Complete in Christ (Colossians 2:6-15)

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Every now and then I sit down to do a jigsaw puzzle with my kids. A lot of the time, these puzzles are pictures of their favourite cartoon characters, animated heroes or movie princesses. There have been times when we have been doing a puzzle and some pieces have been missing. Even though we’d done as much of the puzzle as we could, the image of the person in the picture was left incomplete.

To complete the picture, we could try to use other things to fill the gaps. We could attempt to make our own pieces and substitute them. Or we could use pieces from other puzzles to try to complete the image. In the end, only pieces that really fit will be able to complete the picture.

In the creation story from Genesis 1, we read that God created humanity in his image (verses 26,27). There are a number of ways in which people understand what is meant by the ‘image of God.’ For example, it could mean having a spirituality unlike anything else in creation, being created for a special relationship with God, having the ability to think rationally, or even being able to make things. One thing it doesn’t mean is that God physically looks like us with a head, body, two arms and two legs. The image of God in us is much deeper than our physical appearance. Humanity carries something in us which resembles the nature and character of God.

However, when sin entered the world, the image of God within us became distorted and corrupted. We still have it, but it isn’t the way God originally intended it to be. One way in which people describe this distorted image of God in us is like looking at ourselves in a broken mirror – we can still see ourselves but not as we really are. Another way we can think of this distorted image is like a jigsaw puzzle of a portrait which is missing some key pieces. We can still work out who it is, but we can’t see the person’s image in the way they really are. Because of sin in the world and in us, we can be aware of God’s image in us and in each other, but that image isn’t what it was meant to be.

There’s something in us that realises that something is missing in our lives, just like in my jigsaw puzzle, so we try lots of different things to fill those holes. We can try things like relationships, paid or unpaid work, sport, family, school, all sorts of things. Especially in our consumer culture, we are taught that buying more stuff can fill the gaps in our lives. There was an ad om TV a while ago which showed people with holes in them that matched products they could buy. The message of the ad, and the idea behind a lot of what happens in our society, is that we can fill in the gaps of our lives and find a sense of being ‘complete’ through the things we buy.

The way in which God fills our emptiness and makes us complete is through the person of Jesus. Paul shows us how God does that in Colossians 2:6-15. He writes that ‘in Christ lives all the fullness of God in a human body’ (v9 NLT). Jesus is the perfect image of the invisible God. When we look at Jesus, we see the clearest picture we can of who God is and what God is like. Jesus shows us what humanity created in the image of God should look like. Jesus is exactly how God intended humanity to be from the beginning of creation. When we look at Jesus and get to know him, we can see and discover who God wants us to be as people who carry his image in us.

Jesus isn’t just an example of how God wants us to be. Paul says God actually makes us complete by filling us with the fullness of Jesus, who is himself the fullness of God in bodily form, when we are united with Christ through faith. It would be like placing my incomplete puzzle on the picture on the box, and then the two becoming one as the complete picture fills the missing pieces and completes it. This is what Jesus does for us as we are united with him through faith – Jesus fills our gaps, makes us complete and restores the original image of God in us so we can be the way God intended us from the beginning of creation.

Paul explains that the way to be made complete in Jesus is by living as his disciples. He writes about ‘accepting Jesus Christ as … Lord’, which means embracing Jesus and the gospel through faith, trusting it as good news for us. This faith leads us to follow Jesus as we learn to live in the way of faith and love from him. This new life in Christ involves ‘putting our roots down into him’ so that the good news of Jesus becomes the source of goodness for our lives and what keeps us strong when the storms of life come our way. God completes us as his new creation when we build or lives on him through faith and love, just like someone builds a house on solid foundations (Matthew 7:24-27). We can find our complete selves in Jesus when we live as his disciples, following him, drawing strength and life from him, and building our lives on his grace and love.

We can then bring this completeness into every aspect of our lives. Instead of looking to be made complete through our relationships or family, work or school, possessions or anything else, we can embrace them and go into them as people who have been made complete through Jesus, and be part of God’s plan to make all of creation complete in him. This new perspective on life begins with finding who we are as people who have been made complete in Christ through faith in him and living as his disciples.

