“The Fullness of God in Christ”
By Rev. Lorraine Diaz
Sunday, July 24, 2022
Reading: Colossians 2:6-15
When I used to live in the west end of Toronto, I loved running in High Park; and one of my favourite times of year to run there was the month of June. True, it was starting to get busy in the park at that time of year, as the warm weather of late spring was bringing winter-weary city dwellers out of their homes in large numbers. Between the walkers strolling absent-mindedly down the wrong side of the path, and the speeding cyclists, the exuberant children, and the often poorly controlled dogs, High Park’s roads and pathways require a runner’s full attention at that time of year.
There was one thing that would make me break my stride every time, and that was the sight of all the freshly hatched ducklings scattered around the shores of Grenadier Pond. There they’d be, paddling around together on the edge of the water, never venturing too far from the rest of the family; some of them would be nibbling at the grass up on the banks of the pond. There was always a mother duck right there – and often a father too.
Sometimes the duck families would go on a little excursion together, away from the pond to explore the grass on the other side of the bike path; and walkers, runners, cyclists, children, and dogs be damned – everything comes to a stop when a little duck family is crossing the road! I was always impressed by the sheer confidence of the mother duck, who set out across the road, leading her family, eyes fixed forward, fully expecting that everything and everyone will come to a standstill while her babies made their way across. And her confidence was not in vain – as long as the ducklings followed her closely and didn’t stray off in their own way, they always managed to make it safely!
I imagine the Apostle Paul must have felt like a mother duck sometimes, guiding these new believers through the various dangers and situations they faced as Christians in the first century. And he did it with confidence, knowing that his charges – in this case, a group of freshly-hatched Christians so to speak – would be surrounded and protected by the Holy Spirit, as long as they kept their eyes fixed on Christ.
Paul is likely writing this letter to the Colossians from prison in Ephesus. The church in Colossae was a new church at that time, but the gospel of Jesus Christ had taken root quickly there, and Paul was overjoyed about their energy and enthusiasm for the gospel. His only wish was that he could be there with them in person, to help personally guide them through the dangers. But he can’t be, so he writes letters, as he did for many of the other churches, and encourages them to hold fast to their new faith, and to continue to grow in faith and in devotion.
The main danger to this new church, which hasn’t really had time to establish deep roots, is what Paul addresses in this morning’s reading from Chapter Two. Most of the first chapter of Colossians focuses on who Christ is and what He has done, as well as Paul’s words of commendation and encouragement for how the Colossian church has received the gospel and allowed it to flourish amongst them. But Paul knows only too well how easy it is, when faith is not deeply rooted in the person of Jesus and an understanding of his life, death and resurrection, to be influenced by novel new ideas, or – as in this case – by bold, deceptive teachers who would prefer to lead them backwards into the law rather than forward into freedom in Christ.
What we read here is Paul’s expression of concern to the Colossians that certain misguided zealots were coming into these new churches – possibly from nearby Galatia, which was known to be a hotspot of false teaching – and teaching them that believing in Jesus only got them half of the way, and to complete their conversion they must submit to circumcision, which was what marked male Jews as being people of the Abrahamic covenant; and furthermore, they also taught that new Christians must now follow the Jewish laws of ritual purity.
Paul strongly reminds the Colossians that Christ has done it all on their behalf, and there is nothing more they need to do than to keep doing what they are already doing, which is believing in the Gospel of Jesus and devoting their lives to following him: “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord,” he says, “continue to walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught…”
He warns that circumcision and adherence to the law is not the fulfillment of their conversion, but actually a step backwards, a rejection of what God has done and reliance on human tradition: “Watch out” he says, “that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental principles of the world…
I can certainly appreciate – and I’m sure you can too – the Colossians’ desire to learn and grow, to become mature believers, and their willingness trust the words of people who claim to really know what they’re talking about. They have accepted Christ, and they want to please him and live good, faithful lives.
We all want to live good lives, right? We all want to live well, to do well, to be good people; and there is no shortage of teachers out there who may be well intentioned, but do nothing more, really, than “take us captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental principles of the word,” rather than centering our hearts and minds on Christ and what he has done for us.
I have an acquaintance – I’ll call her Julie, although that’s not her real name – who is very disdainful of Christianity. She’s a lovely person, but often when something happens – a scandal or something else in the news – that confirms her opinion of Christianity, she’ll post it on social media and make comments about Christians, as though what that individual did represents all Christians, that it’s the heart of Christianity itself. I find it a little hurtful, to be honest. Whenever we get together, we rarely talk about religion, but when we do, she’ll mock everything I say and be obvious in her contempt. That’s okay.
