Hold Fast to the Head

Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.

We’ve been talking about building a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of, but if we’re going to do that we will need to remember that a church is not a building, it’s not a set of beliefs, it’s not a code of conduct.  No, ultimately, the church is a group of people; it’s you and me.  If Jesus is going to be proud of the church, he’s going to have to be proud of us.  So, what can we do to make sure that he is?

Take a look at the first verse in today’s Epistle reading—Colossians 2:6—where Paul says, “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him.”  As far as Paul is concerned, if you want Jesus to be proud of you, you should continue to live your life in him.  It sounds obvious, but I think it may be the most important verse in the passage.  Because we are living in a time when everybody seems to be having ideas about what the post-pandemic church should be, and not all of them are helpful.

When I do an online search for “post-pandemic church” I get 59,400,000 results in 0.44 seconds.  There’s an article from the Wall Street Journal asking, “Post-pandemic, will church ever be the same?”[i]  A blog post from Carey Nieuwhof offering “Five post-pandemic church growth accelerators.”[ii]  An article by Ed Stetser in Outreach magazine with “3 Trends shaping the post-pandemic church,”[iii] followed by “Six predictions for the post-pandemic church” from Peter Marty in the Christian Century.[iv]  You can see how you might be overwhelmed by all the good advice that’s available these days, but in my research a few topics stand out.

One of those is “Hybrid Church,” which recognizes that during the pandemic many people started accessing worship online, and that even when the pandemic is over many people will choose to do the same.  This morning, for example, we may have four hundred people in the room, but as many as sixteen hundred watching our webcast, and another 12-15,000 watching our broadcast.  Hybrid Church means that we have to consider the needs of those who are not in the room as well as those who are, and that we need to make space for those who choose to participate virtually as well as those who choose to participate in person.

Some of this is exciting to me.  Six months ago I drafted a document called “the Five Expectations of Membership at Richmond’s First Baptist Church” while thinking specifically about those who could not, or would not, attend church in person.  Let me share it with you and ask you to imagine that you are in Queens, New York, or Oak Ridge, Tennessee, or Bangalore, India, perusing these five expectations on a computer screen.  Here they are:

  1.  Relationship with God

This is where it begins. Click HERE to find out where you are on your spiritual journey and how we can help you take the next step.  You may already be further along than you think, or you may need someone to point the way.

  1.  Partnership in our Mission

Our mission is: “to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia—and beyond.”  You can help us by looking around you for anything that doesn’t look like heaven, and then rolling up your sleeves and bringing heaven to earth right where you are.

  1.  Participation in Worship

There are lots of ways to do this. If you live in the Richmond area you can worship with us in person or on television. If you have Internet access you can worship wherever you are, online. You can also start or join an FBC Microchurch (click HERE to learn more).

  1.  Membership in a Small Group

Small groups are where relationship happens, either in person or online. You need to have at least one place in life where you can say, “It’s been a hard week.”  Small Group registration is open two times a year, in January and August. Sign up HERE to be notified.

  1.  Support of our Ministries

You can do this in several ways: you can give your time as a volunteer, you can share your talent as a ministry leader, and you can give your resources to help us meet the needs of the church and the needs of others.  Click HERE to find out more about all three ways to give.

We haven’t put all the pieces together yet.  If you tried to click on those links most of them wouldn’t work.  But I’ve given those five expectations even more thought in the past six months, and I’m still excited about how they might give people who are living anywhere that has an Internet connection a way to be active, participating members.  You may hear more about that in the days ahead.

But today I hear Paul saying that if we want to build a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of, we need to continue to live our lives in him, “rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as [we] were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”  I like the idea of being rooted in him, and being established in the faith “just as we were taught.”  Because this is not about having to do something new in the post-pandemic era; this is about returning to our roots, about remembering everything we have been taught in church.

I think about those babies being rocked in the nursery, and someone singing to them, “Jesus Loves Me this I Know.”  I think about those first Sunday school classes, where children hear the great Bible stories of the Old and New Testaments, and learn to sing songs like “This Little Light of Mine,” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”  I think about our children entering the youth program, and learning that along with studying the Bible and singing the songs we have to get our hands dirty once in a while.  I love the pictures on Facebook of our young people working hard to bring heaven to earth wherever they are on mission.  That’s the kind of lesson that will stay with them long after they grow up.

But when they do grow up we have Sunday morning Bible study for every age group, Wednesday night suppers and fellowship, choir practice and breakout groups, and worship on Sunday morning where we continue to learn and grow in the faith.  Paul isn’t saying we should change all that.  I’m not saying we should change all that.  I think this is how we “continue to live our lives in him”—in Christ.  But don’t miss this warning: Paul says, “See to it that you aren’t taken captive by philosophies and empty deceit.”  And in the post-pandemic age I think he would warn us against embracing any new way of doing church that isn’t really church, because everybody seems to have ideas about what we should do.  “Continue to live your lives in him,” Paul says, “rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”  And just to make sure, he takes us back to our baptisms.

He may still have those Galatians in mind, remember them?  Some of them had been led astray by a bunch of so-called Judaizers who came along after Paul and told them that if they really wanted to follow Jesus they needed to become Jews: they needed to be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses.  Some of the Galatians had actually done it—allowed themselves to be circumcised—and Paul basically pitched a fit.  He doesn’t seem to be as angry in this letter, but he is concerned about how some of these Colossians have been persuaded to add other requirements to the simple formula of salvation by grace through faith.  They have begun to observe special days and seasons, to go without food and mortify the flesh, to worship angels and dwell on visions as if all of that made them more spiritual and more worthy of God’s grace.  “No,” Paul says.  “You trusted Christ for your salvation.  You entered the waters of baptism.  You have everything you need.”

