Since some of you asked, here is the text of the first half of the sermon I preached earlier this month–my first. Part two will be posted tomorrow.
I grew up in Minnesota. My ancestors both distant and immediate have always been “earthy” people—peasants. Immigrant farmers mostly. Not surprisingly, my mom has always been a practical person. The sort of person who got things done and didn’t hold with a lot of nonsense. The sort of person who, if she met or heard about a person who was very pious and who spent a lot of time in prayer and Bible reading, might be prone to characterize that person as “so heavenly minded that they’re no earthly good.” There are things to be done, and pondering the profound and ineffable would likely distract one from the tasks at hand that God had set you there to do.
I don’t know what my mother thinks about today’s epistle lesson from Col 3, but I’m guessing there might be some of you out there who, like her, may be thinking, “People don’t need any encouragement to waste time pondering ‘things above.’ What we need is something practical.”
But working out of today’s Epistle lesson, I see two things that Paul says that are, I think, pretty surprising and in the end, practical. We’re going to look at these by starting at the beginning of today’s lesson and then tying it back to last week’s lesson.
So we start right there with verse 1 of ch. 3: “If therefore you have been raised together with Christ….” Now, your version printed in the bulletin is the NRSV version, and the scholars who worked to translate the Greek (which is the language Paul wrote in)—to translate that into English, they tried to make a nice smooth, readable version for people. Now that has its advantages for reading, but one of the casualties of that procedure is that they often left out some of Paul’s connector words that might make an English version a little clunky to read. Here we have a case of that. Your version of 3:1 starts out, “So if you have been raised together with Christ…” The translators chose to translate a little three-letter Greek word—oun, which means “therefore”—with a sort of throwaway connector of “So,…” This is too bad because one of the first bits of wisdom for Bible interpretation that you learn is that “if you see a ‘therefore,’ you’d better find out what it’s there for.” Corny, yes, but it reminds us that when a writer uses “therefore,” he is trying to alert the readers that what he is about to say follows logically from what he has just said and that you can’t properly understand what’s coming up if you didn’t get what just happened. So what has Paul just said?
In last week’s epistle reading you heard most of Colossians ch. 2. There was a lot going on there, but let me highlight a couple things that are important for catching what Paul is up to in today’s lesson.
The key passage is 2:12-15: “you were buried together with him [that is, Christ] in baptism and you were also raised together with him through the powerful (or effective) faith from the God who raised him from the dead. And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the written account of our debt which, with its legal demands, stood against us. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross, disarming the rulers and authorities and making a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.”
Let’s pick this apart a little bit. The first thing to notice is that Paul’s main idea here is that you were dead but now you’re alive. Before you had faith in Jesus, you were in a kind of living death, being trapped in sin. But through baptism, you died to that life of death—Paul says that, in baptism you were buried with Christ and participated in his death—but then through faith you were joined to Christ, and so “God made you alive together with him.” You became a participant in the resurrection life that flows through Jesus, that in fact overflows out of him. This is the same idea as the beautiful image from the Gospel of John when Jesus says, “I am the vine and you are the branches.” The idea is that faith joins us to Jesus and his life flows through us just like sap flows through the branches of a tree because they share in the life of the trunk. That is what salvation is.
So this is the first surprising idea: Salvation is not so much having our debt to God paid or our punishment taken, but it is being joined to Christ, so that we now participate in all the things that are his—eternal life, righteousness, being a child of God. Or as Paul says elsewhere, we become new creations and the righteousness of God in Christ.
So let’s look at what he says here: he says that in the cross Jesus took the written record of our failures—the writing that, with its legal demands, stood against us—and he set this aside, nailing it to the cross. Basically Paul is saying, “That whole system of keeping track of sins, of tallying up what we did right and what we did wrong, Jesus took that whole accounting system and threw it out the window.” Why? Because all it did was produce death. That was how we were dead in our trespasses and flesh. And when he did that, he triumphed over those powers that held us. Not just the power of sin in our lives to tempt us to do wrong but the power of the whole system. Jesus’ death on the cross both triumphs over them—shockingly, unpredictably—and also displays the futility of the system “Making a public display of them,” basically mocking them—and disarming the power of that system. What we needed was not a positive balance on our moral bank ledger; what we needed was life. Because we were dead. And that system of accounting moral plusses and minuses was never going to give that. Only being united to Christ through faith could make us alive.