Col. 1: 28 He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. 29 To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me.
I have three questions for us this morning: 1) What am I doing here? 2) What are you, or we, doing here? And 3) Once we know the answer to those questions, what are we going to do about it?
So, what am I doing up here in the pulpit, for the 520th-something time over the last thirteen years that I have pastored this church? Paul’s words today remind me of what my goal really is supposed to be, whether in the pulpit, the office, with you or anyone else in my home or yours, or a coffee shop or a Christian education class. Its so important that I even turned down an invitation to a wedding and a dinner reception on Friday that would have taken me out of town: Its Colossians 1: 28): “[Christ] is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. 29 To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me.”
Those words excite and enthuse me, so that preaching, teaching and writing and giving a sermon on them are not just a job. They confront me, in a life-giving way, with one purpose, but with two parts: 1) to proclaim Christ, and; 2) to thereby form people into the image of Christ, or, as Paul puts it, “fully mature in Christ.”
What could be better than that?
My job description in this church’s constitution gives a few more details, but otherwise, it says pretty much the same thing. Teach, preach and model Jesus, and thereby help people grow up to be like Jesus, starting with myself.
The church and I probably have the world’s simplest job description according to Colossians 1:28: to proclaim Jesus, so that people want to follow him, and do. That may require a lot of things of us, like meetings, classes, projects and more. But it all begins, and ends, with Jesus, for Jesus, and through Jesus, so that we want to know him, follow him, and imitate him. If not, we seriously have to ask why we’re doing it.
I hope we wish to serve the world and the community in witness and good works. And Yes, we hopefully want to teach peace and to increase the peace. I do. That’s why I’m about to spend three weeks at the Summer Peacebuilding Institute at Eastern Mennonite University. But if peace becomes simply a matter of techniques and ideology, then we will have done more to decrease the peace. Because the world has enough of manipulative techniques and competing ideologies. Instead, I wish to better follow and imitate Christ, the Prince of Peace, by better learning the ways of peace, and to thereby represent him better.
I also hope we want this church to grow. So I’ll be spending some time visiting some new churches and church plants, like Third Way in St. Paul and Missio Dei, among others. But growing the church is not our God-given goal, nor is it within our power. Orienting ourselves to Jesus, and thereby growing ourselves is, however, within the job description of Colossians 1: 28-29. And its within our power. That’s how Christ makes his kingdom and his honor grow in this world, as we grow in Christ. So let’s keep our focus on Christ and let him make growth happen, beginning with our selves.
In your childhood, do you remember discussing with friends the question, “What will you be when you grow up?” I remember being so absorbed in that question that I even asked it of my mother. Here today there are engineers, teachers, cooks, pastors, and other jobs and professions among us. But those are what we do, and not the whole defining picture of who we really, really are, deep down and forever.
Colossians 1: 28-29 answers that question for us: Grow up means becoming just like Jesus. And if anyone asks, “What do you do?” I would recommend this answer from verse 29: that we contend with all our energy to grow in Christlike-ness, to know him and to thereby make him known.
But don’t be in a hurry. It will take a lifetime. This vision of maturity is like learning mathematics: the more we learn, the more we realize how much more there is yet to learn.
Growing up was also the invitation that Jesus gave his first disciples along the lake shore, when he said, “Follow me.” As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls anyone to follow him, he bids him ‘Come and die.’” If not on a cross like Jesus, if not on a scaffold like Bonhoeffer, at least to die to the old person, the false identity, the socially-based self that we so carefully construct over the years, built on the fears and desires of conventional wisdom. Its a painful journey of unlearning the old answers to the question, “What will I be when I grow up,” but also a liberating journey of learning the new answer: becoming like Jesus.
That raises the second question: What are we all doing here? A lot of things may get us out of bed and to 725 East 25th Street on a Sunday morning. Such as seeing friends. Such as a responsibility we might have for fellowship, worship or Christian education. And those are all good.
But if, some Sunday morning, the the alarm clock feels like it has gone off too early, and you’d rather stay home and attend The Church of the Inner Spring, or if the sunshine, the water and the golf course seem more inviting, keep in mind that someone has issued an invitation: the Lord Jesus Christ. And that invitation is to follow him and grow up. Grow up for our future vocation as eternal worshipers and celebrators through this weekly Sunday morning dress rehearsal for the New Jerusalem. Grow up in our Christian relationships and character through fellowship and Christian education.
And since that’s so important and satisfying, don’t just leave it for Sunday morning. Our growing up into Christlike-ness is a lifelong and day-by-day vocation, and we check in together on Sunday mornings to see how its going and to help each other along.
