THE C.M.S. ANNUAL SERMON
preached on Monday, April 25, 1960,
in St. Bride's Church, Fleet Street, London, E.C.4,
The REV. MARTIN PARSONS, M.A.
THE CHRIST WE PROCLAIM
For I want you to know how greatly I strive for you, and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not seen my face, that their hearts may be encouraged as they are knit together in love, to have all the riches of assured understanding and the knowledge of God's mystery, of Christ, in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
EVER since the Lambeth Conference there has been a new note of urgency in the missionary appeal. It would be possible to enumerate many factors in the world situation which impel the Church to fulfil its mission on a scale never before envisaged. Not least there is the knowledge of opportunities that are here today and may be gone tomorrow. But the urgency of the Christian task does not vary with changing circumstances. It is implicit in the Christ we proclaim. It requires no special circumstances in the world to make our commission any more urgent than it always has been. "For this I toil," says St. Paul, "striving with all the energy which he mightily inspires within me" For what? "That we may present every man mature in Christ. "If that was the object of the unremitting toil of the greatest of all missionaries, nothing less can be the goal of a missionary society.
Colossians 2. 1- 3. R. S. V.
I The nature of Christ
What St. Paul strove for was that those who were his brethren in Christ should "have all the riches of assured understanding and the knowledge of God's mystery, of Christ, in whom are hid all treasures of wisdom and knowledge".
His immediate concern was of course with a particular situation. The Colossian heresy had within it the seeds of later Gnosticism by which people were led into errors of belief and conduct. Its fundamental wrong was that it offered a way to God apart from Christ. Christ had a place in the scheme of things, but his position was not unique. St. Paul's answer to this reaches far beyond the situation to which he first spoke. Wherever Christ is admitted merely as one among many, there the Church must resist in the spirit of this epistle.
Christ is the image of the invisible God.
" No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known" (St. John 1. 18).
There were earlier revelations: in Christ the last Word has been spoken.
"He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature" (Hebrews 1. 3).
Fuller understanding of the revelation in Christ must be continually sought, but a further revelation there can never be. In these last days God has spoken to us by a Son.
Jesus Christ is not simply the most perfect picture of God that man has ever seen: he is the Word made flesh. The simplest and most ignorant believer in Christ has a knowledge of God which is denied to the erudite and learned man who is without Christ.
" He is the first-born of all creation."
Taken out of their context the words could be made to mean that he is the first of created beings. So they were interpreted by the Arians, and so they are today by those pseudo-Christian bodies of people who deny our Lord's deity — a not inconsiderable number in all parts of the world. But St. Paul's use of the term to denote the One who is himself the Creator implies that he is the sovereign Lord over all creation. It is his world, a fact that no usurpation by man must allow us to forget.
It is his by the very fact that he made it.
"For in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authoritie — all things were created through him and for him".
Here is no Creator who made the world and then left it to its own course. Everything that was made was in him, through him, and for him. He was the creative and creating Word, "Let there be light." He is the true light that enlightens every man by coming into the world. When he was in the world it was as the world's creator. "The world was made through him." Though his own people received him not, he was nevertheless coming to his own home. The world is his. Far above all human or angelic powers is Christ, supreme in the universe he has created.
"He is before all things." The present tense is clearly reminiscent of the I AM. He is eternally pre-existent. "And in him all things hold together." The universe is an unsolved puzzle until we find in Christ the key. It lacks coherence and purpose apart from him who is its Creator, its Sovereign and its Goal. In Jesus Christ the world of created things makes sense.
Yet, as St. Paul says in another place :
"We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now " (Romans 8. 22).
The final manifestation of Christ's pre-eminence in the universe awaits the fullness of the Church.
Christ is the head of the body, the Church. It is through the Church that God's purpose for the universe is being worked out.
If we look at the weak human members of the body, this seems a thing incredible. But the body is nothing without the head, andthe Church is nothing without Christ.
Elsewhere St. Paul emphasizes the varying functions of the different parts of the body. Here his stress is on the absolute dependence of the whole body on the head. Bishop Lightfoot sums up the relationship of Christ the head to the Church the body in these words:
"the inspiring, ruling, guiding, combining, sustaining power, the mainspring of its activity, the centre of its unity, and the seat of its life."
