I'm not sure what your experience of PE was like at school. I was generally decent at running – though you can't tell now – but I was generally OK at running, cross country and I gave tennis and rugby a fair go – though my career only ever reaching the dazzling glory of the B team in Year 9, and then I was relegated to the Cs for the rest of my time at school. My school was one in which the captain of the First XV was destined for head boy and where sporting prowess was highly lauded at any prize giving. I was definitely not in the running for the coveted royal blue honours blazer. I wasn't usually the first one picked for teams. But this passage this morning talks of a team that is infinitely better than the First XV! God has chosen us, if we are Christians, for his team!
The apostle Paul is writing here and you might recall that he was converted in remarkable fashion in the book of Acts and God announced that Paul was set apart for the task of taking the gospel to the Gentiles. A vital step in the gospel reaching the nations. But Paul is writing here and we can see that he is conscious that the Colossians (and us today) are a part of this team. A team that is all about God's mission to take the gospel to the nations. We're partners, team members. We are partners in 1. Prayer, 2. Evangelism and in 3. Relationship.
1. Partners in Prayer vv.2-4
In this letter Paul is writing to a church he is really excited about. This isn't a church that Paul has been to – he doesn't know them. It was planted by a friend. But Paul knew that there was a threat to this church as false teachers crept in teaching that all this love of Jesus and forgiveness from Jesus was great but that they needed more. Whether it was Jesus plus experiences, philosophies, traditions. Whatever it was, it was a threat to the truth of the gospel. Paul is writing to them to say, keep on as you began. Stick with King Jesus – he is how you came to God, and he is how you grow as a Christian.
Paul calls us here to devote themselves to prayer as they stand firm against the false teachers who try to lure them away from Jesus. And the same is true for us. As we strive to live out our lives with Jesus we need to depend on him and speak to him in prayer. Paul tells us that we are partners in prayer. Verse 2, "Continue steadfastly in prayer". How can we though? Can we be devoted, steadfastly, to prayer when there are so many important things vying for our time? Family, work, church. Time is precious to many of us and things are hard to fit in as it is. Can we really pray in a way we could describe as steadfast devotion?
You may know of a person who has devoted their lives to prayer in a very special way. The church I went to growing up in Northern Ireland had a group of men and women I might describe as prayer warriors. I can remember regularly talking with some them at the prayer meeting before the morning service on a Sunday. These were men and women who had reached the latter years of life and their physical health was declining and they weren't able to serve the church the way they once had. But the group of them devoted themselves to prayer. Praying for the youth work of our church, praying for us as individuals. I remember one woman who returned home to Lord well over a decade ago. Her name was Sadie. And while Sadie could still make it to church she would bring a little diary and pen with her each week and when she got talking to people before or after the service she would make notes about the things they had on that week so that she could pray for them purposefully from her home. It was her ministry.
Sadie and the others were prayer warriors. They prayed fervently for me growing up and for our church. But what about us? The stage of life I am in I couldn't possible devote the time that Sadie did to prayer and I hope that in our church God will raise up a group, in time, who can devote themselves as prayer warriors. However, we are called to set our lives to a pattern of prayer.
How? We need to set our lives, our days by a pattern of prayer. Perhaps starting the day in God's word and praying before we set off into the day. Perhaps setting visual reminders – perhaps your password in the office or a little alarm on your watch or phone. Maybe set the habit of praying every time you get on your bike or collect a trolley at the supermarket. Set a pattern of prayer in your life.
Paul says, verse 2, "Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it…" Or keep awake, as one translation puts it. That might be literally true for us. How often can you find yourself drifting off as you pray going to sleep or drifting into a daydream all too easily? I don't imagine I am the only one who, even at the prayer meeting, finds themselves distracted with my attention drifting. Paul says keep awake. How can we try to keep focus? Maybe a prayer diary, jotting down a few things we will pray for each day? Or praying through the Lord's prayer line by line adding in our own specific needs and prayers as we go.
Verse 2, "Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving." Be thankful. The more we recognise answering prayers the more thankful we can be. I have no doubt that those prayer warriors were spurred on in prayer because they daily thanked God for the answers they could see week by week.
Paul goes on, verse 3, "At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ…" This church did not have Paul's calling to be an apostle but they could be partners with him in his amazing mission. And how true for us with our partners. Partners with Ken, partners with the leaders of Kidz Zone or Fry-up. Partners with Joe and Sarah Potter in Mozambique, partners with Christ Church Midrand and the Nokuphila School.
