Be careful: Stay in Christ

As we’ve seen over the last few posts being ‘in Christ’ is key to out growing as a believer. Continuing in Christ, being firmly rooted, built up and strengthened in him matters because the world isn’t neutral.  It’s possible for the Colossians and for us to wander away, or to be drawn away, from this amazed, thankful, joy at living in Christ.  That’s why Paul is exhorts them to continue to live in him.

Because there are other ways of thinking in Colossae and in our world today.  They may look and sound good but they’re empty, they’re hollow, they’re deceptive, there is no substance to them.  These different ways of thinking depend on human tradition and thinking, they look good but they are hollow and deceptive, because behind them is opposition to God (v8) not joy in him.  They are based on the elements of the world not on Christ.  They’re opposed to Jesus, they want to draw us away from Jesus, to stop them exploring and growing in Jesus love,

Paul outlines some of them.  (v16)They may be religious actions and practices and festivals, that others look down on you and judge you as being ungodly for not joining in with them.  They may involve claims to power and angelic encounters(v18) and those who practice it will say you’re ruled out if you don’t do them.   They may simply be worldly ways of thinking in line with whatever is currently on trend on in(v20-23) Colossae and in your work place or among your family or friends.  They may look wise, they may look good, people may argue you aren’t loving if you don’t do them.  They may even claim you can’t be a real Christian if you don’t do them.

But Paul says they are only shadows(v17).  None of those things can give us what is ours in Christ.  Paul says they are shadows.  If I asked you to choose; you can have this chocolate bar I currently have in my hands or you can have its shadow.  Which would do you want?  It’s a stupid question isn’t it?  Why would you take the shadow, when you can have the real thing?  That’s what Paul is saying.  Don’t have the shadow which is ultimately nothing when you have the real thing in Jesus!  He also says (v19)those who worship angels have become disconnected from the head of the church, from Christ, and so there will be no growth and eventually they will wither malnourished and die.

Christians grow as we live in Jesus, full of the Spirit, exploring his love and mercy and grace and goodness, and as we help one another and fuel one another’s overflowing gratitude for a love we can never exhaust or break.

How do we grow as believers, as a church? “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, being rooted and built up in him and established in the faith juts as you were taught, and overflowing with gratitude.”

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The outworking of being in Jesus

Grasping that we are in Jesus is the key to growing in our faith. And the Colossians will grow, mature, become more like Jesus, as they understand and grasp the significance and the implications and the application of locating themselves, their identity, in him as they do 5 things:

  1. Continue to live your lives in him – Jesus is Lord and you are in him so live that out.  Live your life in him, by his word, following his footsteps.  Follow Jesus don’t wander off somewhere else.  Keep going living in him.  Don’t have the ticket but step out of the plane!
  2. Rooted in him – They are to sink their roots down deep into Jesus, why?  Let me illustrate.  Imagine I got you to stand on one leg flamingo style. OK.  What happens when I push you?  You fall over.  Now imagine you plant your legs wide apart and squat a little bit, now I can’t push you over.  You’ve planted yourself, you’re rooted. But actually the idea here is of being rooted not as individuals but as a community – with roots entangled together – if you stood with others and all planted your legs and linked your arms I couldn’t move you.  The Colossian believers need to sink their roots down deeply into Jesus together.  To explore the full riches of complete understanding of what God has done in Jesus, of what it means for them to be in Christ.  Of God’s love for them.  His saving them from their sin, his mercy, grace, goodness and plans together.  Because that will make them secure, that will feed them and nourish their faith and grow their love of Jesus and it will enable them to grow.  There is always more to understand of Jesus love and all that he has won for us.
  3. Built up in him – It’s the image of a building being constructed that doesn’t just have just it’s foundation in Jesus but all of it is built in Jesus and on his work as he commanded just like that wise man building on the sand.
  4. Strengthened in the faith as you were taught – They mustn’t chop and change what they believe but they’re to hold on to the truth of the gospel and its implications as they’ve been taught it.  The gospel’s truths and implications don’t fluctuate from generation to generation as culture does, because God doesn’t change, sin doesn’t change, our need for salvation doesn’t change.  And so they‘re to be established, steadfast, firm, strengthened in the faith they have been taught not adapt it and amend it and soften its edges.
  5. Overflowing with thankfulness – Don’t you love that image, their hearts are to be always full to the brim and overflowing with thanks for what God has done for them by the Spirit through Jesus in saving them.  Let me give you an example of what that looks like because I think we struggle with this – we Brits are more likely to overflow with moaning about the weather than with thankfulness.

