by Daniel Harrell
We’ve dealt with a lot of doors so far this season, from narrow doors in the gospels through moldy doors in Leviticus. Only this morning do we finally come upon the first explicitly open one—or better—the first one somebody prays will open. Here in Colossians, Paul asks God to open a door, which given his circumstances, you might think would be the door to his prison cell. But instead, Paul asks prayers that “God will open to us a door for the word,” by which he means the door of human hearts, “that we may declare the mystery of Christ,” the life-giving grace of the gospel. Heart doors are stubborn doors to open: rusted by time and memory, closets to inner demons we’d rather not address. God never forces us open; Jesus politely stands at the door and knocks. The rust and reluctance remain ours to overcome.
Circumstances help. There are times in life that open us up to God. Some are welcome times: a new relationship or marriage, a new baby, a second chance, a new job or new season of life. But more what opens us up has already knocked us down: a lost job, the onset of disease, tragedy, brokenness, danger and desperation. For Paul, confined by chains, he knew prison to be a desperate place—which he embraced as an opportunity for the gospel. For those of you actively engaged in the prison ministries of our church, you know Paul to be right. A friend from Chicago, Lillian Daniel, tells about a seminary class she taught to inmates at Sing Sing, that famed New York “big house” whose riverfront location inspired the phrase, “sent up the river.” Her students were exceedingly diligent, attentive and eager in ways that she rarely experienced outside of prison. Still, with Sing Sing being a maximum security penitentiary, she knew there were a limited number of violent crimes that landed men there. Her imagination filled in the blanks. She’d try to shrug it off, but being the only woman in the room, she admits that her shrugs were really shakes. She was scared to be there.
Fear frequently shows up alongside the gospel. It’s a common forerunner to faith. Fear showed up at Jesus’ birth and alongside just about every miracle. The crucifixion brought fear, as did the resurrection and Pentecost. Hearing Jesus narrate the end of time and his return is enough to give even the most pious among us nightmares. The apostle Paul had his own scary encounter with Christ. A self-righteous Pharisee at the time, Paul felt he had God all figured out. But on the way to Damascus one day, the risen Jesus knocked Paul off his high horse. Whatever righteousness he would know was only his by grace. It is God alone who makes righteous, and he does so in most mysterious fashion. Mystery is a Greek word meaning hidden. The mystery of Christ is therefore revelation, and a startling revelation at that: God redeemed his people from sin and saved the planet through scandal and humiliation, imprisonment and execution and death. What looked like unrighteousness turned out to be God’s righteousness; the way of the cross is the way to life. Nobody would have figured that out.
In Roman times, crucifixion was reserved for criminals. To pledge allegiance to Jesus therefore made you an accomplice to crime. To preach Christ as Lord rather than Caesar made you a traitor. This is how Paul landed in prison—where he kept preaching to a very captive audience. At Sing Sing, my friend, Lillian, found herself in conversations with prisoners she could never have on the outside. She wrote how, “on the outside we can always pick up our conversations later, so excuse me while I take this call, or half listen while I check my email, or order my coffee, or any of the million ways we distract ourselves with the things of the world, ignoring others in the process.” Outside conversations are different and challenging. This is why Paul instructs the Colossians to “conduct yourselves wisely” and “let your speech always be gracious.”
Admittedly, by outsider Paul mostly means those outside the faith whose hearts are shut to the gospel. To them, wise conduct guards against the scandalous gossip or skeptical criticism Christians regularly endure. To those whose hearts are open, wise conduct is a witness. Christian witness is to be gracious speech, no one has ever been berated into heaven, but witness is first situated in the concrete deeds Christians do to, with and for other people. Paul earlier prayed for the Colossians to be “filled with all spiritual wisdom so as to lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work.” Salvation’s first goal is a wisely lived life on earth that looks like it will in heaven. That we Christians so often miserably fail at living wisely causes many to question God’s wisdom in using people to draw outsiders in. But the gospel is about Jesus saving sinners. Christians are are called to be virtuous and compassionate, but we are also called to be examples of grace—screw ups who fall down and get up due to God’s mercy. When we fail we get to show what repentance and resurrection look like. A good witness is not flawless but faithful. Therefore, “make the most of the time,” Paul writes, or as other translations put it, “make the most of every opportunity” for the gospel, the failures and the successes, the strikeouts and the home runs.
