Summary: Year C NINTH SUNDAY AFTER PENECOST (PROPER 13) AUGUST 5, 2001 Colossians 3: 1-11 Title: “The Heavenly and the earthly.”
Year C NINTH SUNDAY AFTER PENECOST (PROPER 13) AUGUST 5, 2001
Colossians 3: 1-11
Title: “The Heavenly and the earthly.”
The first two chapters of this letter focused on the person of Christ. It is Paul’s belief that if we get Christ right we get everything else right. The second half of the letter is dedicated to ethics, the practical implications and applications of life in Christ. Thus the focus moves from doctrine to ethics, from principle to practice, from the universal to the particular, from the indicative to the imperative, from “is” to “ought.”
Paul’s moral teaching is based on the fundamental principle that Christians are dead and newly risen people. They must behave in a new and different way. They are to become in this world what they already are through Baptism in the “world to come,” the new creation. They are to do good works not in order to be saved, but because they already have been saved. Ethics, then, is gratitude. And “salvation,” although grammatically a noun, is a verb with three tenses: a past event, it depends upon the cross and so is already accomplished. A new seed of life has been implanted in us at Baptism, a present experience; as such it mingles with our experience of personal sinfulness and a sinful world. God’s grace is necessary to minute by minute overcome the pull of the “flesh.”, and a future blessing, fully real in eternity, but not yet fully realized in time. As the ultimate purpose of history we must still await a Savior [Phil 3:20] by whom we shall be saved [Rom5:9].) Paul intermingles these three perspectives when he gives moral teaching.
In verse one, “If then you were raised with Christ,” this past event, historically past for Christ at his resurrection and for the Christian at his Baptism, has practical implications for the present.
Seek what is above: This past event and our incorporation into it through Baptism gives us real communion with the crucified and risen Lord, but it also requires a new lifestyle corresponding to this new status. This is Paul’s version of the Lord’s teaching in Matthew 6:21: “Where your treasure is, there also will be your heart.” This is the present dimension of salvation, requiring a new outlook, attitude, perspective and quest with Christ as the focus. In one sense Christians already belong to this dimension.
Where Christ is seated at the right hand of God: The apostles no more thought of a location on a literal throne at God’s literal right hand than we do today. They were well aware they were using figurative language to describe the final state of affairs, the future hope where we will all be in God’s presence. It is that future focus, eternal dimension, which forms the context for our concrete decisions and actions while we are still on earth, just as it did for Jesus when he was still on earth.
In verse two, “think of what is above,” Paul knew that “above” was a mental spiritual dimension, again, he is using figurative language, not a physical direction. The word “think” translates the Greek phroneite, a favorite Pauline word for attitude, mindset, perspective. This is a perspective above that of the realm of the principalities and powers, the sometimes-evil spirits that seek to rule the universe. This is the perspective of God’s realm. The earthbound perspective is just that: transitory, illusory and without lasting substance.
In verses three and four, “your life is hidden…when Christ your life appears…you too will appear,” Christians continue to live on earth in their mortal bodies. Because of this the splendor, glory, “obviousness,” if you will, of Christ is hidden both from the Christian and from the world. Of course, it is not entirely hidden. Its “hiddenness” depends on and is relative to the degree of awareness of the person or people involved. It is the province of Christ’s Spirit, living and active within us, to reproduce his likeness increasingly, one degree at a time, as 2Cor 3:18 puts it, in our lives. True, the consummation awaits the day of Christ, but the brightness, glory or increasing “obviousness” is happening in front of earthly eyes as well. The day of glory may be future but its arrival is as sure as if it were already here.
In verse five, “put to death, then, the parts of you that are earthly,” having lain out the general principle of morality- seek the things above- Paul turns to the practical applications of that principle. He begins with the basic requirement. The Christian has died; he or she should make sure he/ or she is completely dead. By this Paul means the Christian is to let go of the old, let go and let God be God, stop trying to hang on to the former life and its ways. Christians are “dead to the world” and should behave that way. This is no mere figure of speech; it is a real event, a fact, a fact now of new life. Christians are to become in actual practice what they are by divine act. So, ideally, the metamorphosis took place in an instant, at Baptism. Practically, it is a lifelong process. Although “parts” refers to the bodily members used to sin, the word represents the whole person doing the sinning. This is another form of Jesus’ teaching Matthew 5:29-30, where he metaphorically said the offending foot, hand or eye should be cut off. “Earthly” is a synonym for “fleshly,” meaning human behavior and effort opposed to God. The significance of both “parts” and “earthly” is moral rather than material. Paul is not advocating a hatred for the human body or things earthly in and of themselves. It is only in so far as these realities have been invaded and taken over by evil that they are to be either shunned or re-conquered and re-possessed.