For the apostle Paul, there is no halfway position. For Jesus Himself, there was no halfway position. When He called someone to Himself He expected that person to be utterly sold out to following Him in discipleship. His parable in today’s gospel makes it clear that our perspective on everything should be fundamentally changed. Our citizenship in this world is temporary, even ephemeral. All of Scripture teaches that. The Psalms are full of it. Our perspective once we have self-identified as God’s own children is irrevocably altered. Crops, barns, goods and inheritances no longer sustain the sort of importance that others attach to them. Jesus concludes that “the one who stores up treasure for himself is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:21). That sounds like a platitude; yet there are so few persons who actually live with these values, with these priorities. Paul says the very same thing in today’s epistle when he writes, “Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”
That is a sweepingly comprehensive concept: “your life is hidden with Christ in God.” That definitely sounds different from being an accountant or a Rotarian! It’s not what we do, nor is it a group to which we belong; it’s who we are, fundamentally and truly, as changed persons.
What should we think about this? How should we react to it? It’s certainly challenging. But that should not be our entire focus or we might decide to run away from being “hidden with Christ in God.” We should also see it as incredibly liberating, as opening us up to the way that God intended us to be from the time of Creation itself. It’s the way we are able to be re-formed, transformed, restored to something closer to the Image of God. It’s an acknowledgment that when God Himself looks at us as Christian believers, He does not see us as a bunch of people desperately trying to do something right in order to gain His favor. He sees us as persons “hidden with Christ,” dressed in His righteousness, redeemed by His blood, saved from ourselves, adopted as His own children, being prepared for eternity with Him. That’s what it means to name the Name of Christ. We don’t belong to a profession or an association. I may follow a profession and be associated with various organizations, but “now I belong to Jesus, not for the years of time alone, but for eternity.”
What difference does that make? What difference should it make? That’s exactly what our Gospel and epistle readings are about today. We’ve already seen that blatant acquisitive materialism is not on the table for the follower of Jesus. But there is so much more. Paul writes, “if you have been raised up with Christ, keep on seeking the things above where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” This is to be a governing principle for our lives, a relentless pursuit, a radically altered perspective. Imagine if we were to “keep on seeking the things above!” That would be a 7-day occupation, not a one day or one morning preoccupation. It would drive our decision-making processes. It would dictate our priorities. It would transform our interpersonal relationships. It would alter the way we see things and think about things. It would wreak havoc with our calendars and our personal schedules.
Paul is not content to have said it only one way. Immediately he writes something that is almost but not quite the same thing over again: “Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth.” That’s exactly what Jesus was saying to the chap who wanted his share of the family inheritance, isn’t it? He showed himself to be “the man who stores up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God,” and Jesus nailed him for it. When our minds are set on earthly things, they become obsessed with getting ahead, owning the best of everything and filling our time with things of merely temporal value. The person who does that is the one to whom, according to Jesus, God says, “You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have accumulated?” (Luke 12:20).
Paul says that we are not only to “keep on seeking the things above,” but that we are to “set our minds on them.” That’s a serious next step! Seeking is the starting point, but setting our minds on something is much more definitive. What are our minds set on? Grab a piece of paper and make a list of things on which your mind is set! If we were not in a church service with this particular pairing of Gospel and epistle in front of us – if instead we were just sitting at home on an average Thursday evening, writing down those things on which our minds are presently set – what would our list look like? How much of our personal list would consist of “things that are above?”
I, for one, found that to be a very challenging thought; even, to be completely honest, a somewhat disturbing one! What if we were to attempt to assign actual percentages to our thought lives? What percentage has to do with things that are above? I remember the old adage people threw around in my childhood that some people were so heavenly-minded that they were of no earthly good. Obviously that was catchy enough for me to remember it even though it has been a very long time since I heard anyone say it. But the truth is exactly the reverse: that many more people are so earthly minded that they are of limited heavenly good. And that is by far the greater liability.
