Friday, July 08, 2011

Colossians 15: Struggler. Preserver. Deserter.

Scripture Text: Colossians 4:10-18

Introductory Comments

Last week we focused on the first three of six names of Paul’s comrades and friends in ministry. The first three were all Jews, “men of the circumcision,” who traveled and served with Paul, sometimes under grave circumstances. Aristarchus, we learned, was a man of all seasons, someone who was with Paul in thick and thin. John Mark, the likely author of the gospel of Mark, was a restored rebel, someone who bailed out on the mission but was nurtured back into action and faithful service. And then there was Jesus Justus, a man who was just there, showing us how important it is for us to really be with others in the church.

This week, we’ll spend some time with the three Gentiles in the list of six individuals forwarding greetings through Paul. Next week, we’ll wrap up our series by examining Paul’s personal greeting and concluding exhortation to two members of the Colossian church. Now, let’s talk about Epaphras, the servant struggler; Luke the beloved physician and preserver of the good news; and finally Demas, the deserter. Yes, we’re ending on a bit of a down note, but that sometimes happens in real life, doesn’t it?

Epaphras – The Servant Struggler

We know already something about Epaphras from chapter one of the letter. He was a native of Colossae and evangelized his hometown. Paul referred to Epaphras as “[1:7] our beloved fellow servant [sundoulos]. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf [8] and has made known to us your love in the Spirit.” Epaphras is also mentioned at the conclusion of Paul’s private letter another Colossian citizen named Philemon (verse 23), where he is described by Paul as a “fellow-prisoner.”

This is what Paul says about Epaphras in chapter 4:
[12] Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant [doulos] of Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God. [13] For I bear him witness that he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis.
Here, Paul reiterates Epaphras’ commitment to Jesus. He is described again as a doulos, or slave, of Christ Jesus (translated in many English bibles as “servant”). We know, then, that Epaphras was totally committed to Jesus as Lord of heaven and earth. And many people profess such a commitment. But notice that Epaphras’ case, his commitment translated into concrete action on behalf of others. Look at what Paul says. Remember, Paul and Epaphras are very close. It is quite possible that Epaphras is sharing Paul’s imprisonment. Paul would therefore know very clearly what Epaphras had been up to. What detail of Epaphras’ activity does he mention? His prayers. I think that’s very important for us to understand today. What we learn about Epaphras is that his commitment to Jesus Christ wasn’t just idle talk, his commitment resulted in action, specifically, the action of struggling on behalf of his Colossian brothers and sisters in his prayers, that they might “stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God.”

These few words have several significant applications for us today. You may have noticed that individual disciples do not mature in Christ at the same time or with a similar pace. Churches are a mixed up bunch of folks. Sometimes, maturity in the faith corresponds with age and experience. But this is very often not the case. I’m always happily amazed, for example, when a younger person is able to more clearly articulate the gospel than I am, or is more mature and possessed of greater assurance of God’s good will for them, or has a much richer prayer life than me. In the church, it is not unusual at all to see older adults who are brand new to the faith who must be shown, by means of the gospel, what it means to grow deeper in and more mature in the faith. And it is not unusual at all to encounter young people with deep, profound, mature faith and assurance. The church has consisted, and always will consist, of people who are at different degrees of maturity and assurance in the faith. What this text makes clear, however, is that Christians ought to (1) display a growing maturity in their faith in Christ, (2) should enjoy a growing sense of assurance of their salvation in Christ, and (3) that we ought to struggle for each other in prayer so that we might all be presented holy and blameless at the time of the Lord’s coming.

What does it mean to grow mature in all the will of God? To grow mature in Christ means to grasp more thoroughly how the good news of the gospel impacts every aspect of life. Just understanding that fact, that the gospel does impact every area of life, is intimidating to many Christians who still have areas in their lives that they might prefer not being impacted by the gospel. Those areas we like to keep insulated from the gospel consist of the sins we still cling to and enjoy because we think giving them over to the gospel will reduce us to joyless dullards. Remember, the Colossians were beings subjected to a false teaching that suggested spiritual fulfillment or “fullness” could be found somewhere other than in Christ alone. This is, of course, totally false. To grow more mature in Christ is to realize, with ever-increasing clarity, that joy in Christ is better than any sin idol we pretend might be better, and that it is God’s will for us to revel in the enjoyment of Himself.

Hand in hand with this growing maturity is assurance that God’s will for us is good. Anyone can intellectually declare that by faith alone their sins have been forgiven, that God is for them, and they have no fear of condemnation at the final judgment. It is another thing to actually experience this assurance of the goodness of God’s will for us. Our tendency is to question our assurance by assuming that, once we’ve been saved, we might do something do which would forfeit that salvation, causing God to abandon us. But there is nothing that can keep God from His children. Assurance of our God’s good will toward us is something that grows as the Holy Spirit sanctifies us with His indwelling power. Very often, we are granted this assurance by paradoxically (at least to us) experiencing seasons of suffering. This is why some Christians are known to take careful notes over time, perhaps in a journal, observing when the Holy Spirit empowers the believer to conquer a particular sin or sinful desire which is opposed to God’s good will for him or her. Have you ever done that? Have you ever taken time to reflect on how God has sanctified you? One thing that helps with this is having a trusted brother or sister who can reflect with you and help you assess your life of faith. Do you have someone like that in your life, someone who will listen to you and honestly help you assess how the Holy Spirit is working in you? If you don’t have someone like this in your life now, please consider finding someone. This can be the source of great encouragement and joy when you hear from others how God is working in your life. Don’t rob yourself of the chance. And when you find this person, make sure you agree to struggle for each other in prayers, as Epaphras did for his brothers and sisters back home.