Do you remember the famous dinner party in  Luke 7.  The scene is set.  Jesus is at Simon’s house, it’s posh, it’s full of people in their best outfits, and on their best behaviour, they’re probably trying to show how spiritual they are by debating predestination or what the Hebrew or Greek really says to impress Jesus.  But then a horrified hush descends as ‘she’ enters the room.  The whispers start as the tears start to roll down her cheek and she bends and begins washing Jesus feet with them, then wipes them with her hair and pours perfume on them.  Do you see what’s going on there?  Jesus tells us “I tell you, her many sins have been given that’s why she loved much.  But the one who is forgiven little loves little.”  Why does she act as she does?  Why does she go where she isn’t welcome?  Why does she keep going even as the whispers and stares start?  Why does she weep and kneel and anoint and wipe.  Because she was overflowing with gratitude for her salvation because she was constantly amazed at Christ Jesus saving her.

The Colossians are to mirror her actions, that’s what overflowing with gratitude looks like.  It is a constant amazement at what Jesus has done for me, that he has loved and saved me a sinner, that we are now in him, that fills the heart and overflows with actions that show love for the Saviour even as the world looks on disapprovingly.  Hearts constantly filled to the brim and overflowing with amazement at what Christ has done.

Can I ask have we lost that?  I think it’s easy as we go on in the Christian life to lose that sense of wonder, that sense of joy and gratitude.  A thankfulness for God’s amazing grace.  Just stop right now and wonder again at your Saviour, at all he has done for you.  What will that overflowing thankfulness lead to?

The Colossians will grow as they go deeper into Jesus, as they explore and understand and grasp and apply more and more of what it means to be in Jesus, as they experience and explore the sheer scope and wonder of their Saviours love and the joy and hope that is theirs as they are united to him.

We grow as we do the same.  As we explore more of who Jesus is, what God has done, who he has made us as his people in Jesus, how he sees us in Jesus and covers every sin past, present and future, and the plans he has for us in Jesus.

We don’t just start off with Jesus.  We don’t let go and let God.  We don’t split our growth 50:50 with God.  We grow as we fully explore more of who we are in Jesus and apply that to our hearts and thinking and we will never exhaust the depths of his love.

Growing is going deeper into our identity in Jesus

In the last post we thought about what growing in maturity was not. It’s not God then me, it’s not God not me, and it’s not God plus me. So what does it look like to grow in maturity as we follow Jesus?

In Colossians 2 Paul writes(6-7) “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.”

Do you see the key idea?  Where do the Colossian believers find themselves?  Where must they locate themselves?  If they turned on their spiritual Google or Apple maps where would they be?  They are living their lives “in Christ”.  They are united to Christ.  This is a really crucial idea for us to get because it’s one of the ways Christians are referred to most often in the New Testament.  And it’s the key to being liberated to live for Jesus and grow up in our faith.

Let me try an illustration to help us get this idea.  Imagine that I decide to go to New Zealand, what do I need to do?  I need to book a seat on a flight to New Zealand.  But the booking’s not enough is it?  If I want to get to New Zealand I need to be in the plane when it takes off. It’s no good me just having the ticket on my phone or in my pocket.  It’s no good me just knowing of the plane but not being on it.  It’s not enough to be at the airport close to the plane or even observing the plane as it takes off.  There‘s no point me trying to copy the plane, running up and down making engine noises with my arms out on the runway. I have to be in the plane.  Then everything that happens to the plane happens to me.

