…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.
We get a clearer picture of this at the end of ch. 2 which was not part of last week’s reading but is important in how it sets up ch. 3. Paul says, “So then, if you have died with Christ to the standard procedures of the world (that is, the accounting of rights and wrongs as a way of measuring your relationship to God), why do you live as if you were still under the legal demands?” Then he goes on to list some of these “regulations” most of which are the same sort of rules about touching or eating clean and unclean things that Jesus set aside when he said, “It is not what goes into a person that makes him clean or unclean, but what comes from the heart—things like lies, sexual immorality, greed—things that Paul is going to talk about in a minute. But for now Paul says, “These are all human commands, destined to perish with use. All these regulations have an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and neglect of the body, but they do nothing to prevent self-indulgence.” In other words, following all kinds of pious rules will never set you free from temptation, bring you life, or make you free from the powers of the world.
Now the very next thing Paul says is the beginning of our lesson: Therefore if you have been raised with Christ set your mind on things above…not on things that are of the earth.” Paul’s most immediate context for what counts as “of the earth” are all these regulations. All the rules that you can follow that make you look like a good person—observing church holidays, being nice, giving to charity—in the end, on their own, have no power to bring life or to set us right with God. In fact, as Paul said before, if you have been set free and raised with Christ, why do you keep falling back into the mindset of the very system Jesus threw out and nailed to the cross? The system that was against us, the tallying of our good and bad actions was a game we could never win.
So this brings us to our second surprising point. Remember the first was that for Paul, the main thing that faith does to save us is that it connects us to Jesus so that we are raised from spiritual death to spiritual life, and that that life of Jesus now flows through us. The second surprising point is this: the things that count as “from below” or earthly and that Paul wants us to turn away from and ignore are not just what we might think of as “fleshly sins”—the sort of things he lists off later in today’s reading—sexual immorality, greed, anger, abusive talk, etc.—but more insidiously, the things that look good—the things that look pious and religious and like they will be helpful for us to curb our temptations—in fact, it is that whole focus on what we do, that focus on our tally sheet of good things and bad things, that Paul counts as “earthly and from below.”
So what does Paul tell us to focus on instead? What is the thing that is “above” or Higher than these things? Christ who is your life. Christ who is eventually going to be revealed at the end of time. Then, Paul says, because you are connected to Christ you also will be revealed with him in glory, not because of your positive moral tally sheet but because you have Christ living in and flowing through you.
This is why you “Put to death” all those immoral things that Paul mentions—not because you are worried about improving your balance on the moral tally sheet, but because those belong to the old person, the old way of life that was put to death and buried with Christ in baptism. Doing good now comes from “having stripped off the old self with its practices and having clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.” Faith in Christ brings a new life, a new person who looks more like what God intended humans to be—that is “in God’s image,” as Paul says quoting Genesis 1 and the creation of the first man and woman. In Eden before the first sin, the man and woman were happy to “walk with God in the cool of the day”—that is to spend time in the things that help us experience God’s presence such as prayer, Bible study, and worship. They were happy to care for the garden—to serve in the little area of the world that God had put them in and given them responsibility for. They were happy to be honest and caring toward each other—so much so that they could be unashamed and not fearful with one another. This is the kind of life, on a practical level, that Paul says we are being renewed into—joyous love for God, service to the world around us, and relationships with one another that are not characterized by fear and shame and inequality, as we are reminded in the last verse: In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free.
And why is this? Because Christ is all and is in all! In all of us through faith, so that we are becoming and have become new people, with Christ’s life filling and flowing through us.
Thanks be to God.