We are gathered this morning around the Lord’s Table. Jesus prepares this feast of God’s presence. The Spirit bids us come and eat. As we approach this feast, the writer of Colossians speaks to us: “So live in Christ Jesus the Lord, the same way you have received him.” We received Christ by grace. We will see this morning that living in Christ is a daily walk in grace.
Paul writes to the church in Colossae: Live in Christ Jesus the same way you received him. The Christians in Colossae received Christ by grace. A servant of God named Epaphras wandered into the small Lycus valley and offered the love and promise of Jesus to those who were living there. He handed to them what he received from Paul, just as Paul handed to him what he received from Jesus. One person handing it to another.
Every other month here at First, we serve communion in the pews. We use these trays to pass the bread and cup to one another. We hand to each other what we received. As we pass, we say: the body of Christ, the bread of life. The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation. This is how the Colossians received Christ from Epaphras — handed to them as grace.
As Presbyterians, we are often uncomfortable with the language of “receiving Christ.” In the tradition I grew up in, receiving Christ was code for a profession of faith. It was a one time thing. If you received Christ, then you had prayed the prayer of salvation. You trusted Christ as your Lord and Savior. If two pastors were discussing how a worship service went, one might say to the other: “Two people came forward to receive Christ.” Those words may feel uncomfortable to us as Presbyterians, but we too receive Christ.
This summer we have had the great joy of baptizing two children, and we will baptize another in August and another in the Fall. You may have noticed we have a baby boom going on here. In fact, we need nursery volunteers and if you would like to help care for these little ones I hope you will contact Nancy McNeil. Children receive Christ in the nursery.
Somewhere at home, I have a picture of me sitting in the lap of Inez Blalock in the nursery of Calvary Baptist Church. She would rock the babies and sing Jesus Loves Me and Amazing Grace and What a Friend We Have in Jesus. She was handing on what she had received. I was receiving Christ from her — though I barely knew it.
When we baptize a child, the parents and the congregation — all of us — promise to nurture that child and teach them to love and follow Jesus. We promise to hand on what we received, and our children begin receiving Christ from us before they are even able to speak his name. Even if you are a cradle Presbyterian, you received Christ. Christ was handed to you as a gift — as grace.
You may not have opened the gift until you were a teenager, or a young adult. You may not have realized until then this that this gift lays hold of your life as a child of God and commissions you into the world to be an instrument of God’s blessing. For some of you, you may be opening this gift now. Perhaps now in your life you are coming to an awareness of what the gift you have received means for your life.
Each of us has to open the gift. So Paul writes, “Then live in Christ the same way you received him.” The word that is translated “live” means literally to “walk around.” It is the word Paul uses when he wants to talk about our everyday lives. Going to work. Going to a meeting. Going to see friends. Going out to dinner. Going home. Going to the doctor. Going to the bank. Going to the attorney. Going for a hike. Going for a vacation. Going to sleep. Going, Going. Walking here and there. Living everyday life.
Live everyday life in Christ. That is to say, walk in grace. In your coming and going, everyday life, walk in the grace of Jesus. It seems that the Colossian community was having a hard time walking in grace. Their trouble was caused by their fear. The Colossians were afraid they would not get into heaven if they did not do something to earn their way in. But they didn’t have anything to do to earn their way in heaven. All they had was “grace.” And they were afraid simple grace wasn’t enough.
When you are afraid, grace doesn’t feel like enough. I don’t know that many of you are afraid about whether we are going to heaven. But I do know that every one of you is afraid of something that is out of your control. You are afraid that the world your children are growing up in will not offer them the opportunities and the joy you hope it will. You are afraid you will not have enough to live on, to provide for yourselves or the people you love. You are afraid your health will not be strong enough to do the things you hope to do.
Each of us is afraid of something that is out of our control. It may not be heaven, but it is some small piece of earth that is very dear to us. You walk with anxious worry, you live with constant striving. God invites you to walk in grace. God invites you let go of anxious worry, and trust that God will provide. God invites you cease your constant striving, and rest in God’s grace.
God invites us, but the trouble with grace is that it always feels like it is not enough. It is not enough for it to simply be grace. When someone give you a small Christmas gift, even that small grace can make you feel uncomfortable. You feel as if you have to pay them back somehow, to be a better friend or be more deserving of the gift. It never feels like grace is enough. We have to be doing something.
Especially when we face up to our biggest regrets and our deepest hopes, it feels like grace is just not enough. Somehow we have to pay a price. Somehow we have to earn it so we deserve it. Somehow we have to be worthy. But that is not how God works. God works by grace.
Grace is your treasure. God’s total and unconditional acceptance of you, with all your faults and your failures, with all your quirks and idiosyncrasies. With all the things that you can barely stand about yourself, and you can’t imagine anyone else can stand at all. Even all of that — God accepts you and says you are loved. You are worthy just as you are.
In these waters of baptism, you were clothed with Christ. You were dressed as a child of God. Nothing can change those clothes. That is always the deepest truth about who you are, in life and in death. No anxiety, no self-perception, no peer pressure, no performance evaluation, no judgment goes deeper than this. You are a child of God in Christ.
Living in this grace means walking daily in this grace. Walking like this does not come naturally. What does come naturally is earning what you get. It comes naturally to work for your rewards. It comes naturally to strive to be better. It comes naturally to us to try to be worthy. But living in grace does not come naturally. It is a daily walk.
In verse 16 of chapter 2, Paul points us to the enemy of grace. He writes, “So don’t let anyone judge you.” The enemy of grace is a spirit of judgment. The spirit of judgment is pervasive. It is like eyeglasses that we put on to see the world. I had an aunt on my father’s side who would go out to eat weekly, and was known in the family for sending her food back. No matter where it was or what it was, it always went back to the kitchen. It was never good enough. That is how a spirit of judgment works: it is so pervasive that nothing and no one is ever good enough.
And when you turn that spirit of judgment on yourself, it becomes magnifying glasses of criticism: I am not enough, I don’t have enough, I’m not good enough, I haven’t done enough…. To be worthy and accepted, to be loved. The spirit of judgment is pervasive and poisonous, and it is the enemy of grace.
Often someone will say to me, “I know I need to be a better Christian.” Now that is a well-intentioned desire, but it is clouded with a spirit of judgment. The journey to being a better Christian never starts with that sentence.
The journey to being a better Christian starts when you are gripped by the grace of God. It begins when you are gripped by grace, when the unconditional love of God for you becomes your prize and treasure. It begins when God’s love for you becomes a treasure that nothing can take away or change. Walking in grace means living with that treasure at the core of your identity and self-perception.
That does not come naturally. Walking like that does not come naturally. Paul says we have died with Christ, and been made alive again. Now if we have been made alive again, that means we are like babies. And like babies we have learn to walk in grace.
Every baby’s first step is unsure and off-balance. When the baby makes it those first few feet, there is absolute joy and surprise. What did I just do!?
That is what it’s like to first walk in grace. When you first begin to see yourself through eyes of acceptance and love, it feels unsure and a little off-balance. But it is full of joy and surprise. When you first begin to see other people in your life through eyes of acceptance and love, it feels unsure and a little off-balance. But it is full of joy and surprise.
Over time the baby walks more and more and it becomes so comfortable it runs through the house. Day by day, you walk in grace, and eventually it becomes so comfortable that grace pervades your life with every step.
The grace you receive at this table becomes the eyes through which you see the world, and the very air you breathe. Thanks be to God! Amen.
Rev. Patrick. W. T. Johnson, Ph.D.
First Presbyterian Church
Asheville, North Carolina
August 7, 2016