The curious thing is that while she mocks and disrespects those she calls “religious nuts,” she has become a huge devotee of a British relationship guru who gives dating advice to women. His very slick website promises that if you take his courses, you will “Understand Men (good luck!), Find Lasting Love (a little more plausible), and Transform Your Life.” Wow! All for merely THOUSANDS of dollars! Julie has taken this guru’s programs and has travelled to the US and even overseas to attend his conferences and workshops; and yet, despite her devotion, despite following his advice for several years, Julie is still single.
When I think about the time and money she has invested into something so fruitless, and compare it to how amazing it has been to have Jesus in my life, it makes me feel sorry for her; because the implicit conclusion of all of these self-help gurus is that because these principles “really work” then if they don’t work for you, you must not be doing it right; you’re the one who is deficient. Therefore, you should spend more money and take the next program, and then maybe you’ll get it right…
There are all kinds of teachings in the world right now that make all kinds of promises to cure all the ills in your life. The interesting thing, however, is that these great self-help trends and gurus always seem to come and go.
- In the 1950s, Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking took the world by storm, promising that success in life comes from believing in yourself!
- In the 80s, Anthony Robbins started teaching about how to Awaken the Giant Within and take control of your own destiny.
- In the 90s, Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements promised a path to personal freedom.
- More recently a best-selling self-help book called The Lost Art of Not Giving a…. This book says that life won’t always be happy, so the best thing you can do is whatever you want. Yes, the secret to a happy life is to be completely self-absorbed… contrary to all studies that have shown that most people live the most meaningful lives when they focus on helping others. (I confess that, as a woman in my 50’s who has gotten to that point where I’m sometimes a little tired of it all, that title really appealed to me! I just might go out and buy it!)
If these authors are so sure that they know the pathway to perfect fulfillment, then why do we need more, and more, and more new books, new teachings, new and more expensive programs to follow? Why? Because they take people captive through philosophy and empty deceit. They make all these great promises, but the onus is always on YOU to get it right.
You know what book doesn’t change? What book has stood the test of time for two thousand years? The Bible. And you know why? Because the gospel of God in Jesus Christ doesn’t put the onus on you. It doesn’t sell an empty promise that you can be perfect, that your life can be perfect if only you follow these man-made principles perfectly (oh, and thanks for handing over your cash and making me rich…and good luck!).
“For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority.”
What Paul teaches the Colossians, and the important lesson that we must learn here is that if you’ve already got Jesus then there is nothing else that you need. He tells them, you don’t need to be circumcised in the flesh to be right with God; rather, by your faith in Jesus your spirit bears the mark of the new covenant in Christ, and by that all the laws of purity are fulfilled. One who has faith in Christ, one who has been made clean by his sacrifice needs no other purity rituals, because he took away all our impurity, and it was buried with him in the tomb, and it was redeemed by the power of the resurrection.
And the reason Jesus’ sacrifice is sufficient is because although Jesus was fully human, he was not only a human being; he was and is the bodily form of God himself. Jesus was God in all his fullness, and he has done for us what no human can do; what God alone can do. So, in fulfilling the law, he fulfilled it perfectly and there is nothing we can do that adds to or takes away from that perfection. We need only fix our eyes on him, and confidently walk with him.
There is nothing wrong with studying different authors, reading self-help books, and trying to find ways to improve yourself. What Paul would say to the Colossians, and what I would say to you today is, “This is the litmus test: does this have Jesus as its centre and focus? If not, then be very cautious.” Be attentive to those things that sound vaguely nice, but contradict the freedom of the gospel, like anything that says you just need to tap into the perfection that’s already inside you; or that you have all the power to make happen whatever you want in your life. No! I know that I am not perfect, which is why I’m so grateful that God loves me anyway; and I also know that as soon as I become “hangry” or get behind the wheel of a car, any power I might have had to live my best life goes straight out the window.
What the gospel tells us is that Jesus is perfect, and Jesus has all the power, and when we come to the end of our own resources, we need only lean into him, for his yoke is easy and his burden is light. The gospel brings no requirements other than that we fix our eyes on Christ and the life, and the freedom that he has purchased for us by his own sacrifice on the cross.
Author Peter Kreeft tells the story of a poor European family who saved all their money for years to buy tickets to sail to America. Once at sea, the family carefully rationed all the cheese and bread that they had brought to sustain them on the journey.
After three days, the youngest boy complained to his father, "I hate cheese sandwiches. If I don't eat something else before we get to America, I'm going to die." Giving the boy his last nickel, the father told him to go to the ship's galley and buy himself an ice-cream cone.
When the boy returned a long time later with a wide smile, his worried dad asked, "Where were you?"
"In the galley,” the boy said. “I ate three ice-cream cones and a whole steak dinner!"
"All that for a nickel?"
"Oh, no, the food is free," the boy replied. "It comes with the ticket."
There are many false teachers in the world who offer "bread and cheese" instead of the full steak dinner that is available. We who have trusted in Christ for salvation have been assured not only of safe passage to eternal life; we are also provided with everything we need to live full, Christ-centred lives here and now. Christ is all we need. Amen.