Sunday, June 21, 2009

Have We Left Our First Love?

The only sermon I've ever preached:

Have We Left Our First Love?

Among the letters to the seven churches in the opening chapters of Revelation, Jesus Christ has words of praise, but also words of warning for the church at Ephesus. He commends them for the fact they had suffered and yet endured persecution; they did not abide immoral behavior; and they took a stand for sound teaching, opposing apostasy and false teachers. Any evangelical congregation in our day would likely be pleased with such a commendation and reputation for standing firm in the faith.

But Jesus also communicates a word of warning. While acknowledging all they had done to defend the faith, even to the point of suffering for their position, nevertheless Jesus says they are deficient in a more important area: they had left their first love, namely, Himself.

The serious warning in the letter to the Ephesian church – the realization which on reflection should cause the contemporary church to take notice – is that it's possible to suffer for being a Christian, to be a stalwart defender of sound doctrine, an opponent of false teachers, a champion and example of moral living, an opponent of the influences which eat at the surrounding culture, and yet to completely miss the point. It's possible to give an appearance of being sound and solid on the outside, and yet to leave or neglect Christ. In the case of the Ephesian church by the time John was given the Revelation, they had gotten completely off track on the one thing that is most important to the church.

In considering the emphasis of contemporary Christianity in our society, what is it that is communicated? More importantly, when seen from the outside by members of a culture that is now decidedly non-Christian, what impression does the average non-believer have about Christianity? Due to what is almost a cacophony of messages emanating from the present-day Christian community, many non-believers might conclude that Christianity is...

· A psychology

· A system of ethics

· A political philosophy

· A subculture

· A temperance union

· A variation of a 12-step program

· A commercial enterprise

· A self-help movement

· A lifestyle

· An auxiliary to the Republican Party

· A family support group

· A social action network

· A vanguard of the home schooling movement

· A conglomeration of conspiracy theorists

…or worse.

Much of what is communicated into the general culture about the concerns and focus of Christians could justify any one or combination of these images. There is something wrong with the message conveyed in the name of Christ when many non-believers equate Christianity with "rightwing politics," or "lifestyle choices." Is it possible that the focus of much of what identifies itself as "Christian" has gotten off the central focus?

What is the central message that the first century apostles emphasized? What was the message they conveyed? What is the focus of the New Testament? Was it a philosophy? Was it an ethic? Was it a lifestyle? Paul said plainly in 1 Cor. 1:23, "We preach Christ." Jesus Christ Himself was the apostolic message.

Consider Paul's letter to the Colossians.

In Colossians 1:28, Paul declares the focus, not only of the letter, but of his ministry: "And we proclaim Him [i.e., Christ], admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, that we may present every man complete in Christ." In Colossians 2:2, Paul declares his goal and desire, that his readers might "be encouraged, having been knit together in love, and attaining to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God's mystery, that is, Christ Himself."

The issue Paul deals with in Colossians is not the issue of how one comes to Christ for redemption, because it's clear that his audience had already found redemption and forgiveness in Christ. Paul's concern is, having become believers, how are they now to live as believers? As he states in Colossians 2:6, "As you therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him." His focus is on how to walk, or live in Christ. (And he gives his readers a clue as to the "how" in verse six: it's not difficult, it doesn't require an elaborate formula, because one lives or walks in Christ in the same manner as one received Christ in the first place, i.e., by faith.)

In the latter portion of chapter two of Colossians, Paul addresses the things that the Colossians were emphasizing, or were being told by others they needed to emphasize, as they sought to live-out the Christian life – these things being philosophies, empty deception, the traditions of men, the elementary principles of the world. (Col. 2:8) These things were opposed to simply living "in Christ." Paul declares as contrary to Christ:

· Philosophies or schools or thought (2:8)

· Principles for living (2:8)

· Traditions (2:8)

· Religious observances ( 2:16 )

· Non-Christian mysticism ("signs and wonders") ( 2:18 )

· Legalism, rules and regulations – literally, do's and don'ts ( 2:20 -22)

