I've been somewhat
obsessed of late with location. It's not only because 18 of us are
headed off to the World of Paul pilgrimage the end of this week, I admit
that is at the forefront of my mind. But also because understanding of
the text depends a lot on its location. And I refer not only to its
geographic location, but its historical, its social, economic,
religious, political. What you might call it's "contextual" location.
For instance, how we understand, and how we feel about this prayer that
I'm about to share with you, spoken by the leader of a country after a
time of national distress, depends on that location. So here's the
"Providence withdrew its protection, and our people fell. Fell as
scarcely any other people heretofore. In deep misery we learn again to
pray, in this hour we sink to our knees and beseech our almighty God
that he may bless us, that he may give us strength to carry on in the
struggle for freedom, the future, the honor, and the peace of our
people, so help us God".
Now, was that Abraham Lincoln, after the start of the Civil War? I mean,
it sounds like something very 'Lincoln-esque".
Or maybe President
Franklin Delano Roosevelt after Pearl Harbor, you can almost hear the
President on the radio.
Or how about President Bush after September 11?
Certainly the President made many such statements and prayers, and
called for the day of prayer.
The key is location. And in this case, some may already be a little
suspicious, because I've used this prayer once before, the location is
not the United States but Germany. The speaker is not the President, but
And when you know that,
it changes how you understand and how you feel about that prayer.
the Easter story is about location. In this case, the location of Jesus.
The women went to the tomb and he was not there:
Jesus meets them later
(Matthew tells us), and in effect tells them 'Don't hang around here
wondering about what the heck just happened, go back to Galilee where at
all started, and get ready for the journey of your life', and an even
bigger journey that will take them to the ends of the earth.
In this text to the Colossians, Paul (who of course is the one who
fulfilled that great commission to go to the ends of the earth, more
than any other Disciple) takes it even further and says: "Set your mind
on things above, not on things of the earth". Location.
And I'll be honest with you, I'm not one for other-worldly thinking,
other than the kind that comes from NASA and the like:
follow the recent revelations from NASA, the just incredible,
breath-taking scenes, never before seen, new insights and pictures of
Set your mind on things
that are above? Is that what the writer of Colossians is suggesting? Our
understanding of the heavens, literally, has changed. And so before we
get above ourselves, I'd like to bring us back down to earth and to
think about the location of this text. To whom is the author writing?
Where the heck is Colossae anyway?
And so I took out a map, and I had a fair idea but I wasn't sure, I knew
it was in Turkey, and what do you know -- see that pink little star right
That's right where a bunch of us are going to be next week, on May 3rd.
Only not in Colossae, because there's not much of historical
significance in Colossae, but just at the end of the pink star is
about 15 miles from Colossae:
is one of the world's largest mineral springs, and it has been a center
of healing for over 2,000 years. During Paul's day, that's where you
went for healing.
And even today, people
still go there and sit in the hot springs for healing or recreation or
what have you. What is most fascinating about Hierapolis is not just the
ruins from that Roman period (that are quite incredible) but the acres
and acres of ancient tombs literally extending for couple miles
alongside the road as you enter into Heirapolis:
Now, what does that tell you? Well, the first thing it tells you is that
a whole bunch of those folk that went to Heirapolis for healing didn't
make it :) And that's where they died. The second thing it tells you is
that many of those folk were quite wealthy, because common folk didn't
get tombs like this. And in fact, all of these tombs have long since
been robbed of whatever treasure they held, that the deceased buried
So when we go to see these tombs, here's my question: are the broken
vaults that you see caused by someone breaking in, or are they caused by
someone breaking out?
But you see, that's not a punch-line, nor is it as absurd as the
question sounds. For is that not the core of the Christian faith, that
one did indeed break out? Is that or is that not what resurrection
means? Or might it mean something different, something even more,
something even greater, something even more fantastic than good news for
And note that absolutely central to Paul's claim is not just that Christ
was crucified and raised from the dead, Paul's claim is that we have
died with him and are also raised from the dead. In the previous
chapter, Paul makes quite clear, in chapter 2 verse 10 ("You have come
to fullness in Christ"), and then verse 12: "When you were buried with
him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power
But for Paul, the death and resurrection is neither a past event for
one, nor a future event for all, but rather it is about our
participation in the life of Christ now. It's not "will" be raised, it's
Now, in the world of Paul in the first century, there were all kinds of
stories of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian gods who were raised from the
dead, such as this Temple of Isis in Pompeii:
Isis was one, the story
goes, who raised her brother from the dead. And one of the central
claims of the Emperor cult was that Julius Caesar was raised from the
dead and ascended to the heavens.
Now, it's easy to dismiss such as simply a cult established for
political purposes to enhance the power of the current Emperor as a
descendent of Julius Caesar (that would make you, since Julius Caesar
was divine, and you're his descendent, you are then also divine, the son
of a God).
What is remarkable is how that cult around the Roman Emperor
spontaneously sprung up in city after city after city, leaving behind
temples across the Roman Empire.
Most financed not by Rome, but by the
local populations in their rush to pay homage to the divine Caesar,
Savior of the World , son of God.
Now while you can still
see much of the ruins left behind from all of those temples, what is
equally striking is not one is still in use today for the purpose for
which it was built. Not one of those stories about a dying and rising
God brings people together today to celebrate that God. Not one of those
thriving cults of the first century has thousands, let alone millions,
So what makes the Easter story so different?
