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The Community

I preached this sermon originally in 2009. In its initial form it began with a shorter version of the poetic retelling of the story of creation, fall and redemption. This rewrite was an assignment for the class I took in January, 2011. The intent of this message is to remind the hearers/readers that Scripture is telling a story we’re all struggling to hear naturally and to call us to share that meaningful story of belonging with others.

Before the beginning there was Community. God, the Community of Love, which we refer to as the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit had a perfect relationship of mutual love and respect. This isn’t to say that there were three gods – there is One God and this God is the essence of Love. Love neither exists in, nor is expressed in isolation; it is expressed in community. This God, this Community of Love is not incomplete; the Trinity is the definition of completion. Community needs nothing, Love lacks nothing. Love is eternally expressed within the Community of the One God in Three Persons.

While the Community of Love is not incomplete, neither is God static. The nature of True Community is expansive. It is dynamic. It is always growing and bringing into itself everything around it. The relationship of the Community, being rooted and established in a deep, indescribable love, is creative. For that is what love is and what love does, it continually creates opportunity for love to be expressed and to give itself away. Trinitarian love is essentially self-emptying.

So God, the Community of Love, created. God brushed away the darkness, stepped into the midst of chaos and brought forth solid foundations. God molded and formed an indescribable, advancing universe, and in an inconspicuous section of all that began to paint, with beautiful strokes, a landscape that was begging to be enjoyed.

God walked in the garden. The Lord knelt down and from the same material that formed mountains, deserts and jungles; the same material that made up the fish and birds and lions and bugs, began to mold something new; something that would see and know and laugh and love. God began to form something that would walk with The Community, that God could teach and love. With The Community’s image as a mold and model, a new thing was brought into being.

This new thing would be the pinnacle of everything God had created. The Lord would be able to point out the sunrise and this new thing’s breath would catch. When a thunderstorm would pass through, it was God to whom this new thing would come running for protection. The Community of Love would hold this small creature and explain that everything would be okay.

God formed this living being. The Community breathed its own life into this thing. The Community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit – the relationship that was full, complete and needed nothing – invited these new small frail children to share this powerful community. And it was so very good.

God could have formed these creatures without the ability to choose their course. That decision had been made with the stars and planets and mountains and streams. None of these had been given the freedom to choose – planets and moons are in their orbit and have no ability to choose to do otherwise. Mountains are tall and strong, but they will never think, “I want to be a valley now.” Gravity does not choose whether it will influence objects or not.

This decision allowed the universe to be orderly, but it also ensured that no planet would ever write a song about the Creator. True, God created great beauty in the planet, a beauty which is itself a kind of song, but it isn’t a song that the planet created. In humanity, God has created something which is able to create as God creates – not on the same level; neither as equal nor rival, but as something which understands, as God does, that when love is present beautiful things result. The children could not be like the stars or the trees, they had to be able to choose.

But with the ability to choose, came the ability to choose isolation over Community. Some say that God was disobeyed and so God’s wrath was stirred. I think it’s much more sad and tragic than that. The Lord had created these children to live in the trusting, loving relationship that The Community enjoyed; God had created room for the Community of Love to be experienced. In the moment of choice, the creation rejected both Community and Love. The course of the Story was altered from its intended trajectory.

This crisis was devastating and cataclysmic, but it would not have the last word. It WILL not have the last word. Even in the midst of great crisis, when Creation rejected the relationship of love and community and instead launched into selfishness and isolation…The Creator continued going to creation.

God called a man named Abram and made a covenant with him. The Lord God blessed Abram, changing his name to Abraham (meaning “father of a multitude”) and promised that through him all people groups on earth would be blessed.

As the children of Israel continued year after year to cycle through seasons of confusion and clarity, The Lord kept returning to them, seeking to restore and reconcile community with creation. God patiently taught and corrected and reminded and invited and urged and groaned and pleaded. Community could not stand to see humanity languishing in isolation.

The Lord raised up judges and priests, kings and prophets to speak to the people. Some of these leaders saw relative success in their ministry of calling the hearts and minds of the people back to God. But the success was always short-lived at best.

The prophet Jeremiah spoke of a coming day when there would no longer be any need to teach one another about God, for the covenant would be written on our hearts. When the time came, The Community of Love yet again stepped into the midst of creation to walk in the garden with creation. Once more the missionary God self-sent, and Jesus the Christ lived among us. Jesus modeled a view of full humanity in full view of humanity.

