Colossians 1:11-20. May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
Last week, I had a phone conversation with a person – not from Manheim or Pennsylvania – who was looking for some local help with setting up a display for a Christian event. It didn’t take me long to make the connection for them; they got the help they needed. And then I asked, “Why did you call us?” It was a little random; we came up on the first page of a web search for “Manheim churches.” She looked for a UCC church in the list, but not because she was a UCC person. She said that whenever she had this kind of need for temporary work, UCC churches are the best churches to call. We are always the friendliest and the most willing to take the time. We seem to know the community the best.
She could have called anyone, and I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed, but there are a lot of churches around. All different flavors. The United Church of Christ is the product of mergers of several denominations over the last century. Denominations with different histories, but similar styles. Years ago, when I was going to school in St. Louis, I saw at one intersection of streets, three different UCC churches on three of the four corners! Each one from a different background! Maybe that communicates something else about us!
One of the things that’s true about the United Church of Christ is that many folks who gather on a Sunday morning to worship have come from some other Christian tradition. It means that they have to get used to some new traditions. Every church has its own culture.
When people are getting ready to join the church, one of the things we talk about is the difference between the United Church of Christ and other denominations. These differences have mostly to do with government: Episcopalians, Catholics, Methodists, and Lutherans have bishops to oversee the churches. Presbyterian churches are governed by a presbytery, or session, which are names for committees. In a lot of independent churches, there are boards of elders.
In the United Church of Christ, the church’s highest authority (in its governing structure) is the congregation when it is gathered. Not some individual member of the congregation or small group; when the congregation is called together for a meeting, that is where the buck stops, so to speak. It was in our churches, by the way, that the basic idea for democracy found its place in this country. When the church needs to make a decision about something, call a new pastor, build a building, or whatever, we call a meeting, and everyone gets a voice and a vote.
Worship services may be mostly the same between Methodists, Presbyterians, and UCC churches like ours, and they have lots of committees and boards that probably function the same, but when major decisions have to be made, for better or worse, that’s when you see the differences. Even independent churches are organized around tradition, some pattern of doing things that seemed best to a group of believers at some point in its history, some kind of structure. Somebody said, “Hey, this is a good way to do ministry; write this down so we know what to do next year!” The only problem with that, of course, is that if the practice of what we do doesn’t go through some kind of continuous evaluation and evolution, the culture around us moves on and we become irrelevant. It should be obvious that many of the things that were good for our grandparents may not work so well with our grandchildren. We care that they come to faith in Jesus Christ; we don’t care, as much, that they do the same exact things we do to practice their faith. I used to work for an organization, many years ago, that had a slogan that went like this: “Anchored to the rock, changing with the times.”
Every church, and every believer in every church, at regular times in its life, needs to step back and ask, “God, is the way we should be doing things? Jesus, is this what you had in mind for us?”
Jesus, we heard you say, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39) God, reveal to us how we do that better. And help us make new traditions when our old ones don’t work so well.
Christians, over the years, have separated over this conversation. Some people think it’s wrong for there to be so many denominations, but I think it’s one of those issues that always has a good side and bad side. It’s bad that we’re “apart.” But it’s good that there is some variety, that there are some differences, so that each of us can find a place where God can best use us, and we can best understand and grow in our faith. And besides, what would any town be like if all it had was Italian restaurants? You know what I mean. If there are Christians or Christian groups close enough to each other to make it practical, they should work together on things like food pantries, and worship together when it’s possible.
You would think that ideally, all Christian churches should be “together.” But there were conflicts between churches – and people in churches – even in New Testament times. Mostly because of cultures. The Christians in Roman colonies like Colossae were not like the ones in Jerusalem. This is why most of the letters in the New Testament were written. This is why the gospels were written.
Scripture was written not so much as an act of devotion by the writers, but as an attempt to keep Christians straight on the basics of their faith. God cares a lot about whom or what you put your faith in; whom or what you worship. Not just you individually – what the church believes together is important to God. How the church acts on what it believes together is important to God.
The church in Colossae found that out in the letter the apostle Paul wrote to them. The main reason we are together, the reason we exist in this group called church is that Jesus rose from the dead. Faith in the living Christ makes our nothing into something powerful. Faith in the living Jesus changes you. When we have faith in the living Jesus together, we become a force that can change the world.
From prison, the Apostle Paul writes to the church in Colossae, a Roman colony in what is now Turkey, and helps them think about the basics of their faith. He lays out the basics when he says…
He (Jesus) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in* him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. (vv. 15-16)
Why are we here? For him. To enjoy relationship with God. The Presbyterian church has a very old teaching tool called the Westminster Catechism. Its first question is, “What is the chief end of man?” (Forgive the language) Why are we here? Answer: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”
He himself is before all things, and in* him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. (vv.17-18)
I’m not the head of the church; you’re not the head. Christ is the head of the church. We have a mission: “…to witness to the Gospel and Jesus Christ in all the world, while worshipping God and striving for trust, justice, and peace and to make a difference through the love of Christ.”
We function as a democracy, but our goal, in everything we do, is to please the living Jesus and be vessels for his love. We always are asking ourselves (or should be, “Christ, what do you want from us?”
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (vv.19-20)
We believe that even though Jesus died on the cross, he is alive now, and he brings us together with the power of God, when we have faith in him. Trust, justice and peace are possible, not because we think those are good ideas, but because he lives, and lives in us to make love happen. He is powerful and amazing. All things have been created through him and for him. Including us. Including our church.
The reading started by saying…
“May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from (where?) his glorious power.” (v. 11)
All of us know someone who is in assisted living. Someone whose life is made better, whose life has more quality, when they have the help of someone else who is nearby. And there are places that provide that extra help. My mother, who is 95, moved a couple of years ago to an assisted living facility.
But all of us need to “be made strong with the strength that comes from his glorious power.” All of us need assistance with our living. That’s why we are here. It is the weak person who thinks they can live life alone or can do faith alone. We are assisted from the cradle to the grave. By the power of Christ living in us when we believe and by countless people God gives us – our parents, teachers, friends, pastors, neighbors, employers – believers who have helped us along the way.
People have been helping us all along, and God has been at work through all of them. Assisted living is the only way we can get through life. The church is an assisted-living environment. A place where we don’t need to be afraid to for help. A space where the special gifts God has given us are brought together for the benefit of all.
Those gift catalogs have some of us thinking about Christmas already, and pretty soon our lives will start to get cluttered with the holidays again, if they aren’t already. Each Sunday throughout the year, we say something in a creed or statement of faith that reminds us Christ came into the world and why he came. Now is a perfect time to think about that and answer some questions: “What difference does it make to me that Christ came? What difference does that make to our church?” What difference does it make to Manheim that we are here?
There is something you’ve brought that is a gift to the people around you. Looking around, we see many gifts, and we thrive because those gifts from God are passed along here. The point of having gifts is to give them; to make a difference in someone else’s life. And there are unopened gifts. What is the gift you’ve brought here for the glory of God and the benefit of everybody else? Let’s work together to open that gift.
O God, sometimes we are so caught in going through the motions of being religious that we forget who you are, and we forget who we are too. You love us and care for us more than we will ever know. Help us understand and remember all you’ve done for us through your son Jesus. Help us understand and learn what it means to be your children. Help us know the power of your love. Help us remember how much growing we still need to do. Teach us to see what you see: that your world is oppressed by the enemies of love. Teach us to feel what you feel, and give us the willingness to do something that makes a difference in the lives of brothers and sisters of our church family, and in the lives of the rest of our human family.