The Gospel According to Epaphras a sermon on Colossians 1:1-6
Rev. Joe Cailles, pastor Trinity United Methodist Church
Sunday, July 13, 2019, The Fourth Sunday after Trinity Sunday

Colossians 1:1-6

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,

To the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father.

In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel that has come to you. Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God.
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Near the end the prior school year the Waddell Elementary school PTA asked for volunteer families to work over the summer to keep the school garden weeded and watered. At the the start of the month, my sons and I took our turn working in the school gardens. No one family needed to tend the garden for the entire summer; we’d each do our bit for the week and let the next family add their time and talent. Kim was working during our weeding and watering day, so the boys and I took the job. I am not a natural gardener. When my dad used me to help in his garden as I was growing up I either over-watered or under-watered and required clear direction and supervision. Not much has changed. Thanks be to God, the garden at Waddell is perfectly planned out, the plants are clearly labeled, and our instructions were direct. Water this amount here and here and here. Weed these areas. We were also invited to harvest any of the lettuces if they were ready, so that we could enjoy the fruits and veggie of our labors.
Our passage today mentions fruits and growing a couple of times. The good harvest for the church in Colossae is not summer squash and garden tomatoes but faith and love and hope. That’s what God is growing in Colossae back then, and as we tend to the garden in our souls and what God is growing in our congregation, faith and love and hope are what we aim to harvest.
Paul is writing this letter to a new congregation in an old town. The city of Colossae would be in modern day Turkey, and by Paul’s time, Colossae’s best days are long behind it. The Christian faith, though, is still new enough, that like me in the garden, the young Christians there are not quite sure what in their faith is weedy and needs to be pulled and what is worthwhile and needs to be tended in their souls and in the community. Paul’s letter to them is meant as friendly and loving encouragement. While we here at Trinity in Lexington are certainly neither the oldest town in Virginia with our best days behind us, and nor are we a young congregation, but we are still are like the Christian Colossians because we have to do the hard work of discerning what in our lives are weeds to be pulled and and what are the sacred and necessary life giving fruits essential to our spiritual well-being.
Paul has high compliments for the first master Gardner and planter of the faith, in Colossae a man named Epaphras. You could very well have been coming to church your entire life and not have recognized his name. We today know just two things about him, both from this passage: Paul write that all the Christians in the city know Christ because, as he writes, “you have learned from Epaphras our beloved fellow servant, a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf, who has made known your love in the Spirit.” Epaphras planted the Christians faith in the city and helped nurture its first growth. Was he still alive when Paul wrote? Was he still with the Colossians? We don’t know. But by the time Paul is writing, the young church is doing well. The good spiritual fruit they are enjoying is what we read aloud together. Paul writes that, just as faith, love and hope are bearing fruit and growing in the world, so faith, love, and hope have been bearing fruit among yourselves. Faith in Christ. Love for each other. Hope laid in heaven. Faith, hope, and love. Epaphras first planted the seeds, and now faith and love and hope are emerging.
And those three, faith, love, and hope still provides us today with a way to measure our well-being. How do we know if we’re following the will of God and acting appropriately as disciples of Jesus? We do well when we see in our lives, and in our congregation and the in world around us: faith in Christ, love for each other and hope laid up in heaven.
Paul writes that our faith in Christ is fostered from two sources. He writes first, “In my prayers for you I am thanking God for you” for your faith and love and hope. And they got there, because they learned and comprehended what Epaphras taught them. Prayers and knowledge lead to deeper faith. The good soil of prayers and the refreshing waters of knowledge make our faith grow.
Here at Trinity our Sunday school classes are all on summer recess now. Even the pre-school kids are gone for the summer months. It makes the church building very quiet during the weekdays. I have learned that the gardens soil does need to rest for a season, and our teachers deserve a proper break. But the academic year will start soon enough and, I am looking forward to our learning time together when our knowledge can grow. Over the coming academic year, the Faith Explorers class, the Sunday school class which meets downstairs in the fellowship hall, will be looking at the variety of ways Christians interpret scripture. We’ll look at how United Methodists understand baptism. During Advent and Christmas, we will look at the story of the Nutcracker as a parable of our Christian faith. The Monday morning Bible and prayer group will resume in August, and our about-to-be 7th graders will begin their confirmation studies in September. Knowledge was essential for the Colossians and is essential for us and our spiritual well-being.
