Sunday, August 1, 2010

Being Christian among American idols

Colossians 3:1-11

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Once again, we’ve heard just part of a letter.
This time, by Paul, to the community at Colossae.
You need to know some things about Colossae.
The church there was mostly Gentile.
Colossae was part of an urban triangle,
a Tri-City area with Laodicea and Hieropolis,
situated in the beautiful Lycus Valley.
This region was wealthy.
It had lots of agricultural resources.
It sat on a major highway, an east-west trade route.
It was an intellectual center.
It was a happening place.
Compared to some more remote areas of Asia,
these were affluent, urbane, sophisticated people,
who had all the pleasures—and temptations—
of “the good life”
readily available to them.

Not unlike a certain ‘Burg we’re quite familiar with—
two hours from our nation’s capital,
on a major trade route, 81,
economically robust,
plenty of natural resources,
and home to four colleges and universities.

I can imagine the church at Colossae,
and our church at Park View in Harrisonburg,
have a lot in common.
In both places,
we who call ourselves Christian—followers of Jesus Christ—
are trying to figure out the same thing.
How to “be Christian” in a world that, well . . . isn’t.
Both we Mennonite Christians in the Shenandoah Valley,
and Colossian Christians in the Lycus Valley,
are trying to figure out how to go about “being Christian”
while being resident in, invested in, committed to,
and steeped in the values of,
a wealthy and worldly culture.
And I’m using “worldly” in a non-judgmental sense.
I just mean, “of the world.”

So Paul writes a letter to the church at Colossae
to try to help them figure it out.
And this is his advice:
“Set your minds on things that are above,
not on things that are on earth.”
“Seek the things that are above,” he says.
“Put to death . . . whatever in you is earthly.”

These are words we are very familiar with.
“Set your mind on things above.”
Look toward heaven.
Look away from the earth.
It’s common Christian wisdom.
It’s the stuff of gospel song refrains.
“This world is not my home, I’m only passing through.”
and, “I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.”

But . . . but . . . there are numerous objections to such advice.
And I’m familiar with these objections.

For one, we are tempted to create a sharp dualism
between the spiritual and the physical.
Where everything spiritual and heavenly is good,
and everything material and physical is evil.
And that leads us to all kinds of heresies
that Paul would never support.
If the material world is utterly evil,
then a good God could not have created that evil material,
and Jesus could not have been God’s Son,
and still have a flesh-and-blood body.
And if we think of our bodies as evil,
we could go down one of two wrong roads.
We could starve and beat and deny the body,
practice a rigid asceticism to defeat this evil body.
Or we could do the opposite.
We could decide if the spirit is all that matters,
we can do whatever we want with the body,
satisfy its every desire.
In fact, these were some of the things going on at Colossae,
and Paul was deeply concerned.

Another objection to looking toward heaven and away from the earth,
is that it makes faith merely an escape from the real world.
We miss the real beauty and truth that exists in this physical world,
and exists within the lives of all human beings, to some extent.
Often, Christians are accused of being so “heavenly-minded”
that they are no “earthly-good.”
That’s a real possibility.
And one to be avoided.

So, what did Paul mean,
and how do we go about living this way,
with “our minds set on things above, not on things of the earth”?

Well, let me summarize Paul this way, in four words:
“Be what you are.”

Paul is saying that, in Christ, we are new creation.
And Paul repeats it. A dozen different ways.
We are raised with Christ.
Our life is hidden with Christ in God.
Christ is our life.
In other words,
our small life get subsumed in, gets lost in,
the resurrection life of Jesus Christ.
In Christ we have a new identity,
and we are called to live into that identity.

Ernest D. Martin, long-time Mennonite pastor and scholar in Ohio,
wrote the Believers Church commentary on Colossians,
and the phrase he used over and over,
was that we must “orient ourselves to the risen Christ.”
He wrote, “Know which side is up.
Know who you are. Know where you are headed.”

So you see, Paul is not urging the church to forsake the world
and everything in it.
We are not told to live our lives as if the world didn’t matter.
No, we live with an orientation toward Jesus Christ,
and his resurrection, which is now our resurrection.

See, the great mystery of the resurrection is not only
that Jesus died and rose again.
This mystery includes the reality that God,
in God’s great power and grace and wisdom,
appropriated that resurrection to our lives.
We are raised with Christ and in Christ.
We are new creation.
So our lives need to reflect this.
Else, we deny the truth that God re-created us.
Else, we turn our back on our re-creator.
Else, we reject Christ in God as the source of our identity,
and settle for cheap substitutes.
Else, we become earth-oriented idol-worshipers.

When Paul used the words “above” and “on earth”
he wasn’t referring to geography.
He wasn’t talking about up and down.
He was talking about those things consistent with the Christ-life,
and those things typical of the self-life.

