“Growing in the Whole World and Growing Here”Dr. Paul A. Baxley Colossians 1:1-14 Year C – Eighth Sunday after Pentecost - (Proper 10)
“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”
Did you hear the stunning, breath-taking, exceedingly provocative claim in the opening verses of Paul’s letter to the Colossians? The Apostle tells the members of the Christian community at Colossae that the same gospel that has been bearing fruit among believers in their community has been bearing fruit and growing in the whole world. How can Paul, writing in the first Christian century say that the Gospel is bearing fruit in the whole world?
Is this anything more than hyperbole? Is Paul just exaggerating to make a point as preachers sometimes do? After all, there is much debate over the exact date of the writing of Colossians, and even about the identity of the author of this letter, but what is undeniable is that these words were written less than a century after the death and resurrection of Jesus. In such a relatively small amount of time, in a world that lacked the rapid transit and instant information of our age, how could anyone say that the Gospel of Jesus was growing the whole world over? That has to be an exaggeration!
We could well join with Andrew Lincoln and Bonnie Thurston, two New Testament Scholars who guard against the appearance of hyperbole by remembering that for Paul, the “whole world’ would have been a reference to the Roman Empire. (See Bonnie Thurston, Reading Colossians, Ephesians and 2 Thessalonians: A Literary and Theological Commentary. New York: Crossroads Publishing Company, 1995. See page 13: “The word of truth is active not only in the Colossians but “in the whole world,” which for Paul would be the Roman Empire. Also, see Andrew T. Lincoln, Colossians: New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Volume XI. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000. See page 591.)
That would have been the entirety of the world Paul would have known. Regardless of whether or not you prefer an early or late date for the writing of Colossians, by the time these words are written, the Gospel of Jesus Christ has spread far beyond Jerusalem and Palestine, it has spread through Syria, Asia Minor, Greece and even made its way to Rome along one trajectory, while other witnesses make it clear that at the same time the church was pushing into Africa. Had it also pushed in other directions? We cannot be sure. But we can be sure of this. As far as the eye could see, as far the minds of Paul and his readers could conceive the world, the Gospel of Christ had gone. To the extent that Paul knew the world, the Gospel had been seeded and had born fruit in the whole world. In that regard, Paul is not taking liberties. He is not exaggerating. He is stating the truth.
Hyperbole or no hyperbole, Thurston is quite correct when she speaks of the impact of these stunning words. Colossians 1:6 “expands the discussion and places the Colossian Christians in the context of the whole church.” (Thurston, page 13) Paul wants his readers to know that when they became Christians they joined a global community; that the church of Jesus Christ even in the first century reached far beyond any one community or congregation formed within it. Though the church at Colossae might have felt extremely small, weak and vulnerable, Paul wants them to know that they are part of a global fellowship.
This extraordinary claim found in Colossians 1:6 is even more truthful today than it was thousands of years ago. Now there is no hyperbole at all in affirming that the Gospel that was planted among us in any one place is bearing fruit and growing in every corner of the world. Now there can be no question as to whether the church is a global reality, the only question can be whether we see the church for what it really is.
This is an important question for all Christians, but particularly for Baptists. From our earliest years there has been a profound localizing impulse in the way Baptists understand the church. We’ve been taught to believe that every local congregation contains all it needs to be the church; that local congregations are autonomous and fully capable of participating in God’s mission.
As that localizing impulse has become more and more settled within us, and denominational life has been fraught with more and more controversy, division and decline, there has been an even greater tendency to retreat into our particular congregation and live as though this is all the church there is or that this is all the church we need.
Sometimes as we think more and more locally, we fail to remember that what has been happening among us has also been going on the whole world over, that the Gospel has been planted and borne fruit all over the community, the nation and to the ends of the earth. The church of Jesus Christ is much bigger than any one congregation or denomination; it is not the unique property of any nation or region.
At a subconscious level, many of us grow up with an intensely local view of church. Until we encounter other congregations or other Christians, I think it is natural for us to believe that church is the church in which we were raised. It was not until I entered Duke Divinity School that I had a real and personal sense of how large the church really is, what a dynamic global community it truly is. It wasn’t just that I was a Baptist in a community where there were also Methodists, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Episcopalians and Lutherans all around me in classes and worship. It was also that there were Christians preparing for ministry or advanced theological careers from every corner of the globe.
That community was a microcosm of the global church. Christians came from different denominations, different countries, diverse ways of worshipping and serving. Being in that community of worship, study and service opened my eyes to the truth Paul was trying to set before the Colossians: the gospel that had been planted within me was growing and bearing fruit in the whole world.
For that reason, in my own ministry, I’ve sought ways to help members of churches I serve experience the truly global character of the church. In 2005, while I was pastor of First Baptist Church in Henderson, North Carolina, I had the privilege of leading a mission trip for youth and adults to California where we served along Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Field Personnel Rick and Leta Sample.
In those days, their ministry in California was primarily among Afghan refugees and Iranian Christians. A group of Christians born and raised in Eastern North Carolina, particularly youth who came of age in the wake of September 11, 2001, were not naturally inclined to think of the church when they thought of places like Iran and Afghanistan.
