This morning I am beginning a series of sermons on the letter to the Colossians, a series that will continue through the end of the summer. In the ancient, preachers would preach through the scripture verse by verse in a practice called lectio continua. They would preach verse by verse until the congregation couldn’t take it anymore, then stop and pick up where they left off next week. We’re not going to do that. But from now through August, we will journey through this letter to the church at Colossae.
Colossae was a small out of the way town. It’s the most insignificant town to ever a receive a letter from the Apostle Paul. There’s some disagreement over whether Paul wrote this letter. It’s called in New Testament studies, deutero-pauline — which means, sort of Pauline. But for the sake of preaching and hearing the word of God, let’s assume Paul wrote it. Hear now the Word of the Lord. (Read Colossians 1:1-14)
The town of Colossae sat at the head of the Lycus Valley. It was the smallest of three towns in that valley. Ten miles away stood Laodicea. That was a center of industry, banking, and administration, known in the Roman empire for its wealth and independence. About ten miles in the other direction stood Hieropolis. Hieropolis reminds me of Asheville. It was a health resort. There were theaters and spas. They even had a famous son — their very own Thomas Wolfe — the philosopher Epictetus.
Colossae, on the other hand, could claim none of this fame. It was a small town where they wove and dyed wool. It was surrounded by fig trees and olive trees and sheep. Colossae’s claim to fame was a deep purple-red cloth, known by traders as Colossian wool. They were known the world over for wool.
What do you want to be known for?
In his book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, the management guru Stephen Covey encourages his readers to “begin with the end in mind.” The ultimate form of beginning-with-the-end-in-mind is to imagine your own funeral and write out your own eulogy. One man who has done this for years writes that every year he sets aside four hours in a quiet and private place. He makes a list of all the people who matter the most to him in his life, visualizes his own funeral, and imagines what they might say.
Now that might sound morbid. The good news of this exercise, though, is that you’re not dead yet! There’s time to change. You still have breath, and time to live into the things you hope others will say of you.
Very few of us at the close of life want to be remembered for making great wool. For closing big deals, or having lots of clients, or writing a published book, or building a great business. God gives us work to do and it is important to do that work with skill and care. But when ultimately, it is making wool. And very few of us want to be known for making wool.
The Christians in Colossae became known for something else. The apostle Paul is in a prison cell in Rome. He had never been to Colossae. He didn’t start their little church. But he heard about them. Twelve hundred miles away, Paul heard about the faith and love of a small community of Christians in a little town in the mountains. Long after all their wool-making days were over, long after the world forgot they ever made wool, they are remembered here on the pages of scripture: for their faith in the Messiah Jesus and their love for all God’s people.
Paul heard about their faithfulness to Jesus and love for all God’s people — from their pastor, Epaphras. Epaphras was God’s missionary to this little valley, starting the churches in Hieropolis and Laodicea and Colossae. There are times when a person comes into your life and calls you to something deeper. There are people who stand on the bank of your life, and invite you to live into a more sacred vision. That is an Epaphras.
It is a person who comes alongside you and says, “There is more to life than making great wool.” God has a deep sacred purpose for your life. The love and grace of Jesus Christ is the shaping force of the universe, and God invites you to make it the shaping force of your life. That is what Epaphras says.
We need to remember your Epaphras often, because the temptation to just make wool is very strong. The temptation to give our energy and time and resources to things are not worthy of our ultimate loyalty is very strong. There are always bills to pay. There are always jobs to do. There are always needs to meet. There are olive trees and fig trees to prune; there are sheep to tend. There is always wool. The voice of the one who speaks a sacred purpose into your life must never go silent.
Epaphras told Paul about the Colossian’s faithfulness to Jesus. Faithfulness is, here, about loyalty. It is not so much belief in, but loyalty to. Colossae became known for having this faithfulness to Jesus. It was not easy to be faithful to Jesus in Colossae. The town, though it was small, was coursing with religious beliefs, especially the religion we know today as the “Phrygian Mysteries.”
When I was a kid, we had “Fridgian Mysteries.” They were all the leftovers that were put under aluminum foil in the fridge –“fridgian mysteries.” You would lift the foil and discover the mystery. Phrygian Mysteries, the religion, was like the mystery casserole of religion. You could put anything into it and it was taste good. The commentator Markus Barth writes, “The religion of Phrygia has the ability to absorb and assimilate whatever was offered by native traditions and current philosophical trends.”
The follower of Phrygian mysteries could always say, “Oh yes, well I believe that too.” It was easy to be faithful to Phrygian mysteries: you could affirm anything in it. It was much harder to be faithful to Jesus.
Jesus has always resisted absorption: this specific man from a specific town who claimed to be the only son of God. He is not a philosophy we pull apart, or an idea we can shape; he is not a tradition we can adapt or a practice we adopt. Jesus is a person, with a name and face who claims with his life, death, and resurrection, that he is the only son of God.
