Christianity is all about the heart
And Paul in his letter to the Colossians, in the passage we have just read, is encouraging the new Christians in Colossae to remain rooted in Jesus Christ verse 6.
You see the most important bit of Christianity, like the most important bit of an iceberg, is not seen on the surface,but under the surface.
A plant relies for its sustenance on roots which are below the surface. Put the root in the wrong place and the plant is finished. However great it looks on the surface, in the same way, its the unseen heart which is what matters in Christianity.
Jesus is always asking us – where is your heart? Is your heart really for me?
This is a question for me and I guess it is for you also.
Sometimes where our heart is will manifest itself, in our behaviour towards others. But also in feeling challenged when we listen to a really good sermon. When we hear someone preaching, who is truly inspired by God, they may say something which challenges us. If we ever experience this sort of challenge, it is a really good thing, a blessing, in fact, because it means that Jesus is asking us, as he asked St Peter, the founder of the church, three times before his ascension ‘Do you love me?’
I remember going to a church with Lucy when we were first married in our village, Hambledon Surrey; we went occasionally. I was not really tuned into Jesus, in those days but every time I went to this church the vicar seemed to be talking directly to me, it was so clear that it was to me, that I wondered if anyone else had noticed and looked round nervously to see if everyone was looking at me, but I now realise that it wasn’t the vicar at all who was speaking to me, in fact the rest of the congregation were completely oblivious. It was really Jesus asking me directly, do you love me?
And now I realise that this is the common condition of Christians. If even St Peter has to be asked three times by Jesus, after his resurrection, ‘Do you love me?’ It’s ok if we are challenged by that question, if any of us are challenged by that question from time to time as well.
But how do we know where our hearts are? How do we know whether we love him or not? How do we know if we are rooted in Jesus Christ?
However committed we may see ourselves as Christians; whether we are clergy: bishops, priests or deacons or laity Lay readers or church wardens, or regular worshippers, or the person who has wandered in here by mistake today, how do we know, if our lives are rooted in Jesus Christ or not?
As you know, we are preaching a series on Paul’s letter to Colossians which is the Lectionary pattern for this month. Rebecca started two weeks ago giving an introduction: Paul is in prison in Rome and has heard about the church in Colossae and the work started there by Epaphras and is writing to encourage the church, particularly because he has heard that the new Christians there are facing a threat which could completely undermine their faith – visitors have arrived with new ideas which sound attractive but are actually destructive of the fledgling Christian faith of the people in Colossae.
They are in effect pulling this fledging faith up by the roots.
Last week Amanda focused on Paul’s initial approach to deal with this problem, Paul emphasises the identity of Jesus Christ. Amanda asked us ‘where do we find our security?’ We looked at the feelings we had on Brexit Friday, as many of us discovered, by our emotional reaction to that decision, that to our our embarrassment, that we had placed far more weight on the success of the economy, than on Jesus Christ.
But in the passage we are looking at today, Paul looks at the same problem: What are we rooted in, do we really love Jesus, from another perspective: the visitors to Colossae (although they claimed to be Christians) were actually leading the Colossians away from Christ by adding to, or subtracting from, the gospel preached in Colossae by Epaphras, so that it turned the gospel which Epaphras had preached, into something completely different.
Our own hearts are so tricky to understand, so ephemeral. And it’s difficult enough to read our own hearts to discover in what we are rooted, let alone understanding anyone else’s heart, so it should not be a surprise that, for example, we don’t know how much or, how little,we rely for our security
on Jesus Christ, until we have a Brexit Friday type event, so perhaps it is inevitable that, rather than search our own hearts, rather than look under the surface at the iceberg, rather than look at the roots of the plant, to see if we are really rooted in Jesus, we prefer to examine, what is on the surface: the tangible: what we can do, rather than what we feel; the physical, what can be seen, what can be measured, rather than analyse the mysteries of who we love.
And one of the temptations for Christians is to concentrate on doing those things which can be seen by ourselves and evaluated by others.
This is no new thing. Throughout the history of the church, all two millennia there have been all sorts of attempts to hijack Christians away from Christ away from the change in the heart that is necessary to doing something on the surface, something that can be seen by others, which can be judged by others, that ticks the box, that gives an appearance of spirituality, but underneath is empty.
