks.

Because this faith and love is living proof that God is at work among them through the good news of Jesus, the gospel. It’s the plant that proves that the seed is there. If you’ve ever tried any kind gardening at all you’ll know about dandelions. They just spring up, don’t they. You clear a patch of ground, you go and do all your weeding, within a couple of weeks there’s dandelions on it. You might say “where did that come from? How did that get here?” But actually you know full well how it got there. A dandelion seed has landed in the soil and taken root. The dandelion plant is proof of that.

Faith in Christ and love for Christ’s people is proof that a seed has landed and taken root. Do you see? Verse 5: “The faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard about in the word of truth, the gospel that has come to you. All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth.” The gospel itself, the good news of Jesus, that’s the thing that grows and bears fruit. That’s the seed.  And where it has grown you see – faith in Christ and love for Christ’s people. That’s the fruit.

It’s not complicated is it? If you’ve been a Christian for a while this might feel like going over the ABCs for you. But it’s worth dwelling on however long you’ve been a believer, because this is so utterly foundational. And so easy to drift away from. So often people end up looking for the wrong sort of fruit and being discouraged when they don’t find it. You know, they look for the fruit of trouble free lives. And they say “those people look healthy and wealthy; they must be the genuine article. God is among them.” Or perhaps “there’s loads of people ill here, God must have abandoned us.” Or they look for the fruit of the number of people coming to a particular church. And they say “there’s lots of people there, God must be among them.” Or “there’s not that many of us. Perhaps we’re not real Christians. Perhaps we need some extra missing ingredient.” Don’t be deceived. Don’t be disheartened because you’re looking for the wrong thing. Faith in Christ. Love for Christ’s people. Can you see it? Can you see it in people around you here? Can you? Oh yes, there’s room for growth, but can you see it already? I can. So give thanks! That’s living proof of God’s work.

And remember where this real fruit comes from and how it grows. It comes from the gospel, the good news, doesn’t it? Just look at those words which describe the gospel here: v5 “the word of truth.” V6 “God’s grace – that is God’s free generosity – in all its truth.” That sort of good news, the true message of a God overflowing with generosity. And the content of the gospel is hope, isn’t it? Verse 5 again “the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and which you have already heard about in the word of truth, the gospel that has come to you.”

Hope is such a vague word for us, isn’t it? “I hope it’ll be alright for you. I hope that doesn’t happen.” A sort of fainthearted wish. That’s not at all the sort of hope Paul is talking about here. Hope here is a dependable future promise that gives you reason to live now. That’s what Bible hope is. It’s the assurance that tomorrow is worth living, because God has the future all sewn up and it’s glorious.

That’s what the gospel gives us. The gospel is good news because it is all about God generously pouring out his love for us by sending Jesus, Jesus who spoke God’s love, who died to take away our sin and guilt and shame, who freely invites us to share in his everlasting life. The gospel of Jesus is the most amazing message of love and generosity and hope for the future. All built on him. All about what he’s done. All secure, tied up in Jesus himself. The power, the fruitfulness, comes from him.

Do you know there’s nothing like this out there? Out there, in the non-Christian world, if you want someone to change, what do you do? You make them feel bad about how they are, and you tell them to sort themselves out. There’s that very current phenomenon “the twitter storm” isn’t there? Everyone pouring out their hatred in small doses when they encounter something or someone they don’t like. Piling on the pressure “sort yourself out, sort yourself out.” Or writing people off altogether.

How different the gospel is. A message of forgiveness and love and hope instead of a burden of guilt. People have Christianity all wrong, don’t they? They assume that Christianity too is all about making people feel bad, piling on the guilt and shame instead of showing how Jesus can take it away. That is not the gospel, is it? That’s the world’s message. The message of self-help which quickly turns to self-importance – “look how well I’ve done, why don’t you try to be more like me” – or self-loathing – “I’ve tried to fix myself and it didn’t work; I’ve failed again.” That’s not good news.

The gospel, the message of Jesus, that’s good news. Forgiveness, love, hope all because of Jesus. Good news to sinners, not just the news that you are sinners. And wherever it takes root it grows. God himself brings out the faith in Christ and the love for Christ’s people. It’s the inevitable consequence of the gospel taking root. It’s the living proof that the real gospel is there.

If you’re struggling in your faith, you know, struggling to trust Jesus, come back to this message of hope. See what Jesus has done for you. See what he’s promised you. Life with him, rooted in him, made secure by him. Proved by his resurrection. There will come a day when all your doubts will be past, when you see him face to face. If you’re struggling to love other Christians, again, come back to this message of hope. The gospel. See what Jesus has promised for you and for them. He’s made you a new family with a wonderful future. There will be a day when any divisions between us will seem trivial and so, so long ago.

If you’re a believer in Jesus, you know this when you see it, don’t you? I was talking this week to a couple from our church who’ve been going through some tough times in the last few weeks, and related to that they’ve had lots of visits from various medical people. This week a nurse came to see them, and as is their way, they mentioned Jesus in the conversation. And this nurse sort of came alive with faith in Christ and love. It turns out she was a Christian too, and so that meeting became a joyful sharing in Christ. After a while she had to go to the next patient but she said “I could stay here all day talking about this.”  The real gospel had taken root in her, and it showed. Perhaps you’ve had that sort of experience. Christians often do. It’s something to be thankful for, isn’t it? Thankful to God that he’s done that through this wonderful, hopeful, overflowingly generous message of Jesus.

