When you actually stop and consider the various documents that the Bible is composed of, it’s a little surprising… a little strange. We’re reading someone else’s mail. That’s curious. That’s a little odd.
Imagine with me for a minute that we all gathered together on a Sunday morning like this, and we sang some songs together, and we made some announcements, and then we pulled out some dusty old letter—written by not one of us and addressed to not one of us—and then we all listened to it read and listened to someone talk about it.
That’s strange, huh?
Most of the time, we would only be interested in reading someone else’s mail if they were writing something that involved us somehow. Say you were to come across an email between your landlord and his mom. The email between your landlord and his mom doesn’t really interest you when he’s telling her about his relationship woes and his gluten intolerance. But when he mentions his money problems and that he’s going to need to raise the rent… suddenly you get really interested. Most of the time, the moment when other people’s letters or emails or writing gets interesting… is when it somehow involves us.
The National Treasure movies come to mind. In those movies, the primary reason the characters in those movies are so interested in those old letters and dusty documents, is because those documents somehow involve them. They’re involved… because there’s treasure to be found.
Well, that’s the Christian claim: the Bible reliably addresses all-important realities that involve us.
Paul and the earliest Christians had experienced something that has to do with us. To wit: they had seen someone conquer death. If that’s true, does that concern us? Yes. And that’s why we read this. We’re eaves-dropping on people who are absolutely convinced that they’ve found the meaning of life.
This is mail written by Paul and Timothy (v1) to a group of people in the city of Colossae. (It’s in the southwest of the modern nation of Turkey.) They’re writing to people they call “holy and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ” (v2).
This is a conversation between family—“my brothers and sisters… in Christ.” Despite the impression you may have gotten at some point, “Christ” is not Jesus’s last name. Christ is a title. “Christ Jesus” is a bit like saying “Governor Hickenlooper” or “President Trump” or “Caesar Nero.” It’s a title indicating something about Jesus. He’s the Christ. “Christos” is the actual word. If you wanted to say that in Hebrew you would say “Messaich” or Messiah. It literally means “Anointed One” as in “Anointed King.” Paul is writing to “brothers and sisters in Christ… in the King.”
In this ancient Greco-Roman world—a world conquered and ruled by Caesar and his armies—you have these counter-cultural communities springing up. They’re devoted to a different king than Caesar. A king that—once again—they believe has vanquished death—conquered death.
But it’s really interesting… Paul has never met any of these brothers and sisters. Never met them. The only Colossian Paul has met is a guy named Epaphras. At the end of this letter Paul says that Epaphras is there with him and—“Oh! By the way, he says hello!” (4v12). Here at the beginning of the letter, Paul says (v7) that he’s heard about them from Epaphras. He’s heard about their “faith” (v4) or “faithfulness” and how does he feel about it? Is he sad or is he happy?
YES!!—he’s encouraged by all of these brothers and sisters that he’s never met. He’s encouraged because something is happening among them. Something is at work among them.
Our two-and-a-half year old has this funny habit of sometimes sniffing the air and saying, “I smell something.” Paul has never met any of these people, but he can sniff the air and say, “There is… something… at work among all you. I’ve heard all about of you from Epaphras and there’s something causing changes among you. Something (v6) bearing fruit and growing among you in the same way (v6) that it’s bearing fruit and growing in the whole world.”
We have to repeat the phrasing in English to get the effect, but the Greek is wound tight right here.
In the whole world—panti toi cosmoi—literally in the “all the cosmos”—bearing fruit and growing—even as in you. (Colossians 1v6)
There’s something beautiful at work in all the world—in all the universe—spreading… growing… mushrooming… and its spores have gotten into you.
I grew up in Georgia, and I remember years ago there was this sickness that was killing trees. That’s scary when you see it. There was something at work out there killing the crabapples, or pines, or junipers, or whatever it was. You’re grateful when you see tree sickness that it can’t spread—that it can’t make the leap—to the shrubs, or the grass, or to humans. Because if it could… oh man.
