Rev. Jay Rowland
First Presbyterian Church, Rochester MN
Colossians 3:1-11 (NRSV)
So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, 3for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.
5Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). 6On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. 7These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life.
8But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. 9Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices 10and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. 11In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!
Remember You Are Baptized
Once upon a time, way back in the first century, baptism was a big deal in the church. That’s not to say that baptism is not a big deal anymore. Rather it seems that baptism no longer invokes the awe and commitment it did among the earliest believers. Perhaps some reflection might rectify that discrepancy at least a bit today.
Considering that government-sanctioned persecution was rampant in the first century, it’s a wonder the church survived. The powers and authorities who crucified Jesus were still in charge so the choice to be baptized meant putting your life in jeopardy. It’s interesting that today, without such threats the church is experiencing a (well-publicized) cultural decline.
It’s a wonder people were willing to risk their lives in order to be baptized. Those who came forward to be baptized knew the risk involved. They did so anyway because they no doubt recognized a higher authority than the earthly authorities which threatened them. It shows that those first century Christians saw baptism--and life--the way Paul describes in Romans
all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death[.] Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death… For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. (Romans 6:3-6)
I refer to Romans 6 because Paul’s use of the phrase “old self” connects it to the Colossians passage for today, at least in my mind. My curiosity and pondering kept bringing me back to baptism. Though the Colossians passage does not otherwise appear to have anything to do with baptism, Paul seems to expand upon his words about baptism in Romans 6.
The vibe, however, is clearly different. The message in Romans 6 is captivating, poetic. It’s proclamation. In Colossians Paul is less poetic and more demanding. This is a different aspect of Paul’s brilliance: exhortation. Paul does both proclamation and exhortation very, very well. And here in this excerpt from Colossians, Paul is at his exhortative best as he practically commands baptized believers to live differently because of their baptism:
Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). … get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, [for] you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self …
See what I mean by “different vibe”? I cringe when Paul gets revved up like this because, well, speaking only for myself here I can’t honestly say I’ve rid myself of those old-self habits, to say nothing of putting them to death. I worry that anyone reading or hearing these words might think, I haven’t put those things to death in my life--what’s wrong with me?I’m not a good Christian. Maybe I’m not a Christian at all.
Which leads me to a very important clarification, a statement of perhaps the obvious: the water of baptism is not literally “holy water” with mystical properties to somehow prevent us from making poor choices. Baptism uses the powerful element of water, basic water, that simple thing we cannot live without, which sustains all life.1 Water is the visible component in this celebration of the invisible power of God’s Holy Spirit. This water also marks us as Christ’s own, spiritually grafting us onto the body of Christ. How awesome is that?! … especially in those moments when we find ourselves deceived into thinking we’re not “good enough” believers. Baptism announces your permanent citizenship in the kingdom of God. Baptism signifies your inclusion in the covenant God made with humanity from the beginning.
The thing is, baptism proclaims our citizenship in a kingdom that’s invisible to the naked eye. And baptized people of course look no different than any other people. Perhaps that’s what provokes Paul to exhortation, at least here in Colossians 3. Paul passionately shares elsewhere about his own struggles to live his relationship with the Lord and participate in God’s kingdom in a way that’s as real as the visible earthly kingdoms. He knows that we are all vulnerable to the limitations of living in a world with powerful “authority” and temptations and deceptions. And that’s precisely what makes baptism so critical and so worthy of our awe. Perhaps more than most, Paul is painfully aware that baptism doesn’t magically or otherwise transform flawed human beings into perfect ones.
His use of the phrase “old self” in this passage (v 9 & 10), to my way of thinking, is Paul’s way of admitting that we all continue to make poor choices--choices which create a barrier between ourselves and God. The old self represents our life apart from God—the freedom the Lord gives us to go our own way. Paul brilliantly proclaims (elsewhere) that all of that was crucified with Christ. I interpret Paul to be saying that sin has lost its ultimate power to destroy us or God’s relationship with us, but the “old self” remains stubbornly present (and visible). In the meantime, however, our conscience is awakened by Christ and the Holy Spirit, and as a result we become aware of a very real, ongoing conflict within us and all around us in the world. Whenever we feel bad about the persistence of our old-self ways it keeps us humble—or at least, hopefully, prevents us from becoming spiritually or religiously arrogant. And the more aware we are of this ongoing conflict, the more we realize that it is more than a mere “conflict of interest”. It carries life and death significance, as theologian Nancy Kraft articulates:
We’re always making life and death decisions, one after another in our lives, often perhaps without realizing it:
In the things we eat and drink.