Jesus gathered a community around himself and continually invited the broken, overlooked, forgotten and oppressed to rejoice because the Community of God was at hand; it was here and they were invited in. Jesus came to reclaim the lost things, restore the broken things and to set into motion the putting to rights of ALL things. Jesus proclaimed the good news that once again God would dwell with creation. And Jesus invited humanity to experience the power of thunderstorms, the beauty of mountains and the joy of life in the arms the Community of Love.

Those who heard this joyous pronouncement were not ushered off into isolation. They were sent to invite others to join the work of reclaiming, restoring and remaking. Jesus didn’t merely come to invite us to the feast, the Word of God called us to join in the mission of preparing the table!

Some say that Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection provide the substitutionary atonement for our sins. It is much more beautiful and powerful than just that. To be sure, whatever atonement is required is fulfilled by Christ, but that is only part of the story.

Jesus stepped right into the midst of a continual, systemic, generational and seemingly unstoppable cycle of violence, retribution, greed, power, sin…

And stopped it dead in its tracks.

Never before had anyone had such a singular claim on the right for retribution and justice. Rather than lay claim to these rights, Jesus laid them aside in order to stop the cycle of revenge. Sin and death would no longer have a strangle-hold on the status quo. The deception which had been plaguing creation since the first garden was finally brought to full light. There is hope. There is light. There is Life.

When the time came for Jesus to return to the Father, the Spirit was promised…and then sent. The Spirit wasn’t sent to wander aimlessly, but rather came to form and cultivate community in anticipation of experiencing Community on earth as it is in heaven. The Spirit called for the community of believers to be sent to the ends of the earth; continuing the ministry to which Jesus had dedicated himself, continuing the ministry to which God had called Abraham, continuing the ministry which God initiated in the first garden, continuing the Act that began in the beginning, continuing the character of the One who was Community before the beginning. The missionary God who comes near as Love has sent us as well.

We see it everyday in a thousand ways. Walking down the fluorescent lit halls of our high school, they’re there…whispering, judging, huddled together like the impenetrable phalanx of Spartan warriors. Enter any public space: a bar, the mall, a dark alley…even most church buildings and there they are again. Notice your friends, yourself even, and perhaps you will recognize with astonishment that they are still present…even in the mirror.

Sometimes they give themselves a name and go to battle against other theys – sometimes with tanks, sometimes with machetes and assault rifles, sometimes with stolen firearms and knives, sometimes with words.

They are us. Humanity. Struggling to find meaning and belonging in the midst of a deeply scarred and broken world. Whether we’re talking about nations, religions, factions, gangs, fraternities or cliques the dynamic is the same. We long for connection and as I once heard someone say, “when we’re dying of thirst we’ll gladly drink water we know is poisonous.”

The story of Scripture – our story – reveals that this longing is natural, it was placed within us in the very act of creation by a God who exists in community. We are the people of this Story. We are the rememberers of the Story of God, the Community of Love. Not only this, we are the story of the Community of Love in action. This understanding of God teaches us how to receive one another, to speak of salvation, to engage in the mission of God and even to praise the God who has come near in order to make community possible.

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Kingdom First!

“A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!” This famous line from Shakespeare’s Richard III, has become a common phrase. The somewhat pathetic King Richard bellows these words after he was unhorsed at the peak of a battle. Basically, it means that while he was the king of an entire kingdom, none of that mattered more at that particular moment than a horse – without which he would soon no longer be alive to enjoy his kingdom anyway!

Have you every felt that way? Some people refer to this experience as the urgent outweighing the important. You really need to work on preparing your taxes, but instead your time is consumed by taking kids to and from sports practice; or you realize how important it is for you to continue your education, but the urgency of the bills leads you to join the workforce instead.

It could be that the urgent became so urgent due to our poor choices – or in my case, procrastination. It could very well be that we are in the difficult position of choosing between the urgent and the important because we didn’t deal with the important when we could or we didn’t address those things which can become urgent before they did so. And so we are forced to do that which is less important but more urgent as a consequence of poor planning, a lack of discipline or will power.

Sometimes there is no way around it, the urgent needs must be met – regardless of the cost to the important. Right? But at other times, could it be possible that we could choose not to be ruled by the urgent? Is it possible that the choice which appears out of our control or beyond our reach is actually attainable, just painful? Is it possible that the urgent things get addressed not because they are unavoidable but because it causes less pain in this moment to put off the important? In other words, sometimes we are forced to address the urgent immediately due to unforeseen or unavoidable circumstances, sometimes we do so because of poor planning, or lack of discipline, and then sometimes we do so because we lack the courage to do what needs to be done…

Colossians 1:1-14

1:1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,

2 To the holy and faithful brothers in Christ at Colosse:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father.

3 We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, 4 because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints- 5 the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard about in the word of truth, the gospel 6 that has come to you. All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth. 7 You learned it from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf, 8 and who also told us of your love in the Spirit.

