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Cut Flower Church
July 15, 2001
How well do you know your neighbors? How well do you WANT to know them? An American Demographics survey found that not everyone wants a 1950s-TV-show neighborhood where neighbors are close friends who watch out for each other. Younger adults value independence more than community.
The survey found that 45 percent of adults say they want a neighborhood that holds block parties and watches out for everyone's kids. But another 40 percent prefer a place where people say hi now and then but mostly keep to themselves. And 13 percent prefer their closest neighbors to live five miles away. Among younger boomers, nearly a quarter wish for several acres between them and their nearest neighbor. ["Won't you be my (not so close) neighbor?" Rev., January-February 2001, 95.]
We often lament the loss of neighborhood relationships, but maybe the real reason we have lost so much neighborliness is that many people do not want neighborhoods any more. What about you? Can you name your neighbors? Sure, you probably know your next-door neighbors. No problem there. But how about the people two doors down? Or three? Or four? You do not have to go very far to run into neighbors who are strangers. It used to be that we wandered out into our back yards and chatted over the fence with our neighbors, cup of coffee in hand. Now we are more likely to set the cup of coffee on our desks and drop by our cyber-neighbor, mouse in hand, and chat with people we've never even seen. We are plugged in and wired up, but we are often disconnected from the very people we live the closest to.
This loss of neighborliness is also due, no doubt, to the fact that we seem to be busier today than yesterday. But no matter how you slice it, many observers of the culture have noticed that just about all forms of organized social life - including the church - are experiencing a decline of what sociologists call "social capital."
Social capital is another way of saying "community." In the most connected, plugged in, wired culture in the history of the world, we are feeling isolated, lost, unloved and unvalued.
Civic engagement of all kinds dropped as much as 35 percent in the 20 years between 1974 and 1994, from PTA membership, to dinner with neighbors, to attending a public meeting in town or school. Neighborhood ties in the 1990s are less than half as strong as they were in the 1950s.
Mack McCarter, a community activist in Shreveport, Louisiana, puts it another way. He believes that our collective estrangement has had corrosive and crippling effects. We have become a "cut flower civilization," he says. "It looks pretty for a while, but it has no root." McCarter is paraphrasing Quaker theologian D. Elton Trueblood. Trueblood described America as a "cut flower civilization." Our culture, he argued, is cut off from its Christian roots like a flower cut at the stem. Though the flower will hold its beauty for a time, it is destined to wither and die. When Trueblood spoke those words over two decades ago, the flower still seemed to have some color and signs of life. But now the bloom is off the rose and the petals are falling.
In Colossians chapter 1, the concern on the heart of the apostle Paul is that the church will become a cut-flower church.
The Apostle Paul never visited the Colossian Christians. His relationship with them was through a fellow missionary--Epaphras.
Because he is not personally known by this congregation, Paul feels it necessary to present himself in this letter's salutation with clear credentials. He is "Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus" (v. 1). While he spends considerable effort in this letter upholding the validity of the teaching the Colossians had received from Epaphras, Paul nonetheless distinguishes his unique authority as an "apostle of Christ Jesus" from all other faithful "servants" and "ministers" that preach Christ. However, having established the singularity of his credentials in the salutation, Paul quickly goes on to acknowledge the presence, participation and, in fact, partnership of the others with whom he worships, prays and works to spread the gospel. In v3, Paul says "We give thanks." The plural "we" suggests a regular gathering for prayer and thanksgiving by Paul and his colleagues who offer thanks for brothers and sisters "in Christ in Colossae" (v. 2).
The "thanks" that Paul offers ties together three highly recognizable attributes that form the basis for Paul's discussion of the gospel--faith, love and hope. In the original Greek, vv. 3-8 are one sentence. In this sentence, Paul talks about these three crucial elements whose presence at Colossae form the basis of Paul's thankfulness. Yet, as Paul praises the Colossians for exhibiting these traits, he makes the point that It is these same three elements - faith, love and hope - that must be worked out and played out in a Christian's life if she or he is to serve as a witness to the gospel.
