Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon
We've been reading in Paul's letter to
the Colossians for the last several weeks, and we've finally
come to chapter 3. We're not very fast readers :).
This is actually the last text in the lectionary that I normally
follow, but I'm going to continue on, and next week pick up the
second half of this chapter, because it's a text that does not
appear in the lectionary, and rather challenging, I think.
We'll focus now on the first half of chapter 3, the passage for
this morning is the first 15 verses, I'm going to start with the
So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, 3for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.
5 Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). 6On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. 7These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. 8But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. 9Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices 10and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. 11In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!
12 As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.
a couple weeks ago, I
introduced the idea of the 'Cosmic Christ', that is rooted
in scripture from Genesis through Revelation, and especially in
the first chapter of Colossians where Paul speaks of the Christ
who has been present throughout all of creation. All places and
all time, in whom and for whom all things are bound together.
And this idea of Christ, the cosmic Christ, goes way beyond the
historical Jesus, who lived in a particular place and time and
history. And thus, it's helpful for us to be reminded now and
then that 'Christ' is not a last name of Jesus but rather the
first title given to Jesus by God, as Peter proclaims on
Pentecost: God made Jesus the Christ.
That is, in the physical flesh of Jesus, the Divine Spirit of
God was fused into one reality -- the spirit and the physical
together. And this joining of those two, the physical and the
spiritual, is the pattern, is the blueprint for all of creation.
Or to put it differently: the journey from Jesus to Christ, from
a world separated from God to a world united with God (in God)
is also our journey.
We have died, Paul says, and have been raised with Christ. And
so Paul speaks over and over again of being 'in Christ', dying
and rising with Christ, living in Christ. Christ is our life, he
says in this text. This is mystical language, as I suggested
last Sunday, that speaks of a different kind of reality than
what we are used to experiencing.
So, just think about with me for a moment, there are lots of Ken
Kesey fans in Eugene, right? We've got a Ken Kesey statue just a
couple blocks away. If you went around saying that you were 'in
Kesey', people would think you were on drugs. You know, never
never got off of his bus, 'Further' :).
Back when Obama was more popular than a rock star, before he
actually had to do anything :), lots of people were 'into
Obama', but did anyone go around saying they were 'in Obama'?
They would look at you kind of strange if you talked that way.
So, for Paul to be 'in Christ' was not
to be a 'fan' of Jesus, it was to join him in his quest to bring
together the spirit and the physical, the Divine and the human.
To make that presence of Christ as real in our lives as God was
fully present in the life of Jesus.
And such is the work of mysticism, and hence I suggested a
couple weeks ago that we are all called, in that sense, to be
'mystics'. So how on earth, do we do that?
And Colossians is, I'm suggesting, more than any other book in
Scripture, our guide for precisely that. It is a thoroughly
mystical letter speaking of such things as spiritual wisdom, the
mystery of God hidden throughout the ages, knowledge of God's
mystery, lives hidden with Christ in God, and so on and so
Now, there's a danger in this kind of language. And it is this:
that our language, our thinking, our speaking, and even our
acting will become so other worldly that we lose any connection
with this world, or relevance in this world. 'This world is not
my home, I'm just a passing through', how many sang that song
when we were kids, or maybe still do? Why worry about things
like poverty, and war, and injustice, and climate change, our
hope is in heaven, right? Anyone know someone like that?
So let's be clear: that is not the gospel message. In fact, it
is a serious distortion of the Gospel, as I think this text will
make clear. So Paul begins with this kind of otherworldly
perspective, 'set your mind on things that are above, not on
things that are on earth' -- very otherworldly, right?
And if we ended the text right there, stopped right there, we
might conclude that well, we're not to be concerned with things
here on earth, right? Which would be kind of like editing the
video of Shirley Sherrod, you know, to make her say exactly the
opposite of what she told that local chapter of the NAACP,
that's been all over the news this last week. Just as Mr.
Breitbart, the right-wing blogger who released that edited video
tried to embarrass our first African-American president by
unveiling a supposed black racist in the government (and thereby
in fact unveiled his own blatant racism), so too slave-owners
selectively edited Scripture to protect their power over their
slaves. And anti-suffragists selectively edited Scripture to
deny women the right to vote. And segregationist selectively
edited Scripture to deny people of color their full civil
rights. And hetero-sexists selectively edit scripture to deny
the gay and lesbian and bisexual community their full human
dignity. And the male hierarchy of many denominations have
selectively edited scripture to deny women their calling by God
into the ministry. I could go on and on and on, but actually
that gets into the text I want to cover next week, so I'm going
to just put that aside for the moment.