Paul seems to believe that in the waters of baptism we celebrate our identity as the children of God.  It’s a different kind of ritual than circumcision.  In circumcision a Jewish male would give up a little bit of his flesh to remind himself that he was a child of the covenant, but in baptism Christian converts gave up all their flesh.  Look at Colossians 2:11 where Paul writes, “In him you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ.”  Did you catch that?  Paul calls baptism “the circumcision of Christ,” but he doesn’t mean that you cut off a little bit of flesh; he means that you put off the entire body of flesh.  You drown it in the waters of baptism.  You bury it as Christ was buried.  Now, all of this may seem a little extreme, but remember that when you come up out of the water you rise as Christ rose to a whole new life, a resurrection life, in which the flesh no longer has any power over you.

And so it is with us: we don’t need to add anything to the simple faith that brought us to the waters of baptism.  We don’t need to add anything to the ritual that puts an end to our life in the flesh and raises us to life in the spirit.  Paul says, “Don’t let anyone disqualify you” because you don’t do all these things that they are advocating.  And may no one disqualify us if we don’t do all the things the experts advise in building a post-pandemic church.  Instead, Paul says, “Hold fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.”

It’s a little hard to picture—holding fast to the head (I keep thinking of my grandson, Leo, sitting on my shoulders and holding fast to my head so he won’t fall off).  But if you have read some of Paul’s other letters you know that he loves this image of the church as the body of Christ, with Christ himself as the head.  In the same way the head controls the body, Christ controls the church, and as long as we do what Christ tells us to do we should be fine, post-pandemic or not.

I talked about this in a recent podcast.[v]  Maybe you haven’t heard it, and maybe you didn’t know I have a podcast.  I’m still trying to figure it out myself.  But I was responding to a pre-pandemic post by a blogger named John Pavlovitz who suggested that people are leaving the church of Jesus Christ because the Church isn’t talking about the things that matter to them, and then he listed some of those things (this was back in May, 2019).  He said, “[The people who are leaving] have been waiting for you to oppose the separation of families, to declare the value of black lives, to loudly defend LGBTQ people, to stand alongside your Muslim brothers and sisters, to denounce the degradation of the planet—to say with absolute clarity what you stand for and what you will not abide.  And you have kept them waiting too long.”[vi]

There are some who would say those things Pavlovitz listed are exactly what Paul meant when he warned us not to be taken captive by “philosophies and empty deceit.”  There are others who would say that those things are exactly what Micah meant when he talked about “doing justice, and loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8).  That’s one of the problems we face in the post-pandemic church: we have become so divided we can’t even seem to have the conversation anymore.[vii]  But I said, “I don’t think there is one, clear answer to the question of why people are leaving the church, but I think there is one, clear answer to what we can do about it: We can do what Jesus told us to.”

And then I talked about how the five essential ministry areas of Richmond’s First Baptist Church are built on five clear commands of Christ.

  1.  He told us to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength: that’s our Ministry of Christian Worship.
  2.  He told us to love our neighbors just as much as we love ourselves: that’s our Ministry of Christian Compassion.
  3.  He told us to love one another, just as he has loved us: that’s our Ministry of Christian Community.
  4.  He told us to make disciples by baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit: that’s our Ministry of Christian Invitation.
  5.  He told us to make disciples by teaching them to obey everything he commanded us: that’s our Ministry of Christian Formation.

That’s what we’re trying to do at Richmond’s First Baptist Church: we’re trying to build our ministry around five clear commands of Christ.  And yes, people might still leave us.  They left him.  But it won’t be because we couldn’t figure out how to give them what they wanted.  As I’ve said before, “When you make up your mind that you will do whatever it takes to get people to come to church, then you will get just the kind of church you deserve: a congregation of fickle religious consumers who will leave you as soon as the church next door opens up an espresso bar.”[viii]

So, back to the beginning.  If the church is people, how can we be the kind of people Jesus will not be ashamed of?  First of all, we can continue to live our lives in him, “rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as we were taught, abounding in thanksgiving” (Col. 2:6-7).  Secondly we can remember our baptisms, and remember that “when we were buried with him in baptism, we were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (Col. 2:12).  And finally, we can hold fast to the head, “from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God” (Col. 2:16).  And pre-pandemic, mid-pandemic, or post-pandemic,

That’s a pretty good way to be church.

Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] https://www.wsj.com/story/post-pandemic-will-church-ever-be-the-same-b5ffdcf8

[ii] https://careynieuwhof.com/5-post-pandemic-church-growth-accelerators/

[iii] https://outreachmagazine.com/features/leadership/68856-3-trends-shaping-the-post-pandemic-church.html

[iv] https://www.christiancentury.org/article/editorpublisher/six-predictions-post-pandemic-church

[v] https://fbcrichmond.libsyn.com/jims-view-from-30k-feet

[vi] John Pavlovitz, “Dear Church, Here’s Why People Are Leaving,” May 14, 2019 (https://johnpavlovitz.com/2019/05/14/dear-church-heres-why-people-are-leaving/)

[vii] Ed Stetser writes, “It’s important to remember that Americans faced more than a pandemic in 2020. We witnessed racial injustice, riots, political division, mixed messages from politicians and scientists, and economic collapse. A lot transpired in the past year that will have negative ripple effects for years to come. One of the effects is the U.S. fracturing into many smaller factions and tribes. We are deeply divided, so much so that people have referred to this time as a ‘cold civil war’” (https://outreachmagazine.com/features/leadership/68856-3-trends-shaping-the-post-pandemic-church.html).

[viii] Jim Somerville, When the Sand Castle Crumbles (Issuu, 2010), p. 18 (https://issuu.com/jimsomerville/docs/when_the_sand_castle_crumbles).