1So 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!
12As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. 16Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. 17And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Chapter three of the New Testament book of Colossians represents something of a break from the first two chapters of this letter on which we’ve been focused for several weeks. In the first two chapters, Paul (with the help or, at least, the assent of the young pastor Timothy) makes an extensive confession of Who Jesus is: God in the flesh come to earth to die and rise and share His victory with believers. All who believe and are baptized are Christ’s resurrection people.
In fact, just to get you in the right frame of mind, I invite everybody to make two affirmations right now:
- “I have died and risen with Christ!”
- “We are Christ’s resurrection people!”
But it’s at this point that a question should arise in our minds: Now what? Jesus hasn’t come back yet nor have we died and come face to face with Jesus yet, so how do we live today?
This was an important question for Paul and Timothy to answer for the Colossian Christians because they wanted to correct the incorrect impressions of the Christian faith created by teachers who had come to the Colossian church and told the believers there that, on top of Jesus, they also needed to obey a string of regulations. (Some of their regulations seem to have been like Jewish ritual law, some of them like a first-century version of New Age mysticism.)
No, says the letter to the Colossians, we only need Christ to be saved from our sins and to have life with God!
So, does that mean that we Christians can do anything we want? There have been some Christians who have thought so. Some of you will remember the scandal that enveloped televangelist Jim Bakker some years ago. His downfall involved extensive sexual scandal, financial misdeeds, and prison time. To his credit, Bakker later wrote a book, the title of which contained his confession: I Was Wrong. But when Bakker went to prison, one denominational group said that they would be happy to ordain him, repentance or not. Their reason: Bakker's sin was of the flesh, but as a Christian, he was only responsible for spiritual sins. I have no idea what that means; but it shows the extent to which we human beings can go to exonerate ourselves of responsibility for our sins.
Often, we all can be like the character in one of George Bernard Shaw’s plays who says, “I love to sin. God loves to forgive. It really is an admirable system.”
But in fact, the follower of Jesus Christ is called to choose an entirely different orientation for his or her life and daily decision-making. We are to live as people who, through our Baptism, have died and risen with Christ, no longer oriented to the sin and death of this world, no longer taking our cues from what the New Testament calls life in the flesh, but living lives that reflect the reality of heaven and the new life that is ours through Jesus Christ.
Now look at verses 1-4 of our lesson on the special handout we distributed this morning. Read those verses silently, while I give a more literal translation from the Greek in which it was first written:
If therefore, you were co-raised with the Christ, seek the things above where Christ is sitting at the right hand [that is, the power hand] of God. Fix your mind on the above things, not on the things of this earth. For you died, and your resurrection life has been hidden [in this world] with Christ through God Himself. Whenever Christ, our life, becomes visible in this world [that is, when Jesus comes back to the world], then also the glory of God living in us will be seen by all.After these verses, we’re told that if our basic orientation has shifted from earth to heaven, there is something we must do. Verse 5 expresses it this way: “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly…”
This is what Martin Luther was talking about when he said that each day we need to come to God to repent for our sins and each day, through the forgiveness God gives through Christ, we’re to walk in the power of Christ’s new life. That's daily repentance and renewal.
Colossians then lists five interrelated, overlapping sexual sins that Christians need to put to death within themselves.
First there’s fornication. The Greek word is porneian, from which we get the English word "pornography." According to the most renowned theological dictionary of the New Testament Greek, in its entry on porneia or fornication, “the [New Testament] is characterised by an unconditional repudiation of all extra-marital and unnatural intercourse.”
The list of sins we are to put to death through repentance goes on to include uncleanness (which would include any dirty, demeaning, or sexist words about sexuality), passion (which, in this case, means the desire to use another person for one’s own desires with no regard for the other person), evil desire (which refers to improper sexual desires, such as the desire for someone else’s spouse), and greed (which is actually a covetousness that makes either sex or the object of sexual desires a god for the covetous person).
That list pretty much runs the gamut of all of humanity’s sexual sins and they all, Colossians says, are to be put to death by daily repentance. Failure to strive to put them to death, our lesson tells us, will cause even those who have been baptized to incur God’s wrath.
I know that this makes God seem like a terrible spoilsport. But, in fact, God wants us to respect the gift of sexuality He has given to us. We see God's elevated view of our sexuality throughout Scripture. Genesis, for example, says that God created us male and female. The Song of Solomon celebrates in beautiful imagery the sexual relationship of husband and wife. In the books of the prophets, God said that the relationship of spouses stood as a metaphor for His relationship with Israel: He was Israel’s husband, Israel was God’s wife, and God lamented Israel’s faithlessness in running after other gods. In the New Testament, the Church is called the Bride of Christ. God wills that Christians’ relationships with members of the opposite sex be as unadulterated as our relationship with Christ. Thank God that whenever we fail to live in purity, either sexually or in other ways, we can turn to Him in repentance and receive forgiveness.
Our lesson goes on to talk about sins of the mouth—literally, the original Greek says, sins that come from our “stomatos,” our stomach or our gut. We're told to get rid of anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language.
God takes His gift of speech to us seriously, too. This is why the Ten Commandments include the eighth commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” In The Small Catechism, Luther explains the commandment in this way: “We are to fear and love God so that we do not betray, slander, or lie about our neighbor, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain his actions in the kindest way.” Again, thank God for the gifts of repentance and forgiveness and fresh beginnings and new starts.
Verses 9 and 10 tell us: “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.”
In the first century church, those who were baptized took off their old clothes, were baptized, and then received new white robes in recognition of their having put off the old orientation to this world and put on the new orientation to Christ and to heaven. Since we have put on this new way of life of being “Christ’s resurrection people,” our call is to keep putting off all the vices that our lesson lists, so that our relationship with Christ can be kept clear and clean and pure.
Now, I wanted to be sure to talk about verses 12-17, even though they're not appointed for today, because it’s important to see that a relationship with Christ is not just about the things we put off or get rid of. This is, by the way, one of the deficiencies I see in how we usually commemorate the Lenten season. Everybody talks about what they're going to give up during Lent: "I'm going to give up chocolate." "I'm going to give up swearing." That's fine if the giving up leads us to a deeper relationship with Christ. But life with Christ is also about putting on new ways of living, joyful ways of living! Read verses 12 to 15 out loud with me:
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.Just think how different the life of the world and of the Church at large would be if, in the power of God’s Holy Spirit, we chose to put on those virtues every day of our lives? That can happen as we daily surrender to Christ!
None of this is to say that Christians are to be milquetoasts. Verse 16 says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom…”
This passage bears directly on something coming up at Saint Matthew. You may have heard that there’s a vote on August 29. The issue at hand will be whether Saint Matthew should leave the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).
Some are worried about the vote because people have varying opinions. I’m not. As someone once said, “If two people agree on everything, at least one of them is irrelevant.”
Whether it’s on how the Church addresses social justice issues, what pastors and bishops should say on political matters, how much emphasis should be placed on evangelism and discipleship, how much heed we should give to Latin American and African Lutherans who are deeply disturbed by recent actions of Lutherans in North America and Europe, or what we teach our children about the gift of sexuality, if your opinions are rooted in the Word of God—chapter and verse—then, by all means, you need to share those views among yourselves.
When we let Christ’s word dwell richly in us, we will all have times when we have words that teach and even admonish one another and help us all to put off the ways of the world and to put on the things of Jesus Christ.
Finally, verse 17 says, “And, whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” May this be our aim every single moment of every single day. Amen