October 2, 2005

Why We Need Each Other: Instruction
Colossians 3:1-17

The name Krista McAuliffe is no doubt familiar to many of you. She was the former Social Studies teacher in Concord, New Hampshire who lost her life when the space shuttle exploded on January 28, 1986. Far more than her tragic death, however, remains etched in the minds of countless people across the country and even the world. An energetic and charismatic woman who was literally adored by her students, McAuliffe is remembered by many for her life’s motto: “I touch the future,” she often said. “I teach.”

In Colossians 3:16, the Apostle Paul speaks also of teaching: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom;…” What is striking in this passage is the fact that Paul is not here listing various specific roles within the church as he does, for example, in both 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4. In those cases, Paul includes teachers among other specifically gifted people in the church—prophets, evangelists, and so on. God gives certain “teachers” to the church in order to build up the body, and I am thankful that we here at the Grantham Church have no shortage of such people.

In Colossians 3, however, Paul does not isolate specifically gifted individuals, but instead speak of the community as a whole. The church, Paul believes, is a pedagogical community. The church consists of a wide range of people who teach and admonish one another. Without dismissing the importance of “teachers,” Paul here suggests that all of us in the church are called by God to teach. And why is it so important that we carry out this role? Because we need—I need—the instruction that everyone else in this congregation can provide.

Paul’s imperative to teach is, as is typical of Paul’s thought, a two-sided coin. For the ministry of teaching to be effective in the church, first of all, we all need to be teachable. For all of us to be teachers, in other words, we must likewise be students. If we are unteachable, unapproachable, easily offended, convinced of our own correctness, and certain that we have little if anything to learn from those around us, then the teaching process is quickly aborted. Ask any professional teacher. Students who show little interest in the material and who simply make faces when you either introduce new ideas or make an assignment are every teacher’s nightmare!

If, on the other hand, people are inquisitive, eager to learn and open to change, the ministry of teaching can flourish. One of the many reasons that I loved my Aunt Dot as much as I did was her insatiable desire to learn. Wherever I went in the world and whatever I did, she was thoroughly interested. She was teachable, and her life was an adventure from beginning to end. Paul not only encourages people here in 3:16 to teach, but to be teachable as well. “Fools despise wisdom and instruction,” Proverbs 1:7 informs us. “Give instruction to the wise,” however, “and they will become wiser still” (Prov. 9:9).

The second side of Paul’s imperative here is that we all—every one of us—begin to take seriously our collective call to be teachers. But how are we to do that, and what are we to teach each other about? Paul does not provide specific answers, but the letter to the Colossians gives us some rather clear clues. In determining the underlying issues in Colossians, we can assume that our ministry of teaching each other is to be broad-based, covering what we believe, what we value, and how we behave. We must help each other, in other words, think like Christians, cherish what Christians ought to cherish, and act like Christians. We must teach one another so that our minds as well as our hearts come under the lordship of Christ.

Paul uses two closely related but nevertheless distinct terms to describe the ministry of teaching here in verse 16. He encourages his readers in Colossae to “teach” and “admonish” each other. Both terms, as you well know, involve giving instruction in the broadest sense of the word. Teaching, however, focuses more precisely on imparting or passing on something that is positive in nature. The act of teaching has a rich history in the Old Testament, for example, and it invariably involves helping people to understand God’s activity in their lives and to follow his laws. “Teach your children and the people of Israel these commandments and the ways of the Lord,” we read again and again. Teaching seeks to encourage the positive.

Admonishing, by way of contrast, attempts to help people avoid whatever is negative or harmful. Rather than encouraging people to embrace the good, the act of admonishing warns people to stay clear of the bad. “Stay away from idols,” the Israelites are told. “Be done with the likes of stealing, killing and coveting.” Admonishing seeks to prevent the negative.

Paul, as he envisions the ministry of the church—and his language throughout Colossians is decidedly communal—sees both teaching and admonishing as necessary and helpful aspects of the ways the people within the community relate to one another. We teach each other to embrace the good, and we admonish each other to avoid the bad. As we do this together, we increasingly grow into the likeness of Jesus Christ.

