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Christ in All

Sermon - 8/01/10
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Colossians 3:1-15

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 first four:
 

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.

 

So 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 forth.

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 fault!" :).

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 follow you!

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 baptism.

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 now.

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 change.

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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