Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 12, 2020
Colossians 3:1-4 Commentary
On that glorious first Easter morning an angel shocked people by insisting that God had raised Jesus from the dead. Two thousand years later an aging apostle may no less shock Colossians 3:1-4’s proclaimers and hearers by insisting that God also raised us with Christ.
After all, if it’s sometimes hard to believe that Jesus rose from the dead, how much harder is it to believe that God raised Jesus’ adopted siblings with him? It isn’t just, after all, that we’ll still die, unless Christ returns first. It’s also that we don’t always feel even spiritually alive. God’s people, in fact, sometimes feel spiritually listless, if not downright dead.
Scholars suggest that much of Paul’s letter to the church in Colossae is a kind of catechism for new Christians who wished to be baptized. He’s teaching them about the kind of life that’s most appropriate for those who through faith God has raised to life.
Since the early church often baptized Christians early on Easter, we might imagine church leaders reading this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson to people who have been baptized only for a few hours. Colossians 3’s proclaimers and hearers may even picture some of its first hearers as figuratively still wet.
In Romans 6 Paul uses baptismal language that’s similar to what he uses in Colossians 3. In Romans, however, he focuses on Jesus’ death that his followers share by virtue of our baptism. There, after all, the apostle calls the Romans whom God has buried with Christ to “live a new life.” In this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson he focuses on Christ’s resurrection, referring to us as “raised with Christ” (1).
In a sense, however, Christians’ burial and resurrection with Christ are just two sides of the same coin that is the Christian life. God didn’t, after all, just bury God’s beloved people’s sinful selves with Christ. God has also raised those same people with Christ to a life of obedience.
On what seems like the strangest Easter of my lifetime, our text may seem about as practical as instructions for living on Venus. Yet I hope that we can see its implications for the way we move into a week that’s shadowed by COVID-19 and its horrible stepchildren.
Paul fills his letter to Colossae’s Christians with language about what it means to live as Christians whom God has filled with the Holy Spirit. He reminds his brothers and sisters in Christ that God has made Christ’s death and resurrection our death and resurrection.
And since God has done all that to, in and for us, Paul challenges us set our “minds on things above” (2). Yet at first that may sound like an invitation to some New Age ascent to a higher mental state. It sounds almost as if the apostle is calling us to detach our minds from this world.
Others worry that Paul’s calling God’s dearly beloved people 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.
In fact, however, already in Colossians 2 Paul calls his audience to resist such detachment. There, after all, he rejects “fine-sounding arguments” and “hollow and deceptive philosophy.” So when the apostle calls his brothers and sisters in Christ to set our minds on things above, he’s at least calling us to structure our lives in ways that are consistent with Jesus’ resurrection.
God has, after all, “hidden” our lives “with Christ in God” (3). Whatever else that mysterious phrase means, it at least means that the fullness of Christ’s obedient life now belongs to his followers. So God graciously views and treats us as God does Jesus, God’s only “natural” Son.
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, Christians can let that Spirit shape our lives in ways that are similar to Jesus’. God, has after all, put God’s precious people’s sinful ways to death and is raising us to new life ways of faithful obedience.
So those who have faithfully received God’s grace don’t just have eternal life when we die. God has given God’s dear children himself, life and Christ right now. God has given us the Spirit so that we already have change, growth and a closer walk with God.
So Christians don’t have to wait until we’re dying to think about “the things above.” God already “clothes” us with virtues like compassion and gentleness, forgiveness and love. Quite simply, God equips Jesus’ adopted brothers and sisters to already now act, talk and even think in our Big Brother’s ways.
Sometimes, however, as Leonard Kline, who lent me some ideas for this Commentary, notes, it’s very hard to wear such clothing. The clothing of the Spirit is, in so many ways, after all, out of style. The Spirit equips us to live out Christ’s resurrection in hard stuff like our money, family and friendships. We want to think about the things above in connection with nitty-gritty things like work, sexuality and our attitudes.
However, in April, 2020 the Spirit perhaps especially equips Jesus’ followers to set our hearts not on vaccines and treatments for COVID-19, but “on things above.” We set our minds not first on when we can return to work and socializing, but “on things above.”
God’s adopted sons and daughters let the Spirit “clothe” us with compassion for the virus’ sufferers and those who love them. We clothe ourselves with kindness toward those who grieve its terrible effects, including ones’ deaths.
Jesus’ followers let the Spirit clothe us with gentleness toward those who are terrified about loved ones or even themselves catching the virus. We clothe ourselves with patience as we wait for God to reveal God’s good purposes and plans in and through all of this. God’s dearly beloved people clothe ourselves with love for those on the virus’ frontlines, including health care providers, first responders and those whose “necessary” jobs expose them to the public’s possible contagion.
Of course, such thinking about things that are above and clothing ourselves in Christian virtues means letting God reorder our desires. Even Jesus’ followers, after all, naturally desire wrong things like revenge, complete independence, happiness that we choose and control over others.
On this Easter God reminds us that Christ is his adopted brothers and sisters’ life. God has, after all, raised not only him but also Jesus’ followers from the dead. Now God’s dear people belong to Christ, in body and soul, in life and in death. So we let God set our desires on the things God desires.
Misplaced desire can kill faith and vitality, beauty and goodness. God, however, gives us life to make us fully alive with Christ. So God equips God’s adopted children to desire what’s good as we let God put to death our sin and raise to life new obedience that thinks about the things that are above.
The extraordinary movie, Dead Man Walking tells part of the story of Matthew Poncelot. Poncelot is a bitter, hardened and cynical criminal whom the courts justly convict of murder and sentence to death.
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 the condemned man announces to Prejean that he’s reading his Bible. It has convinced him, Poncelot adds, 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 at what Sister Prejean tells Matthew. Yet she seems to be onto something. Matthew Poncelot doesn’t, 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. So shortly after Easter she challenges him to admit his responsibility for the ghastly crimes he has committed. Sister Prejean wants Matthew to repent not only to God, but also to the parents of the young people he killed.
At the end, the Holy Spirit equips Poncelot to finally admit that he did assault the young woman and pull the trigger that murdered her young friend. As the authorities strap him, as if to a cross, to the gurney with a poisonous IV dripping into his vein, he finally admits his role to his victims’ parents. As Poncelot awaits his execution by lethal injection, he expresses deep sorrow for what he’s done.
So Poncelot, in one sense, participates in his own redemption. He, after all, accepts the implications of his baptism. Poncelot no longer offers excuses or alibis for his sins. He stops treating God as a miraculous helper only at the time of his death. Poncelot, instead, begins to treat God as a loving Father who longs to hear God’s children confess our sins.
He has, in other words, essentially set his mind on the things that are above. He’s finally begun 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 Poncelot’s grave, God wraps his life in Christ’s, so that God sees and treats him as God’s adopted son, albeit a sinful one, as one whom God has saved by grace. As a result, there’s little question with whom Poncelot will spend eternity on the other side of the grave.
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!