Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Character Building

(This is the third in a series, 'The Contagious Church'. There are photos of the London snow storm below this post.)

Colossians 3:1-4

Today we continue our series on what it means to be a church that is alive and contagious. The key sentence for us over the next few weeks, and feel free to memorize it, is this:

A contagious church is built on a foundation of Jesus Christ, and expressed through Fellowship, Worship, Discipleship and Mission.

Each one of those qualities or practices helps to shape us into the people that God calls us to be, and each one helps us share that life in a generous and contagious way with other people. Today we continue with a look at Discipleship, how God shapes us into the people he made us to be.

1Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. 2Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. 4When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

There are some things for us to notice about this passage.

The Colossians were a part of the same network of churches we talked about last week, with the Ephesians and the church at Laodicea, and others. It was a significant trading city, but it was never rebuilt after being destroyed by an earthquake in the year 60 AD.

The letter is addressing a theological problem for the Colossians. The one is different from the letters Paul writes to churches that are struggling with what to do about their Jewish traditions. The Colossians were mostly Gentiles, and their problems had to do with the influence of other religions on their faith in Christ. The first two chapters of this book are a summary of Christian belief about God and the Messiah—if you’ve never read Colossians, I’d recommend it to you.

In the first line of our text we see a simple equation. If you were raised with Christ, then it will change your life from the inside out. ‘Set your hearts on things above,’ Paul says, which is a way of calling believers to focus their hearts and lives and concerns on Jesus Christ. The life of faith—the life of discipleship—is different from our past lives.

Next Paul says ‘Set your minds on things above, and not on earthly things.’ Allow your worldview to be changed once you’ve accepted the grace of God in Jesus Christ. This isn’t an invitation to be so heavenly minded that you’re no earthly good. This is a call to build your outlook on life on a foundation of Christ’s teachings—Christ’s forgiveness—Christ’s promises.

The point for us today is this: Discipleship describes the process by which we allow ourselves to be remade by Jesus Christ.

Now, let’s be serious, this is not about our bodies somehow taking on a different shape, or being made from different stuff. This is about our lives—the way we live—what we value and protect and share—and what we communicate to the world around us. It’s about all of that being broken down and reshaped into a life that will serve Christ and his Kingdom at every turn.

'Band of Brothers' tells the story of a company of elite paratroopers during WWII. We follow these guys from D-Day to Holland to the siege of Bastogne and finally to victory in Germany. In the first episode we see the difficult training Easy Company endured in order to earn their place in the Airborne Division—they studied, drilled in formation, and ran up and down a hill called Currahee. This time of preparation built a deep sense of friendship and community among the guys, but it didn’t make them paratroopers. The only way to earn the Airborne badge was to jump out of a plane—they had to make five successful jumps in order to graduate.

What does that mean for us? How do we begin or continue the process of becoming more mature in our faith? How do we grow into more effective disciples of Jesus Christ? There is no easy list here. This isn’t magic. Discipleship is a process of working at the basics of the Christian faith—of the Christian life.

Nothing I’m about to say will be a surprise to any of you. The path to growth as a disciple of Jesus Christ requires Prayer, Study, Service and Risk.

We pray because God invites us to come to him in this intimate way. We study because the words of Scripture help us to understand our experience of God. We serve because a Christian life that only focuses inward is neither Christian nor much of a life.

And then there’s risk. At some point, somewhere along the way, when we’re willing to acknowledge that this life of discipleship isn’t about us—at that point we have to take a risk and show the world just who it is that we follow...who it is that we serve. At some point we have to jump out of the plane—not to earn salvation, but to show what God’s work looks in the life of a disciple.

How do we grow as disciples? In one sense we have to remember that the word disciple is the root of another word we don’t like to use very much: discipline. That word has been distorted to represent punishment or pain or both. But at its core the word discipline describes the systematic instruction of a student—one definition describes discipline as the modeling of character, and the teaching of self-control and acceptable behavior.

Now frankly, we may not like those words any more than we like the sound of pain and punishment, but the fact that we don’t like them doesn’t mean that they aren’t true.

The Christian message leads directly to the call to live the Christian life. And that means we look to Jesus Christ as the model for our character. We look to his teachings as examples of self-control and the behavior that makes our lives into examples of God’s grace.

In the end, though, it’s important to remember that at one level this is a spiritual thing—a supernatural thing. We don’t just work our way into being better disciples, though it takes work. We don’t will ourselves into being more faithful, though I do believe that part of faith involves and act of the will. The key is to remember that we don’t earn this blessing on our own power.

Becoming a disciple is a gift—it’s a gift that we put ourselves in position to receive, even as we have to acknowledge that it comes from outside of us—from Christ himself. Becoming a disciple is a gift, but it’s still one that we have to open for ourselves through prayer, study, service and risk.

In the book of Acts we see Jesus coming to Saul of Tarsus, the enemy of the faith, and changing his life—transforming his identity so much that only a new name would do. Saul the enemy became Paul, the apostle of Christ’s gospel to the world.

As we come to the Table this morning we come as people called to a new way of living—a new way of loving and spending and growing and serving. The God who came to us while we were still his enemy—that same God comes now with an offer to re-make us into the people we were meant to be all along: People who reflect the grace of God to a world that has forgotten what grace is.

As we come to the Table this morning I invite you to pray that God will continue the good work he has already started in each one of our lives. Pray that he’ll stretch you and grow you and even break you if necessary. Pray that your life will be good news to this city and this world. Pray that you will be his disciple. Amen.

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