Speaking of baseball—I probably should make the most of this opportunity to say something about the Red Sox winning the World Series. Not meaning to rub it in, I should especially say something about former Minnesota Twin David Ortiz, Big Papi to us Boston fans. If you watched the World Series, you watched Big Papi produce historic numbers for a major league hitter. Afterwards, holding aloft his MVP trophy and keys to a new Chevrolet Silverado, when asked to say something, Ortiz, making the most of his opportunity, replied, “I just want to thank God for making all of this possible,” much to the consternation of Christianity’s skeptics and Cardinals fans who wondered why God was not on their side (I can explain this to any Cardinal fans after the service). Papi’s praise actually had less to do with whether the Lord is a Red Sox fan and more to do with the undeniable comfort and encouragement baseball brought to the city’s collective crisis in the aftermath of April’s Marathon bombing. At yesterday’s victory parade, Ortiz jogged the last leg of the marathon, where the team stopped and laid the World Series trophy at the finish line in tribute.
“Conduct yourselves wisely… and let your speech always be gracious and seasoned with salt,” Paul writes. Mentioning salt is a throwback to Jesus telling his followers to be the salt of the earth and light for the world. “Know how you ought to answer everyone,” Paul says, the assumption being that if you live your faith visibly people will want to know why. There will be curiosity as well as suspicion. As a professional Christian, I have had countless rounds of explaining how it is anyone could possibly believe some of the crazy things Christianity teaches. Living wisely will make you look silly sometimes. Gladly, “knowing how to answer everyone” does not mean you have to know everything. We still walk by faith. Making most of the time cannot mean waiting until you have everything figured out because you can’t figure out mystery—you can only believe it.
Therefore, returning to the beginning of this morning’s passage, Paul writes, “Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with thanksgiving.” Faith needs prayer. Faith needs thanksgiving too. This is the fifth time Paul mentions thanksgiving in Colossians. We instinctively pray for help in our crises, but often forget so say thank you afterward. Gratitude is important because it prevents us from being selfishly absorbed by our troubles. Gratitude keeps us alert, on the lookout for grace, remembering that grace always shows up in mysterious places. Being thankful enables us to accept answers to prayers that may not be what we want, even though it is what we need. So much of the frustration and discontentment we feel in life could be eliminated by simply being more thankful.
Some years ago I sat down to dinner as guests of a family and bowed my head in silent thanks before we ate. The daughter, a little girl, asked why I didn’t say my thanks out loud. I assured that I could be very thankful without actual words, and that besides, God knows my heart (which isn’t always as comforting as it sounds). The little girl didn’t buy it. Her childlike faith on full display, she replied, “It doesn’t count if you don’t say it.” And she had a point. Being thankful is one thing, saying it is another. I can rationalize that my wife and friends know how I’m grateful, but hearing me say it makes them happy. And if I’d do it more, it would make me happy too. So much of the frustration and discontentment we feel in life could be eliminated by simply being more thankful.
A recent University of Rhode Island study backs me up on this. Researchers subjected a group of students to various exercises for the purpose of increasing their happiness. One of these was called “the gratitude visit.” Participants were given one week to write and then deliver a letter of gratitude in person to someone who had been especially kind to them but had never been properly thanked. Take a look:
If saying thank you is so meaningful for people, how much more meaningful when it comes to God. Coming to the communion table in 1 Corinthians, Paul describes the communion cup as “the cup of thanksgiving.” So let us make a gratitude visit to God, here at the table.