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On Things Above

Sermon - 4/24/11
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Colossians 3:1-4

So the text on this wonderful Easter morning is from the letter to the Colossians, chapter 3, versus one through 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.

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 prayer:

"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 Adolf Hitler.

And when you know that, it changes how you understand and how you feel about that prayer.

 

Well, 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:

If you follow the recent revelations from NASA, the just incredible, breath-taking scenes, never before seen, new insights and pictures of the universe.

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 there:


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
Hierapolis, about 15 miles from Colossae:

And Hierapolis, 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 with them.

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 one?

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 of God".

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 "are" raised.

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, of followers.

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.

But on that wall, on that piece of plaster, is anti-Christian graffiti:

 (I'll annotate it to highlight the graffiti):

It depicts 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 manifestations?

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 God"..

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 world.

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 vain.

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 undocumented).

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.

 

 


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