Maybe that’s something like what Paul’s talking about, except it’s a beautiful infection:
“Something like a life-giving virus is at work in all the cosmos and it’s at work in you too. A sickness unto life. You’ve inhaled the spores, it’s hit your bloodstream, it’s spreading in your system. Something has infected you. I know because you’ve got the symptoms… I’ve heard about the fruit growing among you, growing within you.”
That’s near the heart of what Paul is saying as he opens this letter.
So very briefly, let’s see if we can answer two questions: 1) “what is the fruit?” and 2) “why is it growing?” And those two questions will invite us to ask one more big question… to ourselves. And that will bring us to the table.
If we wanted to answer that first question in one word, I don’t think we’d be far off base to call it “love.” Epaphras informed Paul (v8) “of your love in the Spirit.” Paul has heard of their faith—their trust in—their loyalty to—King Jesus (v4), and the incredible love they have.“Love” is at work in them. Love is what is growing in their lives.
Paul says in verse 10 that he’s praying the fruit will keep growing—that they’ll keep ‘producing fruit in every good work’.” Good work is just a way of saying love in action. Desiring the good of others. Seeking the good of others. Sacrificing for the good of others.
Love is the beautiful symptom Paul is hearing about this community.
That’s the fruit taking his breath away.
Let’s be honest, that’s the fruit that takes all of our breath away. We love stories of love—of someone desiring and seeking and sacrificing for the good of someone else. Whether it’s a TV show where a community gives of themselves to gift a brand new house to a struggling family, or stories of a first responder who gives their life to rescue someone from a flood or a fire, or even a movie where someone heroically sacrifices their self to save others… love and sacrifice and giving still takes our collective breath away. We taste that fruit and we say: “Oh man… that’s the real thing… that’s what life is about.”
We love stories of love.
Love is the fruit, but why is it growing?
That’s our second question.
It’s one thing to catch little glimpses it here and there, and it’s one thing to hear stories or watch movies about it, but it’s a whole ‘nother thing for sacrificial love to start defining you. For sacrificial love to start defining a whole community of people. And that’s what’s happening in Colossae.
Love is the fruit, but why is it growing?
And the answer Paul gives is this: love grows through a message.
He says (v5), that they have loyal trust in Jesus (“faith”) and the fruit of love because of a hope (middle of v5) that they’ve heard about through a message (end of v5)—the “true message” is what Paul calls it. This message—this announcement—this story “has come to you” (v6). And that’s what is bearing fruit and growing in them, as indeed it is “in all the cosmos”—in all the “world,” in all the “universe.”
This is an ancient letter making the most stunning of claims. In a similar way that we might walk through a forest and notice that a tree sickness has made it a fundamentally different place, Paul says there’s something going on that has made the universe a fundamentally different place.
Hope is spreading. Love is winning. Goodness is mushrooming. And it’s all because of a person named Jesus. The Christian claim, of course, is that Jesus—the real, historical, flesh-and-blood Jesus—is God as one of us. The Ultimate Mystery made manifest. The Invisible become visible. Our Maker as a man. And here’s the Christian claim—here’s the Christian story—here’s the gospel:
By becoming human, God begins restoring humanity to what we were meant to be.
All the ways that we’re rebellious and broken and skewed and sinful get taken up into the God-man Jesus—he bears it all—and he gives us true life. His beautiful, powerful, indestructible life begins to define our lives. That’s the Christian claim we’ll see unfolding in this letter. That the universe is a fundamentally different place with the arrival Jesus—love and life have been revealed as fundamental than the laws of nature.
That’s the story—the announcement—the message—that is transforming this community in Colossae. That’s why the fruit of love is growing. Because they have hope (v5) because they’ve begun believing the gospel. It’s been growing ever since (v6) they heard and truly understood God’s grace.
And now this ancient mail raises one more big question. A question aimed at our deepest places. And this is a question without a quick answer: What is the story you’ve come to believe about the universe? We’ve heard a bit of the story that Paul believed and the church in Colossae had begun to believe, but what do you believe? I know that’s a GIANT question, but it’s worth reflecting on.
Because you do believe something. You have come to believe something about this universe we live in, about this live that we live… what is it? What’s the story?
