24 Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. 25 I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness— 26 the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. 27 To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.
28 He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. 29 To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me.
We are beginning a seven-part sermon series this week on Mennonite Church USA’s Purposeful Plan. The Purposeful Plan was adopted by the delegate body last summer in Pittsburgh, and it is intended to be a guide for us as congregations as we seek to grow as missional communities. The seven priorities for the Purposeful Plan are:
- Christian Formation
- Christian Community
- Holistic Christian Witness
- Leadership Development
- Undoing Racism
- Church to church relationships
We are going to begin this week with Christian Formation. This comes to us from the MCUSA website:
This first and highest priority commits us to fashion and mold our lives after that of Jesus Christ. As the sent One of God, Jesus sends us into the world. As missional communities, our congregations, conferences, and agencies will ensure that people are invited to make a commitment to Christ, discipled in the way of Christ, taught to engage with the scriptures, helped to develop Christian identity from an Anabaptist/Mennonite perspective, and given the capacity to cultivate their vocational calling.
I like this because our denomination is saying that we exist as a denomination to make disciples of Jesus and to make those disciples more and more like Jesus. That is what I mean when I talk about Christian Formation. We are to be disciples who make disciples, who make disciples… And we help those disciples along the way of this path that we call discipleship.
The recent Summer Delegate Sessions for Virginia Mennonite Conference also focused on Christian Formation, and we started each session with a poem based on the writings of Appalachian author and poet, George Ella Lyons, called, “Where I’m From.” Someone took the format from her original poem and published it for others to write their own “Where I’m From” poems. So we heard poems from church leaders, and from people that I had never met or even heard of before.
It was brilliant! I loved hearing about how these people all had shared and unique life stories that shaped them into who they are today. So I thought that it might be interesting for me to start today with my own “Where I’m From” poem as we talk about Christian Formation today:
I am from work boots sitting by the back door and from farm machinery in the process of being fixed and riding on the tractor with dad. I am from the old grey farmhouse with the squeaky floor and warm air coming from the furnace vents in the winter. I am from the alfalfa, corn, and fresh milk. I am from going out for lunch after church and friendly banter with family. I am from Edward and Joan and Swiss/German with a little Dutch Reformed. I am from the habitually early and frequently reserved. From “study hard” and “do you really need that?” I am from conservative Anabaptism and legalism and rules. I am from Ohio, homemade cookies, and ice cream. From the great-great-grandfather who died by lightning strike, the blind great-grandfather, the paternal grandparents who died before I got to know them. I am from pictures on the wall, certificates kept in the closet, art projects displayed on the refrigerator. I am from memories, events, and situations that have made me, me.
I have heard it said that our experiences shape who we are, but our choices shape who we become. Where I am from has a lot to do with who I am as I stand here before you. But my focus today will be on the decisions that we make that will shape who we become.
If you have been a part of this church for a little while, you know that we probably approach the issue of sin and brokenness a little bit differently than what you might be used to. I like to talk about how God created the heavens and the earth and then created the things on this earth. After each thing that God created, God looked out on his creation and said, “It is good.”
God then created human beings in God’s own image. And on that final day of creation, God looked out on all that he had made and he said it was very good. Human beings, the Bible tells us, were created in the image of God and we to this day still maintain some of that goodness from being created in the image of God.
Unfortunately we have made the decision to move away from God’s will for our lives. We participate in activities that make God’s creation, all that God proclaimed as good, including humanity itself, less good. We call this sin. Sin causes the image of God reflected by human beings to be cracked, marred, and distorted.
So humanity continues throughout time, growing, expanding, and continuing to reflect the image of God imperfectly. Then around the year 4 BC a person came on the scene who would change all of that.
Colossians 1:15, which comes just before our selected text for this morning, says, “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” Then picking up with verses 19-20, “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”
So God creates people in God’s own image, people sin and reflect the image of God a little less. Then “the Son,” whoever that might be, comes into the world and is said to be the image of the invisible God, possessing the fullness of God, reconciling all things, things on earth and in heaven, making peace through his blood, which was shed on a cross. Not a bad guy, from my point of view. And we know this Son to be none other than Jesus himself. He brought reconciliation to this world. He is the solution to the problem of sin. And not only does he reconcile God and humanity, he is the perfect image bearer of God, showing us the way God intended for us to live.
We know that it is important to believe in Jesus. But we are called to more than just belief in Jesus. We are called to more than just that mental understanding. We are called to be his disciples, his learners, his followers. We are called to be formed in his image.
