Now You See It...Now You Don't
Sun, July 24, 2016


(COL 1:1-14)

                Now you see it … now you don't.
                I’m not talking about a magic trick here, but rather a form of artwork called fore-edge painting.  It's a scene painted on the edges of the pages of a book that can be seen only when the pages are fanned.
                As I understand it, the art is applied to the edge of the margin of the individual pages and not to the actual fore-edge of the book itself (so named to differentiate it from the spine edge).  When the book is closed, you don't see the image because it's hidden by the gold leaf on the actual page edges.  But when the book is spread open, the surprisingly beautiful artwork appears.
                I’m told few people have ever actually seen these literary decorations.  As Anne Bromer says in her introduction to the collection at the Boston Public Library, one of the best collections of fore-edge painting in the country, "They are an obscure art form, hidden beneath a surface of gold.  When revealed, there is only wonderment!  It is as if you discovered magic on a book before you even read its opening lines."
                Painting on the edge of the pages was under way by the 16th century, and initially the paintings were usually portraits which one could easily see when the covers of the book were closed.  But, Bromer says, in the 17th century in England "Samuel Mearne, a bookbinder to the royal family, developed the art of the 'disappearing painting' on the fore-edge of a book."  To see these paintings - paintings with titles like "Diana with a Handmaid," and "Harvest Landscape,” the pages of the book must be fanned.
                Or put another way - they must be ruffled and disturbed.  Otherwise, their beauty remains hidden - sort of like our lives ... beauty that often is not seen until we're ruffled and disturbed.
                Let's go to our scripture reading for today where the apostle Paul tells the Colossian Christians that he and his coworkers have noticed their faith.  Unlike some of the other churches to which Paul wrote, he was not involved in the founding of the Colossian congregation.  In fact, according to 2:1, he's never seen the believers there "face to face."  What he knows of them is from a report by Epaphras, the Christian who established the church, "and he has made known to us your love in the Spirit" (v. 8).  Apparently, when the book of their lives was opened, a beautiful picture appeared.
                Paul goes on to describe the various textures, colors and images of their faith, hope, and love.  He writes, "We have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus, and of the love you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven.  You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the Gospel …" (vv. 4-5).  …..
                Well, what's revealed in your life when something or someone ruffles your pages?  How about, for example, when you're in conversation with someone you love and a disagreement arises.  Is your response something beautiful?
                In other words: Is your Christianity something that's theoretical or something that's applied?  You've probably heard the word "applied" associated with "science."  Applied science is different from what is sometimes called "pure science," in that the latter primarily pursues knowledge about the world, the cosmos, or some specific field for the purpose of understanding it, but without any concern as to what to do with that knowledge.
                There's certainly a place for pure science.  But applied science means taking the discoveries of pure science and putting them to work to solve practical problems, or to improve conditions in real life.
                What the Apostle Paul has to say in our text reminds us that he's talking about applied theology, applied Christianity.  He writes, "We have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God's will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding" (v. 9).
                If we are going to have a knowledge of God's will, as Christians, there's no other way to get it than to follow Christ.  For this to happen, there is a sense in which we need to do a "pure" study of him. That is, we need to know what Jesus said and did.  But the purpose of our pure research is to aid us in applying what we learn about Jesus to how we live and how we interact with others.  The more we know about Jesus (pure knowledge), the better we're able to follow him (applied knowledge).  The more we read the Gospels and see how he handled the things that fanned his "pages," so to speak, the better we're able to live the same way in our own discipleship.
                One way to possibly get at that is to consider what advice you might give to a new Christian.  Suppose somebody says to you, "I have just accepted Jesus.  What do I do next?"  How would you answer that person?  Is there a "step one" that comes to mind?
                One piece of advice you would hopefully give is to tell the person that he or she needs to connect with a congregation and start going to church, realizing that a faith community can both hold us accountable, and give us a place to grow in and live out our faith.  But assuming they've already done that, what else would you suggest as an important next step?
                How about this?  "Go home and read the Sermon on the Mount - chapters 5-7 of Matthew, and then try to live your life according to what Jesus said there.”
