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Jesus forgives and reconciles through the cross

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Sermon in a sentence: Jesus forgives and reconciles through the cross

Take our minds, Lord, and think through them;

Take our hearts, Lord, and set them on fire with love for You.

In Jesus name. Amen.

I’m going to preach on our first reading, which was from Paul’s letter to the church in Colossae. Like a lot of preachers, I tend to preach from the gospel reading, and there can be good reasons for doing so. Firstly, the gospel stories are stories. People like stories, stories can be powerful. Most of the bible is stories about people. That’s not a coincidence, that’s how God likes to tell us things.
Secondly, the gospel is full of stories about Jesus and the people he meets. When we look at them, we are reminded of was important to Jesus, his values, his commands and his words of comfort. When Jesus speaks, we hear the words as if they are from his own lips. There is an intimacy with Jesus in the gospel stories that warms us. We are Christians, what can be better than spending time with Jesus?
There’s nothing wrong with preaching from the gospel, but there might be something wrong with just preaching from the gospel, because it means missing the other bits of the bible. It means missing the Old Testament, which was the only bible that Jesus, his disciples and his friends knew.
But it also means missing great chunks of the New Testament, particularly the letters written by the Apostles to the early churches. These communities of Christians were trying to make sense of both of what Jesus had said about how to live, but also who Jesus was. Even though our context is very different these are still important questions. Sometimes it’s tempting to think these early Christians knew things we didn’t, because they were so close to the events of the bible, but this isn’t so.
Most of the letters in the new testament, particularly the letters of Paul, were written precisely because those early Christians were just as fallible as we are, just as liable to get the wrong end of the stick, just as likely to make mistakes. The letters to the Romans, and the Corinthians and the Colossians weren’t written to those early churches just to say: “Well done everything is fine.” Yes, they were written to encourage, but they were also written to admonish and warn of coming dangers and false thinking. We can and should learn from these mistakes because they are mistakes that we can very easily make too.
Many years ago, I worshipped at a church with a new minister. The URC are a little rough with new ministers. In the church of England you get to be a curate for a few years until you get a church of your own, with the Methodists you get to be a probationary, but in the United Reformed Church you get ordained and then get given two or three churches to pastor. It’s no wonder new ministers struggle.
So, I give thanks for the lessons I learned from that struggling new minister. They struggled with people; difficult church members who drained them of their energy. They struggled with church members who simply had a different agenda to them. They struggled with their own insecurity and made mistakes because of it, sometimes serious ones. They struggled with their own abilities; they found it hard to do jobs that we assume ministers find it easy to do.
And yet I can give thanks for those mistakes, because in about a year’s time I’ll be standing where they stood and probably making very similar mistakes, and I can give thanks that my chances of making exactly the same mistakes are a little bit less because of what I witnessed. I can give thanks because I saw God be faithful to that minister as they battled on and stuck it out and trusted in God, and I can give thanks for that minister’s absolute conviction that God had called them to do what they were doing, even though it wasn’t quite so clear to the rest of us. In exactly the same way, we can learn from the mistakes of the early church and the letters they received from the apostles.
So why did Paul write to the Colossians? And who were the Colossians?
Colossae was a town in the Roman province of Asia, what is now western Turkey. The church there wasn’t founded by Paul, the letter tells us that Paul didn’t know the church personally, but it had been founded by Paul’s ‘dear fellow servant’ Epaphras. And Paul is writing to the church because he is concerned with false teaching creeping into the church; teaching that comes from human minds rather than God and which emphasised rituals and regulations rather than trusting in Christ for salvation.
Paul was particularly concerned that false teachers were trying to persuade the church that following Christ was about keeping rules and regulations, about not eating, drinking and touching certain foods and about keeping certain festivals () () ()
Now this seems a little alien to us. No one is telling us not to eat certain foods or not to drink certain drinks, but the problem is still relevant, because fundamentally is about putting too much emphasis on what we do, rather on Jesus.
I want to ask you a question. If you are a Christian, if you are a Christian, are you a Christian because you do certain things, like go to church on a Sunday, or pray, or give money to the church, or support its activities during the week, or are you a Christian because you trust in Jesus, because you know Jesus loves you and because you love Jesus, albeit imperfectly, in return? Because I think that’s where the church in Colossae was in danger of going, and that’s what Paul was concerned about. It was the emphasis on what they must do, rather than their relationship with God, and particularly their relationship with Jesus.
Now, I’m not suggesting that doing things for Jesus is bad, because it isn’t. We are called to live holy lives; we are called to ‘do justly and love mercy and walk humbly’. Doing and loving and walking are all actions, they are all things you do, but my question is why do we do them?
Because there are two wrong reasons for doing things for God. The first is because people believe that they are good people and they assume God loves them because they are good people. “Why wouldn’t God love me?” they think. These are the self-righteous religious people who angered Jesus. They think they are good, and they look down on those that aren’t. They are prone to being harsh and judgemental and they struggle to understand the love of God.
But there’s a second, wrong, reason for doing things for God, which I think is more common, and there’s probably people here who believe it. Some people do things for God because they think, they know, that they aren’t good people. They know they are weak, they know they have done things that they are ashamed of and they know that they don’t deserve God’s love, but they think, maybe, maybe, if they work hard enough, and do enough, they can make up for what they have done and earn God’s love and forgiveness. I don’t think the people of Colossae wee any different.