And very rapidly that other thing which is tangible and can be seen becomes more important than our relationship with the unseen Jesus himself.
In the first century in Colossae, the church was being tempted by visitors away from a simple focus on Jesus to what I would call a Christ plus sort of religion. Christianity, but with special add ons
Paul writes verse 16: ‘Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink, or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ’
It’s as if the visitors were saying: what Epaphras taught you was true, but if you want to be really spiritual you need to do these other things as well, observe special festivals, and eat special food or fast regularly, do all the things which really spiritual people did in those days: self abasement and asceticism, so that everyone can see how very holy you are….
Asceticism and food particularity for religious reasons are less important issues now in Christian circles. But there are lots of other peripherals around upon which we Christians can easily dote: For example: conducting communion in a particular way. You mustn’t do this, but you must do that. Or a focus on church buildings and vestments or on church music, things which are not wrong in themselves, indeed are wonderful in their way, if they bring you into the presence of God, but, as Paul says in verse 17,‘these are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ’ these extras, these add ons, can easily become where our hearts are rooted and not in Jesus Christ.
So there is a danger for all Christians, in a Christ plus sort of religion where the add on becomes the real place where the heart is really rooted. And not in Jesus Christ.
But equally there is a danger of a Christ minus sort of religion. This is where we have a religion which has the appearance of Christianity but where Christ is totally absent because some other issue has taken over and elbowed Christ out of the way.
As someone once said Christianity with out Christ is ‘Ian-ity’ and Ian isn’t going to help you at all!
Paul says ‘see to it that no-one take you captive through philosophy and empty deceit’. Its easy for us to be led, by focusing on Jesus’ teaching, particularly about love, into excluding Christ altogether. Love is, of course, immensely important, and loving our neighbour as ourselves is the second most important commandment, but in emphasising loving our neighbour above everything we can find ourselves doing this to the exclusion of loving Christ. And by doing so we can easily be lead into some particular area which takes a Christian captive, which eclipses the individuals relationship with Christ, so that before long that other area, becomes more important than Jesus, and it becomes that other thing in which the heart of the individual is rooted.
This can be particularly where Christian Faith leads us into political action. With the danger that the political objective becomes more important than our relationship with Jesus Christ.
In more recent centuries the best examples of this sort of problem have been: imperial theology – the idea of we English setting out to civilise and Christianise the world; the theology of the British raj with what the missionaries may have thought was Christ but may, in some cases, but by no means all, actually may have been mainly English culture, so that the church in India for example was expected to sing Hymns Ancient and Modern…. in English, an entirely inappropriate type of worship in the Indian cultural context!
Later liberation theology overlaid some ideas from Marxism over Christianity so that the overthrow of capitalism became for some the most important thing on the Christian’s heart, not Jesus Christ. But this doesn’t mean that capitalism should not be challenged or for example in the United States that inequality for African Americans should not be a legitimate Christian aim and indeed Christian theology can and should lead us in this direction. But should not at any stage lead us away from Christ. And in one man in particular, we can see how keeping Christ at the centre, keeping a constant eye on being rooted in Jesus, even though he spent his life challenging inequality, can be achieved. That man of course was Martin Luther King, who was dedicated to achieving liberation for African Americans through peaceful means. Dr King was a man who could say in response to Jesus’ question to Peter ‘Do you love me?’ ‘You know that I love you’.
Bringing the issue closer to home, a Christ minus religion might be seen where we use the church as the means of trying to create an idyllic environment. One where village life is what is most important and Jesus is a rather embarrassing extra, who gets left out.
Again this does not mean that the elements which make up village life are not important. This does not mean that community and good neighbourliness is not to be encouraged and that they do not derive from Christianity. They do and they are good, very good in fact. But not to the exclusion of Christ. Not to taking Christ out of Christianity. And ending up with Ian.
Have we allowed ourselves to root our hearts in a Christ plus religion or have we been hijacked by a Christ minus religion?
Jesus asks us the only question which matters
Jesus asks us do we love him?