I’ll Let You Into A Secret
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, May 2, 2021
Reading: Colossians 1:24-29
I have a hypothetical question for you. Let’s just say that you have been reading a novel, by one of our congregation’s authors, maybe Rachel McMillan or Terry Fallis, you're enjoying them, coming to the penultimate page, the book is reaching a climax, you turn to the final page and the publisher has forgotten to put it in there. The whole of the story, the key point, the moment that epitomises everything that was going to be revealed in that book, is left dangling, and you have a mystery based on a mystery, an incomplete story. Now, you might have enjoyed reading the book, the wonderful literature and the images that it conveyed, but without that last page, something is really missing, something that the author wanted you to know.
In many ways, our faith can become like that. We’re missing something at the end, we’re left with a mystery. A lot of people’s faith is based mainly on stories. They might be biblical stories or stories of faith from other people, nevertheless they are stories, images of events that have occurred either in history, or mythology. A lot of our faith is based on stories. Some of our faith is based on morals, on good ideas, on practices. You know the sort of thing where people say, “I'm not sure what I really believe, but deep down I'm a good person,” that kind of thing, believing that the faith is essentially a series of morals, or a morality play, to use that language.
Sometimes our faith becomes a mystery, really. We’re willing to live with an unknown. We’re willing to live with something that is beyond our ability to understand. So, the final page not being there, really doesn’t matter, as long as we have a sense of awe and mystery, and something spiritual to keep us going. But we forget that faith is more than those things. Faith is also about something that has been revealed, something that has a content of truth. Something that has been manifested, that we really do need to understand and appreciate. Also, without that last page, it’s as if we haven't fully been engaged in all those stories, morals, myths and ideas. They don’t hold us. They don’t have an impact on our lives. Without that last page, we feel a void, and it doesn’t involve us in the same way, so our faith is often incomplete. Based on many good things, yes, but incomplete, a story without a final page.
Today I want to let you into a secret, the mystery in our faith, the last page. I base it on the writings of the Apostle Paul, who was writing to the Colossians. It’s important to know where Colossae was at that time. It was in Phrygia, in Asia Minor. Today we would call it Anatolia in Turkey. It was, in many ways, the confluence of Greek and Asian ideas. It was a place where there were numerous mythical religions and traditions at work: Jewish and pagan and philosophical. Paul is writing to the Colossians in this new church and saying, “Look, I am sharing in the sufferings of Christ right now,” probably from imprisonment and from persecution himself. He said, “I'm willing to suffer these things for you”, for the Colossians, for that church. “I'm willing to share what I'm sharing now in this letter, so that you might understand the mystery of the faith.”
He also understood that he was writing to the broader church. While this letter would have gone to Colossae, it would have been a pastoral letter that would have gone beyond the boundaries of the Colossians. So, what he was saying was to the broader Christian community, which of course, he had helped found, in places like Corinth, Ephesus and so on. He was also writing to the Gentile world so they would know the substance of the faith and understand the mysteries of God.
That mystery of God also became, for Paul, intensely personal. He uses language that is almost mystical. He talks about Christ in you. Not some dispassionate separated Christ that has no impact on our lives; no, a Christ who is engaged in our lives. Christ in us. This is powerful language precisely because Paul’s mission was to reveal the mystery and the truth of God. It’s his job to write that last page of the novel. He uses a Greek term to describe this mystery: mysterion. For Paul, the mystery was none other than God’s purposes revealed over time. He suggests that those purposes, while partially hidden, now, through Jesus Christ and through the witness of the apostles, there is another word, ephaneroo literally means the unwrapping of a beautiful gift. Paul understood that his mission was to unwrap this mystery that people might know the truth of and the purposes of God in a fuller way. Up until now they’d had a book with all the pages, except the last. This was the secret Paul was revealing to the people.