9 For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. 10 And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, 11 being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. 13 For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

What passionate words Paul uses to open this letter to his close friends. One of the urgent roles of an apostle or evangelist in the early days of the church (the same urgent role of preachers today) was to encourage the congregation or, often, congregations they were responsible for. Those churches that the evangelist planted or ones they had strengthened during a lengthy stay were in many ways seen as their responsibility. And so, Paul was definitely a busy individual. Writing letters such as this one was not something that one did every day. The prayer, care and thought that went into this process, not to mention the expense and time…it was definitely more involved than sending someone an email! Receiving such a letter was a great blessing that not every congregation would be blessed with. Many times there would be a short exhortation sent (like 1,2,3 John) or a verbal message sent via a trusted friend of the evangelist and the congregation.

So what was Paul’s relationship like with the church in Colossae? It must have been intimate and intense, right?

Well…actually they hadn’t met. No, this was not one of “Paul’s churches” – strictly speaking they weren’t his responsibility, they were Epaphras’.

But for Paul – “Kingdom first” was a battle cry. Paul would not give up the kingdom for a horse, in fact Paul would give up his horse – he would give up his HOUSE for the kingdom.

It is very easy to fall into the mindset of urgent over important. However, in our lucid moments we know how short-sighted this can be. Paul did not allow the urgency of life to detract him from the important work of ministering to this young congregation that was under threat from false teaching. His letter of encouragement to the churches in the region surrounding Collossae was vitally important and it emphasized God’s kingdom over our empire.

Strategically Paul could have focused solely on those churches he had direct influence on, thereby strengthening his “holdings” – making him less susceptible to attack from the “Judaizers” he often refers to. But Paul’s focus was not on protecting himself or strengthening his empire –his focus was solely on the very good news that the Kingdom of God is at hand and it is available for everyone!

So how does Paul model this in the text?

We’ve already noted that the letter itself is being written to a group he doesn’t know personally – which automatically should communicate something to them and us about the need to look beyond our own walls at what is happening or what needs to happen. As he writes, “All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth.” These words acknowledge that Paul is taking an interest in things beyond his small corner of the kingdom – and he is encouraging them to do so as well. “All over the world” is a bit of encouragement for Paul and the Colossians. Paul models the Kingdom First mentality through his excitement for those he’s not met – so what, practically speaking, does he want from these people?

Paul follows the thanksgiving with a prayer, implying that there is still work to be done.

The prayer in verses 9-14 calls the church to put into practice those things which Paul has been modeling. Living a life filled with fruit through a shared inheritance with all the saints; this was their calling and it is ours as well. We must not allow our decisions to be made out of fear, but rather faith. When the question arises, do we do what we know we should do or do we do what is safe – the answer is clear!

So many years ago Paul wrote a letter to a group of people that he did not know to praise them for their faithfulness and love. He spoke to them of expansion of the gospel, and it bearing fruit all over just as it had with them. He prayed that they would live in such a way as to please the Lord, bearing fruit for him. He prayed that they would be filled with praise and joy, as he was, for the greatness of God’s actions all over the world. And I am confident that Paul’s prayer would change very little were it uttered for us today.

I am confident that when we are faced with the question of being active in our community or paying for our building…the answer is clear. When the question is between becoming a place of healing for the poor or preserving a “healthy” bank account for the future…the answer is clear. When the question is between risking persecution and suffering for the sake of the weak and oppressed or remaining safe, warm and walled up in our compound…the answer is clear. When the question is between risking failure in the bold life of faith or preserving a long predictable life of doing absolutely nothing of value…the answer is very clear.

I acknowledge that rarely does the situation present itself in such simple, clear-cut options. Rarely do we see a simple choice between my empire or God’s Kingdom – if it were that simple we probably wouldn’t need to spend time discussing this. The discernment and subsequent decision are seldom simple and hardly ever easy, but constantly before us, consistently deserving of attention and prayer, and consequently require faithful action. Let us continue to walk worthy of the calling we have received.

The question we have before us today is this. How are we to now put the Kingdom first in our lives? This question is both personal and corporate. Will you choose each day to live for the greater good of God’s kingdom? Will we as a body make choices that benefit us or others? As the final words of our text encourage, let us pray that God will fill us with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding so that we may live in this way. It always comes back to the truth the God rescued us through Christ for this very reason.

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