Communion Service – association with and participation in Christ
- Colossians 2:13-3:4
First, an illustration. Heila and I visited a very interesting shop not so long ago during a visit to the Blue Mountains in NSW. This particular shop is home to the largest collection of teapots in the world. On shelves about pelmet height, are displayed more than 4,000 teapots. But that’s not all: apart from this very extensive collection of teapots, you can find every conceivable piece of glassware. Wherever to put your foot down or swing your arm or point your finger at, you bump into precious glassware. Don’t go there with grandchildren; if you have to use a walking stick, stay away!
Now the question, how can the owners assure that they conduct a profitable business? One possible answer to this intriguing question possibly lies in the notice at the entrance of this shop. It says You brake it, you pay for it. Entering into the shop, accepting this condition, makes you a partner of the business for the duration of the visit, sharing in the risk of running it.
The operative words here are association and participation. This takes us back to Colossians 2:11-15. I will try to explain this fairly complex paragraph in the word of God by breaking it up in little bits.
Old Testament Covenant
The background of the verses 11-14 is the Biblical doctrine of God’s Covenant with his people. God called Israel, which is the Church in Old Testament times, to be his people. He made an agreement with them in which He was the principle partner, and they the minor partners. Because God is the only God who could save, provide, protect and assure safety, He by grace took Israel to be his people. He placed upon them obligations stipulated in His covenant, requiring of them to live holy lives as people of God.
He also gave them signs as a seal of this covenant: all male children had to be circumcised. This circumcision was ultimately a circumcision of the heart, something not done by hands but by the Holy Spirit of God. This sign was a sign of God’s grace, but by this sign they would be set apart from the rest of the nations as God’s holy nation. They had to turn from their evil practices, not live as the nations around them and worship God only as He commanded them. The term we may use for their sanctification within this context is the term we find in our verse of Col 2:11 – they had to put to death their sinful nature.
In Leviticus 19:2 God commanded Moses to speak to the people: “Say to them: ‘You shall be holy, for I the Lord you God am holy.’” They had to revere their parents, keep the Sabbaths, turn away from idols, serve God only and bring sacrifices to them in the prescribed way, love their neighbours, not steal, not cheat, do honest work, etc. And about every time God gives them the command, He adds to it: “I am the Lord your God.” Why? Well, He saved them and made a covenant with them. That’s why. He owns them and the stipulations of his covenant demanded it.
The sign of circumcision (as an Old Testament sacrament) was accompanied by sacrifices. All sacrifices had their fulfilment in the Passover Lamb (the other Old Testament sacrament). The sacrifices they were to bring to the Lord assured that they could enjoy communion with Him because of their sins being forgiven. They did not die for their sins, but the animals did. Their participation in the act of sacrifice and their association with the blood of the animal brought to them forgiveness.
New Testament Covenant
Let’s go back to Colossians. God extended his covenant of mercy to all nations through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. People from all tribes and tongues and nations now become members of the household of God. How? The same way as the people of the Old Testament: by grace, by covenant and through sacrifice. The sacrifice of Jesus Christ is like the animals killed for their salvation. His death and resurrection now is just enormously more and ultimately more perfect than animal sacrifice.
God also gives to his New Covenant people a sign of his covenant. It is the same circumcision not done by hands; it remains the mysterious and gracious work of the Holy Spirit. He gives them a circumcision of the heart, here called the circumcision of Christ.