The idea that our lives are “hidden with Christ in God” inspires Paul to add a further thought before he continues with practical advice on how we are to live our lives: he writes, “When Christ, Who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.” There actually are two great truths embedded in this sentence: the first, having to do with the present, is that Christ is “our life.” It’s easy to skip over that on the way to how it will be in the hereafter. But Paul’s language is full of such references. Christ is much more than the object of our faith or the subject of true theological propositions. He is “our life.” And on that great day of which we speak in the Creed when we say that “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,” we “also will be revealed with Him in glory.” That could happen at any time! Many Christians pray that it will happen soon. Many Christians fervently believe that it will indeed be very soon. Whenever it is, we will find out precisely what Jesus meant when He said to the thief on the cross, “This day you will be with Me in Paradise.” And the promise to us is that in some way past our imagining we will share in His glory.
Now the practical side of Paul surges to the fore with one of his many lists of things that ought not to characterize persons who are “hidden with Christ in God.” For starters, we are to be “dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry.” There we have another echo of the man who asked Jesus for help getting his inheritance: greed, says Paul, is a form of idolatry; and idolatry was the sin that kept getting the Israelites in serious trouble with God to the very point of breaking their end of the covenant with Him. Paul identifies such persons as “sons of disobedience” on whom “the wrath of God will come.” Be sure you never fall into the false illusion that the Old Testament is all about a God of wrath while the New Testament is all about a God of love. No such dichotomy exists. God’s absolute righteousness requires payment for sin, and sin is always the object of the wrath of a just God. The standard for the believer is even higher, as Paul warns against all “anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive speech and lies.”
How is it possible, practically speaking, for us to avoid all of these things? Anger, slander, abusive speech and lying are lamentably pervasive, even among Christians. But Paul says that we are able to “put on the new self that is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created it.” That’s the answer. As Paul wrote in II Corinthians 5:17, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” The new self has power over the old self, solely because the new self is being remade in the Creator’s image by the power of the Holy Spirit. What a great resource of unlimited spiritual power is at our disposal!
Paul has one thing further to say about our renewed selves: all distinctions of race, culture, and position in society are completely removed. In Galatians Paul tosses in gender as well, assuring us that we are “all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Here in Colossians he says it slightly differently, but in a way that perfectly fits the context: “Christ is all, and in all.” Christ is the great Leveler Who makes us all one in Him. When we affirm with Paul that we are one because we all share one body and one cup (I Corinthians 10:17), and that we all have “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5), he adds that there is “one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:6). Whether it is God the Father Who unites us, or Christ Who makes us “all one,” the truth is that we are held together through what we share in the work of Christ. All of us collectively as well as individually are those who are “hidden with Christ in God.” This is the basis on which Paul can say, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (I Corinthians 12:26). Do we really identify ourselves in this way, as an integral part of the whole Body of Christ, one with Him and one with His “one holy catholic and apostolic Church?
Earlier on, I challenged each of us to “grab a piece of paper and make a list of things on which our minds are set!” I want to close by returning to that challenge. We could learn some very valuable spiritual truths about ourselves in the process. View it as a critically important spiritual exercise. Are we just “cultural Christians,” persons who indentify with the church primarily as a place to go on Sunday mornings because it’s part of our personal history and experience? Or is the Church truly a place where we celebrate our own personal and fundamental reality: that we are one in Jesus Christ and one in each other and we feel spiritually lost without those points of identification?
In a moment we will come together to the table of the Lord to receive His Body broken for us and His Blood shed for us, to make the sign of the Cross and to say our Amens, not because that’s the way it’s done in Anglican worship, but because that is how we define ourselves: who we are and Whose we are. We are those who take our stand “beneath the Cross of Jesus,” hand-in-hand with Him, and hand-in-hand with each other, “giving thanks (eucharisteo) to God the Father through Him” (Colossians 3:17). As Peter expressed it in his first epistle, “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, so that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (I Peter 2:9). May that be an accurate description of who each of us is, as persons “hidden with Christ in God.”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen