David A. Davis
July 10, 2022
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This morning at 4:00 am the vans pulled out of the driveway for the youth mission trip’s return to the Appalachian Service Project. 25 youth and adult advisors will spend their days splitting into teams and fanning out to various house repair and rebuild projects in the region. They will spend their nights sleeping in a school gymnasium. Thus, they are on the road and I am here. For several years Cathy and I were advisors on the trip to the youth conference in Montreat, North Carolina. The week includes worship, keynote speakers, small groups, and lots of young people. One summer at the conference they would show a video each day of a project somewhere in the world launched by young people. Young people in an African country turning used bullets into crosses. A team of young people taking on plastic bag pollution along the shore. Young people raising money for clean water. All of these daily videos were impressive. More to the point, the young people were impressive. Long about Thursday one of the teens from Nassau came up to us a bit distraught. A summary of what was said goes something like this: “I worry that God is disappointed with me because I don’t do enough. I don’t have a big idea to save the world like the kids in those videos.” The feelings of the young follower of Jesus were as real as the tears there running down their cheek.
“….so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to God, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.” That is the prayer of the Apostle Paul for the followers of Jesus in Colossae. “We have not ceased to praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding so that you might lead lives…pleasing…bearing…growing…” A prayer for the followers of Jesus that they might lead lives fully pleasing to God not necessarily with ideas that can save the world but with bearing fruit in every good work, and growing in the knowledge of God.
Pleasing to God. For some, perhaps many, these days, it may be more common to ponder the very tears of God. To rise in the morning confronted again with all in the world must certainly move the Rock of Ages to tears. To close the day by lifting everything to God in prayer, all that must cause the Balm of Gilead to weep. Yet, this prayer of Paul in the first chapter of Colossians offers an invitation, an exhortation even, to ponder that which pleases the Maker of Heaven and Earth. This prayer of Paul is an invitation, an exhortation to the followers of Jesus to lead lives fully pleasing to God, bearing fruit in every good work, and growing in the knowledge of God.
Peter Gomes was one of my preaching mentors. I was a member of the university choir and had the opportunity to listen to Professor Gomes preach most Sundays. He had a favorite turn of phrase that I heard often: “Thinking hearts and loving minds.” He often exhorted students to head out into the world not just with thinking minds and loving hearts but with thinking hearts and loving minds. He once said it this way to the graduating class at Lafayette College: “Hearts tend to be large, squishy, undiscerning sorts of things, the home of powerful feelings and emotions, but a thinking heart is one that deploys its passions carefully. It strikes me as a good formula for life, loving minds, and thinking hearts and I commend that notion of the self to you as you make your way.”
I have been drawn this week to the “loving minds” part of the equation. It helps me try to wrap both my heart and my head around what on earth it means to grow in the knowledge of God. In his “Institutes of the Christian Religion”, John Calvin begins with this sentence: “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves”. Calvin then goes on in page after page, chapter after chapter. Book 1 and Book 2 offer a complex theological argument unpacking the knowledge of God. As much as John Calvin has shaped my own theological education and formation and, in fact, the theological tradition now entrusted to us, I wonder if knowledge of God has to be all that complicated. I am pretty sure growing in the knowledge of God is more than reading book after book after book. When it comes to growing in the knowledge of God, it might be more about a loving mind. Loving minds, thinking hearts, and lives fully pleasing to God, bearing fruit in every good work, and growing in the knowledge of God.
Eugene Peterson puts the verse from Colossians about growing in the knowledge of God this way in this paraphrase of the Bible entitled “The Message”. “As you learn more and more how God works, you will learn how to do your work.” Watching God work and learning how to do ours. To grow in the knowledge of God is to watch God work and learn how to do our work. The Apostle Paul and John Calvin agree on the key that unlocks the knowledge of God. Paul just does it right here in one brief chapter. To watch God working is to first and foremost, look to Jesus Christ. After these first 14 verses I offered for your hearing, Paul soars into what tradition calls “the Christ hymn”. “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him, all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him, God was pleased to reconcile to Godself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”
The eye and ear naturally fall toward the Christ hymn here in chapter 1. The hymn most often stands alone. We sometimes use the hymn alone as an affirmation of faith in worship. But in the flow of Paul’s letter, the rhetorical and theological flourish of the Christ hymn finishes the trajectory of his prayer to lead lives fully pleasing to God, bearing fruit in every good work and growing in the knowledge of God. Pleasing, bearing, growing? Look to the one who is the very fullness of God. The Apostle gives the theological answer to the member of the youth group lamenting they didn’t have an idea to save the world. In Jesus Christ, God has already saved the world. But there is also a pastoral and relational and practical answer to the young disciple yearning to please God that flows from Paul’s argument as well. Yes, if you want to watch how God works, look to Jesus Christ. Indeed, the first born of all creation, the head of the church, the beginning, the first born of the dead, the fullness of God. But look to his loving, healing, boundary-crossing, welcoming, teaching, convicting, challenging, comforting, suffering, dying, and rising as well. To grow in the knowledge of God is to be more and more persuaded that “God is love and those who abide in love abide in God.” I John. To bear fruit in every good work is to lean into, double down, and emphasize in all things the first fruit of the Spirit which is love. (Galatians). To lead a life fully pleasing to God is “to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind….and to love your neighbor as yourself.” (Jesus in Matthew’s gospel). Pleasing. Bearing. Growing. It is to never forget Jesus’ words in Luke to the one who affirmed to Jesus that the Samaritan who showed mercy to the man who had been robbed and beaten acted like a neighbor. Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”
Some might have seen an op-ed piece this week by the author Anne Lamott. The op-ed piece was much like her published work except there were no bad words. It was an essay on prayer. “How do people like me who believe entirely in science and reason also believe that prayer can heal and restore?” she writes. “Well, I’ve seen it a thousand times in my own inconsequential life. God seems like a total showoff to me, if perhaps unnecessarily cryptic.” Lamott goes on in the piece to say “It is miserable to be a hater. I pray to be more like Jesus with his crazy compassion and reckless love. Some days go better than others. I pray to remember that God loves Marjorie Taylor Greene exactly the same as God loves my grandson because God loves period. God does not have an app for Not love. God sees beyond each person’s awfulness to each person’s need. God loves them, as is. God’s is better than this than I am”,
Growing in the knowledge of God is being drawn more and more into the crazy compassion and reckless love of Jesus. Growing in the knowledge of God is learning over and over and over again that while God is so much better at love than we are, we can never stop trying. Growing in the knowledge of God is to cling ever tighter to the sense deep within your soul that while yes, this world may bring tears to the eyes of the Rock of Ages and bring the Balm of Gilead to tears, God still loves…this world and that which is pleasing to God in this world is every act of love. Growing in the knowledge of God after a week when the highest court in the land expanded the right to carry a weapon and restricted the reproductive rights of women is to rise each day with the assurance that God still bestows upon you, to use the words of Dr. King, the strength to love in the everyday good works of your life. Growing in the knowledge of God is to ever more and ever more cling to the promise of I John that God is “greater than our hearts” and as hatred and bigotry suck the air out of the halls where elect people are called to govern and gun violence rules city streets and rains death down upon a parade you and I are still invited, still exhorted to live and breath in our little corners of the world.
You and I are invited by the Apostle Paul and called by Jesus himself to live lives that are pleasing, bearing, and growing with thinking hearts and loving minds always watching and never forgetting how God works.