This Is Your Full Life

Who would be so foolish as to sign up for a gap in a relationship with God and want a hole in their heart? The apostle Paul has the answer in Colossians 2:6-15, “This Is Your Full Life.”  January 19, 2020.

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There’s a gap. There’s a gap. A space, an empty spot. Where there should be a sense of satisfaction and stability and comfort and wholeness, there’s something missing. Like being taught only the first ten and last ten letters of the alphabet. What happened to K, L, M, N, O, P? Like visiting Grandma’s house, but Grandma is in a casket not her chair. Like climbing a twelve-rung ladder and three rungs in the middle aren’t there. That’s what it was like for the people who lived in and around a town called Colosse two millennia ago and for people in metro-Milwaukee and for the person I have to face in the mirror each day. The Colossians tried to fill the gap, fill the empty spot in their lives and hearts with the latest trend in spiritual talk, “Get connected to the forces around you! Let the vibes of the universe radiate into your being.” When that left them confused and still empty, others who sounded like Carson, the butler from Downton Abbey, said, “You won’t have any gaps in your life if you follow tradition and the ancient forms. If the old rules were good enough for your ancestors, they should be good enough for you.” But theoretical ideas to fill in the gap in our hearts are like eating smoke from a grill but not the meat, and trying to fill the gap with goodie-two-shoes efforts no matter how hard we try still leave us feeling like there’s a gap, something is missing inside.

Five centuries ago, a young man from Eisleben, Germany, entered a monastery in order to fill the gap in his heart, but he kept coming up empty. “There’s a gap. There’s a gap in my relationship with God, and it’s eating me up from the inside out.” That monk had not yet discovered what the apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians, a message intended for them, for him, for you, and for me, a message the brings satisfaction, stability, comfort, and wholeness, a message as relevant today as it was five hundred years ago, two thousand years ago, and ever since our first parents created a gap in their hearts by telling God, “We don’t need you.” Who would be so foolish as to sign up for a gap in a relationship with God and want a hole in their heart? I see no one raising a hand. But guess what? We were born that way. So now what? The apostle Paul has the answer in today’s second reading from his letter to the Colossians in chapter two: “This Is Your Full Life.”

 Fullness because of Jesus for us

The day is over. You are driving home. You ask Siri to give you an update on the news and hear a report about a village in faraway country where some folks have died of a flu that has never been seen before. Three or four people are dead. The next day you hear another broadcast. It’s not three villagers. It’s three thousand. Researchers are heading there from the disease center in Atlanta to see if they can help. Within a few days the lead story on the news and in social media is calling the disease the “mystery flu,” and it has spread through Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. If you get infected, for three days there are minimal symptoms, upset stomach, a runny nose, but on the fourth day, Boom!, you’re dead. Horror of horrors the disease invades our nation and sweeps across the country. People are in a panic. Scientists are working around the clock trying to find a vaccine. Nothing is working. Then, all of a sudden, a lab tech discovers that a vaccine can be made, but it’s going to take the blood of somebody who has not been infected and is a perfect match to counter the virus. An emergency message goes out, “When you hear sirens go off, please make your way quickly and quietly to a hospital and have your blood tested.” You arrive with your family, and after the testing a technician comes charging down the hall hollering, “They found someone whose blood is pure. It’s your son!” Everybody’s crying and hugging one another. Just then a doctor walks up to you and says, “Your son’s blood is what we need to make the vaccine, but we need all of his blood! Here’s the consent form.” Could you sign that? Would you?

Some teachers with big credentials had come on the scene in Colosse, “Getting into a close relationship with God can’t be as easy as the apostles of Jesus say, a free gift from God. There must be something you can do to enhance your status before God. After all, you are intelligent, hard-working people. You earn every dollar you make and every crumb of bread you eat. Don’t you think you ought to get at least a little credit for getting in with God? Think of how pious and religious you will look to others and how good you will feel about yourselves when you eat only certain foods, when you observe worship rules, when you stay away from people and places that are marked unclean.” But their message left people empty, “If following rules offers a full life, have I kept all the right rules and regulations? Have I done enough?” There’s the gap between God and sinners.