In the way we do business.
In the way we choose to spend our free time.
In the way we interact with other people.
In the conversations we have.
In the books we read, the movies we watch, the websites we visit.
In the thoughts we choose to dwell on.
In how we spend our Sunday mornings.
In the games we play.
In the viewpoint we take toward things that don’t go our way.
In our reactions when we’re driving.
[In how we express or repress our sexuality]
In judgments we make about people who don’t do things the way we think they should, or dress the way we think they should, or speak the way we think they should.
In the jokes we choose to laugh at.
In the way we spend our money.
In the people with whom we choose to associate.
In the way we encounter a stranger on the street.
In the priority we give to our relationship with God.
Every waking moment of the day, we make ethical decisions. We choose between what leads us to death and what leads us to life.
[Nancy Kraft, http://liberallectionaryresources.com/c%20proper%2013.html]
Again speaking only for myself here, if I’m being honest my choices predominantly lean toward the leading-to-death side of the ledger. But rather than despair, I choose to trust in the steadfast promise proclaimed and displayed in my (and every!) baptism: the Lord abides with us no matter what.
Meanwhile, I do happen to believe that God cares about our choices and is always ready, willing and able to help us change and grow, and to make better choices. The miracle is that sometimes we do! And this helps us remain hopeful and inspired, especially at other times when we do not, or worse yet, when we make the same poor choices and mistakes over and over and over again.
We make and repeat poor choices because we’re human beings not automatons. Even so, God’s love and grace abides. What makes baptism so powerful is its public proclamation of this outlandish, downright scandalous commitment God has made to each of us. The commitment is to love and abide with us not as long as we hold up our end—no, God’s commitment to us is unconditional. Being more accustomed to conditions in life, the temptation is to presume that the Lord is that way too. This presumption provokes too many of us into Appeasing An Angry God, chasing the impulse to earn God’s abiding love (or defuse God’s Anger). This compulsion thrives on fear and ignores grace. It keeps people stuck on a treadmill of guilt, or worse, feeling excluded from God’s promises, all because of a perceived failure to achieve unattainable standards of religious perfection. That’s not the Jesus who meets us in the gospels.
We forget that God’s love for us was is displayed in the life and suffering and death of Jesus Christ and has been committed to us no matter what. God raised Jesus from death rendering God’s love through Him un-defeatable, undeniable, un-shakable, un-killable; there’s nothing we can do or not do, there’s nothing that has happened or that is going to happen which will cause God to withdraw God’s life-giving, life-sustaining love and forgiveness. God’s promise depends upon God, not upon us, and certainly not upon any self-willed, bootstrap mastery over sin.
Well before we arrived on the scene, God decided to forgive us and to care for us and love us no matter what—no exceptions. Of course we all can learn to love one another more and more in the manner and spirit God loves us in Christ. But too often we forget that when we inevitably fail along the way, that’s not a deal-breaker for God. Even so our failures and struggles don’t relieve us of that responsibility and call to love God and each other.
That’s what makes Baptism and also the Lord’s Supper both vital companions on our pilgrimage. The repetition Communion and Baptism are necessary for us. Received amidst and among the church community these oft-repeated acts (Sacraments), Communion and Baptism, and the internal rhythms of each act itself, all have a way of creating sacred space … space and time … into which we enter, pausing to remember God’s abiding love and presence. Whenever we are reminded that the Lord accompanies us every moment of every day of our life, every breath, every step no matter what, that moment is sacred space.
Baptism proclaims our permanent citizenship in God’s Kingdom. Today the Table of Grace is set once again, reminding us that Jesus reserved a place for each one of us at the Table. Both sacraments remind us over and over again, as Paul says, your life is hidden with Christ in God (and) (w)hen Christ who is our life shall appear, then you also shall appear with Him in glory.
