“I, Paul, became a servant, a minister, a deacon of this gospel. I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church”.

(The following Bible study was recorded at the Living Waters clergy conference. View it here on YouTube)

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A few weeks ago my youngest grandson, Joshua, had his dedication service in Bristol where his dad is the minister of a community church. My part was to make the cake. As you can see, my work with icing could be neater.

I tried to show the moment in the story of Joshua where the tribes cross the Jordan. Here is the river. The yellow icing represents the wilderness: the dry and thirsty land. The green icing is the promised land, flowing with milk and honey.

This is the figure of Joshua: Joshua and Jesus are the same words in Hebrew of course. Here is the ark of the old covenant being carried across the river. The waters of the Jordan are piled up in a heap. To the right you can see twelve coloured Smarties representing the twelve stones placed in the Jordan as the tribes cross.

 

How much more theology can you fit into a cake?

The crossing of the Jordan is one of the many stories in the Old Testament which become a type of baptism in the New. Ezekiel 47 is another as we saw on Monday. The Joshua stories are linked particularly with the virtue of courage which we consider today. In the story of the spies in Numbers 13 and 14, a loss of courage causes a whole generation of God’s people to be lost, wandering in the wilderness, except Joshua and Caleb.

In Joshua 1, as Joshua is ordained to his task by God and the people he is given the same command over and over again: “Only be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened or dismayed for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go”. It is in this context, the need for courage in the Church and in God’s ministers, that we read the central section of Colossians today.

Paul began his letter with contemplation, with an exposition of the wonder of the mystery of Christ. In this second section he talks of courage: of the struggle and joy of Christian ministry and discipleship, the passing from the wilderness to the promised land, from death to life in baptism.

We are focussing in our conference mainly on the call to be disciples and on the renewal of our own discipleship. But it is well worth pausing to listen to what Colossians has to say to us about the ministry to which we are called. Paul describes himself here as a deacon: a term which is used from the earliest New Testament texts to describe those entrusted with a particular ministry. Deacons are more than servants. Deacons are authoritative ambassadors for God, agents of God’s love in the world, to quote the ordinal. Paul’s understanding of his ministry begins as it does elsewhere with the cost of that ministry to him:

“I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body” (1.24).

Paul is not arguing that his own suffering has a redemptive quality. He has already explored the completeness of Christ’s redemptive work in salvation. But he is describing the truth experienced by every generation of ministers and amply witnessed to in this room that the vocation to serve the gospel is a ministry both of great joy and of significant cost over the course of a lifetime.

Perseverance in ministry with courage, pursuing our vocation, means continually bearing that cost which is worked out in different ways in different lives and at different life stages. The New Testament writers and the early Fathers and Mothers of the Church bear witness that this is among the most difficult of vocations. Paul speaks here of his sufferings and trials. He speaks of his labour, his toil and his struggle, literally his agony, his wrestling in prayer. Yet, with courage, he perseveres.

We need to be honest about these costs and difficulties of ministry with ourselves and one another. It’s hard. Where suffering and pain is not acknowledged it can twist and damage the heart of our ministry. Where it is acknowledged we can see that suffering reframed in a still deeper joy.

We need to be a company of priests which expects things to be difficult, which supports and encourages one another, which does not allow suffering and difficulty to sap our strength or to produce cynicism and despair (so corrosive to the church) or empty our faith of joy and hope. Paul will demonstrate the key to that in this passage.

What is at the centre of Paul’s understanding of this ministry to which he is called? It is the bifocal ministry of prayer and service of the word of God: of word and sacrament – the ministry which the Church comes to see as vital for the health and wellbeing of the body of Christ in each generation.

It has been wisely said that some of the stress of contemporary ministry comes from the degree of choice which we are able to exercise about what we do in chaplaincy or parish ministry or episcopal ministry. There are very few things we have to do. There are an infinite number of things we can do. How do we determine where best to invest our time and skills?

In an age in which the Church is experiencing a transition from one kind of society and world to another, from Christendom to post Christendom to use one form of shorthand, we experience then a crisis of ministerial identity which works its way out in our everyday choices.

As a generation of ministers in a world in transition, we search for metaphors which will help us understand our role better. Together we are trying on different identities. We come to see ourselves at different times as therapists; as healers; as social workers; as community builders or changers; as managers or leaders; as sports coaches. The Church has experimented with each of those identities over the time I have been ordained.

All of these probably have some value but none is sufficient. We will rediscover the centre of our vocation as deacons and priests and bishops not in the culture around us but in the scriptures and in our own tradition powerfully summarised here by Paul in this deep well which is Colossians. That in itself requires courage.

Paul’s ministry if we read the text carefully is centred in prayer and in teaching.

“For I want you to know how much I am struggling for you, and for those in Laodicaea, and for all who have not seen me face to face”(2.1). The struggle is primarily in prayer. “I want their hearts to be encouraged (note the word- he is writing to put the courage back into the life of the Church) “and united in love so that they may have all the riches of assured understanding and have the knowledge of God’s mystery, that is Christ himself” (2.2).

The goal of this ministry is powerfully stated in the preceding verses: it is mature Christian discipleship:

“It is Christ whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom so that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil and struggle with all the energy that he powerfully inspires within me”(1.28).

This is to be according to Paul the centre and goal of our ministry: to present every person mature in Christ. How are we to do that? By prayer and the ministry of the word. Through word and sacrament.

I find there are many echoes between this part of Colossians and the early part of Acts 6, the setting aside of the seven. It is no coincidence I think that Luke the beloved physician is mentioned in the closing greeting to this letter.

Acts 6 describes a quarrelling church and the apostles struggling to discern what should be at the very heart of their ministry as they are pulled in different directions. It describes the costs of ministry as Stephen, one of the seven chosen here, will be the first Christian martyr. It describes the necessary task of releasing and discovering new ministries as times change. But it describes most of all the need to guard the priorities of pastoral, priestly ministry. For what are we set aside? For prayer and for the service of the word so that we might present every person mature in Christ.

You may hear me talk now and in the coming months about the need for the renewal of catechesis in the Church. Catechesis is the ministry of welcoming enquirers to baptism, confirmation and discipleship in the life of every parish and chaplaincy. Catechesis is essentially the ministry Paul is describing here: through prayer and teaching presenting every person mature in Christ, able to live our lives courageously.

Take time over the gift of these four days to recalibrate your ministry and I would invite you, as the apostles do in Acts 6, set prayer and the ministry of the word at the centre again. This in itself is an act of courage and faith, or that is my experience.

Paul introduces the goal of his ministry and the means of his ministry. He then unpacks the very heart of his teaching about what it means to be a disciple and to live the Christian life in the central verses of the whole epistle, 2.6-7:

“As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving”.

All that Paul has said so far flows into this paragraph. All that he will say flows from it. The NRSV sets it apart by the spacing of the text and rightly so but there are also internal signposts. There are many references in Colossians to Christ from the opening verse to the final chapter but this is the only place were Paul uses the full phrase: Christ Jesus the Lord. It is his way of underlining that this is the key verse to remember. There are similar headline and summary verses in Romans 1.16-17 and in Galatians 1.11-12.

Paul is here communicating something vital to our understanding of what it means to be a Christian. Our beginning is the pattern for our living. As we received Christ so we are to live in him. We do not graduate from the very beginnings of our faith. We never move on from setting Christ at the centre. We are always returning to first principles.

Paul may be here contrasting the true Christian faith with some of the mystery religions of the ancient world and some forms of Gnosticism. In these faiths, converts would begin with very simple truths and would as it were graduate or move on to more and more in depth and esoteric practices as they were initiated further into the cult.

There have been numerous attempts to make Christianity into this kind of faith down the ages: to try and convince people that you begin in one place but then move on to something else. Colossians 2.6-7 stands against all of that. The centre of our faith is what CS Lewis calls Mere Christianity (but there is nothing mere about it) : As you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.

One of the contemporary examples of this idea that we begin with elementary Christianity and graduate to some kind of different, more advanced Christianity is clericalism. Clericalism is the idea that there are two kinds of Christians: lay disciples and a clerical caste. One kind lives an elementary Christianity. The other has moved on. Clericalism is subtle and destructive in the life of the Church. It’s chief manifestation is a professional clerical mindset. The chief antidote is Colossians 2.6-7: realising that the only way to live the Christian life is just as we began it.