· Asceticism (non-materialism) ( 2:21 )

Paul admits that on the surface, such things do not seem bad. In fact, following after such things has the appearance of wisdom -- to the natural mind of man, they make sense; but they are futile, of "no value against fleshly indulgence." (Col. 2:23)

In contrast to these things, Paul does not hold up a competing philosophy, a "sound doctrine," a different tradition, a more valid religion, a superior way of life, a new system of ethics, or a different rule or law. Rather he simply upholds Christ in contrast to these other things. He doesn't even offer an alternative "Christian philosophy," "Christian ethic," "Christian religion," or anything else derived from Christ – he simply holds up Christ.

Specifically, he presents Christ as a contrast to the philosophies, traditions, ethical systems, laws and rules, and religions that were competing for the focus of the Colossian believers. "Since you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on the earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God." (Col. 3:1-3) That's Paul's "formula" (I use the word advisedly) for living out the Christian life.

As Paul stated in I Cor. 1:23 , "…we preach Christ…" – not an alternative set of rules, not a lifestyle, not a system of ethics, not a philosophy. But what does this mean, "We preach Christ"? What, precisely, did the apostles teach?

In the books of Acts, the record of the birth and spread of the church, one finds that the primary focus of the teaching of the apostles was Christ, in these contexts:

· Jesus as the Christ, literally, the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecies (e.g., 5:42)

· Christ as redeemer and forgiver of sins (e.g., 15:11)

· Christ as the source of healing (e.g., 9:34)

· Christ as the source of peace – peace between people, internal peace, and peace with God (e.g., 10:36)

· Christ as the object of faith (e.g., 20:21)

· Christ as the resurrection, that is, the source of victory over death – not just physical death, but spiritual death, and the victory over all other forms of "death" which afflict the human condition (as the apostles elaborate in their epistles)

In the epistles, the apostles, by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, reveal what Christ is to the believer. Jesus Christ is:

· Our access to God (Eph. 2:18)

· The source of God's affection and compassion toward us (Phil. 21:1)

· Our claim to blamelessness and holiness (Eph. 1:4; Col. 1:22; 1 Thess. 3:13)

· The source of every spiritual blessing (Eph. 1:3)

· The source of the character of God in us (Gal. 5:22 -23)

· Our comfort (2 Cor. 1:3-5)

· God's communication through us to the world (2 Cor. 3:3)

· Our completeness ( Col 1:28 , 2:10)

· Our death to the old self (Gal. 5:24)

· Our deliverer from the curse of the Law (Gal. 3:13)

· Our encouragement (Phil. 2:1)

· Our fellowship with God (Phil. 2:1)

· Our source of forgiveness (Rom. 8:1)

· Our freedom (Rom. 8:2; Gal. 5:1)

· The source of fruitfulness, success, and accomplishment in our life (Rom. 7:4; 15:18)

· The fullness of God in us (Eph. 3:19)

· Our experience of God's glory (Rom. 8:30 ; 2 Thess. 1:12)

· Our hope (Eph. 1:18 ; 1 Tim. 1:1)

· Our justification before God (Gal. 2:16 -17)

· The source of God's kindness toward us (Eph. 2:7)

· Our liberty (2 Cor. 3:17 ; Gal. 2:4)

· Our life (Acts 17:28 ; Rom. 6:8; Gal. 2:20 ; Col. 2:13, 3:3)

· Our experience of the love of God (Rom. 8:39 ; Eph. 3:17 -18)

· The one who manifests the power of God in us (Eph. 1:19)

· Our motivation and our ability (Phil. 2:13)

· Our peace with God, and our peace in every situation (1 Cor. 1:3; 2 Thess. 3:16)

· The perfecter of God's work and purpose in us (Phil. 1:6)

· Our connection to the power of God (1 Cor. 1:24 ; Phil. 3:10)

· Our power to walk by the Spirit (Gal. 5:25)

· The source of effective prayer (Rom. 8:26 , 34)

· The one who brings the presence of God into our experience (2 Cor. 2:14 ; Eph. 2:6)

