sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 03/27/2011
3We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, 4because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all his people— 5the faith and love that spring from the hope stored up for you in heaven and about which you have already heard in the true word of the gospel 6that has come to you. In the same way, the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world— just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and truly understood God’s grace. 7You learned it from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf, 8and who also told us of your love in the Spirit.
The true word of good news arrives – and once it is received and understood as the truth of God’s grace (favor), it gives birth to love.
Messenger of emperor would arrive with news of military victory (euangelion - good news / god-spell) and it would give birth to fear. Fear that things would never change. That the power of the oppressor was growing. That those out of favor had less reason for hope. That the oppressors would now be even wealthier, and the subjected would be even more disposable.
Jesus’ took this word – good news – and turned its meaning upside down for the oppressed.
The true word of the euangelion has come to you - good news arrives at doorstep (remember life before the internet?) - that the true king has defeated the oppressor. That favor for the oppressed is here. And when that good news was received and understood, it would be experienced as grace. And hope would come. And love would take root. Most of all love. Because threat was gone, and the breath that breathed the news was love among us.
Imagine, where fear had taken hold all over the known world, now love was growing up in its place. Before, people afraid of the future, of one another, shrinking, petty, bitter, cowering. Now, they are anticipating and welcoming God's good future into their present, embracing one another as brothers and sisters - even those who had been enemies. Growing, generous, thankful, confident.
Paul, the author of this letter, is in jail because his whole life is about this euangelion of Jesus business. So his eyes are peeled for evidence that the good news is having an impact, evidence that the seeds of God’s words are being planted and taking root. How does he know? What is he looking for?
The thing that tips Paul off that something real is happening is love in the spirit. Not knowledge or wisdom or the holiness or obedience to a new moral code or religious fervor or anything else. That stuff shows up all over the world all the time. Whatever. But Love? Not necessarily good feelings about one another, but acting towards one another in the way that we do when we are neither afraid of one another nor afraid for our own futures. Lust, anger, lies, bitterness, jealousy, rejection, etc. being replaced by kindness, gentleness, forgiveness, acceptance. Love in the spirit. That’s the real deal. That’s new creation breathed by King Jesus.
“love in the Spirit” = “agepen en pneumati”
We hear spirit and think “Holy Spirit.” Your translation probably even capitalizes “Spirit” to indicate this. But we miss something when we see this as religious language. The author of Colossians is using non-religious words to communicate something that is happening because of Jesus’ good news landing on their doorstep, being brought into the kitchen, and poured over during breakfast. Pneumati is a word that means spirit, yes, but also breath, and wind. It is a concept that has its earliest roots in the ancient observation that when people died, their breath went out of them. That their breath contained some kind of animating life force, some kind of spirit. (wind as that which animates nature…)
And so present in this idea of love in the spirit is the idea that the animating force at work in the Colossian church is love herself. That every action is love-breathed. Breathed by the Holy Spirit, yes, of course. But more than that, that the animating life-force of God – the breath of him who is love himself, the love out which creation was first breathed and that raised Jesus to new life, inaugurating a new creation through the good news breath of Jesus, that breath of that love, that spirit – has been breathed into the lungs of the Colossian church, and is now animating their lives. Now carrying the life of the age to come to every cell of their body, empowering movement and action and words that cooperate in the new creation purposes of King Jesus. Movement and action and words laced with love in the spirit.
[Shelby’s story… “That’s all because of you, Shelby.” “No, Mom, that’s because of God working through me.”]
Great commission: “Go into all the world and announce good news to all creation…” There is sometimes a fervor about this that results in a watered down form of love. Stems from the idea that the main point of the good news is securing eternal destinies, and because death may visit at any hour, unexpectedly, we must vigorously win souls. And so we bear witness to the saving love of God in Jesus with a pointed sense of urgency about the person’s response to our message. Turn, or burn. It is motivated by love. It is a loving act. But it can produce an anemic form of love. And when an anemic form of love is set up on a pedestal as the highest form of love, we are shooting for the wrong target, and we fall short of love in the spirit.
What do I mean by anemic? Anemia is a condition where someone doesn’t have enough healthy red blood cells to deliver oxygen to the body. So the blood is pumping, but it’s not fully accomplishing its life-giving goal. (Fatigue, pale skin, irregular heartbeat, shortness of breath, chest pain, dizziness, cognitive problems, cold hands and feet, headache…) It’s possible for our love to be that way. It’s still love, but it’s not fully accomplishing its life-giving purpose.
Think about the most fully developed kinds of love we experience naturally in life. Let’s call it full-blooded love. Love for our family, our spouses, our children, our parents, sometimes our closest friends. It’s ever-present love that motivates loving actions across the spectrum of loving actions. You are inclined to act in love towards those people regardless of your concern for their eternal destiny, aren’t you? If they are hungry, you want to feed them. If they are sad, you want to comfort them. If they are hurting, you want to care for them. If you discover something joyful or helpful of life changing, you want to share it with them so that they can share in the benefits. You care about the little things in their lives – enough to sacrifice your own concerns to bless them in the little things. And of course you care about the big things, too. You might risk your life and well-being for them, if needed.
