Saturday, 22 April 2017

Growing in our knowledge of God. A talk for the parish AGM


Paul begins his letter to the Colossian Christians by thanking God for them, by thanking God for the gospel, and by praying that they would be filled with the knowledge of God’s will.

And that seems to me to be a good model to follow on an occasion like this.

1.      I do thank God for you – for your faith in Jesus and your love for all the saints.

It is encouraging to see the faith that so many have.

It has been great to see people taking new steps of faith: taking risks and doing things like Café church and Sunday@4; or taking on new jobs or becoming Readers in the Church of England, as Tom and Andrew did.
And it has been a particular privilege for me this last year to be beside several of our brothers and sisters as they have faced death with the Lord.  And some of them have been quite inspirational.      

And it is encouraging to see the love that people have for all the saints.

Paul does not thank God for the love that the Colossian Christians have for one another.
I’m sure that is not because they hated each other!
But what he does thank God for is their love for all the saints.
That is the real test of whether our Christian love is authentic. It is not about whether we love the people who we worship with and who are generally quite like us. It is about whether we love and practically serve those who are brothers and sisters in Christ, but who are very different to us.

So one of the things that has been special for me in the last year is how mission has been playing a much bigger part in the life of both our churches. I’m not talking about our evangelism here, but about our support for Christian believers throughout the world. And Dorothy you have played a big part in that, so thank you.

Tom and Jemma have gone to Addis Ababa
We’ve supported the work in Zimbabwe at the Montgomery Heights Christian Centre and Orphanage
And more recently, Nick and Julia have been out to Albania, to see the work of A2B and the work of the ‘Jesus brings us together’ Church.

But it is not just love for believers overseas. It has also been encouraging to see how people have been working together with Christians from different churches across the town: in Bury Drop in, Town Pastors, the fair-trade shop, Sporting 87 and CAP to name a few. Having said that, it would be great to see some people willing to be involved in the more formal structure of Churches Together. It is important as an expression of our unity in Christ and our love for our brothers and sisters in this town.

We are called to love all people equally, and in heaven that will be possible. But here we are limited by space and time. So God gives us neighbours in order that we learn to love. St Mary’s and St Peter’s are not only sister churches; we are also neighbours. Yes, there will be a slight parting of the ways in the lives of our two churches, and that is right if we are going to see growth, but it is also important that we guard our unity. And we do that by praying together. The staff team pray together weekly, and the parish prayer meeting is vital. And we express that love when we look not only to our own interests but to the interests of each other: I’d love our two DCCs to be in competition with each other about how much good they can do for the other.

I thank God for you; for your faith and love

2.      I thank God for the gospel

When I first read this passage, I thought Paul was giving thanks to God for the faith, love and hope of the Colossian Christians. But he isn’t. He gives thanks to God for their faith and their love, but if you look carefully, you see that he is not speaking of their subjective hope, but of the objective hope that they have been given.

This is a bit of a dodgy illustration. Imagine you are long term ill. On some days you have a hope that you are going to get better. On other days, you don’t. Paul is like the person who is not saying thank for the fact that on some days you hope you are going to get better. He is like the person saying thank you because you are going to get better; and the power of that recovery is already at work in you.

Paul is saying that the reason that the Colossian Christians have faith and love is not because they are good people, not because they are hopeful people, but because the future Kingdom – God’s reign of light and life and justice and mercy and forgiveness and beauty and truth – is already breaking in to their lives.

That is the gospel, or at least one way of expressing it.
Later on Paul describes it in different terms. But here, he says, Jesus died to rescue us from darkness and to transfer us into his kingdom of light.

He died to rescue us from the darkness of sin, from the stuff that we do or think – which we keep in the dark because if others knew about it, we would die of shame. Well; Jesus does know, and yet he still loves us. And he freely went to the cross for us, and he died for us – and because of his death we are forgiven (v14). And because we are forgiven and accepted, we can begin to face up to the darkness and allow the light of Jesus to shine on it.