So what are we doing here? We’re proclaiming Christ and presenting ourselves before him, just like we will do on the day of Resurrection and reunion, so that he might further transform us into his own image. We don’t have to worry about what kind of shape we show up in before him. He knows it all already, and he loves us too much to send us away. On the other hand, its pointless to approach him if we’re not willing to be transformed into his image, because he loves us too much to leave us the way we are. Worship is like flying a kite in a thunderstorm: don’t do it without understanding that we are putting ourselves in the reach of a power that will not leave us as we were. To the old question, Why does lightning never strike the same place twice? the best answer is, because once lightning has struck, it will never be the same place. So it is with the transforming, renewing power of Jesus.
Someone who really understands what Christlike transformation is all about is Stan Hill, at Urban Ventures. Stan works at lining people up with jobs, getting them into the job search pipeline, creating work files, and teaching work-related skills. Some of his clients have a lot of strikes against them, like criminal records, histories of drug use, overdue child support payments and thin work resumes. You can see how that would lead to a vicious circle: “No one has hired me before, and no one would ever hire me again, so why keep trying?” But whenever his clients get discouraged about their past, Stan reminds them, “That’s what you’ve done. But its not who you are. Who are you?”
The answer he coaches them to say is: “A beloved child of God with a future.” And many of them do surprise everyone with the futures they find. And if we ever need reminders of who we really are, and who we shall become, all we need to do is call Stan’s office when he’s not in, and listen to the recording on his voice mail. It ends with these words: “Remember, you can become the miracle that you are looking for.”
That miracle, again, is to become like Jesus. And helping us all become like Jesus is my “job.” But I can’t lead anyone to where I myself have not gone. In a strange sort of way, then, the first part of my calling is to attend to my own growth and transformation. Sometimes I get into the habit of thinking that I need to pray so that my work goes better. In my more sane and lucid moments I remember, Duh, prayer is my work. Sometimes I get into the habit of thinking that I need to read and study and pursue my continuing education so that my sermons or my lessons go better. That’s true, they help. But then, again, study, reading and education are a big part of my work, as is sharing the fruits of that with you.
Its like being a lumberjack or a butcher: they don’t just sharpen their tools so they might work better and safer. Sharpening their tools is part of their work, and an indispensable part at that. Abraham Lincoln said that “If I had eight hours to cut up a tree, I might spend the first six hours sharpening my axe.”
Its time for me now to sharpen my tools. That’s why I’m starting sabbatical stage 2 this week: so I can come back on August 1 and re-issue the call with which worship began today, “Come, follow” Jesus, so that we might become more like him. I will then pick up anew the call from Mark chapter 1, “Come, Follow Me,” so that we too might learn from Jesus and his band of disciples what it means to be lifelong learners, and a committed community of lifelong learners, again, starting with myself.
Don’t think that I’ll spend all my time seated in a classroom, reading in a chair or typing on a computer. So that I’ll really know what its like to be a learner, from scratch, I’ll be spending time with my father, so he can teach me his carpentry skills. In addition to being an amazing musician, he’s an amazing wood worker, an athlete of the fine muscles. He’s happiest when something’s broken; there’s no tearing him away from a skill saw. As for me, I get cold sweats around a tool box. So its time to face that fear and that weakness head on, especially now that he’s seventy-five year old and not getting any younger. I call it Learning How to Learn 101, a crash course in humility, and in facing the weakest and least developed parts of my self. That’s a lot like following Jesus.
And with that I’m answering the third question that I just posed: So what will we do about our call to proclaim Christ and to model and demonstrate Him? Basically, we say, “Yes, Jesus, I’ll follow you, and be your student. Yes, Jesus, I’ll listen and learn as you take me down strange new paths, where I have to face my weaknesses, even when they scare me. Yes, Jesus, I’ll commit myself to being a lifelong learner; sitting at your feet will be my most basic orientation in life from now on.”
Here’s how I hope to flesh that out and model it: hopefully, after my return, we will have another student ministry intern who can split ten hours a week between us and any one our neighborhood ministry partners, like what Michael Jinteh just did. But don’t leave the thirst for learning and growing to him or her.
Hopefully too I will come back with some ideas we can discuss and discern about some day having a learning and service community connected to our congregation and community, something along the line of Mennonite Voluntary Service or the Pittsburgh Urban Leadership Service Experience that our daughter Emily experienced. If that should get going some day, Lord willing, let’s not leave all the service learning to them.
That’s why the first plank in our congregation’s plan for missional growth is our own personal spiritual growth. If its true that Christian faith is caught, and not just taught, then we must be contagious. The responsibility for our holy contagion starts with me. So I also plan to return with a plan for continuing education and coaching for myself.
Yet the learning and growth don’t end with me. What then are the rest of us going to do in order to keep growing up to be more like Jesus, so that we might better proclaim him in our lives and our words? I can’t answer that question entirely for any one of you. But hopefully at least you’ll catch from me a contagious enthusiasm about following Christ, to live, learn and become all the more like him. He is already exerting the power of his love in us, to call us and draw us toward himself. Let us respond and follow, as Paul says, “strenuously, with all the power he exerts in us.” Its not always easy, but its not all that complicated.