The Viral Gospel

Colossians 1:1-14 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, 2 To the holy and faithful brothers in Christ at Colosse: Grace and peace to you from God our Father.3 We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, 4 because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints— 5 the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard about in the word of truth, the gospel 6 that has come to you. All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth. 7 You learned it from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf, 8 and who also told us of your love in the Spirit. 9 For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. 10 And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, 11 being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. 13 For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

Did you hear the news? Justin Bieber just lost 3,538,228 followers on Instagram. I’m telling you it was a blood bath for him. The Queen Bee, Beyoncé, didn’t fare a whole lot better. It was a bloodletting for the ages. Apparently, Instagram went through and removed all the little robots in the social media world that were fake accounts controlled by humans for money. Instagram failed to stop the on-line rioting and outrage when it explained to Business Insider that the profiles it removed were “already deactivated spam accounts or violated the service’s guidelines.”

Not only was there outrage, there was desperation and despair. Zoeward5 poetically captured how this all felt to her. She said, “Lost my followers and I’m full of black rainbows that are colder than my soul.” MTV posted an article about the outrage from late month that read like this: “Some day, your grandchildren might ask you, ‘Where were you during the Great Instagram Purge of 2014?’” Instagram’s move has even gotten named. People are calling it the “Instagram Purge,” or, the “Instagram Rapture.” If you’re wondering (I’m sure you are!), I’m still sitting pretty. I have the same whopping nine followers that I started the purge with.  

Now all of this probably seems ridiculous, juvenile, and immature to some of you. It’s even possible that some of you haven’t even heard of Instagram before. (If you’re wondering it’s a photo sharing service.) But what can’t be denied is that human beings are suffering right now because of this purge. Why? Instagram is a platform. It’s a platform where people can go to find affirmation, love, and acceptance. You can post a picture of your life. People will oooh and aaaaah over it. And there you have it. Instagram is a place where you can find affirmation, love, and acceptance. New York Magazine said it like this: “Those Instagram users who go to bed each night confident that their followers are real - that there are actual humans out there admiring their avocado toast - might soon awake to find out their fragile construction of self has collapsed.”

Are you starting to see it? For some, Instagram is far more than a photo sharing service. For some, Instagram is a service and platform that constructs their identity. It’s the thing in their life that’s telling them they’re ok - that they’re loved, accepted, and affirmed. So when Instagram takes away their followers they’re doing a whole lot more than taking away their followers. Instagram becomes guilty of taking away their very sense of self and that devastates them. Profiles matters.

Of course, you don’t need Instagram to have a platform on which to build your profile. All you need is a Christmas letter. I was just talking to someone after church last week about a Christmas letter they had received filled with world travel, adventure and fun. We will use anything to convince ourselves and others that we are special, affirmed, and loved. Profiles matter to us. Believe me. I’m not making light of any of it. All of this goes to the core of who we are. All of this is about our very identity. Whatever platform we use - whether it’s Instagram, a resume, the clothes we wear, the jobs we work, the house we buy, or the various iterations of ourselves that we project to others - is the way that we are trying to achieve for ourselves the love, acceptance, and affirmation that we sense we need. What we don’t realize is that when we build an identity for ourselves it ends up hurting us.

I went out for football in high school because I’m totally built for it. Yeah, that actually is funny. No, I went out for football in high school because I wanted to be one of the guys. I wanted to be accepted and affirmed through football. Football was a big deal at my high school. Back then, we were winning conference and state championships like nobody’s business. So I went out for football to be with the guys. But it was never really me. I loved to play basketball at the time. So one night during football season I played a pickup game with some friends and ended up wrecking my ankle.

The next day I had to confess. I hobbled out onto the football field and told the coach what had happened. I remember what happened next. He screamed at me. He screamed and screamed and screamed. He shamed me in front of everybody who was important to me at the time. And then when he was done shaming me, he shamed me some more. And then when he was done shaming me he told me - I’ll never forget it - “Get out of my face.” So I walked off that field. I walked away with a profile in tatters - rejected by everything I thought was important so that I could find out what was.

I had an identity that was rooted in being one of the guys so God loved me enough to show me how empty, unfulfilling, and passing that was. You’ve built your identity on something too. You can discover it by asking yourself: what’s important about me? Who am it? Your identity is what drives you. It’s where you find your self-worth. It’s where you find your strength. It’s what keeps you going. The scary part is that there are an infinite amount of false identities that we can build for ourselves. Usually they are good, healthy vocations that become too important. Things like motherhood, career, health, being one of the guys, or financial security become the center of lives. What we don’t always realize is that identities we build for ourselves always end in foolishness, desperation, anger, and spiritual ruin like the me that walked off the gridiron that day.

That’s why it has to be God that gives us our identity. It has to be him that builds us on something that is unchanging, lasting, and ultimately fulfilling. He does that through the gospel. The gospel is good news that is so powerful, so mind-bending, and so reality altering that it takes the structures of our heart and flips them on their head. That’s called conversion. And it’s there where we begin to see ourselves in light of our true identity. It’s also there where we find all the love, affirmation, and acceptance that we’ll ever need. The gospel says that the Father, “has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light.” (v. 12) Against every expectation God has qualified us not for rejection, but to share in the ultimate inheritance. How can this be true? “He has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (v. 13, 14) Do you see how powerful, mind-bending, and reality altering that is?