Within this triad of virtues, Paul emphasizes the quality of hope more than faith or love. The Colossian Christians were facing some challenges to their faith and to the gospel teachings they received from Epaphras. An unidentified group in the church was stressing certain "philosophies," and focusing their energies on the correct performance of externals such as ritualized worship, sacrifices and laws. This group also taught that angel worship and recognizing the existence of other spiritual beings were essential to correct faith.
Paul's emphasis on "hope" in this prayer of thanksgiving reinforces for the Colossian faithful that what they hope for through their faith in the gospel - salvation, righteousness, resurrection, eternal life - is not vain or unfounded. Christian hope is only based on Christ, not on knowing the right philosophy, following the right rules, or saying a certain church-approved formula. In v5, we read that the "hope" of the Christian is soundly based on "the word of the truth, the gospel that has come to you." Paul declares that the "truth" in the gospel is self-evident from the "fruit" it has borne - both in Colossae and "in the whole world." The fruit he is referring to here is the evidence of spiritual growth in the lives of believers.
Spiritual growth is like bonsai. God works through pruning, changing our lives. As bonsai grow, they are trimmed and pruned daily to help them grow. It is that daily attention that makes the bonsai into a beautiful creation. God wants to make a beautiful creation of each of us, so God prunes the areas in which we and the church need to grow.
Continuing with our scripture today, vv. 9-14 restate points made in verses 3-6, but focus on intercessory prayer for the Colossians. Paul entreats them toward "lives worthy of the Lord." To lead such "worthy lives" Paul stipulates two directives - to "bear fruit in every good work" and to "grow in the knowledge of God" (v. 10).
To Bear Fruit:
First, they are to bear fruit. Robert N. Wilkin, wrote an article entitled, "How deep are your spiritual roots?" Wilkin says,
I grew up in Southern California. Along with Florida, California is the leading producer of fruits in the United States. Down the street from us a family had an avocado tree that produced literally thousands of huge, beautiful avocados. We ourselves had lemon and pomegranate trees.
We also had some other fruit trees that bore some fruit, but never mature fruit. For example, we had a banana tree, and it only grew small, green, immature bananas about the size of your pinkie. We had a peach tree, and it bore fruit, but it was small and hard and never came to maturity.
Even in California, there was variation in the productivity of fruit trees. Some didn't produce any fruit. They simply withered and died. Some produced fruit each year, but not mature fruit. And some produced good, mature fruit.
In a sense, this is also true with people. People need care if they are to grow to the point where they are mature and act like it. If you are a parent, you know this quite well. Children don't raise themselves. If left to their own devices, they will be very immature.
Believers can bear fruit only if they continue to walk in the faith. And they can only bear mature fruit if they become mature. Since each believer should be concerned about his or her fruitfulness, and, since our faith is crucial to fruit bearing, we should all be concerned about our faith in Christ.
[Robert N. Wilkin, "How deep are your spiritual roots?" Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society, Spring 1999, Vol. 12:22, www.faithalone.org.]
Grow in the knowledge of God.
The second thing that Paul mentions in v10 is that we are to grow in the knowledge of God. Paul stresses "knowledge" that is coupled with "spiritual wisdom" and "understanding." This is not some sort of abstract knowledge that has no bearing on behavior in daily life. The "knowledge" the Colossians are urged to acquire is always made manifest in right action and conduct. True knowledge is knowledge of our relationship with God.
Only because they are in relationship with God through Christ are believers able to bear the fruits of faith. The fruits of faith Paul lifts up that will reveal to the world a Christian with "true knowledge" include strength, endurance, patience, joy and thankfulness. Human character is too frail to produce these fruits on its own. These spiritual virtues grow directly out of God's "glorious power" (v. 11).
Verses 12-14 as the final section of Paul's petitionary prayer. These verses are further examples of the "knowledge" and "spiritual understanding" that is part of what we might call a Christian outlook. This outlook motivates us toward that kind of behavior, towards those fruits, that reflect our thankfulness. Gospel "knowledge" reveals that the Father has delivered believers from darkness and brought ("transferred") them into "the kingdom of his beloved Son." Then, in v14, Paul closes this prayer of "thankfulness" by citing the greatest gifts we have in Christ: "redemption through his blood" and "forgiveness of sins."