Baptism is a big deal. As we come together once again to the Table of Grace, remember: you are baptized.
Afterword on glory
I’ve long concerned myself with certain “church-y” words … words we hear in religious contexts but which otherwise convey very little meaning in our daily thoughts or lives. My sense is that “glory” may be one of those churchy words. Its appearance in the Colossians passage for today prompted me to wonder how to uphold or translate its vitality. Doing so in the sermon would have been too much of a tangent. As it happens, I’m reading a book which features an essay on the term glory. I decided to post excerpts here hoping that it might help improve understanding of “glory” in a general faith sense, if not also with regards to its appearance in Colossians 3:4.
The following excerpts appear in the chapter, “Ruled by Glory” from the book Insurgence: Reclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom, by Frank Viola, Baker Books, 2018 [pages 50-53 e-book version]:
“In describing how God rules [God’s] kingdom, the psalmist asked, “Who is this king of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory. (Psalm 24:10 KJV). God … is spoken of as the God of glory (Acts 7:2 NIV). … Jesus is called the Lord of glory (1 Cor. 2:6-8), and the Holy Spirit is called the Spirit of glory (1 Peter 4:14). So the triune God, the eternal Godhead is characterized by glory. God’s glory is the visible expression of [God’s] character. It includes [God’s] beauty, [God’s] splendor, and [God’s] love. Glory is the result of grace. Grace is giving to us what we don’t deserve. In God’s grace, we see [God’s] glory. “
“God’s life is glory; [God’s] nature is grace.”
“Earthly kingdoms are ruled by force. … By contrast the kingdom of heaven is ruled neither by fear nor force. Instead, God’s kingdom is governed by two things: God’s glory and absolute freedom.”
“Consider God’s rule before creation. The heavenly hosts were subject to God by the sight of [God’s] peerless glory. And they were utterly free to follow [God] or not to follow… But what has kept the faithful heavenly host submitted to God’s authority since the beginning of time? It’s the resplendent beauty of God the King. The angels, who bear the burning bliss of God’s holy light, are intoxicated with the beauty of the Almighty. They continuously marvel at [God’s] majesty, splendor, and radiance … captivated and captured by [God’s] glory.”
“What captured the twelve disciples to forsake everything else and follow Jesus? Simple. They saw His glory and were captured by it.”
“The New Testament tells us that Jesus is the radiance of God’s glory (Hebrews 1:3; 2 Corinthians 4:6). And it is by seeing the glory of Christ and God establishes the kingdom [of God] in our hearts.”
1 On the water of baptism, I love this devotion by Rev. Quinn G. Caldwell:
Fill a baptismal font with water, invoke the Holy Spirit over it, and you can almost watch it fill with grace. Suddenly it becomes the deep over which God’s Spirit brooded at the beginning. The Red Sea through which the Israelites passed to freedom. The flowing Jordan. The waters of Mary’s womb, and the tears she shed at the cross. The sea over which Jesus walked. The stream from the crystal throne of God. A font blessed contains an ocean’s worth of miracles and memories and symbols and salvation.
But really, the most miraculous thing our baptismal fonts hold is: water.
The stuff you’re mostly made of.
The stuff Earth’s mostly covered with.
The universal solvent.
That with which you washed your newborn.
That with which you wash yourself.
That without which you would die, fast.
More important than food, stronger than stone, free out of the sky, object of wars.
Powerful enough that people will walk miles and miles a day for it.
Powerful enough that our government will prosecute you if you give it to the wrong people in the desert.
And if the water in your font is clean enough that it won’t give you cholera or lead poisoning, then you have before you a vessel of the most longed-for substance in human history, still out of reach for people from Flint to Port au Prince to Chennai.
Bless a baptismal font filled with clean water, and you might think you have before you a symbol of grace.
You do not. You have before you a vessel full of the real thing.
Published by the UCC as part of its ongoing daily devotional, God Is Still Speaking. For more information go to UCC.org Rev. Quinn G. Caldwell is a father, husband, homesteader and preacher living in rural upstate New York.