3rd May 2009 at St Barnabas and St Michael’s
It seems hard to believe it’s only three weeks since Easter, doesn’t it? The supermarket shelves have long been stripped of their spring stock and are now optimistically full of sunglasses, and lotions, and beach towels. School assemblies have moved on to other areas of the curriculum, with the major Christian festivals left far behind. And even in our own home that large pile of Easter eggs that stood so proudly in the dining room seems to have completely and utterly vanished into thin air – I can’t imagine why. It seems that our celebration of Easter is so brief, so fleeting, that if you came back after a couple of weeks on a desert island you would hardly know it had happened.
Or would you? Part of the reason why Paul wrote his letter to the Colossian church was precisely to show the lasting, permanent effect the resurrection of Jesus should have on our lives. For, as far as he was concerned, the fact that Jesus has risen ought to have a major impact on the lives on all those who claim to follow Him as Lord and Saviour, and this is something that comes out particularly clearly in today’s reading. Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.
I wonder, have you ever thought of yourself as raised with Christ? You see, being a Christian is not just about believing Jesus died for our sins and rose again. It’s also about sharing in some deep and meaningful way in the actual resurrection of Jesus. You see, becoming a Christian is about entering a new relationship with God as your Heavenly Father that will last forever. It’s about receiving the same power of the Holy Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead. It’s about claiming the victory over sin and death and evil that Jesus Himself has won for us. In short, becoming a Christian is about having a permanent Easter experience in our hearts.
Now I don’t know what kind of week you have had. You may have had a bad week health-wise, or you may have come here today with all kinds of doubts and questions. You may be looking round at the church and wondering if we can ever make any practical difference to the parishes you serve. You may, quite simply, find hard to believe you have already been raised with Christ. Yet that is the reality of life as a Christian. It is the basis of the confidence we have as believers in Jesus, and the tremendous thing is that this confidence does not depend on our feelings, or on our state of mind but on the objective, historic fact that Jesus Christ has risen again for us. So if you accept Jesus has risen from the dead, then you have been raised with Christ. Isn’t that good news?
So what, then, does all this mean in practice? Paul’s words in this verse could hardly be clearer, Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. And just in case we haven’t understood what he’s saying, he repeats himself in the next verse. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. Because if we claim to follow Jesus, then the most important thing in our life should not be how much money we have in the bank or how much work we do each day or how big our house is but the astonishing fact that He is risen and is now seated at God’s right hand with all authority and might and power. And our goal, our focus in life should be in finding out what He wants of our lives, and discovering how best we can please Him.
Which all sounds very well. But you know as well as I that when we get home there will be the dinner to cook, the gas bill to pay, the assignment we should have handed in last Monday, the computer that needs fixing, and probably a whole host of jobs we haven’t even thought about yet. How do we keep this focus when so much seems to be crowding in, and we live such busy lives?
Well, there are a number of answers to this question, and next week’s reading will tell us some of the practical measures we can take. But the ultimate reason why we keep on with Jesus is that this resurrection life I’ve been talking about so far is actually the preliminary, the foretaste of something much more wonderful to come. As Paul says in verses 3-4, For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
Isn’t that a wonderful and most precious promise? If you believe in Jesus as your Lord as Saviour, then you will appear with Him in glory.Do you, I wonder, truly believe that? You see, the things that we see around us, the important and urgent tasks that weigh us down so much are in reality only fleeting shadows that will disappear when Jesus comes and claims us as His own. And I believe that if we really believed and understood that, our life as Christians and our life as a church would be transformed. We wouldn’t be worrying quite so much about how many people come in on a Sunday, or how much of the common fund we could afford to pay, but we would be passionate about preparing to live forever in glory, we would be passionate in preparing others to live in light of Christ’s return.
Because that, in its broadest sense, is what our mission as a church is all about. It’s not simply telling people about Jesus, or dragging them in through the doors. It’s not simply about meeting together on a Sunday and creating opportunities for worship. It’s about preparing people to live in light of eternity, and the glorious hope that is for all who believe and trust in Jesus. And so this preparation involves not only preaching and teaching, it also involves discipleship, and spiritual discipline, and learning to place the whole of our lives under the Lordship of Christ.
And it also involves the attitudes of our hearts, and the words that we use day by day. You probably noticed just now that Paul said you died and I guess you’re wondering what Paul actually meant by those words. Because although you may not be feeling 100% at this moment or you may be feeling rather bored by what I’m saying, you do all look reasonably alive this morning. Well, I think you do … although on second thoughts I’m not quite so sure …
So what is Paul going on about when he talks about us dying and later on about putting things to death? Well, the answer is that being a Christian is not only about sharing in Christ’s resurrection, it is also to some extent about sharing in Christ’s death. Because if Christ loved us so much he was prepared to die for our sins, then surely our response should be not only to say sorry for those sins, but also to seek to root them out of our lives.