I get frustrated when I’m putting a jigsaw puzzle together and there are missing pieces. It feels like something’s missing when I can’t complete it. When we realise that we’re incomplete and there are pieces missing in our lives, we don’t have to try to fill the gaps with things that don’t really fit. We can go to Jesus, who makes us complete by filling us with the fullness of God.

More to think about:

  • Do you know what it’s like to start a jigsaw puzzle but not complete it, either because you don’t have the time or there are missing pieces? What is that like for you?
  • Do you every feel like there’s something missing in your life? If you do, can you put your finger on what it might be?
  • How do you try to fill any holes that might exist in your life? How do you try to find a sense of being complete or fulfilled?
  • Is that working for you? Or are you still looking? Explain why…
  • What do you think of what Paul says about Jesus completing us? Do you think it’s possible to find a sense of being complete or fulfilled in Jesus?
  • The good news of Jesus can speak into every aspect of our lives, no matter what we feel might be missing. How might Jesus be able to complete you and what you feel might be missing in your life? (if you don’t know how to answer that, I’m happy to try to help if I can; just let me know…)
  • How might you be able to see different aspects of your life in a new way as a person who is complete in Christ? How might going into them as a complete person instead of looking for them to make you complete change our approach to them for the better?

2 Corinthians 5:16-21 Discussion / Reflection Questions

Here are some questions I have about 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 which will be the text for next Sunday’s message (31 March) at St John’s, TTG. let me know if you have any thoughts or questions of your own in the comments below.

  • What questions do you have of this text?
  • What do you think Paul means when he talks about ‘evaluating others from a human point of view’ (v16)? When we look at other people from ‘a human point of view’ what do you see?
  • What changes when we view people from the point of view of Jesus? How do people look then?
  • What is the big change that happens to a person when that person is ‘in Christ’ (v17 NIV) or ‘belongs to Christ’ (NLT)? How can that change how we see others? How can that change how you see yourself?
  • What is the job of an ambassador? Is that a job you think you would like? Explain why or why not.
  • What is the message given to Christ’s ambassadors? (hint: there’s more than one answer to this question) How is this message good news for people?
  • In verses 18-21, Paul talks a lot about ‘us’ and ‘we’. Who do you think he is talking about here – his friends (the apostles and evangelists) who were traveling with him? All Christians of every time and place? Someone else?
  • How does your understanding of who he means by ‘us’ and ‘we’ shape how you read verses 18-21? If he is talking just about his friends, how does that shape his message? If he means all Christians, including us, how does the message of this text sound now?
  • What is the exchange that Paul describes in verse 21? Does this exchange sound fair? Why would Jesus make that exchange?
  • Everything that Paul says in these verses gives us a new point of view of ourselves and others. Who is someone in your life (including possibly yourself) about whom you might need to change your point of view? How will this new point of view change what you might do or say this week?

God bless…

The Suffering Son (Hebrews 5:5-10)

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One of the most common questions I’ve been asked over my years of ministry is, ‘Why do people suffer?’ For a lot of people, including Christians, if God is all-loving and all-powerful, then it would seem to make sense that God would not want people to suffer and would get rid of evil in the world.

I am not aware of any place in the Bible which gives a philosophical explanation for why God allows suffering in the world. It just assumes that there is suffering because of the existence of sin. However, the Bible does talk about the reality of suffering and God’s relationship with people in our suffering.

For example, in Hebrews 5:8,9, we read that Jesus learned obedience and was made perfect through suffering so that he could be ‘the source of eternal salvation’ for all who obey him. There are some key words in here that really deserve a message in themselves to understand what is being said because each of them can be understood in a few different ways. However, one way we can interpret what’s being said is that, as Jesus suffered and died on the cross, he was learning to trust in his Father in heaven. This is what Paul calls ‘the obedience of faith’ in Romans 1:5 and 16:26 – that ultimately God wants us to love and trust him more than anything else, and that trust will show itself in the way we live our lives. When Jesus went to the cross, all he could do was trust that his heavenly Father would hear his ‘prayers and pleadings’ as he asked his Father to save him from death (Hebrews 5:7). Even as he died, he was still trusting that his heavenly Father would keep his promises and raise him to life as he promised in the Old Testament (see Psalm 16:9,10).