He also acknowledged that it was because of the witness of those who had gone before him, those who he calls the saints, meaning the apostles, those to whom Christ had appeared after the Resurrection, which we’ve been looking at the last couple of weeks, that in this great moment when Christ revealed himself to the apostles, the truth of God had been revealed. They were the witnesses to this, and this is what Paul is basing his ideas on, but he is going deeper than that. It’s not just a revelation there. It is now shared by the Colossians. It is a mission beyond the boundaries set by the original apostles, to expand to the broader world.
Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles. The Colossians were Gentiles, and he wanted them to know the mystery and to share the mystery of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection and eternal life. He wanted this, and they were part of the mission.
For those of you who watched our service last week, I talked about the expanding of the boundaries, of how, from the earliest days, Christ, who was in Palestine, gives His Spirit to the apostles, who then bear witness. Paul is another one who, on the road to Damascus encountered the risen Christ, and has taken the Gospel into the Gentile world. What we have here is an expansion of everything that we had seen in Christ, continuing in the life and the ministry of Jesus Christ, now amongst the Gentiles. This is an expansive vision that Paul has for the Colossians.
It’s not for an exclusive club. It’s not just for those who are the intellectually acute or the spiritually turned on. In contrast to a lot of the other religious ideas at the time of Paul, whether it was Jewish mysticism or Greek and pagan mysticism, there were a group of people who felt that they had the inner secret and would keep it to themselves. Paul doesn’t want that.
I don’t know about you, but I sometimes get sucked into these things on Google or on Facebook, where it poses a question such as, healthy foods that will help you live longer. You go, “Oh, I’d like to know more about that,” so you click on it, and it talks about healthy foods and why they're important. Then it talks about bananas and eggs and stuff, and everything looks good, and you carry on and you keep going, and you follow the logic, until it gets to the very end, when nothing is revealed until you buy a book, and in that book, all the healthy foods will be explained. So, you've gone down a road that leads you something where somebody wants to sell you something. Only those who have the book really know healthy foods for you, and you want to know. It’s a way of hooking you into purchasing a product.
A lot of the myths and the traditions of some of the sects and the groups were based on that. Paul’s not saying that; he’s saying, “No, the mystery of Christ is revealed, and Christ has been revealed, and now we are to share that, not as some sort of an exclusive group or club”. Indeed, he himself was probably sitting in a prison when he wrote this. This was no club. He was suffering for it. He wanted the world to know God’s purpose. He wanted to know how that was seen in none other than Jesus Christ. If you look at the verses before this – and I encourage you to read the whole book of Colossians – you will see how he talks about Christ in grandiose terms, and the fullness of Christ. This is what he wanted the Gentile world to grasp.
He’s also being very concrete here. He’s getting down to worth with things. He knows that these Colossians are ordinary people, but he is advocating an extraordinary mission. He talks about the saints, he talks about the apostles, and he says, “We continue in the tradition of the saints and the apostles. Then he talks about the Colossians as chosen people, people who have been called by God to take this mission into the world. Listen to his language, it’s beautiful. “How great, among the Gentiles, are the riches of the glory of this mystery.”
That’s a beautiful phrase: “How great, among the Gentiles, are the riches, (the beautiful things) for those who have and know the mystery of God.”
For Paul this was a beautiful journey. The revealing this last page was something that he felt would fundamentally change the world, and he saw the Colossians, as indeed he saw the whole church (and he uses this language in this passage) as the body of Christ. As carrying on the very mission of Jesus Himself into this Gentile world. It’s as grand vision for Paul that he’s always based on the resurrection of Jesus. Without the resurrection of Jesus, and of course the cross that preceded it, Paul knew that we would not know the majesty of Christ. We would not see the wonders of his glory – the riches is the term that he uses.
For Paul, the resurrection was not only the source of Christ appearing to him on the road to Damascus, it was also his hope that the risen Christ would be in the people themselves, and that it would radically alter the way that they look at the world.
Tim Keller, in his book Reason For God, has a quote from Bishop N.T. Wright, the noted New Testament scholar that’s quoted quite a bit but this is a really good quote. Wright says this:
The message of the resurrection is that this world matters, that the injustices and pains of this present world, must now be addressed with the news that healing justice and love have won.
