“THE MYSTERY”

COLOSSIANS 1:24-2:5

 

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           Ever been to the circus?  If not I encourage you to keep Alan Wheelis, advice about going to a circus in mind.  In his book, On Not Knowing How to Live, he talks about developing a philosophy of life using the "Big Top" of the circus as an analogy.  He writes, 

 

            Stay with the main show.  Do not be drawn off into side shows and diversions ...do only what you are most solemnly charged to do ... there in the Big Top, a man is hanging by his teeth, twisting, spinning, spotlights playing over him, the drums beginning to roll.  He's going to fall and nothing can be done - no net - but in the moments remaining he may yet achieve something remarkable, some glittering stunt, a movement, perhaps of breath taking beauty ... any turning away to watch the dancing bears is a betrayal of the dangling man ... hold fast, stay with him.

 

            Wheelis' advice about going to the circus can be adapted to our faith.  There are enticing religious side shows being offered.  They happen all around us.  We have religious versions of dancing bears, sword swallowers, and bearded ladies.  They clamor for our attention, and they come and they go.  And then there is the main show of our faith.  What is it?  It is Jesus Christ, not a man dangling from a trapeze, but the God-man hanging from a cross.  We are to hold fast to him, stay with him. 

            If you were last Sunday, you remember that Paul was writing to Christians who were being diverted from the main show.  Last week we talked about Paul’s battle with a group of traveling teachers called “Gnostics” which literally means “the knowledgeable ones” or the “intellectual ones.”  The gnostic heresy was gaining ground in Colossae.  Claiming a superior and esoteric wisdom, they asserted that God was separated from the world, distantly so, and had not directly created the world.  Rather, creation took place as a result of emanations - each more distant from God, until those farthest from God created the material world.  That was the Gnostic answer to evil being in the world.  The world is evil because it was created by a lesser being who didn’t get it quite right.  To the Gnostics the spirit was good and matter was evil.  Since God was spirit and therefore good, the evil material world could have no contact with him.

            One can immediately see what a challenge this was to basic Christian understanding as Christ as the Incarnation of God.  The Christian teaching that God came in the flesh in the person of Jesus Christ could not be, argued the Gnostics.  If Jesus was the Son of God, he could not dwell in the flesh because all matter is evil, so Jesus must have been an "emanation" from God; a lesser god or quite possibly more like an angel than a god.

            So Paul, this morning, addresses the Gnostic side show that denigrated the divinity of Christ, and he warns the Colossians about their side show in the fourth verse of the second chapter.  Look at that with me.  He said, I am saying this so that no one may deceive you with plausible arguments.

            In other words.  Don’t get sidetracked by the dancing bears and the sword swallowers.  They can be pretty appealing, but keep you eyes on the main show, Jesus Christ, fully human and fully divine.

            But before he goes on the offensive this morning, he has to play a little defense.  Specifically, he has to answer charges leveled at him by the side show teachers.  The side show teachers stressed that Paul could hardly be a trusted, God-honored teacher if God could not keep him out of jail.  They said, “Look, he doesn’t even have the courage to come and visit us in person.”  The side show teachers exploited Paul’s sufferings and imprisonments and Paul defends himself right off the bat this morning.  Look at chapter one, verse twenty-four,

 

            I am now rejoicing in my suffering 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.

 

            I don’t know about you, but for me, Paul’s defense brings me up short.  At least, it does at first glance.  I want to ask, “What do you mean, Paul, by ‘completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions?‘  What was lacking in Christ’s afflictions, Paul?  Was the cross not enough?”   

            Well, here’s what I think he meant, and I may be wrong, and it’s one of the many questions I have for Paul when I meet him in heaven, but here’s what I think he meant.  I think he meant, “Jesus died to save his church; but the church must be upbuilt, and extended; it must be kept strong and true; therefore, anyone who serves the church by widening its boundaries, is doing the work of Christ.  And if such service involves suffering and pain and sacrifice, that affliction is filling up and sharing the very suffering of Christ himself.  To suffer in the service of Christ is not a penalty, it is a privilege and an honor, and I gladly do it for you, even though we have never met one another or laid eyes on one another.” 

            I think that’s what he meant, and I’ll ask him when we get to heaven.  So having defended himself, he moves onto the main show, to Jesus Christ, and in so doing he tells us about the mystery involving Jesus Christ. 

            Do you like mysteries?  Trudy and I have recently gotten hooked on Masterpiece Mysteries on PBS.  What great shows.  Sherlock Holmes.  Miss Marple.  Poirot.  Inspector Lewis.  Then there’s Castle on ABC.  The Mentalist on CBS.  Whew, I love a good mystery, and Paul reminds us of the best mystery of all time.   

