Sample Sermon: One of the finer films from the 1980s is Bruce Beresford’s Tender Mercies. The film chronicles the story of Mac Sledge, a one-time country-western singing star whose life later dissolved into a fog of alcohol and shiftlessness. Divorced from his wife and estranged from his only daughter, Mac staggers through life until one night he collapses onto the porch of a small, lonely little motel and gas station out in the middle of nowhere on the Texas prairie. The motel is run by Rosa Lee, a young widow who is raising her boy, Sonny, and trying to make ends meet. Even though Mac is a shipwreck of a human being, grizzled, drunk, and despairing, Rosa Lee takes him in, sets him to work for her, and through this, transformation comes to Mac’s life. Over time he kicks his drinking habit, becomes a kind of father figure to young Sonny, ends up marrying Rosa Lee, and begins to attend the Baptist church in which Rosa Lee is a member of the choir.
In one lovely scene, both Mac and Sonny are baptized one Sunday morning. After the pastor dunks him into the waters of baptism, Mac stands back up, blinking and drenched, water dripping down off his balding head and glistening on his grizzled beard. It’s a portrait of grace. But after the service, Sonny and Mac are sitting outside the motel and Sonny says, “Well, we done it. We got baptized.” “Yup, we sure did,” Mac replies. “You feel any different?” the lad asks. Chuckling, Mac says, “I can’t say I do, not really.”
But we as viewers know the truth: Mac is different. Deep down on the inside of his heart and soul, Mac is a changed man. But outwardly it’s true: the baptism doesn’t seem to change much, and it surely doesn’t make life necessarily any easier. In the course of the film Mac manages to have a kind of reconciliation with his estranged daughter, now in her mid-20s. But no sooner does this good thing happen and the daughter is killed in a terrible car wreck. Near the end of the film, still grieving, Mac stands in the middle of a vegetable garden and tells Rosa Lee that he doesn’t understand life. He can’t understand the tender mercies of God that led him to Rosa Lee and to the transformation his life so badly needed. But then, he can’t understand why his daughter had to die, either. We often hear people pondering why bad things happen in life, but Mac is honest enough to admit to being equally flummoxed by the good things. Grace can be as arresting as tragedy.
Mostly, though, grace and tragedy, the good and the bad, co-exist in this life. Yet as Christians journeying through this world, we say that the one thing that makes the difference for us is the one thing that, by all outward appearances at least, seems liked it could not possibly make any difference: baptism. Baptism is a watery sacrament. It is literally watery, of course, but not a few people today would regard it as watery in the more metaphorical sense of being insubstantial, thin, colorless. In a world so full of problems and tragedies, evil and dread, how could baptism make a dent?
But there can be no doubting that Paul believed baptism is the single most powerful moment in a Christian’s life. Colossians 2 is a remarkable passage for many reasons, not the least of which is the theological freight that Paul loads onto baptism. And it all ties in with Paul’s favorite two-word phrase: “In Christ.”
In Colossians 2, it is nothing short of startling to see how often Paul talks about our being either “in Christ” or “with Christ.” It all stems from baptism, Paul says. Baptism somehow catches us up in the power of Christ’s death and resurrection. Once you are baptized in the power of the Holy Spirit, it’s almost as though you need to send out the spiritual equivalent of those “Change of Address” cards that people mail out to everyone they know after moving into a new house. Because Paul teaches us that after baptism, we are spiritually relocated. It’s a change-of-address for our hearts.
Actually, Paul talks about this “in Christ” idea all over the place across his thirteen New Testament epistles. Scholars have struggled ever since to draw a bead on precisely what Paul meant by this central phrase. We Christians have grown accustomed to it and so lose sight of its novelty and punch. But surely even our eyes would widen if we ran across someone who claimed that as an American he believed himself to exist “in Jefferson.” We’d wonder what a Hindu could possibly mean if he claimed to be “in Gandhi” or if a Muslim was said to exist “in Mohammed.” We talk about our being “in Christ” and we do so pretty casually. But what in the world does it mean?