In Christ, in Colossae
So what Paul is saying to the newly formed church at Colossae is that he is enthusiastic about it prospects. Its members are vital and active, "bearing fruit and growing." But Paul knows that without the proper attention, even a prospering congregation like the one at Colossae could become a "cut flower church." That is why he provides in this text a list of the essential nutrients to help blooming believers grow into healthy, deeply rooted Christians.
First, he reminds them of the importance of person and place. You are holy, he says, and you are family. This is implied in v1 when he describes them as "saints and faithful brethren." This is your essential identity: in relation to God, you're holy; in relation to others, you're family.
As for place, you are in Christ, and in Colossae. That is, you have one foot in heaven and the other on earth, one in the church and the other in the world. Christians function best when the bloom is in the air and the roots are in the soil. Take the flower out of the soil, and it soon dies. Take a plant that is all roots and no stem and bloom, and it is a poor example of a plant.
In v4, Paul suggests that the church is able to thrive both in Christ and in the world because of the power of love. Their love is transforming, connecting, enabling. It is, in sociological terms, social capital.
Mack McCarter shows us how it works. In 1991, he founded the Shreveport Community Renewal program to help stop the disintegration of personal relationships in Shreveport, LA. The mission of the Community Renewal Program is to grow neighborhoods from the grass roots up by getting people to make friends. To get started, McCarter visited a low-income section of the city that was experiencing a rash of drive-by shootings. If he could make friends and encourage others to get to know their neighbors, maybe people would come together and do something about the shootings.
Not many doors opened at first. But McCarter kept knocking. Within six months, people were actually sitting out on their front porches waiting for him to show up. They talked, telling the stories of their lives. As it turned out, the neighbors had more in common than they had realized. All wanted better lives for their children, including improved schools and more daycare and recreation facilities. Eventually, they got organized and began to get some of the services they desired. Not too surprisingly, the violence began to subside.
This community avoided being a cut flower community by putting down roots and developing relationships in the neighborhood. From this effort grew a network of "haven houses" throughout the city - houses whose inhabitants are trained to help restore caring relationships among their neighbors. There are now 240 such houses in Shreveport - with hundreds more in other cities in Louisiana. Haven houses. Not a bad model for the church.
If we want to follow the model of the church at Colossae, if we want to avoid being a "cut flower church" clearly we must require more of ourselves. Sociologists have identified the problem--declining social capital. Community activists like Mack McCarter address it in their neighborhoods. It's a question of how much do we really love each other.
Many things are competing for our time and attention. Each day is a pie, cut into slices for work, getting to work, planning, preparing and cleaning up meals, nurturing and caring for children, maintaining our dwellings, enriching our relationships with spouses along with many, many other responsibilities and activities. Finding time for a Bible study or Wednesday, choir practice, monthly WOC or Men''s fellowship breakfast or to prepare food for a bereaved church member seems all but impossible.
But our participation in these very things breathes life into our congregations. We don't know if the Colossians spent less time walking to work than we spend driving there, or if they fixed more leaky roofs, or worked longer hours. In all likelihood, their daily lives were more physically and emotionally demanding than ours, yet they still poured themselves into their newly planted church. Paul tells us that the church at Colossae had a vital energy that he wanted to wrap his arms around and take to other congregations.
Perhaps we need to realized that the rewards of creating social bonds among us are worth the effort. Think about it: do you get more enjoyment from watching TV or from talking about your daily joys and concerns with a friend who shares your faith? Flopping on the couch in front of the TV without a doubt is easier, but we get out of it about what we put in - very little.
We can not change the complex dynamics that undermine social capital in our society and in our own church. We cannot make life less busy or distracting. But we can determine to follow Paul's advice and fill our lives with faith, love, knowledge and wisdom. And we can do this because even though we are in Colossae--We are in the world--we are also in Christ, we are the body of Christ, empowered by the spirit of Christ, and for that we give thanks. Amen.
Milloy, Courtland. "Nudging neighbors to connect," The Washington Post, December 6, 2000, B1.
Shreveport-Bossier Community Renewal, www.shrevecommunityrenewal.org.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified, 9/20/01