The apostle Paul heard about their struggles and wrote this letter. “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depend on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ. The new teachers are trying to pull you back to your in-born instincts. They are trying to convince you that you are responsible, at least in part, for developing a close relationship with God. They are snake-oil salesmen in preachers’ robes. Underneath they have the same stripes as the snake in Eden who succeeded in convincing our first parents that they could do at least a little something, if not a lot, to elevate themselves in the sight of God, to get up to his level.” But that’s like a student in advanced composition claiming that mimicking Dr. Seuss’ style is brilliant literature. That’s like an astrophysicist calculating the exact path of a space rocket with a tape measure. Won’t work! It was a lie in Eden, and it’s a lie now. You and I simply can’t do anything to fill in the gap in our hearts and gain a full life with God. You were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature. That’s the empty spot, the gap in our relationship with God.

Praise God that the apostle didn’t stop there. He left neither the Colossians nor us empty, “You Colossians don’t have to start from scratch. You already have the complete package. In Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith worked by [the power of] God … God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.” You can’t have a full life with God unless your sins are paid for. So, God took the debt we have to pay to him for our sin, ripped it out of our hearts, and nailed it to the cross where Jesus washed it away with this blood, a perfect match as a vaccine against the sin-flu virus. Then, he didn’t leave our hearts empty. No more gap in our connection to God. Dead and empty hearts are buried in baptism, and new hearts filled with his love come to life. The apostle is not talking about full stomachs, or a full calendar, or a truck full of gifts. This is your full life. We have a full life with God when God fills us with what Jesus did.

Fullness because of Jesus in us

Why is Bill feeling pushed away in his marriage? Why did Sally’s friend turn away from her? Why do Sam’s co-workers turn a cold shoulder? Why are Lily’s classmates no longer hanging around with her? There’s a gap. There’s a gap when our sinful side keeps raising its ugly head, pushing Jesus’ love off to the edges of our hearts, and leading us to speak out of turn, to let a caustic comment fly, to double down on insecurity, and to think of self first, driving people away and causing a gap in our relationship with others.

The philosophers who came to Colosse had raised questions in people’s minds, “Don’t worry about others, your family, your spouse, your co-workers, your neighbors. You’ve got so many stressors in your life. You need to work on coping with and handling your own issues.” But that left them banging their heads against a wall. That left them empty, and there’s the gap.

Paul had the answer, “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.” “Continue to live in him!” That’s not just a beautiful picture. It’s reality when God not only gives us a full life forever but also a full life now. “You have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority.”

Looking at the gap in my connection with others and thinking I can fill in those gaps on my own is like expecting an ant to have as much power as an elephant. It’s like saying that my doodlings on scrap paper are as valuable as an original Monet. Feeling powerless? No energy? Look outside yourself at what God has done and hear the amazing news that he planted mercy and love into your heart and mine. Therein lies the power. Therein lies the key to living a life of compassion and kindness and caring. You can stop the back-biting, back-stabbing, and bitterness. You can stop the grumpiness and grumbling. You can bury the hatchet, forget grudges, be nice to your friends, offer a kind word to the ill-tempered boss. You can fill in the gaps in your relationships by showing Jesus’ love to all. Luther said, “This is a great mystery, that God hides his majesty in humanity.” We can be a little Christ to others. We can love, serve, and give because we are rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. This is your full life, all because Jesus not only came into this world for us but now is dwelling in us to fill the gaps which impacts our relationships with others.

The straw on floor was not much of a bed. It reeked of sweat and mold and waste. Water dripped from the ceiling. A rat scurried across his ankle, and John began to wonder, “Did I get it right? Did I do the baptizing and pointing to the right one?” All alone in his cell, he felt the emptiness, the gap in his relationship with God and his connection to others. A couple of his buddies got permission to visit him. He sent them to the one onto whose head he had dribbled Jordan River water, “Are you the one?” (Matthew 11:3). Jesus told them, “Go back and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor” (Matthew 11:3-5). “You got it right, John, when you pointed to me, ‘Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’ (John 1:29). Even in prison there are no gaps for you. I have come that [you] may have life and have it to the full” (John 10:10). Jesus’ message to John the Baptist is also for you. This is your full life! Amen.

Preached at Grace Lutheran Church, Milwaukee, WI on January 19, 2020