It has never been easy to be faithful to Jesus. We like to flatter ourselves by thinking it is harder to be faithful today than it has ever been to be. We are busier, there’s less time to be faithful. We are more self-sufficient, there is less need to be faithful. We live in a secular society; the social pressure isn’t there. We are more educated; childlike faith doesn’t cut it.We live in a world that is bruised and wounded by religion. We are bleeding because of what is done in the name of religion.
The “Phrygian mysteries” look awfully tempting. Wouldn’t it be easier to simply absorb the best of every religion, and cut out the parts we don’t like to create a mystery casserole of spirituality. That is the temptation of Phrygian mysteries. It is hard to be faithful to Jesus.But it has always been hard.
Thank God Jesus is always faithful to us. Faithfulness begins with the faithfulness of God. God is loyal to humankind, made in God’s image. Over and over, we are disloyal to God. We mistreating strangers and outcasts, we abuse one another, we hurt those who trust us, we misuse creation, we give our lives to making wool. Yet, throughout it all God never gives up you.
The whole scripture is a story of divine faithfulness. The climax of that story is the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. His faithfulness that goes to death; and in even in death, faithfulness continues God raises him from the dead. The good news of your healing and wholeness is not rooted in your faithfulness to Jesus, but in Jesus’ faithfulness to you. Thank God!
It is a great eulogy to be spoken over your life, to say you were faithful to the one who was faithful to you. Epaphras told Paul about their faithfulness to Jesus, and their love for all God’s people. This is how faithfulness to Jesus works itself out in you. Faithfulness to Jesus is not ultimately about how many Bible studies you attend, or how many worship services you go to; it is not ultimately about how hard you try to do the right thing. Faithfulness to Jesus is ultimately expressed in love for all God’s people.
Again, it was not easy for the church in Colossae to love all God’s people. The little valley, little though it was, was filled with differences. Colossae was at the crossroads of major highways through the mountains; it sat on the trade route, and people from many places settled there. It had a massive immigrant population.
It always harder to love people who are not like you. People who come from a different background, or tell a different story. People who have different values or attitudes, who use different language. People who are a different color, or a different race, or come from a different part of the world. It is so much easier to love the people who are just like you; it easier to socialize with them, to care for them, to sympathize with their struggles, to cheer them on, to celebrate with them, to pray for them.
That is easy. But when we do what is easy, walls grow between us and those who are not like us. I have found in my own life that walls are more like weeds — I don’t know need to plant them, they simply grow. If I do what is easy, and build relationships only with people who are like me, then walls grow up between me and those who are not like me. Those walls are built of bricks of fear, and prejudice.
It is always easier to love people like you. But that is not the love of Jesus Christ. The love that is working itself out in Colossae is love for all God’s people. Paul does not mean saints all over the world; he does not mean an anonymous mass of people – like “we love everybody!” He means the specific people that are gathered in this little valley of Colossae.
The people in the marketplace, the people traveling on the road, the people that sit down together in worship. Their love crosses social and ethnic differences. Their love builds relationships with people who are different. That’s the love of Jesus Christ. Relationships with people who are not like us at all, but who share the image of God. People that Jesus loves, and if we give Jesus half a chance, he will expand our heart to love them too.
In a week when hatred has killed some, and fear has murdered others. In a week when we have felt and grieved over the damage done by walls of fear and prejudice. We need opportunities to build relationships with people not like us. Relationships that take us out of our comfort zone. When we say, “God expand my heart to love those that you love, especially the ones who are different from me.”
These relationships don’t happen on social media, they don’t happen by watching the news. Relationships like that happen when we sit face to face, when we break bread together, when we share our lives with those who are different than us. We need those opportunities.
In the mission statement of First Presbyterian, we say that our mission is to “share the boundary-breaking love of Christ in our life together, in the heart of Asheville, and in the whole world.” The love of Christ is boundary-breaking because it is love for all God’s people. All means all.
When the the love of Christ works itself out in you, it expands the circle of your compassion. Love begins with a small circle. We learn to love as children among our family and friends. A small circle of people who are usually like us. But when the love of Christ works in you, that circle expands.
It is a love that includes people of a different race, of a different class, of difference beliefs, even of different political parties (imagine that!). It is a love that can encompass those who have hurt us, a love that can forgive those who have betrayed us, a love that can draw the circle around even our enemies. The love of Christ draws a circle that is wide enough to heal hatred and cast out fear.
The church at Colossae became known, not for making wool, but for the love of Jesus working itself out in them.
What do you want to be known for? Someday, somewhere, someone will stand speak of you. They will say, this is what I remember about him or about her. And they will give thanks for you. What do you want to be known for?
Rev. Patrick W. T. Johnson, Ph. D.
First Presbyterian Church
Asheville, North Carolina
July 10, 2016