When we read the whole text, we see that
Paul quickly comes to Earth, so to speak. And the whole point of
this heavenly perspective is to live differently on earth. And
so Paul says, 'put to death, therefore, whatever in you is
earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed
(which is idolatry) on account of these -- the wrath of God is
coming on those who are disobedient. These are the ways you also
once followed when you were living that life, but now you must
get rid of all such things: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and
abusive language from your mouth'.
The essence of Paul's message is simply this: living in Christ
has real, practical implications for how we think, speak, and
act. Now, you don't have to be a mystic to understand that.
When I was in seminary, Judy and I were, in Claremont, I was
driving behind this car that had a fish symbol on the back --
you know the one, symbol of Christianity. Four teenagers in the
car, and they had just obviously pulled out of a fast food place
because they were throwing French fries out the window, and
ketchup packages, and the lids off of their drinks, and pretty
soon the whole cup with its ice came flying out, and paper from
the hamburgers, and I was getting madder and madder and madder
as I was following this car. And finally an opportunity came at
a stoplight to pull up next to them. I rolled down my window,
and I say "There is a sign on the back of your car that says you
are Christian and you're behaving like a bunch of pigs!". The
kid looked at me and said "It's my Mom's car, it's not my
There was another time I was in Fresno, and following another
car, a couple of young people in the front seat, and the
passenger (a gal), had finished a drink and she puts her can
outside the window, looks left, looks right, and then just drops
her can. Well, there wasn't a fish on the back of her car this
time, nothing I could cite, but I pulled up next to the car
anyway, riding a motorcycle those days, wearing a leather jacket
and looking tough, and I say to the young woman "You know,
there's a $250 fine for littering in this county and I have your
license plate number". They immediately did a U-turn and went
back looking for that can.
So, the moral of the story is: don't ever let your preacher
If we all lived as if someone was watching us from heaven all
the time, either we would live like saints, or we would be
neurotics :). And probably more of the latter. And frankly, I
think that's an awful way to live, someone always watching us.
I like Paul's idea much better -- that's not what he says. To
live not as if someone else is watching you from above, to live
as if YOU are watching yourself from above. With that kind of
heavenly perspective, to live in such as way as to live 'in
Christ', to have, as Paul says in Philippians 2, 'the mind of
Christ', so that we do the right thing just by second nature.
Of course, that's easier said than done.
And for all of us who have not benefited from the kind of
mystical experience that Paul had, he gives us a few clues of
what this heavenly mind is like. First, in the negative, with
these two lists of five things each to be avoided.
Now, the first three of which are sexual in nature --
fornication and impurity, passion or lust, which is evident that
folk in the first century were just as preoccupied and messed up
with all things sex as we are in this century. So don't let
anyone fool you with how 'hedonistic' our our culture has become
-- it has been that way ever since God made fig leafs. You know,
we've been trying to cover it up ever since. Get over it, and
move on :).
And then to those three Paul adds the more general catch-all
'evil desire and greed', which he says is simply another form of
idolatry. Our goods become our Gods. Or, as Jesus says, 'where
your treasure is, there your heart is also'.
And then in verse 8 he goes on to list another set of five:
anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language. And what's
interesting about that list, is that earlier in the text, in
verse 6, he says the wrath of God is coming. So how is it with
our minds in heaven we are not to use wrath on earth while God
in heaven does? I want to ask Paul on that, would you run that
by me again? We're supposed to have a Godly mind, but we're not
supposed to act like God? How's that work, Paul?
I think Paul would say, first of all, that God is God and we are
not. And even as we seek to become more Godly, there are limits.
And secondly, Paul assumes a certain character for God here in
this text that runs directly counter to other scriptures such as
Hosea 11, where God's wrath gives way to God compassion. I
believe that's the way God ultimately always is.
Before assigning any character to God,
we must ask ourselves: is that the character of God that we see
in the life of Jesus? And if not, why would we choose to keep
that character for God? You see, we do have a choice in our
perception of God.
And third, Paul undoubtedly would say to us that this is not an
exhaustive list or even the most accurate list: focus on the
larger picture, not on the individual pieces. And that larger
picture is summarized in verses 9 through 11, where instead of
giving us a list of virtues to counter now this list of vices,
Paul re-states the basic principle, using the analogy of an
ancient baptism ritual whereby a person would discard their old
clothes before baptism and then receive a new robe after
So listen to then how that works: "Do not lie to one another,
seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its
practices, and have clothed yourself with the new self, which is
being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its
creator. In that renewal, there is no longer Greek and Jew,
circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarians, Scythian, slave and
free". And then the clincher: "But Christ is all and in all".