In fact, if the only thing you cared about for your children was their eternal destiny, you might hope they would die in birth so as to avoid concerns about them rejecting Jesus when they got old enough. They’d miss out on a lot of good stuff in this world, but in the grand scheme it would be the safest bet for them, right? (clearly, this is an absurd way to look at it, but it does shed some light on something off, doesn’t it?)
Now consider the less developed kind of love we tend to have towards strangers, towards the other, towards those who are not “us.” [the us continuum: self / immediate family / extended family / closest loving community / those who share our values, perspective, objectives / those whose fate is tangled up with ours / those who we could lose without losing much immediately / those who are strange and inscrutable to us / those directly opposed to our values, perspective, objectives / those we view as evil…]
Outside of the first two levels, day to day struggles, challenges, hurts tend to be of little concern to us. If our paths cross, and they are in some form of grave danger, or have experienced a tragedy, we will sometimes be moved to anything from self-less kindness to great acts of heroism on their behalf. Especially if they are on the nearer end of the “us” spectrum. This is a form of love, but it is ultimately anemic. Once the tragedy passes, or the grave danger relents, our love tends to slip away too.
And so what love can become in some “Christian” settings is trying to keep before people the pressing danger of eternal torment (or tragic stories) so that we don’t turn inward, but stay outward-focused in love. This is why anything that threatens this motivation is perceived as a threat against love (Controversy about Rob Bell’s Love Wins, for example). If we aren’t sufficiently worried, what will motivate us to announce good news, to make disciples of Jesus? As if love for Jesus that leads to obedience isn’t enough of a beginning motivation. As if obedience to Jesus won’t lead us into love in the spirit. As if John 3:16 should have read, “For God was so afraid for the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever would share his fears might still get hit by a bus, but not without first getting a ticket to heaven.”
But in Colossians, or anywhere else for that matter, love is not pictured like a dying fire that needs stoking, like some kind of fervor. No, not at all. In Colossians, love is pictured as something growing, like buds on a tree, like the first shoots in a garden. All it needs is the regular rain of the good news of God’s grace to be soaked up in the ground.
Fervors are usually fueled by some form of fear, not love. But a garden is a patient thing, tended with love.
If we must have a fervor, let it be spring fervor. Spring comes after winter with inviting, inevitable warmth, not fearful fire. Spring is new creation we can’t wait for, that gets our blood flowing, our pulse quickening with anticipation. Spring makes us delight in the sun with wonder afresh. Spring brings us out of our comfortable houses and into the weary world full of new possibilities.
Full-blooded love, love in the Spirit, shrinks the “us continuum” with a loving embrace. Wouldn’t love that is mature see everyone like we naturally see a member of our family? Or as Jesus says, like ourselves? Wouldn’t full-blooded love have concerns for the day to day concerns of life for every person whom we are called to love? Isn’t that how God loves? Wouldn’t full blooded love see the “good news of truth” as good news for every situation, for every person in every setting? Wouldn’t we be compelled to love by that kind of love, effortlessly and naturally, by the animating love within us and among us and around us, without the need for impending crisis or devastating tragedy?
Think how this might even change the way we love someone in the face of impending death…
Anemic: Turn, so you don’t burn after you die – double fear, fear of dying ratcheted up, fear of hell after that. Man, I was already scared of death, and now you’re telling me that fear was not only justified, but that it should have been much worse!? Oh, but you’ve got a solution for me – thank goodness! Wait a minute…isn’t this the way people get people to buy things? Are you just trying to sell me something!? I’m dying, and you’re trying to get me to buy something? Love’s there, but it can get buried under all that fear.
Or, another approach, fueled by love in the spirit: Impending death may be unsettling you, producing fear. Jesus has overcome death; trusting him frees you from that fear, let me offer you this good news as an antidote to your fear. That’s the loving thing to do, is it not? Perfect love driving out fear.
May the good news of Jesus bear fruit among us. May love in the spirit burst forth among us like spring after a long winter.
1. Take a blood test. Determine if you’re becoming anemic or full blooded in your love. Think about the last person God brought into your life or to whom he called you to go who perhaps had not yet heard and truly understood the good news of God’s grace. In what ways did love animate you towards that person? Did you think, “If I were in their shoes, what would I experience as God’s grace towards me” – and then endeavor to do or be or say that? Or was it something else, something less? Were you distracted from that kind of love because you were afraid for them, or afraid of them? Or did you ignore them, out of concerns for your own future?
2. Take a good news supplement. Anemia is always a result of some sort of deficiency. Love anemia comes from a good news of grace deficiency. If you think your love might be getting anemic, consider meditating on Ephesians chapter 1. Memorize it if you can. Don’t worry about understanding it all, at least at first. Just let the good news of grace contained in it wash over you. When that love has driven out some of your fears, lift up your eyes to the people around you and see how you might love them, buoyed by and with confidence in that love.
3. Encourage one another to full-blooded love. We must tend the garden of grace by giving voice to the good news that we don’t need to be afraid. Of anyone. That we don’t need to be afraid for the future. That we can act like even our enemies are our brothers and sisters. That we can act like a good future awaits. That we can act like love is going win.