Last Sunday’s sermon was about a very difficult text in Colossians whose point was that the death of Christ Jesus on the cross means that human beings, individually and in our communities, are reconciled to God. The early Christians symbolized this in the imagery of animal and human sacrifice. I apologize for the complexity and far-fetched imagery in that text, and in my sermon. If your eyes glazed over for a bit last week, that is perfectly understandable. A preacher has the duty to deal with the hard texts and you might be comforted to know that I do my duty only rarely.
The texts for today from Colossians and also from Luke follow up on those from last week and are not difficult at all, you will be pleased to know. They have extreme and unusual imagery, but the point is brilliantly clear. Although life has many obstacles and problems, the only thing of ultimate importance that holds us back is our sin. But Jesus Christ has taken away our sin and we are free. Free! Free! And therefore we should ask the most of life, live it to the fullest, and rejoice that because we are related to Jesus the fullness of God is all around us.
Today’s text from Colossians begins by enjoining us to live with devoted thanksgiving in the Christian faith. It warns us not to be taken captive by the deceitful philosophies of the pagan religions devoted to what the author calls “the elemental spirits of the universe.” In the first century people believed that the universe was populated not only by the different kinds of angels I mentioned last week, the “thrones, dominions, rulers, and powers,” but also by many other kinds of spiritual forces, some of which are demonic. The early Christians interpreted the pagan religions to worship one or more of these forces, and rejected all such paganism in favor of the worship of the High God, the Creator of all the universe including invisible spirits, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who was revealed in Christ.
We twenty first century people who worship in a university church are not likely to be tempted by first-century paganism, although we should not forget that many of our sisters and brothers in other lands do live very much in a world they see to be populated by spirits of all sorts. Our own brand of false worship is more likely to be devoted to what contemporary cynics say are elemental spirits.
The cynics among us say that power is our greatest desire, however we try hypocritically to be humble: so go after power honestly and ruthlessly. The cynics among us say that political dominance is the real goal of international politics, however we try hypocritically to represent ourselves as peacemakers, so go after dominance honestly and with all the might at our disposal. The cynics among us say that greed is the real underlying motive of all action, however we try hypocritically to represent ourselves as generous, so go after all we can get by any means we can get away with. These and other elemental forces in human society can become objects of worship, and the cynical people say to be honest about that. The Christian gospel says, No. Like the spirits created by God according to the first century belief, power, political strength, and enjoyment of possessions are good things in their places, even necessary; but they cannot be worshipped without displacing worship of the true God. Give them up, says Colossians, and don’t be deceived by the cynical philosophies.
Of course, giving up worship of such idols of our age is not easy. Part of the meaning of original sin is that we are committed to them and to the social structures that they rule, whether we consciously want to be or not. But Hallelujah! We are freed from bondage to sin. As Colossians put it in a striking metaphor, we are spiritually circumcised with Christ and have put on his spiritual flesh. Circumcision, you know, was the symbolic rite given to Abraham and his descendents that made them God’s people and the heirs of God’s promise to make them flourish. Spiritual circumcision makes us God’s people and heirs to God’s promise to bring us close to him. Spiritual circumcision means that all of us, Gentiles and Jews, are God’s people. Christians carry the flesh of Christ on their bones.
Then Colossians has an even more powerful image. It says that Jesus’ baptism was like his dying. To go down into the water is to die. When we Christians are baptized, as young Naomi Fassil will be this morning, this is like dying to our sins. We lose the flesh of sin. When Jesus rose up out of the baptismal water, this was like his rising from the dead. And so with us: when we rise from baptism we are already resurrected from sin and living with God. This is a different theology of baptism from that which says it is a bath that cleanses us from sins. It is more than being just an initiation rite into the Christian community. Rather, Colossians says that baptism is the rite of death and resurrection. The third chapter goes on to say that we, or at least the Christians in Colossae, have already died, spiritually, and are already raised with Christ in heaven. We are also living here in history, even while we “have been raised with Christ,” and therefore we should “set our minds on things that are above.” We should get our act together, put to death the practice of earthly evils. Colossians says
But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves 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, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all! (Colossians 3:8-11)
Baptism gives us a whole new self, and we have to learn how to live with that self in holy ways. What about the sins of our old self? They are “nailed to the cross!” We still have all the problems of life, of course, and we will sin in the future; but we are enjoying our true identity in heaven already, right now, we do not stumble on those problems because of our sins. They are nailed to the cross. Our old sinful habits of addiction to power, dominance, greed, deceit and countless other things might still be strong, but they do not control us because our sins are nailed to the cross. Colossians tells us that in baptism we have already undergone death, and with that our sins and their due punishment are nailed to the cross. We have already undergone resurrection with Christ, and so we should live as already resurrected people. What strange and yet powerful good news!