It is the unity of the Church which seems today to be a most pressing need, and that unity is found in Christ. But we cannot separate unity from all else that is in him. The Lambeth Report spoke of
"unity in living Christian fellowship, in obedience to Christ in every department of human life, and plain for all men to see ".
Christ is Lord of all life because he rose from the dead. In this he is the beginning. The People of God was re-born to newness of life by the resurrection.
Each individual who exercises faith in the risen Christ becomes, for that reason alone, a new creation. Having been dead through trespasses and sins, he is now made alive. (Ephesians 2. 1.)
Christ is therefore the firstborn from the dead. The awakening of new life in the Church is not merely equally important with unity, it is a pre-requisite of it. Where there has been the most passionate desire for unity, that can be taken as evidence of more abundant life.
The headship of Christ in his Church is in order that in everything he might be pre-eminent. The gap between the acknowledgment of this as doctrine and the submission to it as practical experience is responsible for the setbacks in which Church history abounds. Where Christ is in everything pre-eminent, there may still be apparent failure and weakness, but the Church is fulfilling the purpose of God. Where Christ is pre-eminent, God is at work.
"For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell."
To the false teachers at Colossae it seemed incredible that the fullness of God could dwell in any one being. Hence they filled the gap between God and men with hosts of mediators, broken lights from the one true light. To them Christ was the highest of these, the first of the emanations from God.
St. Paul's answer is unequivocal: in Christ all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.
Moreover the manifestation in Christ was for all time. All God's fullness for ever abides in him.
Only a Christ who is perfect God and perfect man can effect reconciliation.
The purpose of God in Christ is through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven. None but a Christ who is Very God of Very God, of one substance with the Father, can restore all things to God. Yet he could only make peace through the "blood of his cross".
In that one phrase is contained the whole doctrine of the Incarnation, the sinless life offered up in perfect sacrifice.
"God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself."
The Christ who is as divine as the Father and as human as ourselves is the one mediator between God and man. His Cross is at the centre of world history, and his servants are those who have determined to know nothing among men save Jesus Christ and him crucified.
II The transforming power of Christ
The proclamation of Christ is the primary task for which the Church exists, a task which must be undertaken whether visible results ensue or not. Nevertheless it is the normal expectation of the preacher that the Lord will confirm the word with signs following. In every place where St. Paul gained a hearing the Church was planted. The epistles written to the Churches, though often weighted with rebuke and correction, for the most part start with thanksgiving for the response made to the Gospel.
First and foremost it was the response of faith. Faith is a quality essential to Christian experience, for without faith it is impossible to please God. But it is a quality which cannot exist apart from its object. The adequacy of what men have confidence in is more important than the act and attitude of trust. The New Testament boldly proclaims that faith's final resting place is Jesus Christ. So St. Paul thanks God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
"because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus".
Faith, in the sense of faithfulness, has proved unattainable to unregenerate man. He does not keep faith either with God or his fellow. Therefore, as Professor Alan Richardson writes:
"In the New Testament faith becomes primarily faith in Jesus Christ, who is Himself both the object and the giver of the faith of His disciples."
The activity of faith in Christ Jesus produces, inevitably, love to all the people of God. Indeed the test of a true faith would appear in the New Testament to be love. Writes St. John:
"He who does not love does not know God; for God is love" (I John 4. 8).
Faith in Christ brings us into touch with the fullness of divine love. Love, no less than faith, requires an object, and unless there is actual brotherly love in specific human situations, there is no love at all; which indicates also that there is no faith.
Faith works by love. And while the love of the Colossian Christians is particularly for all the saints, i.e., the people of God, it can no more be limited to them than can our Lord's love for the world, even though in a special sense he loved his own.
Faith looks to the past, to the historic facts of the Gospel. Love works in the present, expressing the eternal love of Christ in the here and now. Both are motivated by the hope that is laid up in heaven.
The New Testament has much to say of the future. Writes St. Peter:
"We have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time " (I Peter 1. 3-5).
This true other-worldliness of the Gospel has always produced an abundance of good works.
Christ was proclaimed in the first century to a world in which the things men trusted in were failing, love had very little meaning, and hope of an enduring kind was non-existent. The gospel gained its victories and with the passage of time Christian ideals overflowed the confines of the Church. But where Christ is not the centre, Christian virtues will not long flourish. Hence the need for an individual response to the Gospel, of faith, working by love, inspired by hope. Hence the never-ending. task of the evangelization of each succeeding generation.