A couple of us went to attend a Seder at Temple Beth Israel on Tuesday,
a community Seder for anyone in the community. The story of the Passover
is told at the Seder meal. And it is, of course, a remarkable story of
how the Jewish tradition also survived against the odds in an earlier
time and place when they were greatly outnumbered.
And at that Seder meal, the question is always asked, normally by the
youngest person present, why is this night different from all the rest?
So the question we might ask is this: why is this resurrection so
different from all the rest?
And the typical answer is something like "Well, ours is true. Ours
really happened. Theirs is just a myth". When you visit the world of
Paul, the Roman Empire of the first century, and you see massive temple
after temple after temple, and you ponder the enormous resources, the
time and skill it took -- in some cases centuries -- to build those
temples, and then you realize people didn't build things like the
Parthenon to just a myth.
Those temples represent powerful realities in
the life of those people and those communities.
So what evidence would you have to offer in contrast to that? If you
lived in the mid-first century, which would you find more credible -- a
small band of mostly peasants, slaves and immigrants, with no temples,
no scriptures of their own (that would take a couple centuries to
develop), or a well-established tradition with temples, priests, and
powerful patrons, including every ruling authority you knew?
And in fact, the prevalent
attitude towards that early Christian community can be visibly seen in
the oldest archaeological evidence of the Christian faith we have:
It dates from around the year 200, it was found in servant quarters in a
palace in Rome (and that in and of itself is interesting -- that it was
in servant quarters). Today it is kept in a very small museum on the
Palatine Hill in Rome:
It's simply a chunk of plaster on the wall in
that museum that most tourists pass on by.
that wall, on that piece of plaster, is anti-Christian graffiti:
annotate it to highlight the graffiti):
a crucified man with the head of the donkey. And the inscription says:
"Alexander worships his God".
So, other than for a few surviving manuscripts from the second century,
the oldest witness to the Christian faith that we have is done in
ridicule and scorn -- stupid Alexander, worshipping a crucified God.
Now, you contrast that single artifact of anti-Christian propaganda with
the literally thousands of artifacts proclaiming Caesar as Son of God,
and you have to wonder how is it that Christianity not only survived but
thrived, and became the world religion we now know in all of its varied
And you can find all kinds of explanations and rationalizations, but my
contention is that it was not the resurrection of Jesus which accounts
for the spread of the Christian message, it was the resurrection of his
body. And by that I meant precisely what Paul means when he speaks of
the body of Christ. For Paul, who describes his encounter with the risen
Christ on the road to Damascus (likely several years after the death of
Jesus) as no different than the appearances of Jesus to the Disciples.
The body of Christ neither decayed in the tomb, nor ascended into the
heavens, but remains in the flesh, on earth, in those, as Paul says, who
have been "buried and raised with Christ, through faith in the power of
So just as those old stories about Zeus and Apollo and Athena are not
just myths, so too referring to the church as the body of Christ is not
just a metaphor. It is the way Christ is physically, visibly, powerfully
present in this world today. As our banner so beautifully proclaims,
Christ has now body but yours:
Why what we do to share the good news of God's love and life in Christ
is so important -- feeding the hungry in our Sunday breakfast, providing
housing in our trailer ministry, the Egan warming center, and the
interfaith shelter, responding to the needs of the many people that come
to our office through the Good Samaritan ministry, reaching around the
world through Week of Compassion in times of disaster, working with our
global mission partners in Ecuador and elsewhere around the world,
providing Christian education for our children and adults, sharing good
news through our music, all of that and so much more.
That's why the church
still exists today as a living witness to that good news and those other
temples are nothing but ruins in museums. Precisely because the body of
Christ has arisen and remains a living reality that speaks to the
possibility of new life in Christ, that counters the way of death of the
Thus, to have a mind set on things that are above is not about removing
us from this world, but it's living in this world with a different
perspective. The resurrection of Jesus is nothing less that God's
inauguration of a new world order in which we participate in the life of
Christ for a transformed world. With our mind set on this new heavenly
perspective, we not only see what the world could be, we are actively
called to participate with Christ in its creation.
For if we do not work for the unity of all humanity and speak out
against racism, and xenophobia, and homophobia that tears apart
communities and divides us one against the other, then Christ died in
If we do not, with mind set on things above, treat our immigrant
neighbors and our homeless residents with dignity and respect, then the
resurrection of Christ means nothing.
If we do not love, not only our neighbors but also our enemies, as
Christ loves us, then our minds are still set on things that are on
earth rather than on things above.
If we do not find the ways to counter the violence that claims the lives
of police officers, and of school children, and of Afghan villagers, and
Syrian protesters, then Christ will be crucified by this world again and
again and again.
But when we do set our minds on things above, then the power of God and
resurrection and life does work through us.
When we set our minds on Christ, then we see Christ as our neighbor in
the homeless, in the prisoner, in the immigrant (documented or
When we adopt a heavenly perspective, we don't just ask why can't this
world be what God intends, we work to make it so.
When we have that kind of mind which is the faith of Christ, then we are
the evidence of the resurrection, the body of Christ in the world today.
What a wondrous mystery. What an awesome responsibility.
What an amazing power this is, that God has given to us.