This theology of salvation is different from St. Paul’s, which says that we struggle through this life until we are saved at the end of it in a future resurrection when Jesus comes again. The problem with Paul’s theology of salvation is that Jesus did not come soon as he expected, and despite Paul’s claim that we have grace to live new lives now he is easily interpreted to mean that present life is just a holding action until some future time. Paul’s phrase is that we are “walking between the times.” Justification by faith alone, one of Paul’s famous doctrines, has been interpreted to mean that if we just believe, God will take care of us later. Colossians’ theology says that we are already raised and live in the presence of God with Christ, and that life on earth is the very important task of sanctification, living in holy ways. Sanctification, for Colossians, is not earning salvation: we already have salvation in the baptismal form of death to our sins and resurrection to new life. Sanctification is the perfection of how to live in this world as holy people. The injustices of this world are a hundred times more horrific to us now, because we see them as infections of a world that should be sanctified. Addressing them cannot be put off until some future salvation. The Letter to the Ephesians and the Gospel and Letters of John agree with Colossians, as does the Methodist tradition on which this university and its chapel are based.
How should we live as holy people, already enjoying God’s salvation and learning to live worthy of it in our daily lives? How should we live the life of renewal of the new self? Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer quotes Jesus saying that we should pray regularly to God as the hallowed or holy one whose holiness we approach. We should pray that Earthly life be made like God’s perfect kingdom. From this comes our commitment to justice. We should pray for continued forgiveness of sins we might commit as we too forgive those who sin against us. We should pray that we not fall into special trials or temptations, as these shall surely arise in daily life. Moreover, Jesus goes on to say, in Luke’s account, that we should demand of the world the resources to be generous, like the man who pounded on his neighbor’s door to borrow bread to entertain his visitors. Be persistent, said Jesus, in working for the resources to be generous. “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”
Of course this does not happen every time, as the crucified One came to know from personal experience. Sometimes our parents, or our communities, do give us snakes instead of fish, scorpions instead of eggs. But by and large God is generous and we should look for grace in abundance as resurrected members of God’s household. According to Luke, Jesus did not say that God will give us fish and eggs. Rather he said that God would “give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.” The Holy Spirit is far more precious than food.
How should we live our daily lives as people who have gone down to death with Christ and risen with him? We should live in the Holy Spirit, God’s Spirit that surrounds us and is available for the asking. The Spirit is in the hands of friends who help us. The Spirit is in the face of strangers who wake us to our new selves and to new duties. The Spirit is in the arms of Christians gathered to comfort and strengthen one another. The Spirit is in the words of scripture, in literature that penetrates the ambiguities of life, in poetry that takes us to the heights and depths. The Spirit takes some form in every case of our need when we attempt to sanctify the lives we lead.
We are about to sing a wonderful old hymn about being in the resurrected state right now: “It Is Well with My Soul.” When sorrows in this life roll like billows of the sea, the Spirit is peace like a river that carries us through. When temptations come, as surely they will, when it seems as if the evil and injustice against which we contend has Satanic force, the Spirit assures us that Jesus has come through it all before us. Remember the great line, “My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought! My sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul.”
My friends, as we are about to baptize Naomi Fassil and welcome her into the household of faith, let us be reminded that this is not only a rite of initiation. Nor is it only a symbolic washing away of personal sins—Naomi is far to young to need that kind of bath, and many of us were baptized long before we were old enough to have mastered the art of sinning boldly. When Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan, he went down into the waters of the primal creation, the voice of God spoke his approval, and the spirit of God descended, just as at the original creation. Jesus rose from his baptism a new person, like a second creation. Let us be reminded today that baptism means that we also have conquered death and come into resurrection. Let us welcome Naomi and live with her the lives of resurrected and holy people. Amen.