So here’s our second challenge: Give thanks for the real gospel.

[The popular historian AN Wilson is a man who was once very critical of Christianity, very dismissive of the gospel of Jesus. But in recent years he has very publicly come back to Christ. And on Christmas day he had this to say in an article published in the Daily Telegraph: “The Gospel would still be true even if no one believed it. The hopeful thing is that, where it is tried – where it is imperfectly and hesitantly followed – as it was in Northern Ireland during the peace process, as it is in many a Salvation Army hostel this Christmas, as it flickers in countless unseen Christian lives, it works. And its palpable and remarkable power to transform human life takes us to the position of believing that something very wonderful indeed began with the birth of Christ into the world.”]

It’s this very fruitfulness of the gospel of Jesus, the fact that it’s the gospel that gives us this heavenly hope which leads to all the faith and love, it’s that which shows us how precious this gospel is. Paul here is telling these Christians about his thanksgiving for them, not just to give them a window on his prayer life, but also to encourage them that they have heard and believed the real gospel. He underlines that doesn’t he in verse 7 when he talks about Epaphras: “You learned it from Epaphras, our dear fellow-servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf.” Epaphras was no celebrity preacher. He’s not mentioned elsewhere in the Bible other than in Colossians, he didn’t have a high profile ministry. But he was faithful. He had told them the true gospel. That’s the most important thing.

We live in a culture that often despises simple faithfulness. If you’ve ever watched “The Apprentice”- it’s been around for donkeys years now – you’ll know that when Alan Sugar in the boardroom is waving his finger around deciding who to fire, the faithful plodders tend to go first. Thinking on your feet, sounding confident, looking impressive, force of personality, the ability to drive a hard bargain – those things are seen as much more important. But not so with God. He values faithfulness. When God assesses his servants, his ministers, faithfulness is top of the list.

And when you grasp how precious and special the gospel is, you can understand why. In the gospel we have this message that gives life and hope. So the most important thing for the messengers is that they get it right. That they’re faithful. If you’re sending someone a special gift through the post, the main thing you want from the post office is to get it there safely. Nobody appreciates a postman who opens up the parcels and tries to make a few improvements of his own. What you want is someone who will pass that precious parcel on, faithfully.

So this is a massive encouragement to the Colossian Christians. They are the genuine article because they’ve heard the genuine article. They have a faithful messenger. They’ve received the real gospel. Paul himself can say to them “I know Epaphras; he’s the real thing.” That’s so important because, as I’ve already mentioned, they were under pressure to leave Epaphras behind and go after some other stuff which looked or sounded more religious, or more spiritual, or more spectacular. No, says Paul, stick with Epaphras. He has told you the real gospel. Now obviously Paul can’t say this to us in the same way because he went to be with the Lord many centuries ago; but we have his writings, we have the Bible, as a yardstick, to check whether we’re hearing the real gospel or not. That’s why I always recommend that you have your bibles open when I or anyone else preaches. So you can check what we say. So you can see if what we say matches with the gospel that the apostles passed on from Jesus. The real gospel.

You see I can’t vouch for everything you’ve heard out there. There are all sorts of people saying all sorts of things, on TV, on radio, in books or on the internet, in churches or in coffee shops. Some of them look and sound very spiritual; very impressive. But I do know that you have heard the gospel here. When you’ve read or heard the real message of Jesus, from the Bible, you know that God is at work. That’s something to give thanks for.

So. We said last week, didn’t we that this letter, and our theme for the whole year, is all about growing together in Christ. Well if you want that to happen begin by giving thanks. Give thanks, like Paul does, for what we already have. Give thanks for the faith in Christ and the love for Christ’s people that you can see on display among us. It’s here. Do you notice it? Do you give thanks for the people around you who show you bits of that? We should do, shouldn’t we? Will you make it your intention to first give thanks for other believers, before making any other comment? That would help, wouldn’t it? It would help us to avoid that critical spirit that can be so harmful. It would help us to lift our eyes above the problems to the living God who is at work. We have reason to give thanks because the real gospel has reached us, and God is using it to grow and bring fruit. Growing together in Christ is always going to be all about that gospel message of Jesus, isn’t it? Be encouraged that he’s already doing it. Be thankful that he’s already doing it.

But, maybe, as we’ve been going through this, you’ve been noticing more and more that actually this doesn’t describe you. That’s quite possible. There will be people here now like that. Perhaps faith in Christ and love for his people don’t characterise you. Perhaps that great hope, the certain promise of life with Christ, perhaps that doesn’t feature among your key motivations. Perhaps as you hear me talk about this, you feel a bit left out, a bit on the outside, a spectator rather than a participator. If so, you know what you need, don’t you? You need the joyous, liberating gospel of Jesus. You need this gospel message that gives hope and life. Don’t go away just feeling excluded, or hopeless. Grab hold of this wonderful message of hope. The message that invites you in on the best loving family ever. You need to taste and experience that. Come and talk to me. There’s a group very soon investigating this gospel more thoroughly. Sign up today. Investigate it properly. Because if this is true, it’ll be the most fruitful thing you ever do.

So then. Faith, Love, hope. Praise God. Let’s give thanks now.