And there we have that mystical language, the cosmic Christ once
again -- Christ is all, and in all.
Then, Paul goes on to list five positive attributes of this
identity in Christ, I'll read that text a little bit later, but
compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, followed
by five positive descriptions: bearing with one another,
forgiving one another, love, peace, and Thanksgiving.
If I were to diagram this (with a little help from the computer
and my iPhone, we'll put up a chalkboard here), we have on one
side two lists of those negative attributes, and then on the
other side, two lists (of five each) of the positive attributes
that balance themselves out very nicely. And in the middle is
the fulcrum: Christ in all, on which everything else balances.
And in that fulcrum, Paul then lists all of the possible
divisions (well, not all of the possible divisions), but a
sample of the greatest divisions of that society: Greek and Jew,
slave and free, barbarians and Scythian (by the way, Scythian is
the most despised of the barbarians in the Roman world), even
Scythian, and Christ is in all.
Now, how striking that image is. Now, what did Paul leave out?
Galatians 3:28, this language should sound very familiar: "In
Christ Jesus, there is neither slave nor free, male and female.
. .". Well, that's interesting, why did that get left out? Well,
I'm going to come back to that next week, we'll leave that for
The point is, our relationships in Christ, there at the center
in the fulcrum in the text, that relationship in Christ
transcends all else and and makes all human division
superficial. Unnecessary, contrary to God's design.
And don't ask just Paul. Ask Rusty
Schweickart, astronaut aboard the 1969 Apollo mission to the
moon. Schweickart was sent out on a spacewalk (I've always
wondered, who took this picture?):
. . . when Houston discovered a little
problem. They radioed to Schweickart and said "Would you just
hang still for a moment and don't do anything until we give you
further instructions". There he is floating out in space, all by
himself, hundreds if not thousands of miles above Earth, total
silence. Can you image what that would be like? Schweickart says
that he had a conversion experience. Two things: first, as he
looked down (he didn't have anything else to do, except to
ponder the meaning of this all) as he looks down on that shining
ball, against this totally black vastness of space, he realized
everything he cherished, everything that mattered for human
civilization, was there on that blue and white gem. All music,
all art, all history, family, everything.
And he said he had this sudden urge, this macho man, astronaut,
trained jet pilot, has this urge to hug and kiss that gem like a
mother does her new born baby.
And his second conversion was more political. He says as an
American of that era, he learned that the world was divided into
two halves -- the communist world and then there's the free
world. Floating there in space, looking down on earth, he
realized there's no boundaries. There's no nations. There's just
one seamless continuum of land and water. That national identity
is an illusion, that we are but one humanity.
He said in that identity, you identify with Houston, and then
you identify with Los Angeles, and then Phoenix, and New
Orleans, and everything, and the next thing you recognizing
yourself is you're identifying with North Africa. You look
forward to it, you anticipate it, there it is! And this whole
process begins to shift what it is you identify with. When you
go round and round in an hour and a half, you begin to recognize
that your identity is with the whole thing. And it makes a
You look down there and you can't imagine how many borders and
boundaries you've crossed again and again and again, and you
don't even see them. And you pass over the Mideast, and you know
there are hundreds of people killing each other over some
imaginary line that you can't see. From where you see it, the
thing is a whole, and it's so beautiful. And you wish you could
take one from each side in hand and say 'Look at it from this
perspective. Look at that! What's important?'
Matthew Fox notes that mystical experience that Schweickart had
cost us $40 million dollars :). Fortunately for us, we don't
need to spend that kind of money. It's right here in the text:
in Christ, where the spirit and the physical unite, where the
human and divine are in one flesh, there is a new humanity. What
Paul calls in his letter to the Romans 'a new creation', and
here in this text simply 'the new self', where the essence of
God's goodness of love and peace are written into our DNA.
And Colossians says to us, put aside
those negative things that you have learned apart from the
spirit, and look at the big picture. From that heavenly
perspective, and ask yourself how are we to live on this world,
how are we to live in this world, with heaven on our minds?
And this is the way Paul put it 2,000 years ago, to those folks
in Colossians, he says: "As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved,
clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness,
and patience. Bear with one another, and if anyone has a
complaint against another, forgive each other just as the Lord
has forgiven you. Above all, clothe yourselves with love which
binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace
of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called
in the one body, and be thankful".
Wise words for us today.
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