For those who are more mature in the faith, have you taken upon yourself the same commitment that Epaphras demonstrated for his brothers and sisters at home? If the Apostle were here now, and knew each of us as well as he knew Epaphras, what would he write about? Would he write about our commitment to prayer, or about our commitment to something else?

Epaphras’ struggles didn’t stop with his prayers. We must note that he had been busy evangelizing other places in the Lycus valley, places like Laodecia and Hierapolis.

Right away we have a signification application for us here today. Friends, there are people living here in Jackson who long to hear the good news, who are lost and remain under the wrath of God for sin, sin for which many are completely ignorant because our culture has lost its ability to even articulate what sin and eternal separation from God means. In this tumultuous environment the church has good news! It has the gospel of Jesus Christ, the gospel of free pardon for all sin through faith in Jesus and eternal fellowship with Him. Who among the native sons and daughters of Jackson in this congregation will be called upon by God to struggle for these lost folks, and who will actually bring Jesus’ message of love, mercy, forgiveness, and hope to those who know only rejection, guilt, legalistic judgementalism and hopelessness? Epaphras’ distance didn’t keep him from struggling for his native-born loved ones in prayer because he know the infinite worth and value of salvation in Christ. And here we are, in Jackson, living among and in many cases with friends, neighbors, and family members, so many of whom do not know Christ. These words Paul has written about faithful Epaphras, would he be able to write them about you or me today? Would he be able to tell our fellow-countrymen that we are struggling on behalf of our immediate neighbors in prayer before the throne of grace, pleading with God for a door to be opened for the gospel? Or would Paul write something else entirely? Would he instead write about how pleased we are with our retirements, our wonderful summer vacations, our new cars and toys and baubles that so easily capture our attention? Beloved, we are to be about the business of God’s salvation by, at a minimum, struggling in prayer for those right here in town who do not know Jesus.

Luke - Beloved Physician And Preserver Of The Good News

Our next person named in verse 14 is very familiar to us because he authored two books in the New Testament. The first is the gospel that bears his name. The second book is the sequel to his gospel, called the Acts of the apostles. The person is Luke, whom Paul refers to affectionately as “the beloved physician.”

I’ve noted in my text that Luke is beloved, that he was a physician (which was unusual enough that Paul felt it necessary to mention Luke’s occupation). But what we get also from the text and from the bible itself is that Luke was committed to preserving the gospel for the church, which means he was committed to preserving the gospel for us. Even more crucial than this was that the good news was preserved for those who do not yet know Christ as Lord. The four gospels give us a multifaceted picture of our Lord Jesus so we can know him better. So let us pause here for a moment to give thanks and praise to Almighty God for the gift of those in history who were inspired by the Holy Spirit to give us the truth about Jesus.

Perhaps one question does arise when we consider Luke and how God used him: Might we also be used in a similar way, as human vessel that direct people to the glorious person and work of Jesus?

Demas – The Deserter

I regret to say that our last character is a bit of a downer. He is Demas, who is mentioned alongside Luke in verse 14. Other than in this place, he is mentioned only one other time in the bible, and that is 2 Timothy, also alongside Luke and John Mark, our restored rebel.

Because Luke, John Mark, and Demas are together mentioned together in two places in the New Testament, we have a chance to compare the faithful committed response of two with the apparent desertion of the other. Here’s what Paul writes to Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:9: “Do your best to comes to me soon. For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica.”

The first thing we can say about Demas is that we all know where he’s coming from. We’re firing on all cylinders in our faith until something else draws our attention because we love the new thing more than we ought. Good Christians who live for Christ will do just what Demas did to Paul. They abandon their friends who find themselves in jail or in some other kind of trouble. They don’t stay steadfast and are persuaded by some worldly temptation.

Demas stands in stark contrast with Luke, who likely stayed with Paul during not just one but two of Paul’s extended imprisonments (two years each in Caesarea and Rome). And he stands in great contrast with John Mark, who bailed on Paul but who in Colossians is back on track until in 2 Timothy Paul states clearly that John Mark “is very useful to me for ministry.”

Demas, then, is a warning to us to resist the ever-present temptations of the present world. This is easier if we remember what Paul wrote in Colossians 1:11-12
“May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.”
We will avoid taking the road Demas took if we remember what God has promised to those whom he has saved by means of his Son. Jesus is the fulfillment of every human longing. If we know him as such, then we can be steadfast servants, maturing and growing in assurance of God’s good will for us. Amen.

Given at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Minnesota
July 2, 2011
14th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Copyright © 2011 by Christopher Donald Drew

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Come, O Holy Spirit

A good prayer to kick off the day, from the Book of Common Worship:
Come, O Holy Spirit.
Come as Holy Fire and burn in us,
come as Holy Wind and cleanse us within,
come as Holy Light and lead us in the darkness,
come as Holy Truth and dispel our ignorance,
come as Holy Power and enable our weakness,
come as Holy Life and dwell in us.
Convict us, convert us, consecrate us,
until we are set free from the service of ourselves,
to be your servants to the world.