Colossians 1.24-2.5, Ezekiel 36.24-32, Acts 14.14-25
When I was young we had a cottage in the countryside, not far from Cirencester. One of the things that I most liked about it was its thick walls. It meant that you could sit on the windowsills inside the curtains and read a book on a rainy day looking outside but totally protected from the elements. Someone had donated us a collection of nearly all the Agatha Christie novels and I spent many a happy hour reading one whodunit after another. There was always a murder at the beginning and during the rest of the book Miss Marple or Poirot talked to people to solve the mystery and find out who the murderer was. Inevitably at the end the clever detective succeeded where the police hadn’t, the mystery was solved and the murderer and his reasons for killing revealed.
I don’t know if any of you have seen the series death in Paradise? The endings are very similar to an Agatha Christie. All the possible suspects are bought together and then the mystery is solved by the Detective Inspector when he unveils the culprit. Finally all the different clues and actions of the different suspects fall into place – and we really understand what has been going on. Well today’s bible passage talks about a mystery. And it is a big one – one ‘that has been kept hidden for ages and generations’. But before we get to it – I want to recap on v.15-23. These verses show that
‘We can be confident in J because of who he is: the full and final Word who reveals God’s character, authority and purposes in His world. It also shows what He has done – He has reconciled a rebellious world to God through His death on the cross’.
All this was true of the Apostle Paul. He had been persecuting the church when on the road to Damascus Jesus met with him and turned him around completely. He realised that Jesus was the Messiah, was God and that through his self giving sacrifice on a Roman cross he reconciled a rebellious world, including Paul to God. Paul is given a commission by God v.25 and it is this leadership role outlined in v.24-29 that I want to explore now.
We are, as we all know, in a political crisis at the moment. There were some interesting figures that came out last week where people evaluated the leadership of the prime minister and the leader of the opposition. Jeremy Corbyn has the worse satisfaction rating of any opposition leader since they started to take them 40 years ago.
With 16% satisfied with him and 76 not satisfied, he came out with a rating of -60%! Boris Johnson came out better with an overall satisfaction rating of -18% but only 14% are currently happy with his government with 81% dissatisfied! It is clear that we aren’t impressed with the qualities of some of our top politicians today! Well, does Paul offer us a different example of leadership in our passage? I think that he does. Pastor Meynell thinks that we can see three examples of what Real Ministry leadership is – at the end of chapter one.
1. Real Ministry… is service.
Firstly real Ministry is service. In v 25 P calls himself a servant. Following in the steps of J he doesn’t aspire to Lord it over others but to serve them. Jesus offered a model of leadership that was very different to that of the leaders of his day. He said: ‘The Son of Man has not come to be served but to serve and offer his life as a ransom for many’ (Mr 10.45). Who does Paul serve? Most widely he serves all the body of Christ, that is the Church (24). More specifically in this letter he writes to serve the church in Colossians.
How does he serve this church he has never met, hundreds of miles away from his prison in Rome? V.25 says by ‘presenting (them) the word of God in all its fullness’. The best way he can serve this new community of Christians is by teaching them the word of God. That is why the best way of serving a Christian community is by teaching all the word of God to them. That is our spiritual food.
The reason that most evangelical ministers preach through whole books of the bible is that they can teach their congregations ‘the word of God in all its fullness’. Otherwise it is too easy to avoid passages that are difficult to understand or to put into practice. Or are too controversial or counter-cultural. What is known as expository teaching helps keep the Preacher honest and teaching God’s counsel, not their own ideas.
And what is at the Center of the W of G that P teaches? It is a mystery. A mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations. But now it is disclosed to the saints. Saints aren’t holy, dead people but all those who being sinners have trusted in Christ’s blood shed on the cross for them, as we saw back in v.20.
I came across an interesting quote this week which I found a bit shocking: ‘Good people go to hell. It’s the bad people who go to heaven’. It took awhile to get my head around that. We often have this unbiblical idea that those who are good will go to heaven. And if we come to church regularly surely we are good people! But J said “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” Lu 5.32
It is bad people who understand that they aren’t good, who can turn to God in repentance. Do we truly think that we are bad people? If so we see our deep necessity of a Saviour and turn to Christ. If we truly believe that we are good, we have nothing to be saved from and so will ignore Jesus and be lost forever.
So what is this mystery that Paul proclaims?
The finale of the Agatha Christie has arrived, all are gathered round as at the end of a Death in Paradise episode and the mystery is revealed. V.27 ‘The glorious riches of this mystery… is Christ in you, the hope of Glory’. The Messiah that all Israel has been waiting hundreds of years for, is revealed as a poor Galilean Carpenter. Not a prestigious rich man, a famous celebrity or a powerful war leader.
