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Sun, Jun 30, 2019

Lives Worthy of the Lord

Duration:20 mins 28 secs

Our scripture for this morning comes from Paul’s letter to the Colossians, chapter 1, verses 1-14. Before we dive into this text, some of you may know (and others might not have noticed) that I have been away the last three Sundays - one for my son Will’s college orientation, one to officiate at a church member’s out of town wedding, and then beginning last Sunday and for this past week I was invited to serve as Chaplain for the Presbyterian House at the Chautauqua Institute in western New York state. Chautauqua is a community that began as a summer education opportunity for United Methodist Sunday School teachers. Over the last 150 years it has expanded to a nine week summer program for those who are interested in education, religion, politics, literature, music, dance, theater, the arts, and recreation. The theme for this past week was Moments that Changed the World and opportunities for learning and conversation filled every day. My brain is still swimming and I am sure there will be much to share with you in sermons and teaching in the days and months ahead.

As Chaplain at the Presbyterian House, I had fairly minimal responsibilities. I had to greet everyone at the steps of the house every morning at 10:15 as the House sponsored a coffee hour between community worship and the morning lecture. I taught a bible study on Thursday evening. And I preached and led worship at the Presbyterian House last Sunday morning. As we did not arrive home until late yesterday evening, I want to let you know that this morning’s sermon is a version of the one I preached at Chautauqua last Sunday. I trust it is a message that the Spirit can use to enrich and encourage us as well. But one more word before we move into the text, I just want to say thank you for opportunity you give to me and to Pastor Nadine for continuing education each year. It is a true blessing.

Now to the first chapter of Colossians. Scholars tell us that they do not know a great deal about either the city of Colossae or the precise issues or crisis facing the young church there. Yet, whatever those issues or questions are, Paul’s answer in this letter always seems to be: “Jesus Christ.” Let us hear this Word of God.

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

2 To the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father.

3 In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, 4 for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, 5 because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel 6 that has come to you. Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God. 7 This you learned from Epaphras, our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf, 8 and he has made known to us your love in the Spirit.

9 For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God's will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10 so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. 11 May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. 13 He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

There are two major international soccer tournaments being played right now. The first is the FIFA Women’s World Cup which is being played in France. The United States women, one of the favorites, are playing very well. They have won their first five games and will play in the semi-finals against England on Tuesday afternoon. Their last game on Friday against the host nation France was just outstanding – a tight, hard-fought 2-1 victory.

The other tournament is called the Gold Cup. It is a men’s tournament for the countries of North America, Central America, and the Caribbean. The United States men, a team in transition, have won their first three games. They play tonight in the quarterfinals against the island nation of Curacao.

For those who might not be familiar with international soccer, in a soccer match there are 25 people on the field or the “pitch” at a time. One player from each team, the goalie, can use his or her hands to touch the ball. The other ten players from each team must play with only their feet, legs, torso, or often their head. Players take turns passing the ball, sometimes forward and sometimes backward. The aim of all that movement is to put the ball in the opposing goal, all the while trying to prevent the other team from putting the ball in your goal. Despite the fact that the US Women won their first game 13-0 in the World Cup, goals tend to be fairly rare in most soccer games. So back and forth they go, from one end of the pitch to the other, for two 45 minute halves. While that is a pretty boring, dry attempt to describe the game of soccer, it is really an exciting game, a beautiful game, and a lot of fun for those twenty-two players to play.

But you might be wondering about something that I said just a few moments ago. I said that during a soccer match there are twenty-five people on the field at a time. But then I went on to describe one player from each team as the goalie and an additional ten players from each team playing offense and defense. That’s 11 on each team or 22 players in all. So who are the other three people?

They are the referees. They are the ones who ensure that the game is played by the rules. Nobody, including the referees themselves, cares whether or not they can dribble, pass, or shoot a soccer ball, as long as they can blow a whistle or wave a flag and name a foul when it occurs. But there they are on the pitch, running up and down often just as many times as the players. Yet, no one really bothers to notice them until one of the players does something wrong, or one of the referees makes a mistake in calling or not calling an infraction of the rules.

Now, you may be starting to wonder what any of this discussion of international soccer has to do with our scriptural text for this morning, and our sermon today. Well, as simply as I can put it, I think the connection is this: as we consider the “game” of Christian life, are we as a church called to educate and train those who will play the game or those who will referee?

As Presbyterians, on our best days we talk about how we value education in our pastors and our members. It is why you, the members of Reid Memorial Presbyterian Church in Augusta, GA, provide time each year for your pastor to attend conferences and experiences like the Chautauqua Institute.

