Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 4, 2019
Colossians 3:1-11 Commentary
On that glorious first Easter morning an angel told the two Mary’s that God had raised Christ from the dead. Two thousand years later God’s adopted sons and daughters hear an aging apostle tells us that God also somehow raised us with Christ.
But if it’s sometimes a little hard to believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, how much harder is it for God’s beloved people to believe that God somehow raised us with him (1)? It isn’t just, after all, that each of even the saintliest people will still die, unless Christ returns first. It’s also that we also don’t even always feel very spiritually alive; you and I sometimes feel spiritually listless, if not downright dead.
Scholars suggest that much of Paul’s letter to the church in Colosse is a kind of catechism for new Christians who wish to be baptized. In it he teaches about the kind of life that’s appropriate for those who through faith God has raised to life.
Since the early church often baptized Christians early on Easter, Colossians 3’s 21st century hearers might try to imagine early church leaders reading it to people who have been baptized for less than a day. You and I may even picture some of our text’s first hearers as figuratively dripping wet.
In Romans 6 Paul uses baptismal language that’s similar to what he uses in Colossians 3. There, however, he focuses on Christ’s death that we share by virtue of our baptism. In Romans 6, the apostle calls the Romans whom God has buried with Christ to “live a new life.” In Colossians 3 he focuses on Christ’s resurrection by referring to us as “raised to life.” Paul reminds Jesus’ followers that those whom God has already resurrected will someday appear with him in glory.
In a sense, however, these are just two sides of the same coin that is the Christian life. God didn’t, after all, just bury our old sinful selves with Christ. God has also graciously raised us with Christ to a new life of obedience.
Now on what’s perhaps a hot and sleepy Sunday (at least in the northern hemisphere), our text may seem about as helpful as instructions for living on Mars. So those who proclaim Colossians 3 want to let the Spirit help us look for ways to lay out at least some implications for the way we move into a new week.
Paul fills his letter to the Colossian Christians with language about what it means for God’s adopted children to live as Christians whom God has filled with the Holy Spirit. He reminds us that when we’re baptized, God somehow buries and raises us with Jesus Christ. In that way God has made Christ’s death his adopted brothers and sisters’ death, and Christ’s resurrection our resurrection.
And since God has done all that to, in and for us, Paul challenges us set our “hearts on things above” (1b). Yet that may initially sound like a call to some kind of New Age ascent to a higher mental state. It sounds almost as if the apostle is calling Jesus’ followers to detach our minds from this world. Others worry that he’s calling us to be, as the saying goes, so “heavenly minded” that we’re of no “earthly good.” In other words, so busy thinking about heaven that we don’t get involved on earth.
However, Colossians 2 strongly suggests that Paul is calling God’s people to resist such detachment. There, after all, he talks about “fine-sounding arguments” (4) and “hollow and deceptive philosophy” (8). So when Paul calls his readers and hearers to set our hearts on things above in this week’s epistolary lesson, he seems to be calling us to structure our daily lives in ways that are consistent with Jesus’ resurrection.
God has, after all, “hidden” our lives “with Christ in God” (3). While that’s an almost indescribably rich idea, it seems to at least mean that the fullness of Christ’s obedient life now belongs to his adopted brothers and sisters. So God graciously views and treats both those who proclaim and hear Colossians 3 as God does God’s only “natural” Son, Jesus.
However, those whose lives God has hidden with Christ now also have God’s Holy Spirit living in us. So God has given God’s adopted children both the freedom and the power to live as God’s responsible children. As a result, God’s dearly beloved children can let that Spirit shape our lives in ways similar to Jesus’. God, has after all, put our sinful ways to death and is raising us to new life ways of faithful obedience.
So Jesus’ followers don’t just have eternal life ahead of us after we die. God has given you and me himself, life and Christ right now. God has given God’s people the Spirit so that we already have growth and a closer walk with God. God has already also given God’s children the gracious gift of God’s Holy Spirit. So we don’t have to wait until we’re dying to think about the things above. God equips Jesus’ followers already now to act, talk and even think in Christ-like ways.