But someone who ended up crucified as a criminal, condemned by the religious establishment and the political elite. And what is even more amazing is that this obscure Jewish carpenter not only was the Jewish messiah but the universal Christ. The person who Paul has just explained is the Creator of the World and the Redeemer of Mankind. This is the mystery that has been revealed to the Gentiles – to those of all the nations.
But Paul goes one step further: He says that for Christians ‘Christ is in you’. We have here an echo of Ezekiel 36.26-27: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” The risen Christ is present in the believer through the Holy Spirit. This is totally amazing. The good life we can’t live in the flesh, we can begin to live in the Spirit.
And this ‘Christ in you’ is the hope of Glory. If we accept Christ as our Lord and Saviour, he is present in our life and that gives us confidence that we can be in relationship with God now and through to heaven when we will be with him in glory. So Paul serves the church in Colossians by presenting them with the word of God in its fullness.
And at the centre of that, is that for the first time the mystery hidden from the gentiles that the Jewish Messiah Jesus is revealed. He is the universal Christ who not only came 2,000 ago in human form, as we celebrate at Xmas, but dwells in us who have trusted in him. There is so much more to say here but I better press on.
What is the goal of Paul’s service? V.28 says “He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ.” Proclaim Christ – so people can see who Jesus is and their necessity of responding to him. That is what we are doing with the Christianity Explored course that started this week – proclaiming Christ by going through the gospel of Mark so people can see who Jesus is.
Admonishing is the corrective side of Christian leadership – correcting false ideas of G, reprehending ungodly living. It is the shepherd protecting the sheep from harmful influences. Teaching is the affirmative side of Xian ministry. Teaching and preaching the word of God, in season and out of season as it says on this pulpit. Real Ministry is serving, through proclaiming C and admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ.
Another word for perfect is mature. That was Paul’s Ministry all those years ago and I trust that it will be mine here in St M’s for many years. There are many things a vicar could devote their time to. Administration, financial management, service leading etc. so that everything in the church runs smoothly. All those things are important but my primary call here is to proclaim C, admonishing and teaching all.
2. Real Ministry… is struggle
This leads us to two other points about Christian leadership. Real Ministry involves struggle. In verse 29 Paul shows what ministry was like for the greatest missionary, theologian and church planter since Jesus. He labours, struggling. But he doesn’t do this in his strength but in Christ’s strength. ‘With all Christ’s energy which so powerfully works in me’. I hope to labour, to struggle alongside you to help present everyone mature in Christ. And for that I will need your prayers. That God’s Holy Spirit will work powerfully in and through me.
3. Real Ministry… involves suffering
One of my best friends growing up was a vicar’s daughter. Her father was a real gentle man of prayer who had faithfully served in several churches. In his final parish there was a real power struggle between some leading families who wanted nothing to change and resented the vicar prayerfully moving things on. He finished his ministry having a breakdown and taking early retirement. He struggled and he suffered for his flock.
And that leads to the third and last point that we see in Paul’s leadership here. Real Ministry involves suffering. If you look back at our first verse – v.24 it says: “Now I rejoice in what I am suffering 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.”
This doesn’t mean that there was anything lacking in the sufferings of Christ when it comes to achieving salvation. The cross is the once-for all sacrifice that brings us into right relationship with God. But in some way, Christ’s servants share in his sufferings as they extend the gospel around the world.
If a leader is doing his work as we saw Paul did, there will always be suffering and opposition. One pastor says: ‘Nobody enjoys being told that they are wrong. Nobody likes to hear that they need rescuing when they think they are doing perfectly fine by themselves, thank you very much. Nobody finds it easy to change direction. So there will always be opposition to the gospel – despite its undeniable goodness and wonder’.
Another of our favourite programmes is NCIS – part of which involves pathologists examining dead bodies to see what clues they can find out about their deaths. If Paul’s body were bought into a CiS lab the pathologist would have lots to look at. There would be clear evidence of the stoning we heard he endured in Lystra where he was left for dead. There would no doubt also be evidence of the flogging, imprisonments and shipwrecks that he endured on his missionary journeys. Why did he endure all that when he could have bought a nice home in a suburb of Jerusalem and lived an easy life?
Well because he felt called by God to serve the church, presenting the full word of God, struggling to reveal the greatest of mysteries to others – ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory’ and suffering as he proclaimed Christ, admonishing and teaching everyone.
Pastor Mark Dever says: ‘Paul writes this letter for the same reason he preaches. He loves these people, and God has called him to instruct them and to suffer for them. So he labours through beatings, imprisonments, arguments, angry words, stones, and challenges to his integrity and his sanity. And he rejoices in such service!’
May that be the same for me. May love be the motivation of each one of us as we grow in Christian faith and as we share Jesus with others. May we show our love for God and his people through service, struggle and suffering.