However, on our worst days we lament how our faith tends to be too intellectual, residing in our minds instead of in our hearts. For example, I have a good friend who serves as a pastor of a large Presbyterian Church. He once remarked that the most common reaction to a bible study or program taught in his church is “That was interesting.” His members rarely say, “That was transforming.”

Yes, “That was interesting.” I think that is a common reaction in the church because often we have understood Christian education as merely the imparting of knowledge. The teacher or preacher is the expert and the student is a blank slate or an empty container. The teacher then pours knowledge into that container or writes on that blank slate and learning happens. There is a finite set of information that a Christian must know before they turn 18 and graduate from high school – key bible stories, a few memory verses, a hymn or two, the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the Apostle’s Creed. Once those are mastered, particularly for adults, everything else becomes merely “interesting.”

We might call this list of Christian essentials “doctrine” or “orthodoxy.” As I have shared with you before, one of the great joys I have as a pastor is teaching confirmation class with our eighth grade students every year. In that class we talk about these essentials of faith. For example, Jesus Christ is Lord – the fundamental confession of faith. So, who is Jesus? What does mean to say that Jesus is Lord? What makes one a Presbyterian follower of Jesus as opposed to a Baptist, a Methodist, a Roman Catholic, etc.? As our youth seek to claim faith for themselves and become active members of our congregation, there are some things they need to know.

We hear this in Paul’s prayer for the Colossians in our text for today. “For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.” Paul is praying that God will bless the Colossians with wisdom, with knowledge, and with understanding. Yes, there are some things that Christians just need to know. We must know that Jesus Christ is Lord! And as a church, God calls us to teach our children, youth, and adults, essential church doctrine.

And yet, when our aim is merely to impart knowledge, merely to share wisdom, and merely to increase understanding, something seems to be missing. And that something is the Christian life. As preacher and author Brian McLaren writes:

Many orthodoxies have always and everywhere assumed that orthodoxy (right thinking and opinion about the gospel) and orthopraxy (right practice of the gospel) could and should be separated, so that one could at least be proud of getting an A in orthodoxy even when one earned a D in orthopraxy, which is only an elective course anyway.

The great risk of focusing just on right doctrine and imparting Christian knowledge is that we end up educating and training Christian referees - those who know all the rules; who know how the game is supposed to be played, but who do not actually play the game themselves. When we merely seek to pour knowledge into an empty container or write key facts on a blank slate, then as the church we run the great risk of having no one notice us unless we call them out for doing something wrong or for disagreeing with us on a point of Christian doctrine. When we merely seek to create educational opportunities that are “interesting,” then we run the great risk of being most uninteresting while everyone else enjoys playing the game.

So, while knowing Christian doctrine is essential to the church and Christian faith, as McLaren continues, “Having wholeheartedly affirmed the importance of orthodox doctrine, I would quickly add that it is of little use to correctly say, ‘Lord, Lord,’ if one doesn’t do what the Lord says.” My friends, I suggest to you this morning that the very point of gaining essential Christian knowledge is so that one can live a faithful Christian life.

That is why, in my opinion, may churches have moved away from the language of “Christian education.” Christian education calls to mind a classroom, a teacher as expert, a set of knowledge that must be imparted for an intellectual understanding of the faith - training Christian referees. Instead, we might speak of “faith formation.” God has called us to share essential information, but not just that. God has called us together to form, to mold, to work with, to live with children, youth, and adults of all ages so that all of us, all ages of us, might be faithful post-resurrection disciples and witnesses to Jesus Christ.

I believe God is calling us to a faith that we embody, not just understand. A faith that we learn so that we might live it out each and every day. We gather together in worship, in small groups, in Sunday School, on Wednesday nights, in mission and service, in fellowship and prayer, so that we might be formed and transformed into living witnesses of Jesus Christ. Yes, the gospel can and will change your life! That is what Paul really prayed for in his prayer for the Colossians: “We have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in knowledge of God. Paul doesn’t stop with knowledge, wisdom, and understanding. No, living lives worthy of the Lord – that is the point of learning some key bible stories, a few memory verses, a hymn or two, the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the Apostle’s Creed. Lives worthy of the Lord - that is what we hope for. Not just those who say “Jesus Christ is Lord,” but those whose faith will have been formed into those who do what the Lord says.

My friends, my head is still swimming from a week of continuing education at Chautauqua. You have similar opportunities here at Reid Memorial and in Augusta to learn and grow. But remember that it is not enough just to know the rules of the game. It is not enough just to know the history of the game. It is not enough just to watch the game on television from the comfort of our homes or pews. No, God calls us to be formed into those who play the game. For the Christian faith, the Christian life – it really is a beautiful game to play.

Thanks be to God.

Let us pray:

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