This ‘obedience of faith’ then ‘qualified’ Jesus ‘as a perfect High Priest’ because it completed the task that God had sent him to accomplish. The Greek word used for ‘perfect’ is not so much being morally flawless, which is how we can sometimes think about perfection, but instead more about being brought to completion or reaching a goal. Jesus was made perfect through his suffering because God completed him as our saviour and high priest as Jesus trusted his heavenly Father fully in the middle of what he was suffering. Jesus reached his goal by experiencing the full weight of suffering in our world so that, when we are suffering, we can go to him as the one who has suffered more than we could imagine but has also trusted our heavenly Father in ways that we can’t.

To obey Jesus, then, means to trust him like he trusted our heavenly Father. We all suffer in some way in our lives, to one degree or another. However, our society sees suffering as something that should be avoided at any cost, so we spend much of our time, effort and money trying to avoid suffering and pursue happiness. We do that in lots of different ways – relationships, material possessions, life experiences, entertainment and social media, even involvement in church can be a way of avoiding suffering and pursuing happiness.

When we look at the suffering of Jesus, however, especially through this text, we get a different perspective on suffering. When we suffer, Jesus suffers with us, which means that God suffers with us in him. God’s answer to human suffering isn’t to rid the world of suffering, but to become part of human suffering and share in our suffering with us. Whenever we suffer in any way, Jesus, the Immanuel – God with us – suffers with us as well. So we are never alone in our suffering, not matter how alone we might feel.

In the same way that Jesus learned the obedience of faith in suffering, we can also learn this same obedience in our suffering through faith in him. When we are experiencing pain or suffering of any kind, it can feel like it’s all out of our control. To learn the obedience of faith in our suffering means to trust God with those things that are out of our control and causing our suffering, just like Jesus did when he suffered. This is where we find an important aspect of faith: trusting God in all circumstances, even when it seems like he is a long way away.

This is also how God shapes us and perfects us as his holy people. When we find the grace to trust God in the middle of our suffering, he moulds us into people who are able to be his presence in the world. When we suffer, we can find God with us in our suffering through Jesus, and then we can become the presence of God in the lives of others in their suffering. God can use the hurts and pain we experience to bring us closer to him in a relationships of faith so that we, in turn, can bring hope and comfort to others who are suffering as well. In the same way that God used Jesus’ suffering to teach him to trust him and complete him as our saviour, so God can and will use our suffering to teach us to trust him in all the circumstances of life, to grow our faith in him, to equip and then send us to bring his good news of peace and salvation into a suffering world.

None of this means that God inflicts suffering on people. Suffering is part of living in a fallen and broken world, and because we fail to love each other in the way God wants us to. Suffering isn’t God’s fault, but he doesn’t stand by doing nothing while we suffer either. The life and death of Jesus shows us that God is intimately involved in our suffering, as he suffers with and for us. In his creative power, God used Jesus’ suffering to teach him to trust his heavenly Father and to perfect him as our great High Priest and saviour. When we suffer, then, we are never alone. God uses suffering to teach us to trust him as the one who is with us in our suffering, to grow our faith in him, and to equip us as his agents of peace and hope in a suffering world.

Reforming Since 1517 (Ephesians 2:8)

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Christians around the world from many denominations will be celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation this month. On 31st October, 1517, Martin Luther, a German monk, pastor and university lecturer, nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Many see this event as the start of a movement which changed Western European society forever.

Because this is such a significant event, our congregation will spend all 5 Sundays in October having a closer look at some of the key ideas of the Reformation movement and why they are still important for us today.

One way we can understand why the Reformation happened was that the church had lost its way during the Middle Ages. By the 1500s, the church was concerned with worldly power and influence, generating financial revenue, and using fear and guilt to maintain their control. While this might be a simplistic evaluation of a complicated church culture, basically the church had strayed a long way from the picture of Christian community that God has given us in the Bible.

This was the church culture in which Martin Luther grew up. He took his sin very seriously and was struggling to find a forgiving and loving God in the church of his day. The harder Luther tried to make God happy with him, the more he felt God was unhappy with him.