If Easter means Jesus Christ is only raised in the spiritual sense, then it is only about me, and finding a new dimension in my personal spiritual life. But if Jesus Christ is truly risen from the dead, Christianity becomes good news for the whole world, news which warms our hearts, precisely because it isn't just about warming hearts.
Easter means that in a world where injustice and violence and degradation are endemic, God is not prepared to tolerate some things, and that we will work and plan with all the energy of God to implement victory of Jesus over them all.
For Paul, this resurrection of which NT Wright speaks, is really the victory of God. The victory of God is that last page in this book. It is Christ risen, Christ ascended, Christ in his power and in his glory, and he invites the Colossians into that ministry. A ministry that is fundamentally both a beautiful thing of riches, but also one that changes the world, and that is precisely your calling and mine today.
Paul was writing, as we said, not only to the Colossians, but to the broader church, to the body of Christ, to the Gentile world and beyond. That call and that mission is for us to share, that is our focus, that is what constitutes our being. This is our mission too, and it’s a mission the Apostle Paul invites us to take place. With all the things that N.T. Wright mentioned, with all the injustices, sins, problems, and plagues that beset us, the resurrection and the mission of sharing that with the world, is of great importance.
He also suggests that believers need also to look at two things. They need to look at their teaching. If we’re going to go into the world, if we’re going to have a mission, we’d better know what that mission is. There’s no point saying, “We are the body of Christ and going, oh, isn't that just lovely,” if we ourselves do not understand the mystery that has been revealed.
Gary R. Collins, in a beautiful book he wrote some years ago, called Beyond Easy Believism says that Christians sometimes don’t quite get to the maturity and the depth of their faith that they need to get to. That sometimes (he defines these with catchy phrases) we have no-think Christians. No-think Christians are those who rely on some rituals and some social things to keep them engaged but they never really come to terms with their faith. They're no-think Christians.
Then there are shallow-think Christians, those people who, in general principles, apply Christianity to life, maybe some moral ideas, some ethical ideas that have political or social ramifications but they are shallow-think; they never really deal with the substance of the faith.
Then he said, there’s a third group that is called group-think, who basically go along with what the prevailing ideas about the faith are at the time, whether they're true or not. The people easily become subsumed and consumed by these different trends and speak group-think.
Then there is what I call, mature-think. Mature-think is what Paul is talking about and he uses the terms “mature teaching” and “mature living”.
In many ways I’d like to dedicate this sermon to Sir John Polkinghorn, who died last month in the United Kingdom. Polkinghorn was one of the great quantum physicists of the twentieth century. He also was an Anglican priest. What’s beautiful about him is that he’s actually preached here and some of you will remember dear John. I have been fortunate to spend time with him in Cambridge over meals. John was a wonderful Christian man, with a brilliant mind, who was knighted for his work in quantum physics.
He believed in a group called Critical Realism. He believed in that how we approach science and faith are quite similar; we’re looking really for truth, and we do it through thesis, hypothesis and so on. Brilliant, a deeply profound Christian man, a deeply profound thinker. That’s mature-think. Now, I’m no John Polkinghorn, and maybe you're no John Polkinghorn, or maybe you are, it doesn’t matter. What he applied to the faith was a deep understanding of its meaning and its purpose, the mystery that has been revealed.
That mystery though, grasped John. It was more than an intellectual ascent, which leads me to the final point, and that is that notion that Paul has of Christ in you. There’s always balance between the fact that we are justified by faith alone, while at the same time, we have Christ working in us and in our lives; not from a distance, but close to us, working in us.
My hope and prayer in this wonderful Easter period, where we continue to bask in the glow of the resurrection, is that Christ might be in you, and that you might then find that the last page of the book reveals to you the great wonder and glories of the mystery of Christ and in so doing, as the body of Christ, continue in Christ’s name to change the world.
I’ll let you into a secret: You have been called into that mystery. Amen.