All we’ve ever known is this world where we are required to build our profiles. We write resumes. We choose to buy certain clothes, hang out with certain people, and live in certain neighborhoods. We’ll even use online platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to the same end. Why? Because the secular gospel is a gospel of success, money, status, personal growth, and achievement. And that becomes why we’re important, affirmed, and loved. And then God brings us the true gospel that sets us free from all of that. It’s a gospel that says, “I’ve got this. You just watch.” And in the true gospel he goes ahead and gives us everything we’ve ever craved. He gives us status and affirmation - we are sharers in the ultimate inheritance. He gives us acceptance - he took us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves. He gives us rescue from rejection - we have redemption in Jesus, the forgiveness of sins. That’s where we find our identity. We are rescued children of God, in whom God is always working to firm up that identity.

That’s what God was up to in the gospel as it swept the ancient world. When Paul wrote to the Colossians here he said, “All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing.” (v. 6) That wasn’t hyperbole. Jesus rose from the dead and within one generation the gospel had gone viral - without the internet! I love the quote from an ancient Christian who lived just after this time named Tertullian. He said, “We are but of yesterday, and yet we already fill your cities, islands, camps, your palace, senate, and forum. We have left you only your temples.” But even more important than the viral spread of the gospel to others was the viral spread of the gospel in you and in me. That’s what Paul is emphasizing here. He’s saying, “If the gospel is accomplishing that out there. Just imagine what it’s going to accomplish in here (in souls) as it firms up your gospel-given identity.”

That’s what the gospel does. It spreads virally in you. Listen to how Paul talks about the accomplishments of the gospel inside of a human being. “... you may live a life worthy of the Lord... please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God… have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father.” (v. 11-12) Do you see what Paul is saying? The gospel isn’t just powerful enough to change your status, right your rejection, give you an ultimate inheritance, and build you a true identity. The gospel is far more powerful and has a much broader reach than that. The gospel not only gains the conversion of our hearts, it’s also the fuel for personal growth. The gospel not only justifies us before God, it’s also the engine for the pursuit of more holiness. The gospel not only gives us the satisfaction of a future with God, but also a deeper satisfaction with our lives in the present. Do you see that? That’s the viral work of the gospel as it firms up our profile.

That’s what it did when I walked off the field that day. Always my greatest spiritual counselor, I called my Dad. I remember what he said, “You’re in the school of the Holy Spirit. You’re still God’s child. You have everything you need.” That’s honestly what he said. I was still loved, accepted, and affirmed. God took away my false identity that day so I could have my true one. I was God’s rescued child. The gospel was setting me free. You know what happened next? I did what at my high school amounted to pure entrepreneurship. I did what I was actually good at. I began to run. I learned excellence and hard work. And as God would have it, I brought home a state championship in track to the same coach who sent me off the field that day. I kept running and in college I quite literally ran into my wife, Melanie. And now looking back on it, through those experiences God gave me enough entrepreneurial gumption so that I’d make the choice to come to Aiken. As the gospel firms up our true identity, it makes more inroads in our hearts and lives.

It was time for the Colossians to understand that. A pastor named Epaphras had beautifully pastored these Colossian people. He had brought the Colossians the gospel and it flipped the switch for them. They got it. They said, “I don’t need to offer sacrifices or live by any certain code. I don’t need to try to make God like me and accept me. Jesus did that for me.” They believed the gospel. They really did. And now they thought it was time to move on. They thought, “This is just great. I’m forgiven. I’m loved. I’m on my way to eternal life with God. This is just great, but I’m still living in this world right now and I’m still not satisfied with my life here. I want to sense more peace and I want to be a better person.” They believed the gospel and now they thought it was time to move on. But Paul is arguing right here from the outset of this letter that it’s never time to move on from the gospel. It always time for us to move more deeply into it - in our thinking about ourselves, the things we value, the lives we lead, and the relationships we have.

I got a Facebook message recently that showed that to me in a powerful way. I had friended someone there and hadn’t yet been accepted. Then suddenly one Sunday morning I was. And this was message that came along with it: “I admit I hesitated to accept your friend request at first for fear I might be embarrassed about what might be on my Facebook page. But as I am preparing for church this morning, I realized ‘real peace for real people.’ So, here I am! Thanks for asking me to be your friend.” Do you see what happened right there? The gospel had invaded our relationship. I needed her to see me with grace and she needed me to see her the same way. The gospel gave us the power to be vulnerable to each other.

The gospel’s not done with us yet. And we’re not done with the gospel. As our gospel identity - our profile - firms up in our hearts, it’s got more idols to unseat, more dissatisfactions to satisfy, more relationships to heal, and more stress to defuse. But then again, that’s why God gave us a book like Colossians and a sermon series like this that gives us a chance to work through it. Amen.

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