Which comes first? Fruit or Growth?

This morning we begin our summer sermon series – Rooted and Growing Together: A Letter to the Colossians.

A bit of geographic orientation: Colossae was in what is today Turkey, at the base of a mountain, on the banks of a river. It was an important city because if you were taking goods to trade from the Aegean Sea on the West Coast to the Mediterranean Sea on the South Coast, you would come across along the river and turn south at the mountain, when you got to Colossae. And if you were headed the other direction…you get the picture. Places of trade have lots of visitors. Lots of visitors means a lot of exposure to ideas from outside. One of those who came to Colossae was Epaphras. He was the first evangelist to come to Colossae and he is the one who has brought his concerns for the church there to Paul in prison.
The letter opens like most ancient letters with the information we generally find on the envelope. Who is this letter from? Who is this letter to?

This letter is from Paul and Timothy to the faithful believers at Colossae. Most of Paul’s letters are to churches that Paul started, but Paul had not been to Colossae. So, he begins by letting them know that he has been praying for them. Paul is letting them know that they matter to him and to God.

And then, he touches on why he is writing. It seems that in the church at Colossae some false teachings have taken root. About that time, there was a sect, known as the Gnostics, that taught that there was a great divide between the spiritual, God, and everything physical. Everything spiritual was good, and everything physical was evil. And so, they taught that the goals of faith practices like fasting and prayer were to escape this world. Some taught that you should deny your physical needs and desires. Others taught that what you did physically just didn’t matter. When they taught about Jesus, they taught that he was God putting on a physical body like a mask, that he didn’t really become human, that he didn’t really experience pain or suffering. Now you see why this was heresy, and Paul was writing to respond. Jesus is the plumb line of our faith.
Rev. Dr. Lewis Donelson, professor emeritus of New Testament at Austin Presbyterian Seminary, writes that the purpose of the letter is to respond to the question of power. “Given that we confess Jesus as Lord, what does this say about the way the world actually works? What kind of power does Jesus have? What is the relationship between Jesus and all the other powers, good and bad, in the world around us? When we order our lives, how do we calculate the real presence of Jesus? …The answer we give will be shown in how we choose to live. Do we [bet] our lives on Christian love or not?”

Paul writes, “We are thankful for your faith in Jesus and your love for all God’s people. We are thankful for the hope you have in your salvation, your forgiveness and reconciliation with God, through Jesus Christ that roots your faith and love. We know that you have it because we see the sign of the Spirit being in you – love. In the same way, the good news of the elimination of separation from God is bearing fruit and growing throughout the world.”

The gospel must bear fruit, or what you have been taught isn’t gospel. Paul only mentions here love, as the fruit that he sees in them and that he prays for them to have complete patience and to become truly steadfast and joyful. In his letter to the Galatians, he lists the fruit of the spirit as love, joy, peace, patience, mercy, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. If what you believe and how you are influenced to act by it does not guide you to display these attributes, you are not being guided by the Holy Spirit.

Surprisingly, fruit is not a result of knowledge! You can’t study your way to knowing God. As we bear fruit, Paul writes, we grow in knowledge. It’s a little bit of a chicken and egg question. Which comes first? Ultimately, says Paul, fruit comes first. Seek fruit, and you are seeking the Spirit of God. Bear fruit, and you will grow in your knowledge of God.

Paul has seen love in them. The Greek word for love, agape, isn’t about a flutter of feelings, it is about benevolence, wanting the best for others. And Paul prays for the them to have complete patience, in Greek means “self-restraint before proceeding to action”, meaning we are to be tolerant and not react to other people. And Paul prays for them to become truly steadfast and joyful. The translation of joyful is pretty straightforward: it is a spirit that is not weighed down. The Greek for “joy” might be best defined by its opposites, in Greek joy is the opposite of pain, sorrow, and distress.

What is not clear, though, is whether Paul meant he was praying for them to be truly steadfast in goodness, which in Greek is an active verb “doing good deeds” or truly steadfast in faithfulness, which in Greek is firm belief. It seems right that he prays for both, given the overarching theme of Colossians. The roots that ground us, what we believe and how we behave, how we live in the world interacting and intertwined with others, are inextricably linked.

Next week we will turn to what we believe: Paul’s teaching about Jesus, who was fully human and fully divine and in whom all things were created.