Sometimes, however, as Leonard Kline, to whom I owe many ideas for this Sermon Commentary, notes, that can be very hard to do. God’s adopted sons and daughters don’t, after all, generally live out Christ’s resurrection in dramatic ways. We live our resurrected life in perhaps even harder stuff like our money, family and friendships. We think about the things above in connection with nitty-gritty things like work, sexuality and our attitudes. Christians want to let God raise to life Christ-like views of things like our politics and hospitality. We want to let the Holy Spirit produce in us virtues like love, kindness, faithfulness and self-control.
Of course, such thinking about the things that are above means letting God reorder our natural desires. God’s dearly beloved people, after all, naturally desire wrong things like complete independence, wealth, happiness that we choose and control over others.
In the epistolary lesson the RCL appoints for this Sunday God reminds us that Christ is our life. God has, after all, raised not only him but also his adopted brothers and sisters from the dead. Now we belong to Christ, in body and soul, in life and in death. So we let God set our desires on the things God desires.
God graciously uses Christ’s resurrection to free us to desire what we really need. God frees us to desire God and God’s mercy, as well as a life that’s oriented to serving and loving both other people and the Lord. Misplaced desire can kill faith and vitality, beauty and goodness. God, however, gives us life to make us fully alive with Christ. God equips us to desire what’s good as we let God put to death our sin and raise to life new obedience that orients us toward the things that are above.
Some see parallels to the new life about which Paul writes in Colossians 3 in the movie, Dead Man Walking. It portrays the remarkable story of the execution of Matthew Poncelot. Poncelot is a bitter, hardened and cynical criminal whom the courts justly convicted of murder. However, Sister Helen Prejean volunteers to become his spiritual advisor as his time is running out. Because she’s a Christian, she wants to show Poncelot the face of love and help bring him to genuine repentance before he dies.
Eventually this condemned man announces to Prejean that he’s reading his Bible. It has convinced him, he tells her, that Jesus will be waiting for him after he’s executed. While this profession of faith is theologically solid, Sister Prejean reacts to it with something resembling shock. “That’s not how it is, Matthew,” she tells him. “It’s not like a ticket you hand in. You have to participate in your own redemption.”
Some Christians may react with our own shock to what Sister Prejean tells Matthew. She sounds, in some ways, after all, like she’s insisting a Christian must still work his way into heaven. Yet some of God’s adopted sons and daughters sense that Sister Prejean is onto something. Matthew Poncelot doesn’t initially, after all, seem to be “setting” his heart “on things above.” He just seems to want to save (or at least comfort) his own wretched skin.
Sister Prejean, on the other hand, wants Poncelot to enjoy the fullness of salvation in Jesus Christ. Shortly (and tellingly) after Easter, she challenges him to admit to his full responsibility for the ghastly crimes he has committed. Sister Prejean invites Matthew to repent not only to God, but also to the parents of the young people he killed.
At the end, God equips the condemned killer to do just that. Poncelot finally admits that he did assault the young woman and pull the trigger that killed her young friend. As the authorities strap him, as if to a cross, to the gurney with the poisonous IV dripping into his arm, he finally admits his role to his victims’ parents who witness his death. As Poncelot awaits his execution by lethal injection, he expresses deep sorrow for what he’s done.
So Poncelot, in one sense, accepts the implications of his baptism. He no longer offers excuses or alibis for his sins. Matthew stops treating God as a miraculous helper only at the time of his death. He, instead, begins to treat God as a loving Father who raises God’s adopted children to life.
Matthew Poncelot has, in other words, essentially set his mind on the things that are above. He finally begins thinking the way God wants God’s children to think about things. At the moment of his death, Matthew Poncelot finally lives as God intended him to live all along. He shows that God has buried his old, sinful self and has raised Matthew’s weak, often self-serving faith to life.
On just this side of the grave, God wraps Ponceloet’s life in Christ’s so that God sees God’s adopted son, albeit a sinful one, whom God has saved by grace. As a result, there seems to be little question with whom Poncelot will spend eternity on the other side his execution.
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