NOTE: What a thrill it is to have shared the writing of this sermon with my dear friend and mentor Rev. Dr. Tom Richard. We have talked about this for some time and we have finally decided to to it. Yes, two churches preaching one sermon. (One in Greenville, Michigan and the other in Sherman Oaks, CA.)
I met Tom at a conference in Madison, Wisconsin during my second year in seminary. We spent a good deal of time talking about his decision to step down as the executive director of our National Association. We also spent time talking about our respective calls to serve God in our new capacities. Three months later, we would reunite in Sherman Oaks, CA when he arrived with his wife LeeAnn, to become the interim minister at the church where I was interning.
For the next two years I gained an invaluable amount of wisdom working with and under him. He taught me the kind of stuff seminary wasn't adequately prepare to teach. We all might agree that education is great for filling one’s head with knowledge, but it is often through our close personal relationships that we discover the real wisdom of life.
This was true for the Apostle Paul. As a Pharisee, he was a smart man; a top notch scholar of Jewish scripture, history, and traditions. He was good at his job, and never strayed from following the law. Then something happened to him on the road to Damascus. He met Jesus. And his head and heart collided.
As the light of Christ blinded him, he began to see God’s will for him more clearly. This experience would send Paul on a radical, new life changing quest; one that would deepen his faith and his wisdom. His journey would take him to Colossae, an up and coming city situated in the Roman province of Asia Minor. (Today it is a part of Turkey.)
Most scholars agree that the letter to the Colossians is probably one of three letters the apostle wrote to churches while imprisoned in Rome. It was there Paul received reports that this fledgling Christian community was experiencing a threat from false teachings, which was no surprise...coming from a predominantly pagan environment. Paul realized because of this influence their heads and hearts seemed to be disconnected. He needed to intervene. He writes to them, making two affirmations: first, there is truth in the Gospel, and second...life in Christ is an invitation to a new way of living.
During our discussion, as we connect this passage to our own ways of life, Tom and I decided that the best title for this sermon had to be, “the longest trip is from the head to the heart.” And we’ll tell you why.
You see, the Colossians faced the age-old challenge: to make a wise decision.
This might not seem to such a big deal. We make decisions about every aspect of our lives: what to eat for breakfast, where to work, when to retire, when to have kids and how many, what doctors to see, which car to buy...the list goes on and on for our entire lives.
Sometimes our decisions are no brainers, but other times they require careful contemplation and prayer. We often weigh the pros and cons, always seeking the logical conclusion before make our choice. These kind of decisions are considered knowledge-based; we make them with our head.
But then there are those decisions we make based on our heart. Deciding to make a career change or marrying my beloved wife are just two examples from my own life. Because these kinds of decisions are made from the heart, they often come with various emotions attached to them; fear, anxiety, euphoria, and even a bit of insecurity to name a few. The old, “what if?” still pops up in my head from time to time.
Whether it is from the head or the heart at the end of the day, we are able to judge our decisions as either good ones or bad ones.
For example, my first marriage was a bad one. My second marriage, or what I like to refer to it as my last one, has been great so far (that journey is still going). In the first relationship, my head and heart were often at odds. The more they fought, the more distant and detached they became.
But with Kathleen it is different. Together we make a real connection, one where the head and heart walk together, hand in hand. Paul might say that knowing the difference between the head and the heart is the key to making a wise decision; and perhaps the key to true knowledge.
So, let’s first talk about the head…knowledge. From the book of Proverbs we read: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. Only fools despise wisdom and instruction.” A more precise translation from the ancient Hebrew text would state, “Being in awe of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.”
For anyone who has been awe-struck by God’s steadfast love and grace, you might agree that knowledge of God doesn’t always begin in the head, where its traditionally thought to begin. Instead the author of this proverb suggest...knowledge begins in the heart. This is a big distinction.
The Colossians, like so many in this era, were influenced by the Greek Hellenism of the day. Knowledge (gnosis) was held in the highest esteem. This is still true today. Likewise the ancient Greeks, we understand knowledge to be the information and skills acquired through either experience or education (or both). Thus, knowledge is thought of as beginning in the head.