He died to rescue us from the prison of hopelessness that we found ourselves locked in. Imagine dungeon. Imagine dark. Imagine people chained to the wall. Your worst nightmare. We make the best of this cell that we are locked in. It is, after all, our home and all we are used to. We may even have parties in our cell and pretend we are having a great time. We know that this is not how we were made to live, but there is no hope. We are never going to get out. And then suddenly the wall is smashed down and our rescuer appears: and he takes us out into a new world.
We were slaves. Slaves to the forces of this world. Slaves to our own twisted desires and compulsions and fears. And we have been redeemed (v14). When Jesus died on the cross. We have been set free.

And because we have been forgiven, and we have been set free, and we are now citizens of heaven, the Spirit of God is at work in us. And we will grow in our faith in Jesus and in our love for all God’s people.

And so I thank God for this gospel, this good news, because it is bearing fruit and growing. We see that when people begin to have a hunger to find out more. We see it when someone gives their life to Jesus and becomes a Christian. We see it when someone who is gripped by the Holy Spirit and by the Lord Jesus steps out beyond their comfort zone in service of others.

3.      I pray that God will fill us with the knowledge of his will

Both churches have been thinking about vision. Well, perhaps I should say that Nick and St Peter’s have thought about vision, and I’ve got envious and felt that St Mary’s should also be thinking about vision! What is it that we believe that God is calling us to do as churches?

I am not convinced that this is the sort of knowledge that Paul is speaking about here. I think what Paul is speaking of here is God’s general will for us – his will which is revealed in scripture, but which we can only understand when the Spirit takes the words of scripture and applies them to our hearts and minds.

So, for instance, I don’t think this is speaking of where you should live, but how you should live where you find yourself; it is not speaking of what job you should do, but how you do the job you do; It is not telling you if you should marry or who you should marry, but how you should live as a single person or as a married person.
It is not fundamentally about the decisions we need to make, but about our heart and attitude.

It is about getting to know the heart of God, the love of God, the will of God. It is about allowing that will to come in and fill us. I guess Paul could equally have said here that he prays that God would fill us with his Spirit, or his wisdom, or that his Word would live in us.

As we grow to know God’s will, as we allow that will to fill us, it shapes our will – and we will want to do what God wants us to do. When we have decisions to make, we will almost instinctively make the right decision.

I was talking with an older Christian who is going on with the Lord, and he says that there is so much that he used to watch on television that he now does not enjoy watching. He doesn’t want to watch stuff that is about violence or revenge or lust. He doesn’t want to watch people ripping other people to pieces. He wants to watch stuff that is ‘true, honourable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent and worthy of praise’ (Philippians 4.8)

And Paul tells us that if we are filled with the knowledge of God’s will, then we will know how to live lives worthy of the Lord, pleasing him in every way and bearing fruit in every good work. It is how we will delight our God – because he will see someone who has a heart like his heart. Remember how, when Jesus humbles himself to receive baptism, the Father says, ‘This is my Son, my beloved. With him I am well pleased’.
And if we are filled with the knowledge of God’s will, then we will have strength to be patient and endure. We’ve been warned that hard times will come, and there will be times when we all we can do is cry out to the Lord and wait. Later, in Colossians, Paul writes of the suffering that he endures for the sake of Christ.
And if we are filled with the knowledge of God’s will, then worship will become something quite different. We will overflow with joy in our praise of God for what he has done for us and for who he is.

There is one phrase here that I have not mentioned, but I think that it could be the most important!
Paul writes that he asks God to fill us with the knowledge of his will … so that we grow in the knowledge of God (v10).

That seems to me to be the really big vision statement.
It is the vision statement that trumps all other vision statements.
It is more important than our buildings; it is more important than our activities; it is more important than our plans.
Jesus came so that we might come to know God.
He died so that we might come to know God.
He rescued us from the dominion of darkness so that we might come to know God.
He fills us with the knowledge of his will so that we might come to know God


My prayer is that we will be a people who are growing in our faith in Jesus Christ and in our love for all our brothers and sisters, who are growing in our understanding of the gospel, and – who above all else – are growing in our knowledge of God. 

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