August 29, 2010

So if you have been raised with Christ

Passage: Colossians 3:1-4:1, Luke 14:12, 7-14, Colossians 3:1

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.


In June of this year a judge ruled that a Catholic high school in Montreal could choose its own religious curriculum, in defiance of an order by the Quebec government, citing that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms specifically referred to “the supremacy of God” in its preamble.  “Canadian democratic society,” the judge wrote, “is based on principles recognizing the supremacy of God and the primacy of the law — both of which benefit from constitutional protection.”  He called Quebec’s demand on the high school “totalitarian,” using the preamble to the Charter to make his case.

While surprised, I am delighted at this judge’s ruling.  Yet, in the ruling’s aftermath, a debate was sparked; some are wondering whether that language is out of place in a society that has grown increasingly secular; a few are advocating removal of the phrase from the Charter.

As the reality of living in a post-Christian world relentlessly insists on a different narrative of reality Christian faith is marginalized, in many cases deliberately so.  The narrative that “the supremacy of God” is the foundation of human rights and freedoms was, but a few years ago, broadly accepted; now many want it struck from the Charter or its use ruled out of bounds.

1. It might be that I am simply set in my ways; still, I find that more and more I simply do not accept the premises of so much that is put forward as the controlling narrative of how we ought to live and think.  Our world of increasingly marginalized Christian faith is much closer to the reality of the church of Colossae.  When Paul writes, “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above” he is announcing the principle for how Christians are to live in the world; a world that was indifferent and sometimes hostile to their way of life.  A world that knew nothing of a God whose love was the foundation for human freedom; theirs was a world ruled by Rome’s military might insuring the freedom of a privileged few.

It seems to me that out text today speaks poignantly to our reality. For the Christian—those who has received Christ Jesus the Lord—there is a whole new reality that Paul speaks of as “raised with Christ” that has direct implication for how to live in the fallen world; “seek the things that are above”.  I have this memory of a Canada where Judeao-Christian principles were considered axiomatic; this is no longer the case.  Too often I try to make the case for a Christian pattern of behaviour on some idea of our common humanity, for example that this or that behaviour is a “healthy” life choice; the challenge being who defines what “healthy” means?

Jesus Christ through the gospel forges his own distinct reality on his people; we need no other reason for seeking the things that are above, living its implications in this fallen world than that this is where Christ himself leads us.  Through faith in Jesus Christ we “have been raised with Christ”; we already share in his resurrected life.  In a manner of speaking we live in the overlap of two circles; one circle is the resurrected world Jesus inhabits the other is the fallen world.  We live as the intersection between heaven and earth.  Since this is our reality we are to “seek things that are above”; our pattern of living here is informed by the resurrected world; we are not to take our clues for living from fallen humanity—“things that are on earth” as Paul puts it.

Paul rightly observes that this life—raised with Christ—is hidden; hidden in the sense that it is unseen in our present world; one day, however, it will be revealed with him in glory, at the final consummation. So, this resurrected life is in some respects “already” but in other respects “not yet”.

What does it mean to live our lives seeking the things that are above? Paul uses the metaphor of stripping off filthy clothing; clothing that we must not simply be shed but gotten rid of. We are to clothe ourselves with new clothing that is, in reality, Christ himself.  As we put on him we put on that renewed human nature which he is and which he fits onto us; as all of this happens the image of God, in which we were created but which has become scratched and marred and defaced -- this image of God is re-engraved and now stands out unmistakably.

2. I invite you to reflect with me about the clothing we need to get rid of; "Put to death", the Apostle tells us, the impurity which defiles, the craving which corrupts, and the talk which either damages others or renders us untrustworthy.

In this metaphor of clothing the apostle knows something we do well to remember: nakedness (metaphorically speaking) is not possible. It is impossible to be unclothed spiritually. He never urges his readers to put on something in order to cover up their spiritual nakedness. Instead he urges them to take off that clothing which always clothes, naturally clothes fallen human beings, and then to put on that clothing which adorns Christians, and adorns them just because they have first put on the Lord Jesus Christ himself.

Paul begins his wardrobe recommendations with the startling phrase, "Put to death...".  He does not recommend a tide stick or other such simple spot remover; these clothes need to be burned.  Fornication and impurity are named first which have to do with sexual behaviour.  Degenerate sexual behaviour is inappropriate to Christian discipleship and must be eliminated.

To say that we live in an overly sexualized culture is to make a vast understatement.  Characteristic of such a culture was the Ontario governments proposed changes to revamp sex education curriculum; it proposed to teach 11-year-olds about oral and anal sex and eight-year-olds about sexual orientation and identity (it was dropped because of parent opposition).

What the apostle had to say in this regard shocked the ancient world; it shocks our as well. In ancient Greece a man had a wife for human companionship; he had as many mistresses as he wanted for libidinal relief; and he had a young boy for the ultimate in sexual gratification. As the gospel penetrated the ancient world Christian congregations stood out as islands of sexual purity in a sea of corruption.

Do we still stand out today?  Let me say this: there is more to human sexuality than being knowledgeable about sexual practices and labelling ourselves according to some current acceptable orientation category. We need to follow Christ in these matters and trust him that where he leads us will bless life.

Other things need to be discarded as well—it isn’t all about sex.  "Passion, evil desire, greed", with greed underlined, since greed amounts to idolatry, he tells us. The Greek word for greed is literally to have more. Greed is the passionate desire to have more -- have more of anything. It is evil in that the passionate desire to have more corrupts us and victimizes others.