Luther eventually discovered that God was pleased with him, but not because of what he was doing. He found God’s grace in the Bible through verses like Romans 1:17 that “the righteous will live by faith” (NIV) and Ephesians 2:8, “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (NIV). Luther’s personal discovery of the gospel grew into a thriving movement as he and others sought to communicate the good news of God’s grace through faith in Jesus, and to bring freedom to people who were trapped in fear and guilt.

A pivotal idea of the Reformation was that the church needs to be continually re-forming. The Reformation was never meant to be just an event that we read about in history books. Instead, the people who dedicated themselves to restoring God’s vision for the church wanted those who came after them to continue their work of returning to the basic truths of the Christian faith, asking whether we are still being consistent with those truths, affirming where we are being faithful, but also being courageous enough to make changes where we are drifting away from them.

As Lutherans, we celebrate the Reformation because we believe that God still wants to be re-forming us as his church today.

Because of our flawed human nature, we always run the risk of drifting away from being the Christ-centred community God wants us to be. Maybe that is one of the reasons why the first of Luther’s 95 Theses read, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Matt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” One way or another, intentionally or not, we are going to get things wrong. Jesus calls us to repentance, to keep turning back to him and the truth of his good news, so we can find forgiveness, freedom, love and life through faith in him. Jesus calls us to be faithful to the gospel in our lives, but also in the ways that we live out the gospel in our relationships with each other and as organisations that carry his name. In the same way, the Reformation movement challenges us to ask whether we, his church, are still being faithful to the gospel in our current time and place. Where we are being faithful to the gospel, we can give thanks to God for his faithfulness to us. However, where we are not being consistent with the good news of Jesus, in the spirit of the Reformation, we need to change.

This is largely what our congregation’s Simple Church and Growing Young conversations have been about over the past year or more. I have been asking our congregation to look at what we are doing and ask whether we have been in step with what the Bible says God wants for us as his community of believers, or whether we need to make some changes. As a congregation that exists in the tradition of the Reformation, we need to reflect on where we are and where we think we are heading, and ask whether we are moving closer to the picture of Christian community which God gives us in the Bible. Where we are, we can give thanks and affirm the good work God is doing in us. However, where we might be drifting away from who God wants us to be, maybe it’s time to make some changes.

For the next four weeks, we will be going back to some of the basic teachings of the Reformation and asking how they might still speak to us. Next week, we will look at the belief that the Bible is the only authority on which we can know God and what he wants for us. The following week, we will be asking what it means that we are saved by grace alone. The week after that, we will look at how Luther and the Reformers understood faith and how our lives are shaped by what we believe. In the last week of October, we will focus on Jesus who alone is God’s revelation of himself to us, and through whom we can find God’s goodness and love for us.

The Reformation is both a gift and a challenge to the church. It is a gift because it restored the gospel of Jesus as the heart and core purpose of our lives, both as individuals and as church. The Reformation is also our challenge because it asks us to make whatever changes may be needed so we can give a faithful witness to the gospel in all we say and do.

As we celebrate the Reformation this month, we don’t just celebrate an historical event that happened 500 years ago. We are part of a 500 year struggle to be true to God’s grace so we can faithfully bring the good news of Jesus to the world around us.

More to think about:

  • What do you think of when you hear the word ‘Reformation’? Share some thoughts about what the Reformation has meant for you in your life.
  • What do you know about the life of Martin Luther? Share some stories you might have heard about him or what he might have said or done (you can find a short animated version of Luther’s life here; if you would like to read his 95 Theses you can find them here)
  • The basic goal of the Reformation was to re-form the church with the gospel of Jesus as its heart and core purpose. Do you think this was a good aim? Explain why you think that?
  • As you look at the church today, do we still keep the gospel of Jesus as our heart and core purpose? Do you think we still need to be re-forming today? If you think so, what are some aspects of the church that we need to be re-forming?
  • Over the next 4 weeks we will be looking at the Reformation principles of Scripture Alone, Grace Alone, Faith Alone and Christ Alone. Is there anything connected with any of these that you would like us to look at in particular? Do you have any questions or concerns about any of these that we could explore for you?