“Things Above, Things on Earth”

August 14, 2016


Colossians 3:1-17


As we wrap up four Sundays of the Letter to the Colossians being read and proclaimed in worship, we hear that concluding admonition: “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”

The problems and questions start coming right away, don’t they?

The skeptical among us—and that means so many of us here, doesn’t it?—the skeptical among us will start out by saying: “That’s a pretty big ‘if.’ How can you say that we have been raised with Christ? I don’t feel ‘raised.’ And when I look around I see little evidence in this gathered assembly that the people here are ‘raised’ with Christ. Everyone and everything seems just as they always have been.”

Such skepticism actually puts us in a place to better understand the resurrection and our lives. “Sunset to sunrise changes now,” is how one early Christian tried to describe it—trying to give expression to the new creation that is in process through the resurrection. In faith, we sense that all of creation is not just new, but different.

And, yes, we, too, are different. In faith we sense that there is something beyond ourselves, something greater than our own lives, something that transcends our everyday, predictable reality. We are invited to stretch ourselves into that new reality—to stretch who we are and what we do.

The risen Christ was not contained by a tomb. We who are raised with Christ will not be bound by old ways of thinking and acting and living. We will find new meaning and new purpose for life through acts of compassion, mercy, and healing, in the continuing quest for justice and peace, in the creation of beauty, the pursuit of truth. And, yes, quite often we find ourselves a little out of step with those who want the world to be as it once was, those who are clinging tightly to the way things are.

We are different. We are raised.

Because Christ has been raised and because we have been raised with Christ everything has changed—even our very lives.

So again, we hear: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”

The danger, of course, is expressed in that complaint about people who are “so heavenly minded that they are of no earthly good.”

That criticism doesn’t really fit this congregation, and I’m thankful for that. But it is a good summary of the problems with the Christians in Colossae. They were concerned about the worship of angels, about new moon festivals, about what were called the “elemental spirits of the universe.”

Why, then, would anyone give them the advice: “seek the things that are above?” That would seem to be the last thing they need to be told. And why would I encourage you to set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” especially when the “things that are on earth” so desperately need our attention?

The call to set our minds on things that are above might embarrass us more than it encourages us. It sounds more like the cause of our problems rather than the solution. For we recognize that there has been within Christianity a mistaken though powerful strain of thought that denied the importance of life on earth, that put heaven on our minds, and led us to ignore if not abuse the earth since it will pass away.

Why then would we even read, let alone heed, a call to set our minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth?

Well, there are times when it does help to look beyond all that is so readily apparent.

We know so much of suffering, of the cross, of the grave in our lives in and our world and we need some help. St. Augustine put it well when he said that “there are days when the burdens we carry are heavy on our shoulders and weigh us down, when the road seems dreary and endless, the skies gray and threatening, when our hearts are lonely, and our souls have lost their courage and our lives have no music in them.”

You’ve probably felt like that at times, haven’t you? My sense is that a lot of people have been feeling that way in recent months.

We need help to remember that we have been raised with Christ. Oh, once a year we remember that don’t we? On Easter we break out the brass and tune our hearts again to the stirring music of God’s new creation. We wake from our winter slumber and lethargy, that we might open our eyes to see the path ahead flooded with light and seek again the things that are above. We gain a sense of communion with the saints of every age, to know that we are not alone so that we might encourage others. We remember that God’s love and mercy are for all creation, that we are here not for ourselves but for the world beyond these walls.

But in August—especially this August—Easter and its hopeful announcement of new life can seem lost in the distant past.

So in August—especially this August—looking above, looking beyond our immediate concerns helps us to remember that we have been raised with Christ, that we are part of God’s new creation, that God is greater than our worries and our weariness and sustains us through days such as these.

And as we keep listening, we hear something surprising.

In elaborating on what it means to “set our minds on things above,” we hear no mention of angels or afterlife or heavenly glory. Instead, we hear about how we live with each other in the day to day reality of our earthly existence.

We’re told to get some new clothes. But before you start heading out to Coral Ridge, remember that the Colossians and we are told to strip off the dishonesty and the idolatrous greed in which we have clothed ourselves for so long. Anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive language—so out of fashion!

Take off those old clothes, we are told, and put on honesty, compassion, forgiveness, gratitude, and love.

You see, we’re all in need of a new look, a new style. There is no longer Greek and Jew, slave and free. The new life that we find in Christ binds us not only to those with whom we agree, not only to those with whom we share common beliefs, not only with those like us. It creates powerful bonds that hold us together with all people as God’s creatures.

This is to say that setting our minds on the things that are above will shape our actions on earth. Our own transformation from death to life—being raised with Christ—informs our actions.

The simple religious practices by which we express our faith—worship, prayer, giving, hospitality, service—are ways that we reconnect with each other and with our neighbors. As we live out our faith, we rediscover the common bonds of our humanity.

Our faith can help make us just and peaceful in a time of uncertainty. Our faith can help make us open and humane in a time of fear. Our faith can help us establish communities of equality and respect in a time of change.

The vision that faith gives us is not of some heavenly afterlife. In faith we look toward and pray for the coming of God’s realm, in which the will of God will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Faith calls us in this time to care for creation, both locally and globally.

Faith invites us to hope, trusting that we can work together toward God’s plans for the welfare of creation and not harm.

And if you’re still not sure what to do once you’ve put on those “new clothes,” we are given a list of what we might see in our lives if we seriously seek the things that are above: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. We might attempt such simple and difficult tasks as bearing with one another and forgiving one another. “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.” Teach. Admonish. Sing.

Three times in this short section, the Colossians are urged to be thankful—encouragement that is repeated over and over in this letter. Maybe we should take the hint.

And then as though sensing that the list is getting a little long, the author brings it to a conclusion with: “You know what? Just do everything in the name of Jesus.”

That is to say: let your actions, your life be a reflection of the love and compassion and courage we see in Jesus. Live your life as you want it to be lived, reflecting the goodness and the power of God. As we do this, we become signs of the resurrection—in the midst of decay and despair and death pointing toward new life.

The challenge of resurrection is to build in these days the things that will last into God’s new age—or, as the letter to the Colossians puts it, that time “when Christ, who is your life is revealed.”  You know this. It is the challenge that you seek to meet each day. Part of this challenge is the calling to a fully human life, reflecting the image of God. This is energized by the Spirit of the risen Christ present within communities like this congregation and people like you.

The resurrection becomes a tangible fact in a very different way from that which we would expect. Not by direct empirical verification but by the radical transformation of this community into a fellowship of justice, truth, compassion, and reconciliation, is the presence and power of the risen Christ known.

If we recognize that we have died and have been raised with Christ to a new way of living,

If we open our eyes to the new challenges and opportunities that come to us each day, on this corner, in this city,

If we let the message of Christ—the new possibility—dwell among us in all its richness,

We will see the risen Christ in our midst, in the midst of life all around us. We will discover wonders and miracles unexpected and undeserved.

The more we listen, the more the problems with that statement start to seem like possibilities instead.

You have been raised with Christ. So seek the things that are above.