That’s Paul’s point: believers are in Christ and so everything that happens to Jesus happens to them and us(9-15).  In Christ the Colossians, and we with them, are brought into the fullness of God(9-10), doesn’t that blow your mind?  We are brought into experiencing the full love and goodness of almighty God because we are in Jesus by faith.  In him our hearts are circumcised(11), we are buried with him to our old way of life in baptism and rise in him to new life.  (13-15)We were dead in our sins until we were made alive by being united by faith to Jesus with all our debt taken by him at the cross and nailed to it.  And because we’re in Christ his victory is our victory over every power and authority which he’s achieved at the cross(15).

Isn’t that absolutely mindblowing?  By faith we are united to Jesus and all that’s his is ours because we’re in him, there is a lifetime of growth in unpacking and mining that truth.  And the Colossians will grow, mature, become more like Jesus, as they understand and grasp the significance and implications and applications of locating themselves, their identity, in him.

Fundamental to our growing in Christ is to recognise who we are and where we find ourselves. We are in Christ! Everything that happens to him happens to us.

Photo by Daniel Eledut on Unsplash

What does growing as a Christian look like?

Having shared some thoughts on joy last week. I want to explore the theme of maturing as a disciple this week. What does it look like to grow as a Christian?  How does it happen?  What does it involve?  I wonder how you’d answer that?

That’s the question Paul wants the Colossian believers to be able to answer.  Paul is really encourage by them as a church, by their growing faith and love and the way the gospel is bearing fruit in their lives(1v6).  And that’s what he longs for them as he prays in chapter 1v9-13, that they would continue to grow in their knowledge of God’s will and put it into practice in the way they live.  That they would know God and love God and that would be seen in their day to day lives.

As chapter 2 starts we see Paul’s burden for the churches, he’s working hard, praying hard, struggling, because (2)he wants their hearts to be encouraged and united in love and growing to fully understand all the treasures that are theirs in Jesus Christ and in the application of that to their lives together.  Because in doing that, in growing in their discipleship, their understanding and following of Jesus they will stand strong and not be deceived.

So what does growing as a Christian look like? Well lets look at what it isn’t first, then tomorrow we’ll explore what it is. There are a number of wrong ways we can think about growing as disciples.  Let me give you 3 quickly:

God then me – The thinking here goes like this; God saves us through Jesus at the cross.  But then it’s up to us to work.  Faith gets me in, but our efforts keep us going and growing. Jesus is the entry ticket then I have to work hard once I’m in to grow.

God not me – this is a let go and let God approach.  God saves us by grace through faith and then God makes us holy and we just sit back and wait.  It’s the Holy Spirit, God as taser approach, where we simply wait to get zapped by God and made holy and mature in our faith.

God plus me – This final one is so close to the truth but is all the more dangerous for that.  Satan’s most subtle lies always have a ring of truth about them, that’s in part why we fall for them.  God works in me and I work too.  It’s 50:50, or 60:40, or 70:30. Whichever one you go for it is God plus me, even if you’d only say your part is only 0.5%.

Which of those is the way you think of growing as a Christian?  Or maybe more pertinently which of those is the truth you live out? And what’s the outworking of that?   How does that mean you feel about God and Jesus?  They can lead to activism, burn out and guilt or to passivity and a lastly changelessness.

Joy for the realist

So one of the first things we need to do is stop seeing joy and hardship as opposites or adversaries. To stop making our joy circumstantial.

Sometimes in a bible passage there’s a thread that runs through the passage, sometimes there are lots. In Philippians 4 there’s  “in the Lord”. It’s key. They’re to “stand firm in the Lord”, to help Euodia and Syntyche “agree in the Lord”.  And they are to rejoice in the Lord.  All of his instructions are to be worked out in that context, as people who are in the Lord.