Many of us go through our day-to-day lives working 40 hours, getting laundry done, getting bills paid, and we’re just trying to survive. But imagine with me—just for a moment, pretend—that all of those things are done. What’s the meaning of it all? What’s the story we’re living in?
Is the story some version of Jack and the Beanstalk? (“How far can I climb…? How high can I get…?”) And ultimately the story is about your ambition the heights you can reach, the treasure you can find, and then what?
Is the story some version of Goldilocks? (“Let me sample everything… oh that coffee is too hot, oh that mattress is too soft.”) And ultimately the story is about what you can try, what you can taste, all the experiences and media you can consume and then what?
Or is the universe a cosmic accident? That seems to be the unspoken assumption behind most popular thinking.That the universe is a cold empty place with any life on any planet simply a random result of winning the infinite slot machine of existence… and good luck making up a story for the few decades you’re around. Maybe you can hitch your wagon to something that seems important—to your country or to social justice or advancing education or devotion to your family… but it’s all an accident at bottom.
That’s a prevailing story about the universe… am I right? Maybe we should say that’s a prevailing description of the universe because it’s not really a story. What it’s actually saying is a bunch of stuff accidentally, meaninglessly happened and the eventually—in billions of years—heat death will consume all things, and in between that accidental beginning and that meaningless ending we find Pumpkin Spice Lattes and Disneyland. But there’s not a storyline. There’s not a plot. A story—by definition—is a narrative with meaning.
And as incredible as it is, science can give us a description of the universe but cannot give us a story of the universe. Science is really good at telling us how but completely incapable of telling us why. Science is good at helping the human race but incapable of telling us why helping the human race is a good thing.
Without naming the story specifically, maybe we could just ask what kind of story do we live in? At the most basic level, do we live in a tragedy or do we live in a comedy? A story where death and tragedy ultimately win the day… or a story where grace and love and laughter ultimately win the day?
I ask these questions, because many of us—maybe most of us—aren’t really cognizant of what we believe about the universe. We don’t give much thought to what we believe about the universe. But what we believe about the universe changes our lives. What we believe about the universe’s story changes our story.
The story we believe bears fruit.
It’s not just the story of the gospel that bears fruit… every story we believe bears fruit in history.
For the sake of time, we’ll take the Nazis as an easy—if clichéd—example. In the middle of the 20th century, when extreme German nationalists began believing that the greatness of their nation—and ultimately the human race—depended on racial and genetic purity… that story bore fruit. Terrible terrible fruit.
Likewise, in the middle of the 1st century, when a group of people began confessing allegiance to another king and following the example of that king by loving to the point of death… that story bore fruit.
The church began welcoming every class of person into its family. The church began taking in the infants and children who were throwaways to the ancient world. In its early centuries, the church refused to participate in violence, being persecuted and fed to the lions and lit on fire, and all the time announcing the love of God in Jesus.
And it’s kept bearing fruit for 20 centuries: hospitals and orphanages were established and supported, ancient learning was preserved into the Medieval World when the Roman Empire collapsed, the university was invented, education and literacy made priority.
Intrinsic human dignity—regardless of social status—got ingrained into the human psyche (even through intrinsic human dignity (was an absolutely foreign concept to the ancient world). In the Greco-Roman world, victims of violence didn’t have worth or value… they were just corpses littering the road. The global recognition that every single person has value is actually a fruit of the gospel. It’s a fruit of the story that God chose to be crucified as a victim of violence.
And we’re not pretending for one second that the people of God haven’t also born bad fruit—wicked fruit—throughout the centuries. Whether the crimes of crusades, or the blood of the Spanish Inquisition, or sexual abuse from church leaders. But we must say this: wicked fruit is what grows whenever the Church strays from its story. The story of self-giving love displayed by our crucified King—that’s the story entrusted to the Church. And whenever the church strays from its story, it takes a renewal from God—a revolution from the Spirit—to set the Church right again.
And that’s happened again and again in Church history .The people of God lose sight of the gospel, what we call “Christianity” bears bad fruit, and then a revolution of the Church—a resurrection of the Church—is needed.