For Paul it clearly means more than seeing Christ Jesus as an inspiring role model or as something in which you have keen interest. People do sometimes say things like, “These days I’m really into yoga” or “Lately I’ve been trying to get into jazz music.” But that’s just a way of expressing interest in something. But being in Christ means far more.
So maybe being “in Christ” is a way to express the location of your hope. Sometimes people talk that way. A general might tell his troops, “I’ve placed all my confidence in you, boys!” Sometimes you tell someone, “I’m putting my trust in you. Don’t let me down!” But this seems a bit weak, too. Paul doesn’t indicate that we’ve placed just part of our lives into Jesus’ hands. He doesn’t seem to be saying that it’s only our love or our trust or our hope that is now located in Christ. Paul says the totality of who we are is located in Christ.
Maybe the radical nature of this is captured through something the late Lewis B. Smedes once wrote when he suggested that being “in Christ” points to a “situational Christology.” That is to say, what Jesus did on the cross and in rising from the dead created a whole new situation in the cosmos. There was an actual shift in the universe’s balance of power. As Paul writes in verse 15, the powers and authorities that had been vying for cosmic supremacy were disarmed and turned into a spectacle. What’s more, the written code—the kind of spiritual IOU that we all owed to God for having spoiled his world—that IOU was nailed to the cross and stamped with the word “Cancelled” in the ink of Jesus’ blood.
The only way to make sense of the idea that we now dwell “in Christ” is to believe that concretely speaking, Jesus created a new situation in the universe. When you through baptism enter that new situation, when you cross the border into the new world Jesus made, things become possible for you that simply would not be true were it not for Jesus.
It’s a whole new world now because of Jesus’ victory over death and the devil, over sin and guilt. The situation is new. And in baptism we get drawn into that new world. Objectively speaking, there is power available for changed living. There is wisdom available to discern truth. There is grace available to continually cleanse our lives. There is a gospel to proclaim as we invite others into this new world.
Baptism brings all this to us. But like Mac in Tender Mercies, we live out our baptism in Christ while still remaining in this world, too. In this world there are still any number of competing theories and philosophies that attempt to explain what’s what. There is virtually no end to ideas as to where the world came from or where it’s going. Amazon.com is clotted with books that purport to tell you the “real” nature of God. Many today suggest that all roads lead to heaven, that each religion is partly right, that your ideas are as valid as mine.
We live in a world that is highly adept at distracting us from the centrality of Christ. The reality of the nightly news, the press of our busy schedules, the glitz of the entertainment industry, the passion that politics can stir up in us—so much of that seems more real, more substantial, more compelling than anything that the waters of baptism ever made possible for us. On the average day it’s probably the case that Siri tells you what to do more often than you ever sense the Holy Spirit leading you along in Christ.
In Colossians 2 the Apostle Paul comes to us by the Holy Spirit to remind us of one idea to which we need to return again and again: remember your baptism and be thankful. Remember that linchpin part of the Christian faith that claims that all appearances to the contrary, even in this rough and tumble world, it is baptism that makes all the difference. It is baptism that fills each of us with the fullness of Christ. Indeed, look again at the remarkable chain of thought in verses 9 & 10: Paul says that in Christ all the fullness of God dwells in bodily form. But then, without missing a beat, Paul goes on to say that because we are now “in Christ” we ourselves have been given the fullness of Jesus, which by extension means we share in the fullness of God himself!
It boggles the mind and addles the senses, but the fact is that even those of us who were baptized as infants were given, already way back then, a share in the fullness of the universe’s sovereign Creator and Redeemer God. Paradoxically, however, our baptismal filling up of God’s power does not puff us up in self-important pride. As it turns out, the more of God we have in us, the more humble we are, the more intrigued we are by the idea of serving one another in self-effacing love. Verse 18 says that it is only when we get distracted from the vital reality of dwelling in Christ that we get puffed up with other silly and distracting ideas. Baptism fills us up but it does not puff us up; baptism brings us into Christ but only so that we may serve others in the hope of bringing them into that glorious new cosmic situation that we now call home.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 24, 2016
Colossians 2:6-15 (16-19) Commentary