One paragraph in the Lambeth Report is of great importance to a missionary society whose field includes some areas where Church membership is encouragingly large.
"This evangelistic task is of great urgency in the vast unevangelized areas of the world and among the masses of people living in professedly Christian countries who rarely enter a Church. This is a challenge which brooks no refusal and no delay. But the nominal Church member also, to whom Christianity is little more than a moral code, must be 'confronted' with Jesus Christ. As a living theology must be thought out anew for every age, so it is with evangelism. Each generation must be evangelized; the task will not be complete 'till he come'."
Even in the first century St. Paul could write of world conquest. The Gospel is bearing fruit and growing "in the whole world ".
Today the world has grown in size and in population beyond St. Paul's imagination. Yet his words still apply. In practically every country on the globe the Church is planted. But as in the first century, so in the twentieth, the need is for conquest in depth as well as in breadth. Faith, love and hope spring to birth when the Gospel is accepted. But the work of grace has only then begun.
Consider how earnestly the apostle prays for those who are already believers.
"From the day we heard of it [your love in the Spirit], we have not ceased to pray for you."
He prays that they may be filled with the knowledge of God's will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.
The true wisdom is not found in natural ability or in esoteric secrets, but in finding God's will and doing it. Nothing else really matters. This alone leads to a life worthy of the Lord. The only thing that is fully pleasing to God is obedience to his will.
It will result in the fruit of good works, and growth in the knowledge of God. For the whole Church, for a missionary society, for a parish, for a family, as for an individual Christian, there is no progress except by obedience to God's will as he chooses to make it known.
The power to respond is not ours but God's. The way of obedience is hard, calling for endurance and patience. Yet it can be trodden with joy in proportion to our being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might.
The strength is not for the few but for all who are in Christ. Scripture knows no double standard of holiness. When we come to be in Christ we are, by that fact alone, qualified to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. We are delivered from the dominion of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of God's beloved Son. We have received through his redemption the forgiveness of sins. Having come into this inheritance of the people of God, we have all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge that are in Christ.
It is well ever to remember what we are without Christ: estranged from God, hostile in mind, evil in deed. Those words had originally a special reference to Gentiles who had never before been in covenant relationship with God. Even those who were furthest from him are reconciled by the death of Christ. But the work will only be complete when Christ presents his own, in Bishop Lightfoot's words,
"free from blemish and free even from censure, that ye may stand the piercing glance of him whose scrutiny no defect can escape".
This can only be if there is continuing fidelity to the faith of the Gospel.
III The messengers of Christ
The Gospel requires heralds, ministers, interpreters.
Some will be prominent as was St. Paul. Others will be comparatively unknown, like Epaphras. Both are equally essential in the building up of the Church in Colossae.
Epaphras had been the evangelist in the first instance. From him they had first learned the word of truth. He was St. Paul's personal representative, and not only taught them on his behalf, but also reported to him their love in the Spirit. He was the ideal interpreter of the message, for he was one of themselves. When he was no longer with them he was always wrestling for them in prayer. The substance of his prayer was that they might stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God. St. Paul testifies that he worked hard for the converts.
Epaphras seems to have been the ideal missionary. He taught the Gospel, which brought forth fruit. When the Church was planted he knew when to leave it, but he continued to pray earnestly for it. His work and prayer alike were for their full growth in Christ. He could not have prayed as he did if he had not been himself fully assured in all the will of God. Because of his spiritual maturity he did not make himself indispensable. And withal he was to the great apostle a beloved fellow-servant.
Together the two men knew the brotherhood of the slavery of Jesus Christ.
To be the slave of Christ is to be his property, completely at his disposal, dependent on his provision. The word is supplemented in the case of Epaphras by that other word 'minister'.
Here is more active service. St. Paul also uses the word to describe himself. He is both an apostle and a slave of Christ; but he is also a minister, quite literally a deacon. It is on the level of the diaconate, ministry, service, that the Gospel is interpreted to those who need it.
"Even the Son of Man came not to be ministered unto but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many."
For so great a cause as the Gospel, St. Paul is content not only to be a minister, but also to suffer.
Faithful ministry involves willingness to suffer for the sake of the Gospel and for the sake of the people.
"In my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church."
Now the sufferings of Christ for the redemption of the world are perfect and complete.