I imagine it like a vertical line. Take for example, in school, the teacher passes his or her knowledge down to the student. For eons, society has put great faith in this method. But like me, Paul puts his faith Christ Jesus. It was the incarnate One who taught us that true faith must first reside in the heart. While knowledge is transferred through the vertical line, Christian faith must be shared horizontally. That is to say wisdom is relational, and not merely rational. It connects our head and heart to the head and heart of others.
For Paul the vertical line is meaningless without the horizontal (draw it). Notice the shape it makes. Through the self-giving, cruciform love of Christ we get our first taste of understanding who God is...in relationship to humanity...and how to do the will of God towards every human being.
Paul admonishes the Christian community in Colossae. He knows they have been instructed in the way of faith and they should not be swayed by false teachings, false teachers, worthless instructions and rules held by those around them. And yet they can’t help themselves. I can understand why.
We are really no different today. Even the best Christians disconnect their heads and hearts from time to time. With so much information at our disposal, we are easily tricked into having faith in our own wisdom, instead of living in the mystery of God’s wisdom. We often believe we can go at it alone. Thus we tend to follow our own will...instead of God’s will.
During the Great Awakening Jonathan Edwards once wrote: "Knowledge is the key that first opens the hard heart,Enlarges the affections, and opens the way for men (and women) into the kingdom of heaven."
It sounds very similar to Paul’s words: “We have not ceased praying for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.
Paul prays without ceasing because he knows this journey, this eighteen inch journey is one that every religious person must take. He knows this is a slow, and daily process. It is one that is constantly transforming us. As we build up this (head) we begin to strengthen this (heart). Of course this works the opposite way too.
Christ warns us, as we walk down this path, as we take this journey from here to here, the way is narrow and the gate is small; the world will put out stumbling blocks to make the journey difficult...but it's not impossible.
And so...at the end of the day...it comes down to making a decision.
We can either follow Christ’s way, or not. We can walk in a manner that is worthy of God’s unconditional love for us, bearing good fruit by loving others. Or we can stumble through the darkness alone, trying to make sense of a life that has no real meaning or depth. We can follow our own path, or we can follow God’s path that leads us to the Kingdom of Heaven.
The Pharisees (including the Apostle Paul) thought they were walking the right path. They had memorized verbatim God’s words and laws, even made them a part of their own life journey. But Jesus was quick to point out to them that no matter how much they understood up here (head)...they still didn’t get it here (heart); their knowledge only went one way. They had forgotten how to live out God's will in relationship with others. Jesus reminds us all that we can know the law by heart without knowing the heart of it.
Leo Tolstoy gives us this analogy: He says, a person who professes wisdom only is like someone standing in the light of a lantern fixed to a post. There is light all around him, but there is nowhere further for him to walk without being left in the dark. However, he adds, a person who professes the teachings of Christ is like a man carrying a lantern before him on a pole: the light is in front of him, always lighting up fresh ground, it is always encouraging him to walk further.
To Tolstoy's point, we can argue that both lights provide enlightenment, but only one has the true power to increase it.
During our discussion Tom relayed a story about something that happened at their last Church Council meeting. He said, before they got down to business, the moderator pulled out a candle from a paper bag. He began to tell the group what he heard at a bible study class. It was a story about a sister Congregational church who started all of their board meetings by placing a candle in the center of the table; lighting it as the acolytes do when bringing the light of Christ into worship every Sunday.
Like Paul before him, this moderator was insistent that all of the church's decisions made that night, would be made with Christ in the center. What a simple yet profound reminder for us all.
Even if all we do, or every decision we make, is nothing more than a lot of “head” work, everything must begin from our "heart," in the presence of Christ, whose Spirit is represented by the flickering light, both inside and outside and all around us. I invite you to follow that light and live out the love of God in all that you do.
To know Christ is just the beginning of true wisdom. As followers of Christ we are called to fill our head with the wisdom of “heart work.” We are called to walk as Christ walked, to be self-giving and all loving...even when society tells us otherwise. At times it can be difficult, and even seem impossible and never ending. But at the end of the day, our choosing to live in...and to follow the cruciform love of Christ is and will always be...the smartest decision we could ever make.