So, what does Paul tell the Colossians? Well he points them right back to Jesus, because at the end of the day everything is about Jesus.
Paul reminds them that Jesus is the image of God. If you’ve seen Jesus, you’ve seen the father, you’ve seen God. And even if we haven’t met Jesus face to face, we can see his character shine out of the bible. We can see his love and compassion. We can see his compassion for the woman caught in adultery, we can see his forgiveness of anyone who asked for it, we can see how he restored Peter and the other disciples after they betrayed when he was arrested. Jesus is the image of the invisible God. If it is Jesus character to forgive, we can know that that’s God’s character too, because Jesus is the very likeness of God.
Paul feels passionately about this because it was the basis of his relationship with Jesus. Paul knew he wasn’t saved because he was a good man, and he wasn’t trying to earn God’s forgiveness because he knew he could never have done enough to make up for what he had done. He was murderer, he had been an enemy of God who had persecuted God’s people, but he had been forgiven by God. I don’t think Paul ever forgot that. God had forgiven him because that is who God is.
So, Paul reminds the Colossians that Jesus is the image of God. He also reminds them that they haven’t just been forgiven by God, they have been reconciled to God through Jesus; “God has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation” (). You are you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation. You are reconciled with God.
What does Paul mean by ‘reconciled’ and why is this important? Well, if God had forgiven the Colossians but hadn’t been reconciled with them, it wouldn’t fundamentally have changed anything. It wouldn’t have changed their relationship with God. If someone I love does me great harm and I say I’ve forgiven them, but I’m not willing to be reconciled with them, to ‘restore friendly relations’ with them as the dictionary puts it, then have I really forgiven them.
Forgiveness isn’t easy. It’s not easy when we do it and its not straightforward when God does it. There will be people in this room who have been profoundly hurt by others, often by people they loved and trusted; there might be people here who have been the victims of violence and abuse, sexual and physical and emotional. There will certainly be people who have been horribly betrayed by people they have trusted, who they should have been able to trust, and there will be people who have done these things to themselves and who struggle to forgive themselves. If so, you know how hard forgiveness is. I’m not trying to say it isn’t. But its powerful and it restores relationships.
Many of you will remember Gordon Wilson, whose daughter Marie was killed by the IRA at the Enniskillen bombing in 1987. Gordon Wilson publicly forgave those who had planted the bomb, but it wasn’t easy. I spoke once to someone who had met him. They told me that he had known that if he hadn’t forgiven his daughters killers he would have been consumed by hatred for the rest of his life. In essence, he had two choices, to forgive or to hate.
But forgiveness wasn’t enough, Gordon Wilson sought reconciliation. He sought to put right the relationships that had been broken by his daughter’s murder, and he sought reconciliation between the two communities in Northern Ireland who had good reason to hate each other. He met with the people who had killed his daughter seeking an end to violence.
Gordon Wilson didn’t live to see peace in Northern Ireland, because he died before the peace process had really begun, but his forgiveness contributed enormously to the peace process because it wasn’t an empty forgiveness, it was a forgiveness that sought reconciliation and inspired others. In the same way, Jesus forgiveness brings reconciliation between us and God and enables reconciliation between us and others. Gordon Wilson was a staunch Methodist. Like Paul, he understood that he was forgiven by God, and it enabled him to forgive others.
So, Paul reminds the Colossians, and us, that Jesus is the image of God, and he reminds them that that it is Jesus who has reconciled them to God. Thirdly he reminds them how Jesus has reconciled they to God. How did Jesus reconcile us with God? How did he restore friendly relations between us and God? “By making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” ()
What does Paul mean by this, “through his blood, shed on the cross” Well that’s a good question and Christians have debated what it means since the earliest days of the church, there has never been a universally accepted explanation for how Jesus death on the cross is the means by which we have peace with God. I think its because the crucifixion is too big a thing, too profound a thing for a simple, human, explanation.
But I don’t think the ‘how’ matters. Paul is reminding the Colossians, and us, of two important things. Firstly, that Jesus did it, not us, and secondly that, to Jesus, it was worth it. The crucifixion wasn’t an empty gesture; something that wasn’t really necessary but which Jesus did anyway to make a point. The crucifixion was necessary; God couldn’t have forgiven us without it, yet Jesus willingly allowed himself to be crucified for us, because he loves us and he thinks it was worth it, to reconcile us to God.
You don’t have to keep all those festivals and avoid foods and stuff; Paul tells the Colossians; that doesn’t bring you close to God. It’s the cross that brings you close, Jesus has already done everything you need. You don’t get close to God by doing jobs, Paul tells us, Jesus has done it all.
This is what the Martha and Mary story is about. Martha is doing but Mary is sitting at Jesus feet, listening. Jesus doesn't tell Martha off for doing unnecessary things. He doesn’t tell Martha off at all, but he commends Mary for her attention to him. “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (). Mary prioritizes being with Jesus, not just in a physical sense, but in a deep emotional sense. We need to listen and be with Jesus like Mary was
So, let's remind ourselves to spend time with Jesus this week; not to rush through life so concerned with doing jobs that we miss actually spending time in God's presence, listening for his voice and reminding ourselves of his love, a love that should inspire us to live our lives for him. And as we take communion, let's remind ourselves that this meal is a commemoration of the fact that Jesus love for us is so great that he willingly shed his blood on the cross to reconcile us to God.
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