Summary: Faith directs us to glorify God, to serve others and to build ourselves spiritually - all at the same time.
Sometimes, when I watch sports at home, Hannah will sit down beside me and watch the game with me for a few minutes. Eventually she'll ask who's playing and who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. Then she'll say something to the effect of “whoever wins – I like!” Now, in the context of the sports I usually watch on TV “whoever wins – I like!” usually means she's rooting for whoever the Toronto Maple Leafs happen to be playing on any given night! So one night she's rooting for the Montreal Canadiens, one night for the New York Rangers and – even worse – one night for the Ottawa Senators! I, on the other hand, value consistency and stick with my favourite team through thick and thin – and it gets thicker and thinner all the time, let me tell you! In our society, consistency is usually a valued commodity. Usually if we speak of something or someone going off in different directions at the same time, it's not a positive comment – in general it's a criticism. It reeks of trying to be all things to all people – not in the constructive biblical sense of being in solidarity with whoever you happen to be sharing the good news with, but in the negative sense of either not being willing to take a stand or of taking different stands with different audiences to curry favour. If a political party, for example, makes one promise in Quebec and a completely contradictory promise in Alberta then they're going in two different directions at the same time and pandering for votes rather than standing for principles – and we don't respect them for it. One area, though, where it's possible to constructively move in different directions at the same time is in the life of faith. Faith impacts us in a variety of ways and guides us in a number of directions all at the same time, and the impact of that always moving faith then establishes for us the conviction that we are the beloved children of God. In this morning's reading, after he gave thanks to God for the faith of the Christians in Colossae, Paul mentioned these different directions faith takes in the lives of God's people.
First, faith is directed upward. ... we have heard of your faith in Jesus Christ ... Paul wrote. The Colossians were apparently a people of deep and abiding faith in Jesus Christ. If it weren't so, Paul would hardly have mentioned it. We need to get into Paul's mind as he wrote those words. What did he mean when he commended the Christians of Colossae for their faith? In our 21st century pluralistic world, we've somewhat lost the significance of the word “faith” - if only because we understand it pluralistically. “Faith” for us in the modern world has become merely any expression of religious belief (Christian or non-Christian) or it's become adherence to a set of doctrines – dogma without any necessary transformative power. Paul understood faith as something very different. For Paul, “faith” inevitably meant faith in Jesus Christ. Paul understood the concept of pluralism. He understood Judaism, and he worked among Greek pagans (and he showed respect to both) but when he spoke of faith he meant not adherence to a religion (and not even adherence to the church) but rather a living and vibrant relationship with Jesus Christ. This was faith for Paul. Faith was directed upward in the direction of the God Who chose to be revealed in Jesus Christ. Faith can't be separated from Jesus Christ, because Jesus Christ can't be separated from God. Jesus Christ was the Saviour sent by God to reconcile all people to God (Jews, pagans and Christians alike – because they all needed salvation), just as Jesus Christ is still the Saviour today sent by God to reconcile all people to God (Jews and Moslems and Hindus and Buddhists and Christians alike – because we all need salvation.) Faith has a naturally upward orientation because faith pushes us to see and to know that which is beyond us.
Paul also wrote ... we have heard of ... the love you have for all the saints ... Here is where we start to see that faith moves us in different directions. If faith directs us upward to Jesus Christ, then faith also directs us outward to others. I might put it this way: one cannot love the God Who loved the world so much that He sent Jesus Christ unless one also loves the world into which God sent Jesus Christ. A faith directed upward to Jesus Christ must also be directed outward to those whom Jesus Christ loves, just as the love Jesus Christ has for us is also directed indiscriminately outward to others. Understanding that faith directs us both outward and upward is the best way for us to avoid that trap that so many speak of – and that is all too often so true – of becoming so heavenly-minded that we're of no earthly use. Devotion to God isn't fully expressed unless it's also shown in devotion both to God's world and to God's people. We might think here of the famous words of the letter of James - faith without [works] is dead. As James put it in another part of his letter, What good is it ... if [someone] claims to have faith but has no [works]? ... Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. A faith that's directed upward but not outward is just such a dead faith. “Upward and Outward” might be a pretty good motto for Christians to adopt actually, because it expresses the two ways faith is revealed. I recently read an article which compared Protestant mission work in 1910 with Protestant mission work in 2010. The author noted that in 1910, Protestant missionaries tended to share the gospel without doing the works. The goal was simply to spread Christianity “to every corner of the world” until “every ear had heard the good news of salvation,” while in 2010, Protestant missionaries tend to do the works without sharing the gospel. In fact the article notes that 82% of today's Christian mission trips go to the most Christian third of the world – “missionaries” have become (in the author's words) “vacationaries” - who join “mission trips of two weeks or less and [serve] in locales where Christianity already predominates ... [their purpose] being to battle the ills of poverty” - which is a laudable goal but requires no particular witness to God. A properly balanced Christian faith pushes the person of Christian faith both upward and outward at the same time – glorifying God while serving others. And, so that we don't make this too simple – there's even a third direction in which faith pushes us.