Ordinary People and the Presence of Christ

This morning we are finishing our study of the letter to the Colossians. We began this study in mid-summer, when it seemed that summer days stretched endlessly before us. Now, we stand on the edge of Fall; college students are back in their dorms, grade school students start tomorrow, and we have come to end of the letter.

Today, the cosmic theology of Colossians becomes very personal as we see that the presence of Christ is embodied in ordinary people like you and me.

The church at Colossae had developed an outsized reputation. This tiny town, part of a small valley with sister cities Laodicea and Hieropolis, had earned a reputation that traveled to the other side of the known world. Paul in prison in Rome had heard about their faithfulness to Jesus and their love for all the saints.

Paul took that occasion to write a letter to strengthen them in their faith. The result is one of the most theologically soaring letters of the New Testament. Christ is fully human and fully divine, enthroned in the heavens.

Christ is the image of the invisible Creator, ruler over all things, the head of the church, the embodiment of God, the full measure of wisdom.

Our theology does not gain much more altitude than that.

By a great mystery of faith, this Jesus, who died and rose again, shares his death and resurrection with us. He sets us free from a spirit of judgment and death that is pervasive within us and around us. He offers us his forgiveness and acceptance. He offers us a new identity, in which we are beloved children of God, claimed as God’s own.

Our theology does not gain much more depth than that.

You and I are invited to allow this new identity, that is rooted in grace and peace, to take root in us. We are beckoned by the Spirit to allow this new identity to shape our hearts and our minds, to be lived out as peace and wholeness in our daily activities.

Our theology does not get much more wide-reaching than that.

So in case you missed any of the last seven weeks, you’re now up to speed. That’s the broad road whence we have come. Now, we reach the end. How does Paul end this grand theological letter?

Perhaps we get a moving story, that inspires us to rise from our contemplation and take up the work of Christ in the world? Not quite.

Perhaps we get a solemn benediction, a blessing from the hand of the great apostle? No, not quite that either.

Perhaps we get an ascription of praise, a doxology that lifts this cosmic letter into the atmosphere.

My favorite ascription of praise is: “Now unto him who is able to keep you from falling, and present you faultless, with exceeding joy, to the only wise God…” No, that’s in another of Paul’s letters, but not this one.

Instead, we get an ending that is almost painfully ordinary. An ending so painfully ordinary, it is rarely if ever read from the pulpit or taken as a text to preach. I’ve never heard anyone preach on this text, and as I studied it this week I began to understand why that might be. It’s like reading a family email, or Christmas card.

Tychicus will tell you about everything that’s going on with me….

Onesimus… you know him, he’s from around there… He’s coming with Tychicus. He’s got some stories too.

By the way… Aristarchus says hello. Mark — remember you got a message about him? — he says hi. Jesus — not the one you’re thinking of, but the guy they call Justus — he says hello too.

Epaphras, your pastor, he says hi. He’s always praying for you. Oh, and Luke says hello too. Who is Luke? You remember hearing about that doctor? Well that’s him. Oh, and Demas says hello.

Well, listen, I’ve got to run. Say hi to everybody there. Tell Nympha and her friends hello. Oh, before I go, make sure to tell Archippus to finish up that project he was working on!

Don’t forget now. I’m in prison. Goodbye.

 

What an ending! It sounds like a Christmas phone call. When our family gathers for Christmas, there are always a few who can’t make it. So at some point in the day we make a phone call, and everyone looks up from whatever they’re doing to make sure to say hello. And ones on the other end of the line say hello back.

What are we supposed to make of this ending? For almost 2000 years, scribes and scholars have carefully preserved these lines. They were never torn off or discarded. No one ever said, “that’s not really relevant any more.” So what are we supposed to make of this ending? What do you think God may say to us through these names from long ago?

Believe it or not, I think, if we are attentive, God might use these names — and names like them — to save us. God might use these names, and names like them, to save us from an over-individualized and docetic faith. Let me explain what I mean.

An over-individualized faith is a faith that is only between you and God, and doesn’t require anyone else. This kind of over-individualized faith is common in our individualized, democratic society. It goes like this. “I can read this book. I don’t need you or anyone else to tell me what’s in here. I can believe in God by myself. I don’t need you to believe in God. The best church I ever went to was on the front porch of my house with a cup of coffee on Sunday morning.”

A docetic faith is a faith that only lives in our heads and never has to encounter the real world of flesh and blood. This kind of docetic faith is common in our skeptical and cynical culture. It goes like this: “I like Jesus, but I don’t like the church. I consider myself spiritual, but I don’t really get into organized religion because it’s all just a bunch of hypocrites. My spiritual life is richer if I simply practice privately on my own front porch and by myself.”

