Pentecost 4b

Preached: June 24, 2012

Give Thanks for the Father’s Spiritual Blessings
Colossians 1:3-8

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. The word from God through which the Holy Spirit feeds our faith in Jesus is Colossians 1.

We always thank the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ as we pray about you, since we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and the love you have for all the saints because of the hope laid away for you in heaven. This is the hope you heard about before in the word of truth, the gospel, which is present among you. Just as in all the word this gospel is bearing fruit and increasing, so also it is among you from the day you heard and came to know God’s grace in the truth -- just as you learned it from Epaphras, our beloved fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ for you. He’s the one who made your love in the spirit clear to us. (Colossians 1:3-8).

This is the word of our Lord.

Ephesus lay on the western coast of what today we call Turkey, opposite Greece across the Aegean Sea. It was a major center of commerce in the Apostle Paul's day. On his third missionary journey, Paul spent over two years preaching in Ephesus.

Colosse was about a hundred and twenty-five miles inland to the east. It’s importance was fading as the neighboring city of Laodicea grew more influential. Paul hadn't preached in Colosse. Yet the Gospel had traveled those hundred and twenty-five miles from Ephesus in the heart of Epaphras. We’ll hear more of him shortly.

But even though Paul has not met these Christians in Colosse, notice the warmth, the joy, the thanks that fills his heart and flows into his words here. These strangers are family. They are his brothers and sisters in Christ. Because of Jesus, God is their Father. So when Epaphras tells Paul of what the Holy Spirit has done among them, when he tells of the spiritual blessings the Father has worked in them, Paul can’t stop giving thanks to God.

Let’s use Paul’s prayer of thanks to guide our thanksgiving to God. For the Holy Spirit gave him these words. In verse six Paul talks about the gospel bearing fruit. Let’s use that picture of crops growing and producing a harvest, bearing fruit, to ponder the spiritual blessings the Father showers upon us. As we hold that picture in our hearts, the Holy Spirit moves us to give thanks for the Father’s spiritual blessings. That’s the theme today.

A. Epaphras

Before a crop can grow, it needs a farmer to plant the seed. This is where we meet Epaphras. The Bible does not tell us much about him, but here are some reasonable assumptions based on what the Scriptures do say. He appears to be a native to Colosse. Somewhere, probably from Paul himself while he was in Ephesus, Epaphras heard the gospel of Jesus and believed. On returning to Colosse, he couldn’t keep this good news to himself. He shared God’s word of truth. Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God, in whom all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form. He came to this earth to rescue sinners from the dominion of darkness. He died on the cross outside Jerusalem to pay for the sins of the world. In him we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He has risen from the dead, the promise that we, who believe in him, will also rise to live with God. For his death has reconciled us to God, bringing us peace through his blood.

Who have been the Epaphrases in your life, dear friends? From whom have you learned God’s word of truth, the gospel that is present among you? For most, if not all of us, it was not some famous Christian, like the Apostle Paul, who first planted the seed of the gospel in our hearts. Was it your parents at home, a Sunday school teacher, a pastor, or a fellow Christian? Who are the Epaphrases in your life who have planted and watered the gospel in you? Give thanks to God, your Father, for them. They are spiritual blessings from him.

To whom could you be an Epaphras? You don’t have to speak like angels or preach like Paul to do so. Simply share what Jesus has done for you. Plant the seed and keep watering it by speaking the gospel, telling the Good News of Jesus. Leave it to the Holy Spirit to make it grow as he sees fit.

B. The Gospel

Let’s talk a little bit more about that gospel, the Good News of Jesus. Epaphras was troubled by what was starting to happen in Colosse. He had planted the true gospel of Jesus Christ, good seed. But now others were sowing a different kind of seed. They still talked about Jesus, but it wasn’t the same gospel, in fact, it was no gospel at all. Epaphras went to find Paul, who was probably imprisoned at Rome at this time. By writing this letter the Apostle reinforces for Epaphras and for all the Christians in Colosse (and also for us today), what the true gospel is.

The true gospel is not a gospel limited to one place or one people. It goes out into all the word. It grows and produces fruit in every place where it's proclaimed in its truth and purity. Read the first chapter or two in Colossians to hear Paul beautifully present the true gospel. Those words will water the faith in your heart, making it grow all the more.

Paul proclaims that Jesus is our God, the eternal Son of the Father. In him alone do we have rescue, redemption, forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace. For he, who is God over all, gave himself into death on the cross, sacrificing his body, pouring out his blood. Why? To present you before God as holy, without blemish, free of accusation as long as you continue in the faith rooted in the gospel truth.