One writer puts it this way:
“Christendom has had a series of revolutions and in each one of them Christianity has died. Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.” (G.K. Chesterton)
The Christian faith continues to get resurrected because it has a God who knows his way out of the grave. And what’s true on the macro level with the Church, is also true on the micro level with us. The gospel bears fruit in our lives. For thousands of years people have been hearing the good news of Jesus and finding themselves mysteriously gripped by it, compelled by it, transformed by it.
And for those of us who have been following Jesus, as we keep hearing and believing the gospel, we start to recognize our lives as a series of deaths and resurrections. We start seeing that God leads us into resurrection life through a series of deaths. God leads us to die to ourselves so we can live for other people. God leads us to die to our greed so we can experience the freedom of generosity. God leads us to die to our need for control so we can celebrate the gift of the present. This room is full of people captivated by Jesus who have seen their lives transformed by him—and it always feels like death and resurrection.
But the fruit of it is love: relationships mended, addictions broken, hearts softened, lives put back together. And Paul would say: “It feels like death and resurrection because it’s a form of it. That’s God at work. That’s the wind of God blowing through the story told yet again—the Spirit of God bearing fruit, growing the kingdom, embracing more and more in love.”
If you’re frustrated by what’s growing in your life, maybe you should examine the story you believe. The church keeps on telling the only story that doesn’t end in death. The church keeps on telling the story that grows love—that grows life. And we’re invited into it.
You’re invited into the story of Jesus.
As we’re coming to the table, maybe we could create space for that. In my experience, allowing the Spirit to draw me into the story of Jesus is a slow slow process. It’s slow work for Jesus’s story—for the living presence of Jesus—to redefine me. Maybe we should sit for a moment and breathe in Jesus…
“You’re invited into the story of Jesus” …that’s what Paul would tell anyone who might be reading his mail. The story of Jesus is the defining story… not just for some pious community somewhere but for the entire universe. “Jesus holds all” is the defining theme we’ll see again and again through this letter.
His love is true—for you, for the universe.
His healing is true—for you, for the universe.
His forgiveness is true—for you, for the universe.
His death is true—for you, for the universe.
His resurrection is true—for you, for the universe.
This morning some of us need to hear breathe in verse 10:
“…live lives worth of the Lord and pleasing to him…” (Colossians 1v10)
That it’s possible to live a life that pleases God—that fills God with delight. Our Lord is NOT a grumpy tyrant, full of “bah” and “humbug.” The Father is good. Jesus is kind. The Spirit is patient.
Some of us are doing our best, and seeking Jesus, and things are super hard. And so some of us need to breathe in verse 11:
“…endure everything and have patience…” (Colossians 1v11)
God isn’t always interested in immediate fix-its, and you’re not doing anything wrong… we just need patience and the grace to endure.
All of us need to breathe in verse 12:
“…giving thanks with joy to the Father.” (Colossians 1v12)
That our life—our life right now—is worth giving thanks for. And all of us need to breathe in the grace and the freedom of verses 13 and 14… that God has…
“…rescued us from the control of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son he loves… [and] set us free through the Son and forgave our sins.” (Colossians 1v13-14)
Paul has never met any of these Colossians—and yet he can confidently announce this as true. Very often we live in a place of superstition when it comes to God: “If I do these good things, if I clean up my act, if I finally get my life together, if I pray some prayer at the end of sermon (and I really really mean it), then somehow I’ll get back in God’s good graces. Then somehow I’ll get on God’s good side.”
My friends breathe it in:
The gospel isn’t how you can get on God’s good side; the gospel is how God is already on your side.
Some of us need to hear that stop worrying about how much faith you have. (None of us have “enough” faith—!) The gospel doesn’t run on your faith or your faithfulness. Paul opens his letter by reminding us that he’s an apostle “by God’s will” not “by Paul’s will.”
Keep listening to the good news:
“It’s already done. It was done before you ever believed a thing, because God has done it. You are rescued. You are transferred. God has set your free. God has forgiven your sins—has cancelled everything you owe. It’s done. It’s true.”
Trust this breathtaking news. May you breathe deeply the sacred spores transforming the cosmos and believe the gospel: the story of Jesus is true for you too.