            Of course, the Gnostics also loved mysteries.  In fact, the ancient world had what were called mystery cults, religious groups that thrived on secrets.  For each mystery cult you needed to learn the secret handshake, if you will, in order to connect to the mysteries of the divine.  These cults, these ancient side shows, claimed they had “secret” knowledge about God, and only those initiated into the cult could share in their secret knowledge about God.  They said, “Come join us, we’ll let you in on the secret, and we will unlock the mystery.  No one knows it except us.”

            Well, Paul would never make a good mystery writer.  Why?  Because he tells us who did it in the first chapter.  In response to the Gnostic notion of the secrets of the universe being revealed in their special knowledge, Paul said, “No ... no ... that isn't it. The secret is not in a philosophy, but in a person - the person of Jesus Christ.  And the secret of secrets is that Christ is in you and me.  That’s the great mystery.”  Listen to his exact words,

 

            I became its servant according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery that was hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to all the saints.  To 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.

 

            I want to quickly explore two facets of the mystery.  Facet one: our share in the mystery; and facet two: our sharing the mystery.  I know the two sound almost alike - especially the way I speak - so let me voice them carefully.  One, our share in - that's two words - our share in the mystery; and two, our sharing -- that's one word - our sharing the mystery.  Let's look at these facets of the mystery of Christ in us.

            First, our share in the mystery.   As followers of Christ we are the recipients of the mystery.  Christ dwells in us.

            The core of the whole Christian experience is that this Christ, at whom we looked at last week in the creed, this Christ who is the image of the invisible God; this Christ who gives meaning to all of creation; this Christ who is head of the church; this Christ who reconciles humanity to God ... if you are a Christian, this Christ lives in you.

            Listen to this incredible and insightful confession.  It comes from a fellow Presbyterian, the former chaplain of the United States Senate, Lloyd Ogilvie.  He writes,

 

            I got on my knees and prayed, “Lord, I’ve missed the secret.  I’ve been ministering for you and have not allowed you to work through me.  Come live your life in me.  Love through me; forgive through me; suffer for the estranged through me ... “

            The result of that prayer is that I discovered guidance is not something I go to Christ to receive, but something he signals from within my mind and spirit.

            Each person I met or worked with gave me a fresh opportunity to let go and allow Christ to speak and love through me.  I found, and continually rediscover now, that my task is only to pray for openness to let him through, and then marvel at what he says and does.[1]

 

            A number of years ago a brother in a religious order came to Mother Teresa, complaining about a superior whose rules, he felt, were interfering with his ministry. "My vocation is to work for lepers," he told Mother Teresa. "I want to spend myself for the lepers."

            She looked penetratingly at him for a moment, then smiled and said gently, "Your vocation is not to work for lepers, your vocation is to belong to Jesus."

            That's the answer, that's the secret to cultivating our share in the ministry of God's grace: recognizing, cultivating an awareness of, and seeking to exercise the presence of the indwelling Christ.

            Now the second facet of truth to explore. Not only our share in the mystery, but also our sharing the mystery.  We are called - given responsibility -- allowed the awesome opportunity of sharing the mystery with others.

            Hear clearly what I am saying.  Not only are we the recipients of the mystery, we are the communicators of the mystery.  Listen again to verses 28 and 29:

 

            It is him whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ.  For this I toil and struggle with all the energy that he powerfully inspires within me.

 

            A woman in Africa had discovered the secret, and was the recipient of the mystery.  Overwhelmed with gratitude, she wanted to do something for Jesus and the Kingdom.  But she was blind and seventy years of age; therefore her contributions did not seem to be very significant.  She was uneducated, but she came to the missionary with her French Bible and said, "Would you mind underlining John 3:16 in my Bible in red?"   Remember the verse?  For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son so that whoever should believe in him shall have eternal life. 

            The missionary was very intrigued to see what she was going to do.  The woman took her Bible and sat in front of a boys' school in the afternoon.  When school was dismissed, she would call to a boy or two and say to them, "boys, come here please. Do you know French?"  Very proudly, they said that they did.  Then she would ask, "Please read to me this passage underscored in red in my Bible."  They did.  Then she would ask, "Do you know what it means?"  They would say, "No, we don't know." And she would tell them the story of Jesus.  Twenty-four young men became pastors due to the work of this blind woman, touched by the contagion of the light in her which Christ brings.

            If Christ lives in us, which he does, it only follows that he will lead us into those situations and to those people who need him most.  Amen.

                       



[1] Lloyd John Ogilvie, Loved and Forgiven (Regal Books: Glendale, CA) 1977, pp. 56-57.