On Saturday I (along with Peter, Alison and Anna who were doing the children’s work) had an enjoyable time with Marston Neighbourhood Church on their away day. MNC is a church that was planted from Woody Road almost nine years ago. It was great to be able to see some old friends again as well as meet those who have joined the church more recently.
I was really pleased that they had asked me to speak (partly at my suggestion!) on the theme of our union with Jesus. If I have a theological hobby horse then this is probably it- though others may suspect that I have more than one! I explored the theme principally by expounding Colossians 2 and 3 (a re-worked and hopefully improved version of the material here)
I started by describing an experiment that I conducted with a couple of groups a few years ago. I asked some Christian students and then Christian teenagers to explain what it means to live as a Christian. They gave good answers- talking about the importance of prayer, Bible reading, church fellowship, witnessing, holiness and so on. What struck me though was that Jesus’ name was not mentioned once. Had I asked them to explain how somebody became a Christian I am sure they would have mentioned Jesus’ death on the cross and, hopefully, his resurrection. But when it came to living as a Christian Jesus went missing.
Obviously they were young- but my suspicion is that their thinking is not uncommon more widely. We become Christians by trusting in Jesus’ death and resurrection and then we live as Christians by doing various beneficial activities- that’s how the thinking goes. Or putting it another way- I try my best down here to live for Jesus who is up there. Or I try to live for Jesus and keep failing and need to go back to the cross for forgiveness.
There’s some truth is elements of that. But there are major problems- it significantly underplays the relationship with Jesus that I have now and leaves me powerless to change. It also misses out so much of the New Testament- leaving the Christian life as simply a case of going round and round Romans 1-3 (I sin…I need the cross…I am forgiven…I sin…I need the cross…etc). Again- that is true to a certain extent but it fails to embrace the theme of change that you see so clearly from Romans 6 onwards.
Paul would not understand a Christian life that doesn’t have our vital union with Jesus at the centre. Just consider some of the expressions you find in Colossians 1-3:
Christ in you the hope of glory
Rooted in Christ
You have fulness in Christ
You have been buried with Christ
You have been made alive with Christ
You died with Christ
You are hidden with Christ
Christ is your life.
(One theological observation would be that Paul doesn’t mention the Spirit’s work in Colossians. I suspect this is because Paul’s particular concern was that Christ might be pushed from the centre in Colosse. Of course it is the Spirit’s work that unites us to Jesus in the manner mentioned).
You see the point Paul is making. Christ is in us, we are in Christ and we are with Christ. It is like the baby in the womb- two lives locked together. That is how I should think about myself now. I have freedom, fulness and forgiveness in Jesus. How would I describe the Christian life? It is living out our union with Jesus. It is not about keeping the law, having superspiritual experiences or keeping a set of rules- see 2:16-23.
That is wonderful news because it means that there is the capacity to change. Of course we struggle at times in our Christian lives. But when I do I need to believe the truth. It is not just me with all my weaknesses and failings trying to live a new life. No- I am united with Christ, raised with him and hidden with him. He lives in me: it is always him and me together. When I believe that then there is a huge power to live differently.
One man who knew that was Hudson Taylor- the pioneer missionary to China. At one point during his time overseas he faced a period of dryness and struggle in his Christian life. He recorded in his journal how he came through it:
“The Spirit of God revealed the truth of our oneness with Jesus as I had never known it before. Think of it- can Christ be rich and I poor?”
It is a wonderful question that sums up the difference that union with Jesus makes in a nutshell. I am joined to Jesus who has all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. That’s the reality that I need to grasp in order to live a new life. Hudson Taylor passed on this advice to Emily Blatchley who was encouraging support for China Inland Mission back at home:
“In all your intercourse with friends of the Mission, seek to deepen their realisation of the value of Christ, and our union with Him.”
Maybe I am biased but I don’t think this is a bad hobby horse…