                "And for a next step, read the whole Gospel of Luke (or any of the Gospels for that matter – Luke just happens to be MY favorite) and do the same thing.  Try to put what you learn about Jesus into practice in your own life."
                …..  Did you notice in that advice that you can't easily talk about pure knowledge of Jesus without sliding over into how to apply it?
                Those are not the only instructions we could give, but they are a terrific place to start because the primary meaning of the word "Christian" is "follower of Jesus" or "imitator of Christ."  And how can we follow or copy one about whom we know little?  Of course, there is more to being a Christian than that … but there is no being a Christian without that.
                What does all this have to do with anything?” you may ask.  Remember: Our knowledge of Jesus in both a "pure" and an "applied" way affects the magic and beauty of the painting that is our life when our pages are ruffled.  That's what we are talking about here.
                So, to continue, here's the thing: Generally, reading the Sermon on the Mount or the Gospels is not enough exposure to knowledge about Jesus to shape our lives toward him.  …..
                There's a syndicated radio program called Intelligence for Your Life, where, in between the music and the commercials, host John Tesh puts out little nuggets of information that give the show its name.  They are shorthand "how-to" summaries on all sorts of topics, such as "Four ways to have more joy in your life," "Three ways to make Valentine's Day special this year," "Five ways to get ahead at work" and many more like that.  Tesh has a staff that spends hours scouring books, magazines, websites, etc. for these items.
                Much of the information the show puts out is good advice - if you remember to apply it.  But even if you listen to the show regularly, you probably wouldn't be able to apply all the advice given because, for one thing, there is more of it than anyone can absorb just by listening, and, for another, it is sometimes just too shorthanded to really grasp.
                In other words, Tesh might tell us five ways we can be happier, but it's pretty hard to translate nugget statements into a way of life because they don't give us enough exposure to the thinking and experience behind them.  The best they can do is point us in a new direction of investigation.
                In a sense, telling a new Christian to go home and read the Sermon on the Mount, or the Gospel of Luke, is little more than an "intelligence for your life" piece of shorthand advice.  But if the person really does it - if we really do it … if we read those Scriptures with the idea that we want to apply what we are learning about Jesus to our own lives, we will be painting beautiful art on the pages of the book that is our life.
                To say this yet another way, knowledge about Jesus, to be effective, has to be linked with commitment.  There are people who are quite well-informed about Jesus, but who do not put what they know of Christ into practice in their lives.  …..
                It happens that one of the leading authorities today on the life of Jesus a professor who chairs the department of religious studies at a major university, and who has written some books about Jesus and about Scripture.  But what this scholar does not do is to suggest how his readers might apply his discoveries and interpretations about Jesus to one's life.  He's got the pure science of Jesus down cold; but that's where his research ends.
                When asked about this, the learned professor replied that he himself didn't apply his knowledge of Jesus to anything in his life because, when it comes to God and the whole Jesus thing, he's an agnostic!  Knowledge about Jesus, in his case, does not translate into a knowledge of Jesus.  It did not become a support for faith.
                So, if the title of our book is to include both our name and the label "Disciple of Jesus," we also need to keep applying what we know of Jesus, and what we continue to learn about him as we study the Bible.
                "Continue to learn" is an important stipulation.  Sometimes we who have been on the Christian path for a while stop learning about Jesus.  We've read the Gospels, or at least have been exposed to them, and we have a sense of who Jesus is and what he did.  But there is more to learn.  It's awfully easy to fly by the seat of our pants in life instead of intentionally trying to put what we know of Jesus to work in our lives.  Being a Christian also means continually and intentionally following him, and learning new things.

                So … how can one have a fore-edge life, that reveals beauty when it is ruffled and disturbed?  And the answer is that one needs to apply one's knowledge of Christ to the nitty-gritty of life.  Then, when the pages get ruffled, not to worry: Something beautiful, even magical, will appear.
                Such was the experience of the Colossian believers, and it can be ours as well.  Their fore-edge life in Christ revealed a portrait of faith and love (v. 4); lives that were "worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him (v. 10); lives that were bearing "fruit" (v. 10); and lives that were being made "strong," and capable of enduring "everything with patience" (v. 11).  So may it be in our lives as well.

                …..  And let us pray  …..