Though our classes are on summer break now, I hope that our prayers are not taking a summer break. Like Paul, I hope we are giving thanks to God all of our days. We do so certainly in Sunday worship, speaking to God of our joys and our needs. There is lots of room for silence in our prayers too. All of our prayers together have times of silence. That’s intentional. Part of the silence is for each of us to speak to our Creator about our individual joys and concerns directly. But I am more and more convinced that the silences in prayer are for us to listen to God. In the silence we listen for God’s word which is growing in each of us. What messages and insights from the scriptures and hymns and the sermon are staying with us and echoing in our minds? Knowledge and prayer are the soil and water of our faith in Jesus Christ. To grow in knowledge of our scriptures and of our traditions and to be speaking and listening to God in prayer makes us stronger in the faith and makes us a growing, vibrant church.
Faith grows in a good church. Love blossoms in a Godly church. Professionally, I have been part of many, many United Methodist congregation over the past 20 years. Many had strong traditions in excellent worship and excellent music. Some congregations had passion for social justice and providing spirit and material relief to those in need. One congregation in the orchards of Frederick county produced quarts and quarts of most excellent apple butter which they sold to fund scout stuff and church ministries. It was really, really good apple butter, and for that congregation, apple butter season was right up there with Advent, and Christmas, and Easter.
Trinity folks love each other. Trinity folks love and care for each other and we take delight in each other. That was obvious to me and my family from the start. We laugh together. We mourn together. We look out for each other, and we show up when and where we’re needed. That’s love, and it’s not just we love our own and only look our for us. We don’t want the best of Trinity to be contained inside of Trinity. At our best when the love of God shines down us, we let that love reflect off of us out into the world. At out best! We don’t always get loving one another right. Not everyone feels love and respected here all the time. Some folks who aren’t feeling connected kind of drift away. Some say right out that they are leaving and here are the reasons why. I am always thankful for folks who seek me out, for those who seek each other out and say, I’m not feeling it now. God bless those of us who care enough about us and about Trinity to offer a chance to reconcile and make amends with each other.
It’s challenging too to navigate love and respect with each other when we’re living in a time so divided by politics and by those with money and power and influence and those with out. We’re divide by nationality and ethnicity. It’s such a challenge for Christians to love each other and to be a loving community when our values seem so at odds. Can progressives Christians and conservatives Christians really love each other when we disagree about so much? The world outside would say no; we’re too far apart, but the best gift that Trinity can offer our world now is our witness of how God’s love for us and our live for each other unites us, and we figure out together how to let love be more and more fruitful.
Faith and Love were the fruits of the Christians in Colossae and they’re the fruits growing here at Trinity. Finally, Paul writes that hope laid up in heaven makes for a strong Christian and a strong congregation. Hope laid up in heaven. That’s not just meant to be our heavenly reward that we hope we receive when we die. Hope fuels our lives in the hear and now.
The news around us seems to be filled with crises. Multiple crises. Floods and fires plague us. Our southern border has refugees in need of basic necessities.  There are folks in our community here with significant needs, emotionally spiritually, and financially. Tensions separate police and their communities. Nations rattle their sabers and threaten one another. Climate change looms over us, and in our own souls we long for relief and meaning and a way forward. The Christians in Colossae had different crises to deal with, but our human condition remains the same. Paul recognizes that the Colossians nurtured hope. They let it grow. Despite living in a dead-end city and following a faith few understood, the Colossians had hope. We will too. Not because we are cleverer or more knowledgeable but because like them, our hope is not in ourselves, or our governments or our economy. Our hope is in Christ, who face the worst of humanity, and rather than condemn us outright, Christ embraces us, dies for us and brings us into new life here and now. Each time we let our knowledge of Christ grow, and each time we speak and listen to the Spirit of Christ in prayer, then our faith grows and our hope for ourselves and our world also grows. Each time we let Christ lead us along through the challenges of love, when the world recommends rejection and division, then hope shines through.
For a couple of days after our work in the elementary school garden, my legs were sore from the bending, and I had forgotten the bug spray so I had many, many bug bites. IT was a challenge and my family, and I could have skipped out and gone to the pool or chosen to do something easier. Growing faith and love and hope are not easy. But the good news, the gospel which Epaphras knew and shared is that faith in Christ and love of another and hope anchored in heaven but manifest here and now are the only ways to truly live and grown and thrive. Thanks be to God!