In our days in California, we met Christians from those countries, heard their stories, and had a chance to participate in foundational efforts to establish a church among Afghan refugees. We came away with our eyes opened to the powerful truth Paul was impressing upon the Colossians: the same Gospel at work in our lives in Eastern North Carolina was truly bearing fruit and growing in the whole world.
But these powerful words at the outset of Colossians not only expand our understanding of church by helping us see church for what it really is, a global reality, Paul’s words also challenge us to think differently about mission. For most of my growing years, I was encouraged to think about missions as “spreading the gospel.” I was taught that it was responsibility of Christians to “take the message of Jesus” places it had not been before.
While there can be no doubt that there are still “un-reached people groups” in the world, and there are areas that have been “less evangelized” the larger truth is that the Gospel is bearing fruit all over the world and has been doing so since the very beginning of the church. It is the overwhelming norm that the Risen Christ is ahead of his church!
It has been that way ever since Easter Sunday morning when the Risen Christ was going ahead of the disciples to Galilee, and ever since the church’s life has been characterized much more by a breathless attempt to keep up with Jesus than it has been a mission of taking Jesus anywhere.
Because the Gospel is being sown and is bearing fruit in the whole world, the church is called to a mission mainly of following Jesus where he has already gone, of serving alongside Christians in vastly different places, of finding faithful ways that our gifts and resources can be used in the further building of the global church, all the while mindful that we will learn as much in that global engagement as we offer. This is a profoundly different way of thinking about mission than most of us knew growing up.
Rob Nash, who was previously coordinator of Global Missions for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and who presently serves as Professor of Missions and World Religions at McAfee School of Theology explains the shift this way:
We’re probably more likely to be transformed by our engagement in the world than we are to transform. It’s just the way it is. The gospel has taken root in various cultures. In the process it has become a powerful and unique gospel that is spoken by the people in a particular place and to the people in that particular place. What transforms us is the radically new perspective on the gospel that emerges for us as we have the privilege of working alongside our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world and even in our own context. (Robert N. Nash, “We’re Out to be Transformed: Missions in the Twenty-First Century”)
Because the Gospel is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, there is much we can learn by building relationships with Christians across the world, by entering into a dynamic and powerful covenant of mutual strengthening, so that our congregations and our faith journey may be nourished even as we follow the Risen Christ all the places he has been in the world.
One of my earliest memories regarding the Global Mission of the church was a tradition of my home church. Each December during the week of prayer for what we then called “Foreign Missions,” our church would have a procession of flags of the nations during the Sunday worship service. Each flag represented a country to which our kind of Baptist missionaries had travelled, and at least the way I remember it, we were encouraged to give thanks to God for the way our Baptist missionaries were taking the Gospel to all of those places. We would sing hymns like: “We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations which will turn their hearts to the right.”
But now as I remember those annual processionals years later, I’m coming to see it much differently. Those flags draping the circular balcony of my home church were then and are now a testimony to the fact that the same Gospel that was preached in the Sanctuary, which was planted in my life, which grew into a call to ministry, was also bearing fruit and growing uniquely in all those nations, and even in the whole world. I now see those flags as living testimony of the truth Paul was trying to explain to the Colossians: the message and work of Jesus is a global reality. It was in Colossae in the first century and it is for Christians everywhere two thousand years later.
Take Paul at his word, for what he says does exactly what Bonnie Thurston said. He places us in the context of the whole church: “Just as the gospel 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.” Amen.
About the writer:
Dr. Paul A. Baxley has served as Senior Minister of First Baptist Church since June 2010. He is a native of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Previously, he served as Senior Minister of The First Baptist Church in Henderson, North Carolina (2004-2010), as Director of Congregational Relationships for Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond (2002-2004), as Campus Minister at Wingate University in Wingate, North Carolina (1999-2002) and as Associate Minister of The First Baptist Church in Henderson (1992-1999). He holds degrees from Wake Forest University (B.A. Religion), Duke Divinity School (M.T.S.) and Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond (D. Min.)
In recent years, Paul has also served on the Coordinating Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia, where he presently serves as Moderator-Elect. He has been chair of the Board of Directors for the Center for Congregational Health and the Baptist House of Studies at Duke Divinity School. He serves as a member of the Board of Visitors at McAfee School of Theology. While serving in Henderson, North Carolina, he was the chair of the local Ministers Community Partnership, which included area clergy from different denominational and racial backgrounds. In 2012, Paul was one of the presenters at the annual Mercer Preaching Consultation and delivered the Lawrence Hoover Lectures at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond.
Paul is married to Jennifer Hoerning Baxley, a Physical Therapist who works for UHS-Pruitt in several local nursing facilities. They have four children (an 11 year old daughter Olivia, a 5 year old daughter Maria, and twin two and a half year-olds Matthew and Caroline).
Scripture and Music
Rescue the Perishing
Worthy of Worship
Hope of the World
God of Grace and God of Glory
Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life
Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart
Lord, I Want to Be a Christian (Moses Hogan)
Battle Hymn of the Republic (Roy Ringwald or Wilhousky)
Prayer Is the Soul s Sincere Desire (Roberta Bitgood)
God of Grace and God of Glory (Paul Langston)
They ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love
This Is My Song
Lord, I Want to Be a Christian (H.T. Burleigh)