Now we need to take it step by step to understand the argument of the apostle Paul. The people did not die and pay the price of sin; but by association and participation in the death and blood of the sacrificial animal God granted them forgiveness. The same now applies for the New Covenant people. We don’t die or pay the price for our sins, but by faith we associate with and participate in the death of Jesus Christ. So, when He died on the cross, we died. When He was buried, we were buried. When He rose again, we rose. Now, and this is a very legitimate question, how do I know it is for sure? God gave us signs as a seal and guarantee like He gave to the people of the Old Testament. To them He gave the sign of circumcision, to us He gives us the circumcision of Christ’s complete righteousness and baptism is the new sign of the very same covenant of grace. When we are baptised, all Jesus Christ did to meet the righteousness of God, by faith became ours. Baptism is the sign that Jesus Christ is the One who died and was raised again in my place so I can become part of God’s family. By faith I participate in his death. As God worked in Jesus Christ to raise Him from the dead, so we are raised with Him through the eternal power of God. By faith I participate in his resurrection. We only need the sign that associates us with Him and assures us of our participation in his redemption. The rest is God’s act of mercy and grace. Listen:
When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. (Colossians 2:13-14)
The Passover Lamb was nailed to the cross of Calvary to take away our sins. He cancelled the written code, always reminding us of our unrighteousness having all our trespasses written in and He nailed it to the cross. This is what we remember and celebrate at the Lord’s Table.
There on the cross Jesus Christ also triumphed over all powers to that they may never have a claim over our lives (verse 15). Paul states it like this in his letter to Timothy:
“… our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. (2 Timothy 1:10)
The author of Hebrews underscores this by saying
“Since the children have flesh and blood, He [Christ] too shared in their humanity so that by His death He might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14)
Two signs in the Old Testament and two signs in the New Testament, pointing to the same act of grace from God in two different dispensations. Circumcision is replaced by baptism; the sacrificial system replaced by the cross of Jesus as we remember it at the Lord’s Table. In both these cases the principle to have part in salvation applies: by faith we associate with Him; by faith we participate in his victory over sin and death. This is the amazing, remarkable and incredible fact of the grace of God.
One with Christ in holy living
Now, just as circumcision did not save God’s Church in the Old Testament, so baptism does not save the people of God’s Church in the New Testament. It was a sign of God’s grace; it is not grace itself. Through Christ God’s people become members of his body, and we are called to live holy lives, dedicated to God. We need to put to death our earthly nature.
This then takes us to chapter 3 where Paul resumes the argument:
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. (Colossians 3:1,3)
Here the principle of association with and participation in comes in again. The Sacraments bind us to Christ. This assures our participation in his death and resurrection, but it calls for our association with Him in setting our hearts on things above where He is, because our lives are hidden in Him. This is essentially the same as what Paul says in Rom 12:2:
Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:2)
He also stresses the same point in Rom 8:
Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him. In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. (Romans 6:8, 11-13)
Let’s for one moment get back to where we started. Remember the glassware shop and the notice You brake it, you pay for it? We pointed out to the principle of association with and participation in. Going into that shop poses a risk: I might enjoy what I see, but I might walk away from it a lot poorer than I walked into it.
It is so much different when I walk into God’s grace. First of all, I enter into his grace by his invitation, not by my decision. Secondly, my broken life and the rest of God’s creation that I effected so badly because of my sinfulness do not have a notice You brake, you pay for it on it. The wonder of God’s grace is that, although I am truly responsible, and therefore accountable to God, someone else paid to make it whole and repair what I broke. Jesus Christ is that one. By faith what He did becomes mine. Faith gives what belongs to Him to me. I associate with Him and participate in Him. That’s grace!
Two or three years before the death of John Newton, well-known minister of the Word in the 18th Century and author of the beloved hymn Amazing Grace, when his sight was so dim that he was no longer able to read, a friend and brother in the ministry called to have breakfast with him. Their custom was to read the Word of God following mealtime, after which Newton would make a few short remarks on the Biblical passage, and then they prayed. On a specific day, however, there was silence after the words of Scripture “by the grace of God I am what I am” were read.
Finally, after several minutes, Newton spoke,
“I am not what I ought to be! How imperfect and deficient I am! I am not what I wish to be, although I abhor that which is evil and would cleave to what is good! I am not what I hope to be, but soon I shall be out of mortality, and with it all sin and imperfection. Though I am not what I ought to be, nor what I wish to be, nor yet what I hope to be, I can truly say I am not what I once was: a slave to sin and Satan. I can heartily join with the apostle and acknowledge that by the grace of God I am what I am!”
Then, after a pause, he said. “Now let us pray!”
Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 7 December 2014 (Communion Service)