It’s a joy that has a certain hope in Jesus return(5) and so knows God is near, that his kingdom is certain and our hope is sure that leads us to gentleness and graciousness with others not a manipulative power tripping leadership.  It’s rejoicing in Jesus that enables us to care for the weak and injured not exploit them.

And it’s rejoicing in the Lord that will lead us to be quick to prayer and praise(6-8) when we feeling anxious, because we know he cares for us and wants us to give him our burdens and anxieties.  And so we run to him because our joy is in him.  And what flows from that is peace, an awareness of and a living out of the reality of a restored relationship and being God’s child and in his sovereign care.  That peace will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Living out of that awareness of who we are stops the shouts of imposter, loser, or failure, that fuel our anxiety and drain us in ministry.

But that’s hard isn’t it.  Paul longs for the Philippians to know peace(7, 9) and he tells them how to practice peace.  Our thoughts often feed our anxieties, they drain our joy, don’t they?  And so he calls on them to think of whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy.   He’s not saying ignore the brokenness of the world, ignore the sin you see and the damage it does.  Keep pastoral crises and complexities at a distance so you know peace, that’s professionalism not godliness.  That’s not what he’s teaching them.  But run to God in prayer so God’s peace – right relationship with him, the joy of being his child, in his care, and it not all depending on you – guards your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  They must train themselves to think about the things around them that are excellent and praiseworthy not just the brokenness.

Are you an optimist or are you from Yorkshire, sorry, I mean a pessimist?  When you think about your church what comes to mind?  Isn’t it often the failures, the families that have left.  The person who showed interest but was dragged back into their old way of life, by drugs, or alcohol, or an unhelpful relationship.  Isn’t it how you are short of musicians, or leaders, or diversity, or money?  Or the spiritual immaturity of the congregations, the lack of growth, the unwise decisions?  Don’t we often see the don’t haves?  And then there’s all the pastoral needs, the marriages creaking or cracking, the couple struggling with childlessness, the family mourning a suicide, the widower who seems stuck in a well of grief.

If we want to be able to rejoice, to keep going we need to train ourselves to see the good things God is doing in our churches, because I think this is what this about – it’s not about looking at excellent theology and the praiseworthiness of God, still less is it about what you watch on your Netflix account!   But to think about what is praiseworthy as we look for the gospel at work around us, because look at (9)he gives that call and then talks again about putting into practice what they have seen in him – living a life worthy of the gospel.  

When did you last sit and go through your church prayer diary, or your list of members and name something for each that you are thankful for – even if it’s just that they’re not as bad as they could be?  That they turned up to hear you preach, again!

When did you last help your church to see their growth in or living out of the gospel that you see in them?  Try it, it’s so helpful for you and them.  It will bring you joy and spur them ion in rejoicing in the Lord.  Don’t be deluded, don’t lie, but do be thankful even for the small evidences of what is trust, honourable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellence or praiseworthy.

I was preaching on a passage a while back and it’s an area where God has been multiplying growth at Grace Church, and I highlighted that in my sermon and said how great it was to see and how thankful to God I was for what he was doing and was longing to see more and more of it.  And a friend of mine who was visiting and has been in numerous churches said to me afterwards they had never heard a pastor share what encouraged them, what bought them joy about their church from a passage before.

I found that really convicting, because so often I just see what needs to be done, where we aren’t perfect.  But we need to see what God is doing, the evidence so growth and grace and help our churches do so too.  Just pause for a minute, I want you to think of 3 or 4 places where you can see that happening at your church, they may be small, they may be incremental, they may be embryonic but where are they.  Where can you see something you can praise God for?

And as Paul closes his letter he models what rejoicing in the Lord looks like.  Because we can’t help our churches have what we don’t enjoy. I think this is so helpful to see when we think about rejoicing.

