No one likes being accused of “being so heavenly minded as to be of no earthly good.” Karl Marx has his own version of this (religion = narcotic) as have any number of cynics and critics of faith. Yet there it is in Colossians 3: if you have been raised with Christ, set your minds far above all things earthly and hone in on the resurrected and ascended Lord Jesus only. Sure sounds like a formula for being heavenly minded at the expense of closer-to-hand matters here on earth.
And yet . . . so much of the New Testament fights against that mentality. I once did an Ascension Day sermon in which I juxtaposed Colossians 3 with the ascension story in Acts 1 in which the angels of God told the disciples to stop staring into the heavens. There was, after all, work to be done right here on earth. The Holy Spirit was going to come DOWN here, not whisk the disciples up to wherever it was Jesus had gone. (And anyway note the irony: although the disciples were staring into heaven, the only angels they encountered that day were behind their backs here on earth!) So which is it: stop staring into heaven or start staring into heaven? Acts 1 or Colossians 3? The answer is “Yes.” Both.
Even Colossians 3 does not stop at all things heavenly. Were we to read the subsequent verses, we would find Paul dishing out plenty of advice for how life is supposed to go here on earth. There are lots of behaviors that must not be present among believers in order to make room for other actions and attitudes that will exude the sweetness of love and mutuality and abiding celebration of the goodness of God in Christ. In fact, by the time you get to Colossians 3:17 you find Paul throwing in the word “whatever” as in “whatever you do . . . do it unto the Lord.”
Apparently those of us who have been raised with Christ are at once fixated on that divine reality and busy at work here on earth. When Jesus ascended into heaven, he told the disciples a paradoxical, counter-intuitive truth: it was for their good he had to go away. Well, it sure didn’t FEEL very good to see their Master waft away. They felt abandoned and—in a feeling Jesus even anticipated they would experience—they felt orphaned by their leader. What good would it do for Jesus to take his resurrection life and squirrel it away in the heavenly places?
The answer would come ten days later during a Jewish festival known as Pentecost. The good Jesus’ absence would do was the sending forth of one very powerful Holy Spirit who would be the energizing force for the life of God’s people from then on out. In the nearly 2,000 years since then, the works enabled by that Spirit are finally incalculable. Can you imagine what the list would look like if we actually could catalogue every single thing the Spirit has accomplished through believers the last two millennia? Every exercise of a spiritual gift, every budding of a spiritual fruit, every small act of hospitality and kindness, every saving word of a missionary or evangelist, every church program to minister to the homeless, every kind word to the dying from a Hospice nurse, every wiping away of pus from a leper by the Sisters of Mercy in Calcutta, every confession of “Jesus is Lord” by anyone, anywhere . . . It is finally mind-boggling. Surely only God knows.
But here’s the thing: all of that would be acts of delusion or—at best—acts of simple humanitarianism UNLESS they all flow from the things above where Christ is seated as the resurrected and ascended Lord of lords and King of kings. Take away that reality and we may as well be the United Way or Greenpeace or UNESCO. Those are all fine organizations that find their own rationale for the good work they do but Christians believe their work has a higher source and a longer lasting (eternal) value because it all flows from the top down. Christians do and say what they do not because it feels good or seems like the right thing to do. No, we do and say it all because we believe it accords with the way things are meant to be in God’s good creation—the way they maybe were once upon a time in the beginning and the way they will be again when God in Christ declares “Behold, I make all things new.”
Easter is the in-breaking of our collective future into a distinctive moment in history. Christ’s resurrection is an out-of-time event, a temporal distortion in the space-time continuum at least as cool as the best such narrative Star Trek could ever come up with. Because that event did happen to Christ, we know it will happen to all of us—we will be raised, the creation will be made new. We know it will happen because in Christ it already did happen. That re-frames the way we look at everything.
So yes on this Easter Sunday, let us place our minds above where Christ is seated and not be consumed with the trivial concerns of this earth. But once we turn our eyes back to what is in front of us, we will find it to be so transformed that we will stay busy the rest of our lives living out even the tiniest fraction of all the possibilities for goodness and renewal that we see when we so much as glimpse those things above.
He is risen! Risen indeed! Now we turn to the living out of that glorious truth.
In the movie Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, we encounter a group of aliens who long ago set up shop in a part of the Aztec Mayan kingdom in South America. These aliens, however, are not from outer space but rather we learn they are interdimensional beings, creatures that inhabit the spaces in between time as we know it. One of the things this means is that they are able to see past, present, and future in a single glance, giving them essentially an almost omniscient grasp of what has happened, can happen, might happen, will happen. One of the villains in the film is a Russian agent who wants to tap into that knowledge for herself so as to help the Soviet Union gain world domination. The aliens grant her wish but, of course, such knowledge is too wonderful for her and it ends up quite literally blowing her mind.
In a strange but true way, when we set our minds above where Christ is seated, we also get to see a glimpse of all the possibilities in a world made new by Christ’s resurrection. We see what has happened, what can happen, what will happen if we live out lives of true discipleship. But far from unmaking us or blowing our minds, our minds are renewed, energized, set on fire (in a good way!) to understand all the possibilities of what working and living for the resurrected Lord of life can and must mean for however long we live on this earth. It is a vision that has led God’s people for 2,000 years and that will continue until our Lord comes again.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 16, 2017
Colossians 3:1-4 Commentary