To crave greater prestige, greater notoriety, greater visibility is to embrace compromise after compromise until we have thoroughly falsified ourselves.  To crave more goods is to fall into dishonesty. To crave more power, greater domination, is to become first exploitative then cruel.  What we have our heart set on is our god; greed needs to be gotten rid of.

Also to be stripped off are "anger" and "wrath". The word anger, is smouldering resentment which nurses a grudge and plots ways to even the score. The word wrath, in this context refers to a tantrum, the childish rage, the way some adults try to control the behaviour of others.

Lastly, the apostle speaks of "slander", "abusive language", and "lying". Slander is the ruination of someone else's reputation. Abusive language is assaultive language of any kind. Lying is deliberate misrepresentation. The slanderer and the abusive talker plainly damage others. The liar, on the other hand, while certainly deceiving others, principally damages himself. You see, the liar who lies even in the smallest matters has rendered himself untrustworthy.

3. Now, what to put on.  Paul’s wardrobe advice here is in essence to become clothed with the character which shines in our Lord himself. We put on compassion and kindness. Compassion is literally the state of being attuned to someone else's suffering. Kindness is holding our neighbour's wellbeing as dear as our own.

When we put on Christ, continues Paul, we put on humility, meekness, and patience. Humility is simply self-forgetfulness; meekness is strength exercised through gentleness. Patience means we are not going to explode or quit, sulk or sabotage when things don't get done in congregational life exactly as we should like to see them done.

We put on forgiveness, and forgive each other, moved to do so simply by the astounding forgiveness we have received from our Lord himself. And love binds this all together in perfect harmony that makes for a great sound.

What is the result of putting on Christ? The barriers throughout the world which divide, isolate and alienate human beings from each other are crumbled; as Paul said, “there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Sythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all.

The barriers in the ancient world were as ugly as they are today. Greeks thought themselves intellectually superior, Jews thought themselves religiously superior, Sythians were regarded as the lowest form of human life. "More barbarian than the barbarians", is how the Greeks spoke of them. Utterly unhuman were slaves.  Yet in the early church the spiritual leader of a congregation was frequently a slave; only in a Christian congregation could this phenomenon be seen.  It was the single most public consequence of putting on Christ.

4. I would invite you to shift gears with me and reflect briefly on what Paul says about how seeking things that are above applied to the typical Roman household.  The story is told of a cashier who noticed a remote control for a television set in the purse of a customer as she searched for her wallet.  "So, do you always carry your TV remote?" the cashier asked.  "No," she replied, "but my husband refused to help me with shopping and I figured this was the most evil thing I could do to him legally."

I told you that story so you would be smiling when I read: “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord”.  Many read these texts as Paul simply reinforcing unacceptable patriarchal structures of family life.  It seems to me that Paul is trying to outline how to live in Christ within the prevailing structures of life.  The pattern of addressing the way to live in the major household relationships was a common thing offered by various philosophers/sages of the first century.  One of major differences in Paul’s outline in the central place of responsibility to our Lord.

In the admonition to wives it should be noted that the tense of the verb implies that this is a decision she voluntarily makes—to be for her husband.  The one she serves is Christ and her voluntary subjection it to that which is good—as is fitting in the Lord.  The husband is to love (agape) his wife; the pattern for this love is the self-giving self-forgetful love of Christ.  The clear implication is that the husband is the first to serve—and there should never even be the hint of abuse, physical or verbal.

What does Paul zero in on these particular things for wives and husbands? I suggest to you that he is addressing what he perceives a common problem.  It is hard—if not impossible—for a wife to give herself in support of a husband who treats her harshly and whose love she is always in doubt about.  Husband, your obligation in Christ is that your wife should be ever certain you love her.  Wives your husbands will achieve far greater in life if you believe in them; husbands, your wives will be more than they can ever be if you love them.  The structure of your family life may vary; what Christ calls you to be for each other does not.

Children, obey your parents in everything; notice that he addresses children as active participants in the church.  Fathers, do not provoke your children, or they may lose hearts.  What he is getting at is that pension we fathers have (perhaps mothers as well), usually driven by our own insecurities, to be hard on our children; we need to let them know that they do certain things well and that we are proud of them.  Guilt is a poor motivator; do not use this with your children.  Parents, every child thinks you are the best and wants to be like you, whether you think you deserve that respect or not.  Do not squander their trust; build them up in Christ.

Now about slaves and masters; we need to ever be grateful that we live in a country whose heritage as part of the British Empire benefited from the work of William Wilberforce who worked over 40 years to see slavery abolished.  Paul is writing to people who do not have such benefit where many lived indentured lives as slaves.  Given that structure, how was a slave to live; whatever your task it is done for the Lord and not for your masters because you belong to Christ now whatever the structures of this crumbling world may say.  Masters were also reminded that with God there is no partiality because of social status; with all the slaves in the church listening he said, `treat your slaves justly and fairly, for you know that you also have a Master in heaven.  When Paul wrote to the slave owner Philemon he implied that Philemon ought to free slaves because they belong to Christ.

The key to this entire text is ``you have been raised with Christ; as we are clothed with him we discover our true humanity we were made to thrive in; and in doing so we will find that these clothes really do make the man or the woman.