Jesus didn’t necessarily make this easy. And this isn’t because Jesus’ teachings were not clear. Perhaps following Jesus is so difficult because he was so clear on so many things. He said things like it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God. He said love your enemy, pray for those that persecute you. He said that we are to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and provide comfort for those who mourn. No, following Jesus isn’t difficult because he wasn’t clear in his teachings. Following Jesus is difficult because following Jesus is difficult.
And we do this not because that is how we become reconciled with God. That was taken care of already on the cross. This is not a salvation by works theology. No, we follow Jesus, seeking to do the things that he did because that is what we were created to do. Another way to say it is that following Jesus and doing the things that he did is what it means to be faithful.
Need more evidence? 1 John 2:3-6 says, “We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.”
Living as Jesus did, following Jesus, all of these things suggest that maybe we are called to more than just believing in Jesus. We are called to be formed in the image of Jesus.
As I was preparing for this message, I tried to think of a good, tangible and visual illustration to help us understand the idea of being formed in the image of Christ. I thought of the idea of the hands of the potter, shaping us into something more beautiful, perhaps more useful. But I have no experience in pottery, with the exception of making a mug for my mother back in Elementary school art class.
I thought of play dough, which my son loves to play with and eat. But I thought maybe that would be too distracting to the children wanting to play with the play dough, and then sharing is an issue. So finally I came up with the perfect illustration. It is something full of artistic expression as well as having the ability to spike your sense of danger. The illustration that I want to use is that of a chainsaw wood carver.
Have you seen these artists? We are just coming off county fair season, so perhaps you have seen them there. They take a hunk of wood, usually an uncut log, and they begin cutting into it. The ones that I have seen have multiple chainsaws, big ones for major cuts and smaller ones for the fine details. They remove the unwanted wood, stroke by stroke, cut by cut. I’ve seen mermaids and cowboys. Usually, however, they make things that are somehow related to the wilderness. Wolves, eagles, and bears seem to be among their favorites.
There are two things about these artists and their work that I want to focus on in our time this morning. The first is that the artist needs to always have an image of what they are trying to make in mind.
The artist can’t just start cutting the wood and expect something that looks like a bear or a wolf to come out. Before they start that chainsaw, they are looking at the log, trying to figure out what it could be and how they might go about removing the extra wood to make it into the object that it could be. And as they go along, some of the details are going to become clearer. How the bear holds its head, mouth open or closed, paws raised or at its side. The artist starts with an idea of what they are aiming for, then as they get closer and closer, some of the other details become more and more clear.
The obvious parallel when we are talking about being formed in the image of Christ is that we must have the image of Christ in mind when we start up our chainsaws and begin to shape our lives and our very beings into that of a disciple of Jesus Christ. We start with our big chainsaws and trim off the major excess, whatever that might be. But we don’t stop there. We don’t stop with a boxy, rough-cut looking disciple of Jesus. We work with the details, seeking to better understand Jesus and making our lives more like what Jesus lived and taught.
The second thing that I want to remind us all as we use this metaphor of the chainsaw artist for our being formed in the image of Christ is to always remember your safety equipment for your own good and for the good of others.
In one picture I have a person making a bear out of a log, and you can clearly see that he is wearing ear protection and he has a net around him to keep onlookers from getting hit by flying pieces of wood. And most importantly (for our illustration), he is wearing eye protection; he is wearing goggles. Eye protection keeps the sawdust, the splinters, and the logs out of your eyes.
In Matthew chapter 7, we read Jesus’ words instructing his listeners to not judge others. Why do you notice the speck of sawdust in your neighbor’s eye and neglect the log in your own eye?
Unfortunately, when we are trying to be formed into the image of Christ, when we cut off that excess that keeps us from reflecting the image of God better, those flying pieces of wood can go directly into our eyes. And we begin judging others.
Well, I don’t do (fill in the blank) anymore. They should quit it, too. Being formed in the image of Christ also means that you don’t judge others.
In our scripture for today, Paul writes in verses 28-29, “He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me.”
Maturity in Christ; that is the goal that Paul is strenuously contending for. Paul has the strong desire to see the Colossians formed in the image of Christ, looking like Jesus, acting like, living like Jesus. And I am strenuously contending for this as well.
I am thankful for everyone that has come here today, because I believe that you are not here to simply hear that you are saved or forgiven. I believe that you, we, are here today because we want to be more like Jesus. We want to be his disciples, his followers, seeking to live like Jesus.
I am thankful for my upbringing, which has helped to bring me to this place here today. Perhaps you are not as blessed as I have been. But I have heard it said that our experiences shape who we are, and our choices shape who we become. Please make the choice today to be formed in the image of Christ. Seek to know him, seek to follow him, and seek to make other disciples as well.