Paul is writing this in jail. He didn't pray for release – an open door to his cell. No, his priority was the gospel. We can pray for the unimaginable – God is at work and he is about revival. So, we are partners in prayer.
2. Partners in Evangelism vv. 5-6
The Colossians share in Paul's great mission through prayer but also in their lives. Verse 5, "Walk in wisdom towards outsiders, making the best use of the time." Be wise, Paul says, because it is not easy to relate to the world. Paul is alluding to the reality that the world is heading in one direction and that the follower of Jesus has been turned around and they are going in another direction. Paul says we need to be wise!
And we need wisdom. We face two pitfalls when it comes to relating to the world outside the church. We could run the risk of withdrawing altogether but that isn't how the Bible tells us to live – we're supposed to be lights to the world! Some of us maybe need to readjust how we spend our time. The other danger is compromise. And because the pressure is on at work, and with friends we just drift along with them. Be wise, Paul says.
What does that mean? Paul doesn't tell us what to laugh at and when to speak or when to stay quiet. So what is living wisely in the office or at the office party? What about on the pitch or court. How do we respond to the dirty jokes in the lunch room? Well it is impossible to be prescriptive!
Let's do life together – talk to on another! We are partners in evangelism – we share this mission together and we can spur one another along and encourage, train and help each other. Do we withdraw or do we compromise? Be wise and make the most of every opportunity.
Dick Lucas in his commentary on Colossians says this, "while the apostle Paul looks for many opportunities for direct evangelism the typical Christian in Colossae (or Newcastle) is to look for responsive opportunities for evangelism."
Many of us need to listen and look for the opportunities that present themselves week by week. Most of us don't get moments handed to us on a plate. A few years ago there was a student at our partner church in Jesmond who arrived home from university and her housemates said something like, "Can we come to that Christianity Explored thing we saw on the banner outside your church?"
Now most of us do not see opportunities like that day by day. So we need to look carefully for the natural opportunities. Taking the opportunity with, "What did you do at the weekend?" and dropping in more when the person asks about church. If they are interested keep going, and if not hold off and wait (and pray!). Relate to people! Be interested in people – we need to be interested in them and not just looking for the opportunity. Paul goes on, verses 5-6:
"Walk in wisdom towards outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person."
Let your conversation be full of grace… Win the person, not the argument. Partners in Prayer, Partners in Evangelism.
3. Partners in Relationship vv.7-18
I can't delve into all of this for time's sake but notice how personal it is. Paul is in close partnership with so many people like – Tychicus, verse 7, and in verse 9 Onesimus who he has sent to Colossae. Verse 10, Aristarchus and Mark. Epaphras, verse 12. Eleven individuals mentioned by name. Paul was not the kind of leader who thinks he can do it alone and who doesn't need the names of these others. No. He is on a team. Too many churches are full of passive passengers. And thank God that is not the case here. We are partners!
Notice the variety of individuals. Luke, the doctor who wrote the gospel of Luke and Acts. Then there is Onesimus who was a runaway slave – he had run from Philemon. Both partners with Paul. It might be the case that we feel like our face does not fit here but it is not true. It is both for Luke, the learned doctor, and also for Onesimus the runaway slave.
Notice that Mark is here too. In the book of Acts Mark accompanied Paul on his first missionary journey but, for whatever reason, didn't stay the course so when Paul and Barnabas are setting out on the second missionary journey Barnabas wants to take his cousin Mark again and Paul says no. He's flaky. And Paul and Barnabas have a sharp falling out and go their separate ways. So isn't it special that Mark is here. Reconciled to Paul and serving alongside him over a decade later. Maybe you feel like you've failed or you've messed up and you couldn't possibly be a partner in the gospel. But here is Mark.
Notice the warmth. A dear friend, a dear brother. These people do not have a simply functional value, rather, he loves them! Christianity is about relationship. Right relationship with God and one another. But these false teachers who were creeping in were not about relationship. They were all about discipline, tradition, philosophy. We long for relationship, deep relationship! And that is what is on offer from Christ. When the Spirit of Christ comes into us we set off on a journey of transformation from us centred to outward focussed.
Partners in prayer, evangelism and relationship!