You are “in Christ,” Paul says,
so “be what you are!”
Be, in daily practice, what you are,
because of what Christ has worked in you.
Live as one oriented toward Christ.

Easier said, than done, of course.
How do we, in the daily demands of life,
keep our minds set on things above?

I don’t think it’s a matter of saying there are two different worlds,
Christian and non-Christian,
so let’s spend all our time in the Christian world.
I don’t think it’s a matter of reading only so-called Christian books,
and listening only to so-called Christian radio,
and filling our homes and vehicles with
Christian plaques and knick-knacks and bumper stickers.

Garrison Keillor, on “Prairie Home Companion,”
talked about growing up among the Sanctified Brethren.
His parents had religious sayings
on plaques and trinkets all over the house,
even inside the car.
One night as a high-school senior
he went on a “hot date” in his parents’ car.
He was cruising down the road, and put his arm around his girl,
and thought, “This is going to be a wonderful evening.”
Then he saw the magnetic Bible verse
stuck to the metal dashboard,
and was horrified to find Proverbs 15:3 glowing in the dark!
“The eyes of the Lord are in every place,
keeping watch on the evil and the good.”
So he distracted the girl,
and quick put the magnet in the glove compartment.

We laugh, but it’s something we’ve all done.
We’ve all put our faith into compartments.
We act like the “things that are above” are for special occasions,
and we put them into a handy spare compartments,
for safekeeping while we go about the “things that are on earth.”
Then we retrieve the “things above” whenever necessary.

No, we who claim Jesus Christ as Lord
must live fully and participate fully in this earthly life,
while . . . we orient our life around Christ and the kingdom of God.
We don’t have one foot on earth and the other foot in heaven.
We have both feet planted firmly on this earth,
and both feet in the kingdom of God.
This earth is the place where God’s kingdom is taking root now.
We who are Christian live every day and every moment,
as citizens of God’s kingdom
and residents in this world.

This is why we must take the church seriously.
The church, as a community of resident aliens,
is a critical part of learning how to be Christian
in a land of idols.
No thinking person can deny.
This world is full of things that would distract us.
Full of things that clamor for our attention and loyalty.
Full of things that try to be a cheap substitute
for the identity God has given us.
And perhaps nowhere more than the United States of America,
are we saturated with so many options,
so many invitations to find our identity
in accumulating wealth,
in exercising power over others,
in pursuing our sexual desires,
or abusing the pleasures of food, or chemicals.
There are so many things vying for our worship.
There are so many kinds of American idols.
And God calls the church to live fully, live Christian-ly,
among these idols.
It’s not always easy to recognize idols.
Most idols—money, sex, food, power—are basically good things.
As we heard in Ecclesiastes,
God has made everything suitable for its time.
Idols are good things that we slowly allow
to overtake their rightful place,
and become a substitute for God.
Like the rich man in the parable we heard from Luke 12.
He found his peace and security in his abundant crops,
and ever larger barns in which to store them.
So we need people around us who can see the idols we cannot,
and vice versa.

How well we do that, as a church, depends on our orientation.
In his commentary on Colossians,
Ernest Martin had some insightful thoughts on this topic.
He said it depends on whether we see the church
as a sub-culture or a counter-culture.

If we see the church as a sub-culture within a larger culture,
we might be tempted to think Christian values are options
to add to the generally accepted values in society.
And we see plenty of evidence of that view.
Some who claim to be Christian are hard to distinguish.
They take the values of the dominant culture
and make a few tweaks,
a couple additions or slight modifications,
Or they put a thin overlay of Christian language on
outright greed and power-mongering and pleasure-seeking.

But if we see the church as a counter-culture,
we begin at a different place!
We begin with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
And we construct a common life and shared values
out of our communal orientation to Christ.

We don’t just size up the world’s values,
and then turn them upside-down and call them Christian.
We begin with Christ
and the values that Jesus Christ taught,
and demonstrated in his life
as he walked with a community of disciples.

If these values happen to be in contrast to the world’s values, so be it.
And they often will be.
If they are consistent with certain larger cultural values, so be it.
We can find some common ground and celebrate it.

But most of the time,
as a people shaped by self-sacrificing love
living in a self-worshiping society,
the church will be a counter-culture community.

If we think following Jesus
is taking a comfortable life in this world,
and adding some Christian blessings to make it just a little better,
then we have just successfully bypassed this whole thing about
“dying with Christ.”
We can hardly be raised with Christ, if we haven’t died, can we?

When we turn to Jesus, we die.
Paul advises us,
“Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly:
fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire,
and greed (which is idolatry) . . .
[put off] anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language . . .”

We must die to those self-oriented values and practices
that are such powerful distractions,
that have such strong gravitational pull,
keeping us earth-bound, to use Paul’s language.
And, by God’s grace, we are raised to new life.
We become a wholly new creation.
Thanks be to God!

—Phil Kniss, August 1, 2010

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