Now if you’ve got a NIV Bible, you’ll see they head this passage “Rules for holy living”. But this really misses the whole point of what Paul is saying. The things Paul urges us to do are not meant to be a list of strict dos and don’ts, but the natural response of men and women who know just what Jesus has done for them, and who want to be ready for His return.
We don’t have time to go through all the things Paul lists in verses 5-10, but I have in this rubbish bag some of things we ought to root out of our lives.
Lust. Not a subject we talk about much in church, but one of the most destructive and most potent forces for destroying relationships between men and women. The complete opposite of the generous, selfless love that Jesus has revealed to us.
Greed. Wanting more than we need, not being satisfied with what we have, setting our hearts, as Paul tells us in verse 5, on false gods and false ambitions. There’s nothing that more thoroughly stops us worshipping God than being fixated on, say, a scheme to make money or the new car you’ve always wanted, or the gourmet meal you’ve just seen cooked on a TV show.
Anger. Not all anger is wrong, of course. It is right to be angry about things like injustice, hypocrisy, poverty – the things Jesus Himself was angry about when He lived here on earth. But that’s not the type of anger Paul is talking about. It’s about blowing your top without engaging brain first, about shouting and stamping your foot, without listening to what the other person is saying. The problem is, when we’re angry like that, we’re not only failing to listen to others, we also can’t hear what Jesus might be saying to us at that precise moment.
Malice. Not seeking the good of other people and plotting their harm, treating them in a way that is less than Christ-like and seeking to do them down.
Slander. Has anyone ever said to you, “I shouldn’t you tell this, but…”? Slander is about spreading untruth, and gossip, and rumours, and it simply isn’t true that words can never hurt us. It was after all false accusation that got Jesus crucified in the first place.
Lies. I don’t need to tell you what lies are. We do, of course, constantly try to justify them, as half-truths, as being economical with the facts, as putting a spin on things. But following Jesus is living in the truth, it’s about being open and honest with one another.
And there’s more. You may want to go through verses 5-10 in more detail later, and think what issues Jesus wants you to deal with in your life. But the point to realise is, Paul doesn’t mention all these things simply condemn us and make us feel bad about ourselves. He mentions them so we can be set free to live this risen life he has been talking about earlier. After all, if we have been risen with Christ, then surely we want to make sure our lives please Him. And if we are looking forward to appearing with Him in glory, then surely we will want to make sure we are ready to meet Him.
And one more, and extremely important thing, about these verses, that’s easy to miss. All these commands Paul gives to the Colossian church are in the plural. Paul isn’t expecting us to do so often what happens in our churches that we struggle on our own with our sins, and then when we turn up at church put up a brave face and pretend everything is OK. The risen life we live in Christ is a life we share together, and we should therefore be able to be honest and open with one another about the joys and the difficulties we find as Christians. So, for example, we might want to find another member of the church and say, “I’ve got a real problem with anger. Please could we sit down and pray about this”. Or again, “I’ve just told a big lie to a friend and I know I’m going to be in trouble”. Or again, “Somebody is slandering me as a Christian and I don’t know how to respond”. Being the church, the body of Christ, you see, is about having a network of safe, reliable relationships where we can help one another live out the Christian life and together seek the help of the Holy Spirit to transform and to change us. Because that’s how a church grows in maturity and experience, and how people come to deeper and fuller faith in Christ.
None of this easy, I recognise. As I’ve been wrestling with this passage – and yes, preparing this sermon has been a real struggle – I’ve started to see just how much Paul’s words challenge the way we live our life together at St Michael’s and St Barnabas. We don’t often teach or preach about the fact we have been raised with Christ. The hope of the glory that is to come is all too frequently lost behind issues such as leaking roofs, and the common fund we owe. And above all, we don’t really spend enough time getting to know each other so that we can help one another live out this resurrection life Paul is talking about here. We maybe turn up on a Sunday, catch up with a few people, and then have little or no contact with them until the following week.
Well, as I said at the beginning, it was Easter three weeks ago. If you were here you may or may not remember I finished my sermon with these words, At the end of the day, the most compelling evidence for or against Easter is not the historical facts, or the message the vicar preaches – it’s us, it’s you, it’s me. And while Paul’s words here certainly are challenging, if we are prayerfully and carefully respond to them, I believe that if we can see how to put them into practice, not only will our own life as a church transformed, but we will impact on the lives around them and provide others with the permanent evidence Easter really has happened.
And it precisely with this vision of a renewed, transformed church community living the risen life that Paul closes our passage today. Verse 11, Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. The body of Christ living His risen life, overcoming human division, with one common goal of being counted worthy when we appear with Him in glory. Shouldn’t this also be our vision of our churches here today?