Sermon Preached August 5, 2007
The Church of St. Luke & St. SImon Cyrene, Rochester, New York
What a bizarre message Paul has for us this morning: Act like you’re already dead!
If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set you minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
A little context might help.
The community of Christians at Colossae had not been founded by Paul, but by one of his associates: Epaphras. Paul was writing to them because they were in a state of some confusion. The bottom line was that some among them were trying to make their new found Christian faith into a religion.
Like all religions, this movement among the Colossians was full of “musts” and “shoulds,” rules that needed to be followed in order to stay right with God. It’s not clear from the letter what all those rules were, but they seem to have been an interesting mix of following Jewish purity laws—ways to stay “clean”—and the insistence on certain particular mystical experiences, the kinds of things characterizing what Christians would later call “Gnosticism.” This thinking included what Paul, in chapter 2, calls “self-abasement,” the notion that who we are is fundamentally evil and our evil bodies need to be disciplined if not outright punished so that we are sure never to feel too good about ourselves in this world.
At the end of chapter two, Paul asks (using the translation of The Message):
If with Christ you’ve put all that pretentious and infantile religion behind you, why do you let yourselves be bullied by it? “Don’t touch this! Don’t taste that! Don’t go near this!” Do you think things that are here today and gone tomorrow are worth that kind of attention? Such things sound impressive if said in a deep enough voice. They even give the illusion of being pious and humble and ascetic. But they’re just another way of showing off, making yourselves look important.
Now it is very important for us to get that Paul starts from certain assumptions, and they are the same assumptions I spoke about two and three weeks ago when I was trying to prove to you that “the only good religion is a dead religion.”
Paul’s assumption is that Jesus has done something for anyone who has the simplest faith in him. Has done something, not will do something. In the first chapter of Colossians, Paul put it this way (again from The Message, with some slight modification):
We look at Jesus and see the God who cannot be seen. We look at Jesus and see God’s original purpose in everything created. For everything, absolutely everything, above and below, visible and invisible, everything got started in him and finds its purpose in him…So spacious is he, so roomy, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding. Not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe—people and things, animals and atoms—get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death…. At one time you all had your backs turned toward God…but now, by giving himself completely on the cross, actually dying for you, Christ brought you over to God’s side and put your lives together, whole and holy in his presence….There is no other Message—just this one. Every creature under heaven gets this same Message. The message is a nutshell is just this: Christ is in you, therefore you can look forward to sharing in God’s glory. It’s that simple.
And, in chapter two, just in case you’re not convinced:
Entering into the fullness of Christ is not something you figure out or achieve. It’s not a matter of being circumcised keeping a long list of laws. No, you’re already in—insiders—not through some secretive initiation rite, but rather through what Christ has already gone through for you…If it’s an initiation rite you’re after, you’ve already gone through it by submitting to baptism. Going under the water was a burial of your old life; coming up out of it was a resurrection, God raising you from the dead as he did Christ.
And here’s my favorite part:
Think of it! All sins forgiven, the slate wiped clean, that old arrest warrant canceled and nailed to Christ’s Cross. God stripped all the spiritual tyrants in the universe of their sham authority at the Cross and marched them naked through the streets.
The Christian Message, Paul is saying, is that the best way to live life is to act like you’re already dead. Because of our relationship with God that we know in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus we have the capacity to live life in this world as if we had the complete freedom of the next.
What do we say about someone who has died, especially if their life has been somewhat troubled? We say things like, “They’re at peace. They’re free now.”
Paul’s Good News is that we don’t have to wait until we are actually dead to live in the peace and freedom of the dead. We are already dead in Jesus’ death. And in his resurrection, which is his completely free gift to us, we can walk in freedom.
Now walking in freedom does have consequences for our behavior, but it’s not a list of “musts and shoulds” in order for God to be pleased with us. It is a list of games we do not have to play to convince ourselves, or someone else, or God that we are OK. We can stop playing those games because we are already OK!
So there are two lists of bad behavior in this reading that Paul wants us to avoid:
fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry)….anger, wrath, malice, slander and abusive language.
These are really two lists of synonyms, so Paul is really emphasizing just two things: the use of sex to try to make us feel better about ourselves and the things we are willing to say about other people in order to make ourselves look and/or feel better. Human nature has not changed much in two thousand years, has it?
I actually think Paul means that all those things were idolatry, not just the one, greed (and here “greed” is not about economics but about the lack of care for the consequences of one’s action to the other). All of these things are worshiping an idol, participating in a kind of religion that you hope will make you feel better, which usually for most of us borders on a kind of addiction. What are addictions, after all, but ways we become obsessed with whatever we are sure make us feel better, take the pain of our lives away?
We still think sex will make us feel better about ourselves and we still think that putting other people down will raise us up. This despite two thousand years of evidence to the contrary! Why do we keep falling into these traps? Because we are convinced that we have to do something to make ourselves right.
And Paul’s whole point is that we don’t. We can give up on sex trying to make us feel better about ourselves and we can give up on trying to make ourselves look better than other people and all the other ways we try to manipulate ourselves or others or God into liking us.
God already likes us. Listen to Eugene Peterson’s translation of the last bit of this morning’s reading:
You’re done with that old life. It’s like a filthy set of ill-fitting clothes you’ve stripped off and put in the fire. Now you’re dressed in a new wardrobe. Every item of your new way of life is custom-made by the Creator, with his own label on it. All the old fashions are now obsolete. Words like Jewish and non-Jewish, religious and irreligious, insider and outsider, slave and free, mean nothing. From now on everyone is defined by Christ, everyone is included in Christ.
The message of Christianity—the freedom of a Christian—is that the kind of equality and love and freedom that most people think is only available to human beings when they are dead, is available to us now, in Jesus’ death.
Why is this message so strange? Why aren’t we more attracted to it? Because it means acting like you’re already dead—and I submit to you that will not attract hordes of people inside here if we hang it as a slogan on the front of the church!
Come in and be dead with us!
It is not an easy thing to give up the life of competition to which we have been bred, constantly seeking ways to better ourselves, gain God and others’ and even our own approval of our lives.
Let it go! Paul says. Let it go, let it go, let it go. You are dead already! Your life is hidden in Christ with God. You are already as OK as you will be for eternity. Live that life, not the one the world wants you to live.
 Eugene Peterson, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language (Navpress, 2002).