Paul rejoices in the Lord because they (10)have supported him and sent their gift(15-19).  He’s not rejoicing in the gift, that’s not what is giving him joy, we can fall victim to that can’t we – we rejoice just in the better bank balance, or the new family who join us.  But Paul rejoices in Lord because of the gift because it’s evidence of the gospel at work in them(18).  It is God’s provision for him through them.  He sees what they give as yet more evidence of the Lord’s work and love and growing his kingdom.  And that fuels a radical contentment that rejoices in the Lord no matter what he has, whether plenty or not a lot.  And he models that to them, and he sees God as a super abundant blessing God who delights to give joy for his glory. 

How do we know joy in ministry?  How do we keep going?  What do our churches need?  How do we lead them well?  We need to be rejoicing in the Lord – how are you rejoicing in the Lord?  How have you designed your week so that you can rejoice in God?  How are you sharing with others in partnership so your sorrows are halved and your joys multiplied?  Are we regularly making time to rejoice in the evidence of God at work in our churches, to treasure what he is doing through Jesus?  And are we doing what Paul does here; leading our churches to rejoice in the Lord and his work and our part in it?

Rejoice in the Lord always, I will say it again rejoice!

Joy and hardship are not opposites

If we want to step off the rollercoaster we need to change where we are putting our joy. We need to change how we think about joy. So often we think of joy wrongly.  We think joy cannot co-exist with hardship.  That the two are mortal enemies and only one can exist at any one time.

But Paul writes to the church in Philippi because he wants them to know the very real joy of the gospel as they follow Jesus in every day life.  Not because hardship and struggle are absent, but joy in the midst of hardship, struggle and conflict, because they know whose they are, what they are part of building, who they’re being transformed into the image of, and where ultimately their hope is, and his presence with them now is just a tiny foretaste of what will be.

Philippi is a church birthed with joy in the midst of hardship.  Paul and Silas preach and see conversions by the river in Acts 16 but then are thrown into prison for liberating the spirit oppressed slave, but rather than grumbling and complaining about the injustice of it, or the potential harm it’ll do to the gospel, they sing hymns and pray to God, and after a prison break we see the church grow again as the jailor asks ‘What must I do to be saved?’

A riot and a stint in prison aren’t exactly ideal church planting conditions are they?  They’re not the ideal soil to leave a young church in.  But Paul doesn’t create a siege mentality, he doesn’t make it us against them in this letter.  He rejoices as he prays for them(1v4) “because of their partnership in the gospel”.  And in his continuing ministry with them his aim is to see them make progress and grow in their joy in the faith(1v25).  And his letter is written so they follow Jesus fuelled by joy.

This isn’t just a letter about keeping going.  It’s imperatives are important but it’s not get your head down and slog through, it’s follow Jesus fuelled by the joy of being in him.

(1)This isn’t a church without trouble.  There’s trouble outside the church, with those who’re teaching that the believers need to add the law and circumcision to the gospel.  It’s in that context that Paul says they must “stand firm”.  They mustn’t give ground to the gospel+ movement.  They mustn’t compromise on the gospel but contend for it.  They may be under attack, the gospel may be under attack, but they must stand firm on Jesus alone as the only means of salvation.

And there’s conflict in the church.  Two gospel co-workers of Paul’s have fallen out(2-3).  And, as many of us have seen, that’s dangerous for the church, conflict is like gangrene it multiplies poison and pus and spreads it and compromises the gospel and compromises the church.  And so the church needs to put into practice what Paul taught in ch2v1-11.  They need to help these women “be of the same mind in the Lord.” To think like Jesus, prepared to go down, to humble themselves, just like Jesus did.

The church in Philippi isn’t an ideal church, it’s not a church without pressures and problems.  But it’s in the context of those pressures and strains that Paul gives his next instruction; “Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again rejoice.”  And it’s a repeat of what he  said in 3v1.  He keeps on repeating it because this is vital and people are slow to learn.  He wants the church to be able to rejoice in the Lord no matter what circumstances they’re facing because no matter what circumstances they’re facing the Lord doesn’t change.  