So if we go back to the picture of growing crops, where do we see the gospel represented? I think the gospel actually has several parallels in that picture. The gospel is, of course, the seed that the farmer plants. Without the gospel there can be no faith, just as without a seed there can be no plant. The gospel is the Holy Spirit’s tool to bring us to know and believe God’s grace in Christ.

But the gospel is not just for the start of the Christian life. Like the rain that comes down from the sky and makes the crop grow, so God sends down the gospel through the rain clouds of his word and sacraments. Drink in the living water day after day.

And still another way to picture the gospel here is as the soil. Only faith rooted in the true gospel saves. God's truth is the foundation that gives faith its firmness and stability.

Give thanks to God that you have the true gospel. So many pseudo-gospel fill our world. But none of them can produce a crop. They are weeds that choke out faith. Don’t listen to them. Rather give thanks to God for his word of truth. What a spiritual blessing it is. Give thanks to the Father as you gladly hear and learn it, treasuring it in your heart and living it in your life. And that brings us to the plant itself and the crop it yields.

C. Faith, love, hope

As a seed produces a plant, so the gospel produces faith, faith in Jesus. “We have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus” (Colossians 1:4 NIV84) Paul writes as he gives thanks to God. Faith trusts Jesus. Faith trusts that he is the Christ, the Lord's Anointed, sent by the Father on the mission to save us sinners. Faith believes that as the Christ he offered himself as the complete sacrifice for all sins by dying in our place and as the Christ he conquered Satan and death rising from the dead so that through his word he reigns in our hearts as our King. Such faith is rooted in the gospel, God’s word of truth.

And such faith produces a harvest of fruit, just as a plant does, whether it’s a harvest of apples or corn or grain. The harvest of fruit that faith produces is love. Faith shows love toward others, especially those whose faith is rooted in the gospel just like ours. For through faith in Jesus, they, like us, are saints, washed clean from sin so that God declares them holy, without blemish, in his sight just as he has done for you and me. “We have heard … of the love you have for all the saints” (Colossians 1:4 NIV84), Paul writes as he gives thanks to God.

How do we treat our fellow church members? Do we see them as saints, washed clean in Jesus’ blood, as God sees them? Or do we see the marks and blemishes left by sin, so that we complain, tear down, or gossip about our fellow Christians? Does our love for one another attract others? As they see the way we treat each other, do they think, “I want to be part of that too?” Or does a lukewarmness, a lack of love, or indifference drive them away?

At times we have shown love and at times we have failed. What gives our faith the strength to produce the fruit of love? Paul writes, “the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have heard about in the word of truth, the gospel” (Colossians 1:5 NIV84). Notice that this hope isn’t referring to some wishful feeling inside of us. This hope is what’s stored up for you in heaven. It’s that life, that salvation, that glorious presence before God, that eternal banquet of celebration that awaits all who believe. This hope is what Jesus came to this earth to win for you. It’s what he purchased for you with his holy, precious blood. It's what his resurrection seals and guarantees to you who believe. That hope is another way of describing what the gospel promises. It’s the sun that shines from the distance and yet brings its power and strength to us right here so that our faith produces a harvest of love.

As God’s promise of heaven shines down on us, that hope enables us to love one another. We have the treasures of heaven laid away for us, so we can use our earthly wealth to help and care for others. We have the glory of heaven waiting for us, so we don’t have to claw our way through this life tearing others down so that we feel better about ourselves. We have the hope of heaven so, no matter how heavy or dark the day, we can shine with the light of love to encourage and build up one another. What a reason to give thanks to God!

So dear Christians, take to heart these words of the Apostle Paul. Give thanks to the Father for the faith and love, he has worked in your heart through the hope promised in the gospel. Give thanks not only for the faith and love at work in you but also in one another, just as Paul gave thanks for what the gospel had worked among the Christians in Colosse. For the gospel doesn’t just grow one plant, but an entire field of Christians throughout the world. Give thanks to the Father for your fellow Christians, whether you have met them or not.

God has sent faithful Christians to plant the seed of the gospel in you and to water it with his word. Stay rooted in the truth so that your faith continues to grow and you bear the fruit of love as you bask in the heavenly hope the gospel has promised. What a way to give thanks for the Father’s spiritual blessings!

The peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Pastor Gregg Bitter

St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
859 5th Street
Hancock, MN 56244
(320) 392-5313