That is clearly what Paul attempts to do here in Colossians. He first addresses matters of belief. Clearly disturbed over the disrupting effects of certain false teachers who are exhorting the Christians in Colossae to observe all sorts of unnecessary rules and regulations, Paul admonishes these new believers to reject such teaching. “Don’t be taken captive by such faulty ways of thinking,” Paul pleads, and “don’t invest your spiritual welfare in a regimen of worthless traditions and rituals (2:8-23). At the same time, he teaches his readers about the truth of Christ. Rather than buy into the theological rubbish being declared by these false teachers, Paul pushes for his audience to further affirm the absolute supremacy of Jesus Christ (1:15-20) and the hope that he offers. “You have been raised and made alive through Christ,” Paul reminds them—and assures them! Your hope lies not in human rituals, but in the grace of God revealed in Christ. What we as Christians believe, Paul stresses, matters.

But Paul refuses to stop with correct beliefs. It is, after all, far too easy to define or categorize people solely on the basis of what they claim to believe. Christians, some people would tell us, are those who affirm their church’s doctrinal statement or recite the Apostles’ Creed. Not in Paul’s mind. Of no lesser importance than what Christians believe is what they value and how they act. For Paul, when people are raised and made alive through Christ, their entire value system should be transformed as well. In 3:1-4, Paul says as much when he admonishes his readers to avoid an unhealthy attachment to the world and to think instead about heavenly things. “Set your affections on things above,” he concludes, “not on earthly things.”

At issue here is our entire perspective of life and what it means to be a follower of Jesus in the world. Is the church, Ernest Martin asks as he reads this passage, a subculture within the larger culture around us, or is the church countercultural? If the church is simply a subculture, then the Christian life involves little more than adopting the world’s values and making a few modifications along the way. If the church is countercultural, then we Christians begin with the Gospel and the teachings of Jesus and build our values from there. If those values conflict with the ways of the world, then so be it. People who “believe” in Jesus and who understand that there is life beyond this brief “blip” in history that we presently occupy now need to order their lives so as to reflect the overhaul in their values.

And finally, Paul directs this ministry of teaching and admonition to the manner in which Christians behave. Note his bold and direct efforts here in Colossians both to admonish as well as to teach. “Put to death whatever in you is earthly,” he begins. Then, he offers two lists of activities to be avoided, each list including five items. In the first list, four of the five items deal with sexual sins, and one zooms in on greed. What all five have in common is that they are essentially self-serving and therefore idolatrous. They make objects of others and gods of ourselves. The second list looks specifically at sins of speech. All ten of these items—and Paul could add more—shatter any possibility of genuine community by destroying trust and harming other people. These are attitudes and acts that by their very nature devalue other people and push them away. “Put such thoughts, words, and activities to death,” he concludes. No ifs, ands or buts. Put them to death. In their place, Paul teaches the believers to put on—as one would pull a shirt over his head—various positive values. Once again the list includes five items—compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience—all of which promote trust and build community.

“Teach and admonish one another,” Paul declares. Give prayerful, corporate attention to what all of you as members of the body believe, value, and how you behave. And how do we do that? How do we teach and admonish one another? Through the various programs of the church? The worship services, Sunday School classes, service projects and small groups? In part, and we here at the Grantham Church will continue to develop increasingly effective ways to train and disciple the people in our congregation. But for this ministry of teaching to be genuinely effective in our church or any other, it takes far more than programs. It takes every one of us expressing a desire to learn and a willingness to teach. We teach when we talk around the dinner table, offer a word of advice in the hallway, model service in the flower beds, give sacrificially in the offering plate, protest injustice in the world around us, practice self-denial in a land of plenty, and seek peace with an enemy.

At Laura Nisly’s funeral here a few weeks ago, Clyde Ross stood behind this pulpit and shared various personal reflections. Earlier in life, someone had told Clyde to read books that explored areas with which he himself struggled a great deal. “I’ll never need to read a book about courage,” Clyde concluded. Laura Nisly has taught me all about that.

I myself have learned a lot from people here in recent years. I’ve learned the value of self-sacrificial service watching Norma Cassel volunteer at the church office every day. I’ve learned something about grieving from Woody Dalton. I’ve learned both patience and persistence watching our brothers and sisters at the Harrisburg Church move confidently to their new facility, even though they faced one obstacle after another. I learned from Congregational Council just a few weeks ago that the community remains a wonderful source of guidance and wisdom. There is no doubt about it. We need each other. We need the instruction—the teaching and admonishing—that each other can provide.