Our progress isn’t meant to be joyless, ministry isn’t meant to be joyless.  Following Jesus isn’t meant to be joyless, because look at all that is ours in Jesus; a citizenship in heaven which because it is in Christ can’t be revoked, the Saviours certain return, and our totally transformation of body, mind, spirit.

But too often our joy is situational or circumstantial.  We can so easily find ourselves rejoicing in certain events or happenings rather than in Jesus.  We can even find ourselves thinking joy is what will come when everything in ministry is sorted.  When we’ve got our eldership team, assistant pastor, and women’s worker all in place and everything’s functioning as it should in the church.  But Paul is calling the church to a deeper joy that is grounded in Jesus.  That has sunk it’s foundations so deeply into Jesus that circumstances can’t shake it.

It’s a joy that is founded on all that Jesus has done and is doing and will do.  It’s a joy that loves him as Saviour and knows that as he’s for us nothing can stand against us.  That knows no matter what the situation God will work it for good..  That trusts in our adoption through Christ and realises that therefore all the riches of Christ are ours, and that in him we have every spiritual blessing.  It’s a joy that treasures above everything who he is, who we are in him, and his presence with us by his Spirit as he leads us to certain future and counts everything else as dung!

It is a joy unshakeable and unbreakable that steadies us in the currents of life and ministry.   How’s your joy?

Rollercoaster ministry isn’t healthy

There is a danger in the Christian life.  I’ve seen it again and again in young people and families and others; it’s the Christian life lived as a rollercoaster.  They slog through the year with their jobs and school, average church with an average pastor who preaches average sermons.  Life has its ups and downs and becomes about making it through.  Church is there, it’s a part of life, they serve there, though there are some Sundays when they wish church felt a bit more significant, that it was a bit bigger, or a bit better. They may even begin to drift and let other things creep in.

What gets them through and gives them a boost is the Christian conference they go to every year with its big band worship, great preachers, and brilliant youth work for the kids.   That’s the high point, that’s the point in the year that peaks for them.  That’s where they feel spiritually vibrant, it’s what they wish the rest of the year looked like, and they often resolve that this year will be different as they go back. But soon they’re back in the mundane and the normal and there’s that drift and the busyness, and work, and sickness, and family and soon life is bumping along the bottom again. But there’s always the next time, the next year..

I’ve had loads of conversations with young people about that; camp, Word Alive, Keswick, or New Wine is the week. or weeks. when they feel alive spiritually.  It’s the high before the descent into the norm where the struggle to follow Jesus is so much harder. I’ve had that conversion with lots of adults too, who just wish normal life could be a bit more like that week!

And church leaders are no different.  I’ve just come back from the Medhurst Ministers retreat in Pollington.  And it’s a refreshing couple of days of teaching, laughing, encouraging and relaxing with others in ministry in the UK’s forgotten places.  The danger is that it becomes a ministry high point on the rollercoaster ride that ministry so easily becomes.  But I was asked this year to look at Philippians 4 in one of the sessions, about joy in keeping going with the gospel.

I’m going to publish some of the material from that with some thoughts over the next few posts.  In part because one of my convictions is that we don’t really rejoice enough because we do rollercoaster life and ministry – we settle for a relatively low bar normally and rely on a few high points to keep us going, often struggling up what feels like a long uphill before we get to that week.  But here’s the danger with that – rollercoaster ministry is unhealthy in the short term but disastrous in the long term.  It leads to disillusionment, spiritual malnourishment and burn out.

But just be honest as we start.  What keeps you going following Jesus?  What keeps you going if you lead?  And is that healthy or unhealthy?  Where does your spiritual life and leadership resemble a rollercoaster?  And finally where is your joy?