· The one who makes us partakers of the promises of God (Gal. 3:29 -4:7; Eph. 3:6)

· Our protection from the evil one (2 Thess. 3:3)

· Our protector in heart and mind (Phil. 4:7)

· Our redemption (Rom. 3:24 , 5:8; 1 Cor. 1:30 ; Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14)

· Our rescuer from the darkness (Col. 1:13)

· Our rescuer from judgment (1 Thess. 1:10)

· The resident of our hearts (Eph. 3:17)

· Our resurrection (Eph. 2:4-5; Col. 2:12)

· Our righteousness (Rom. 5:17 , 10:4; 1 Cor. 1:30 ; 2 Cor. 5:21 ; Phil. 3:9)

· Our sanctification, or holiness (1 Cor. 1:2, 30; 2 Thess. 2:13 )

· Our security (Eph. 1:13)

· Our strength (even when we are weak) (2 Cor. 12:9; Ehp. 3:16 , 6:10 ; Phil. 4:13)

· Our supply for every need (Phil. 4:19)

· Our union with the Spirit of God (Rom. 8:9)

· Our source of unity (Rom. 15:5)

· Our victory (Rom. 7:24 -25; 1 Cor. 15:57 ; 2 Cor. 2:14)

· Our knowledge of the will of God (1 Cor. 1:24 , 30; Col. 2:3)

· Our source of wisdom and knowledge (1 Cor. 1:24 , 30; Col. 2:3)

· The first and the last – namely, our everything (Rev. 1:8)

…And this is for starters.

Paul declares that "Christ in us" -- all that He is and all that He proposes to do through us -- is the essence of the Gospel (Col. 1:25-27). Christ's death, His resurrection, the forgiveness of our sins through our acceptance or receiving of Him, are all means to one end: that Christ would reside within us, taking up residence within us, so that He might express His own life through us. This is the essence, both the bottom line and the capstone, of the Gospel.

How did this focus of "Christ in him" work out in Paul's life?

If Paul had a mission statement, it was probably Ephesians 3:8 – “To me, though I am the very least of all saints, this grace was granted and graciously entrusted: to proclaim…the unending (boundless, fathomless, incalculable and exhaustless) riches of Christ -- wealth which no human being could have searched out." (Amplified Bible) This is as good an explanation as any of what it means to "preach Christ": literally, to proclaim the riches and resources available to the believer by virtue of his or her union to Christ, applied to the believer by means of the indwelling Spirit and life of Christ.

In terms of his own ministry, Paul recognized that nothing was accomplished through him other than what was produced by Christ Himself. "For I will not presume to speak anything except what Christ has accomplished through me…," in Paul's case, the "obedience [i.e., the faith] of the Gentiles." (Rom. 15:17-19) These things are accomplished, Paul tells us, "in the power of signs and wonders, in the power of the Spirit." Can every Christian ministry claim that what has been accomplished through it is clearly, and indisputably, the work of Christ, by means of the power of His Spirit? Or do we too often rely more on the philosophies, programs, theories of organizational management, entertainment, and the like – things other than Christ?

It terms of his own life, Paul came to recognize that what he had become as a person was not due to the way of the life he adopted, or the philosophy he espoused, or the principles or rules or regulations he submitted himself to; he gave all credit to the grace of God in Christ which worked in him. "By the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain." (1 Cor. 15:10)

In terms of others, including all of us, Paul considered that the only legitimate test of the sincerity of faith was whether there was evidence, not of our diligence in keeping a particular lifestyle, or a set of rules and regulations, or defending "sound doctrine," but of Christ being alive in us. "Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves; that Jesus Christ is in you -- unless indeed you fail the test!" (2 Cor. 13:5)

Christ and His resources to the believer were the source of Paul's character, the source of what Paul accomplished, and the focus of Paul's ministry, just as the resources of Christ should be for every believer.

Shouldn't Christ be the complete focus of all that claims the label of "Christianity"? Or have we left our first love?

(Feb. 18, 2005)

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