And of course, there is more than a ring of truth to all of that. But if the front porch is all you have, then you aren’t taught by Tychicus and Onesimus, or anyone like them. Aristarchus and Mark, Luke and Demas don’t say hello — nor anyone like them. Epaphras doesn’t wrestle in prayer for you, nor anyone like him. Paul doesn’t hold you accountable to that project you were working on, nor anyone like him.

These names are the communion of saints, the saints you might find at any church. They are ordinary people, and yet they are more than that: they are vessels of the presence of Christ.

That is what means that the church is the body of Christ in the world. It means that the ordinary people who populate church pews are the presence of Christ to one another and the world around them.

Bonhoeffer captures this well in his manual on Christian community, Life Together.

Visitor and visited in loneliness recognize in each other the Christ who is present in the body… They receive each other’s benedictions as the benediction of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Perhaps that is why Paul passes on all these “hello’s” at the end of Colossians. They are the benediction of the Lord Jesus, speaking through the voices of these friends!

As I read this letter this week, I could not help but think of the names and faces that have spoken the benediction of the Lord to me recently. Most of you know our family moved here in December, after spending 10 years with a congregation in New Jersey.

So I walked into my office one Sunday in February and Ed and Jan were sitting there waiting. They were traveling through, and wanted to say hello. It was an ordinary kindness, but their benediction was also the benediction of the Lord.

Not long  after that, Byron and Sonja passed through and stopped to say hello. Byron was one of those people in my life who helped hold me accountable to grow in the ways I said I needed to grow and I do the things I said I needed to do. So I think he was stopping by to say, sort of like Paul to Archippus, “see that you complete that thing you started…”   

Richard and Leslie worshipped here on Easter while they were on vacation, stopping by to say hello. When Dave did his annual neighborhood barbecue, he sent a text message to say hello, we miss you, and I hope you’re well.  

They receive each other’s benedictions as the benediction of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Ordinary people who communicate to you the grace and love of Jesus. Who are they for you? Who is on your list? They teach you. They encourage you. They pray for you. They hold you accountable. They greet you by name. Through their body, they offer you the body of Christ. Through their life, they offer you the life of Christ. Their benediction is as the benediction of the Lord. Who is it for you?

Ordinary people who embody the presence of Christ. We should not idealize any church, especially the one we’re a part of. Those who criticize the church for being overbearing and dogmatic are often right. Those who criticize the church for being hypocrites are often right. There is no perfect church, just like there are no perfect people. Ordinary people can be frustrating and confusing. They can hurt you, and they fail to live up to what you hoped they would be.

You’ve heard the saying, “If you find the perfect church, don’t join it. You’ll ruin it!” It’s true. No church is perfect. Every church has ordinary people. These ordinary people make mistakes and fall short. We have quirky edges and rough edges and growing edges; we have to seek one another’s forgiveness and forbearance.

And yet…

By God’s grace we are the body of Christ. When the burdens of one grow heavy, another helps to carry them. When one is afraid, another holds a light. When one is anxious, another speaks peace. When one is faltering, another spurs them on. When one is weeping, another weeps with them. When one is laughing, another laughs with them.

The inexhaustible riches of Christ in ordinary people.  

So we put on name tags for worship, and sometimes it’s frustrating because you forget your name-tag and leave it in the car or can’t find it. Or you lose it and have to ask for another one. But we do that as a way to learn one another’s names and more truly be the presence of Christ to each other.

Or we go on a church retreat, like we have coming up in October. It’s one weekend together as a church family, and it is an opportunity to grow deeper together. If you want to come, there is still time to register. We learn each other’s names and stories, so that we can speak the benediction of Christ into one another’s lives.

Or we put together a church picture directory. A small and ordinary thing. Yet, flip through the pages with the eyes of faith and you see the body of Christ. We need to do a new directory. The one we have was done in 2010, and some of you have changed a little. Some of you weren’t here yet! In fact if you’d be interested in helping with that, I’d love for you to put your name down on a care card and send me an email.

I began this message by wondering why Paul ends this letter the way he does. No moving story. No grand benediction. No soaring ascription of praise. Perhaps it is because the story is ours to tell — yours and mine. The benediction is ours to pronounce, to one another as presence of Christ. The praise is ours to render, as the ordinary people God has called holy and beloved.

 

Let us pray…

 

Loving God and Risen Jesus, we give you thanks for the ordinary people who have spoken your benediction over our lives. Renew us in love and faith, that we too may speak benediction into the lives of those around us. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

 

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