Our beginning is our centre and our goal. Repentance and faith are not just the way we receive Christ, they are the way in which we are to walk and live all our days. The test of every movement of renewal is that it takes us back to the sufficiency of Christ and the centrality of the cross. There are many things which are helpful to our Christian lives. But nothing is necessary beyond the saving death and resurrection of the Son of God. There are no rules or disciplines which bring greater holiness or righteousness or knowledge than living out of the very centre of the gospel, the death and resurrection of Christ.

As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him.

And this is why Paul reaches at this point in Colossians for the language and imagery of baptism, and why we need this language and imagery also. Baptism is the outward and visible sign of the inward and invisible grace by which we receive the gospel and in receiving the gospel receive Christ Jesus the Lord.

Baptism is to be the very way in which we walk as Christian disciples. It is more than the beginning but the very centre of our walk with God. As we set baptism at the heart of our walk with God, so the Church is transformed from a hierarchy, from a clericalised community, from a community of ordained and lay, to the community of the baptised, living out our faith in the whole of our lives.

Colossians unpacks the word walk, peripateo, in four participles (as in the prayer in 1.10-12). There are close parallels between the two passages.

In 1.10 Paul prays that the Colossians might walk worthily of the Lord as here. The first image there is bearing fruit in every good work. Here it is rooted in him – a similar agricultural metaphor. Second the Colossians are to be growing in the knowledge of God and in 2.7, built up in him. Third in 1.10, the Colossians are to be enabled or empowered. In 2.7 the word is strengthened. Finally in 1.10 the Colossians are to be giving thanks and here overflowing with thanksgiving.

Baptism is a very big deal for the New Testament Church and for the Church in the early centuries. It is the rite by which disciples enter pass from death to life and are washed and set free from their sins, cleansed and delivered. Before baptism there is and has to be a long and deep process of formation, catechesis. In the forty days before baptism at Easter there are fastings and exorcisms, the signing with the cross. Baptism at Easter is part of a ritual of passing from darkness to light, stripped of the old life and given new clothes, going down into the waters of death and being born again to new life, being welcomed with the kiss of peace. In the days after Easter, the new Christians are initiated into the creed and the sacraments and entrusted with the food which will sustain them in the rest of the earthly pilgrimage.

Paul deploys two rich and deep metaphors for baptism, helping that baptism to be a lived reality in the life of the believer. Both underline his main theme that as we received Christ, so we are to walk in him. Tomorrow we will explore the metaphor of putting off and putting on: of new baptismal garments. Today it is the theme of dying and rising again with Christ.

In verse 11: “In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God who raised him from the dead”.

“And when you were dead in the trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and make a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.”

There is a rich seam here of Christ’s complete victory in the cross. But the main point Paul is making is the pattern of our receiving Christ is also the pattern of our life in him. We are called to live out our baptism, continually dying to rise again.

One of the many reasons the renewal of catechesis is vital for the Church of England at the present time is that something happens as we walk the way of faith with enquirers and new Christians. As we make that journey with our sisters and brothers to and through baptism, we ourselves return to the centre of our own faith. We come to see again the core of what it is to be a Christian: to be buried with him through baptism and to rise again through faith in the power of God who raised him from the dead. We learn again that we are to walk and to live just as we received Christ: deeply rooted in him in word and sacrament; being built up, enabled and established in faith; overflowing with thanksgiving.

Where will we find courage in the life of the Church?

Today’s bible reading encourages us to do two things.

The first is to recentre and recalibrate our ministry: to return to the centre, to the ministry of prayer and the service of the word, of word and sacrament, with the simple and life changing aim of presenting everyone mature in Christ.

The second is to recentre and recalibrate our discipleship: to repent of any clericalism which might be lurking in the shadows; to remember that we are to live as we have received Christ, that there is no graduation to a more complex or detailed form of Christian faith, that mere Christianity is enough and that there are depths to our baptism which have yet fully to understand.

We recentre our ministry. We recentre our discipleship. You will see I hope that the two are closely related.

“As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving”.

 

+Steven
Living Waters Clergy Conference
Swanwick, 2 May 2018

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