"He made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered), a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world."
Any idea that the sufferings even of the holiest of men can add anything to the finished work of Christ is abhorrent to the New Testament message. But men can enter into the fellowship of his sufferings. The afflictions of Christ are continued in the Church which is his body. Indeed, according to St. Paul, they are incomplete without the afflictions of his people.
The gift of ministry, which includes the call to complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions, is all of grace. St. Paul became a minister "according to the divine office", or " by the divine commission". The commission was "to make a full presentation of God's message".
Here is stewardship of the highest kind, stewardship of the Word of God. While we thank God for every sign of an awakening in the Church to the truth and duty of stewardship, we need to guard against its possible degeneration with great watchfulness.
Every new manifestation of life carries with it the danger of its own decay. Stewardship of time, talents, or possessions needs to be subservient to stewardship of the Gospel. We need have no fear for the rest when men are consumed with a passion to make known the Gospel which has been entrusted to them as stewards.
The history of our society bears witness to the fact that times of spiritual awakening have been the times of forward movements in terms of recruits and money.
Recruits are our greatest need at this present time.
In asking for one hundred and fifty extra missionaries in the next five years we are virtually asking for double the present rate of recruitment. This need in the C.M.S. could be matched in every other missionary society. We shall not find these men and women by feverish search or anxious over-persuasion. We shall find them as a generation of young dedicated Christians learns the meaning of the stewardship of the Gospel.
It will involve waiting upon God to find his will. No man may dare to assume that he is called to stay at home till he has honestly faced the call to serve wherever God needs him. If the need overseas is greater at the moment than is the need in this country — and no one who knows the facts could deny it — then it is incredible that it is God's will for so small a proportion to offer for this service. Immediate opportunities are being left untaken. Every consideration of security, marriage or career must be subservient to the slavery of the Word of God.
The particular Word which St. Paul was determined to make fully known was that Christ was for all men. This was hidden from former ages and generations, but was now revealed to God's people.
To quote Bishop Lightfoot once again :
"The one special mystery which absorbs St. Paul's thoughts in the Epistles to the Colossians and Ephesians is the free admission of the Gentiles on equal terms to the privileges of the covenant. For this he is a prisoner; this he is bound to proclaim fearlessly; this, though hidden from all time, was communicated to him by a special revelation; in this had God most signally displayed the lavish wealth of his goodness."
Not simply Christ, but Christ in you, freely given to you Gentiles by the grace of God as the hope of your glory, is the open secret of God's purpose which he preaches. The Christ we proclaim is freely given to all, without any distinction, because without any deserving. No other is the Christ of the New Testament.
And the Church of the New Testament is a preaching Church.
"Him we proclaim, warning every man and teaching every man."
As the Church cannot be the Church unless it proclaims Christ, no more can it be true to itself unless it warns and teaches every man.
Nor is the work of ministry ended until we have presented every man mature in Christ. This is an urgency which is ever with us.
It is recognized at the time of a man's ordination to the priesthood:
"See that you never cease your labour, your care and diligence, until you have done all that lieth in you, according to your bounden duty, to bring all such as are or shall be committed to your charge, unto that agreement in the faith and knowledge of God, and to that ripeness and perfectness of age in Christ, that there be no place left among you, either for error in religion, or for viciousness in life."
For a hundred and sixty years our Society has been the servant of Christ and his Church for the fulfilling of his purposes. During those years many things have changed beyond recognition. But the things of which we have here spoken are unchanging: the Christ we proclaim, the transforming power of his Gospel, the spirit of those called to spread it.
These were the same in 1799 as they were in the first century, and they are the same today.
The call was always urgent. Today there is added to urgency the opportunity to do something big.
The Five-Year Opportunity Plan can succeed if the whole Church sees the vision of "Christ in you, the hope of glory", and is prepared to share him with the world at all costs.
This is the stewardship God asks.
"For this I toil, striving with all the energy which he mightily inspires within me."
O LORD, who has warned us that thou wilt require much of those to whom much is given; Grant that we, whose lot is cast in so goodly a heritage, may strive together the more abundantly, by prayer, by almsgiving, by fasting, and by all appointed means to extend to those who know thee not what we so richly enjoy; and as we have entered into the labours of others, so to labour that others may enter into ours, to the fulfilment of thy holy will, and the salvation of all mankind; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen