Colossians 3:1–11 (NRSV)
The New Life in Christ
3 So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, 3 for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.
5 Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). 6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. 7 These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. 8 But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices 10 and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. 11 In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!
What does it mean to be a Friend, a Christian, or a disciple of Christ? This is a question that every denomination and every generation seeks to define. Each group seeks and studies scripture, they spend time in prayer and participate in spiritual exercises in an attempt to hear the voice of God to gain insight in how to be a true follower of Christ in the world. Each generation, each Meeting, and each individual within a Meeting also seeks how best to express their devotion in their own life. We seek, because as history moves forward and as culture advances we are faced with issues that were not significant in the previous era. The struggles that my generation face are not the same as those of my parents and their struggles were different than that of my grandparents, they are different but there are similarities. We can see how history has shaped our present timeframe, but it is more difficult to see how it can shape our futures.
The Colossian people also faced unique struggles. This once prosperous community who built their reputation of coveted purple dyed fabrics, were facing great cultural diversity and economic stagnation. The diversity of their culture brought with it many different perspectives in how to view the world around them. From the Hellenistic cultures of Greece they gained philosophical questions, from the displaced Jewish peoples they were introduced to Abrahamic spirituality, and they also had pockets of influence that emigrated from the northern coast of the Black sea or modern day Crimea. These unique cultures were blended together in one community and into this community was added an additional perspective, the perspective of Christian discipleship.
For a moment I would like us each to consider this community and that of our own. Consider the similarities as well as our own unique struggles. Our cultures are both a diverse melting pot incorporating cultural influences from various places and adapting in our own way. As we consider their history and the struggles that they faced we can gain knowledge and wisdom in how to approach the emerging struggles of our current era.
The second consideration that we should examine is the effect of these cultural influences on the Church. As much as we attempt to prevent it, our culture does influence how we interpret our faith. It is nearly impossible to remove all aspects of the culture from which we were born, but when we are aware of our cultural influences we can recognize the areas of faith that might be clouded by the world around us. We begin to have troubles when we fail to recognize our culture within our interpretation of scripture and faith. This is when we begin to lose the influence we began to see the power of God working. It is in that place where culture and church meet, where we are called to bear witness to the hope that we have, and to speak to the conditions of those around us.
The struggle facing the people of Colossae was that they were caught in this holy tension between faith and culture, and they were looking to their culture to provide the answers to their faith instead of looking to Christ. In this particular portion of scripture, Paul is speaking about the influence of Greek philosophical thought. The influence of philosophy in faith and practice run deep. Paul was speaking about the philosophical belief of separation of the spiritual and the temporal. This compartmentalized thinking allowed people to live dualistic lives and feel as if everything was perfectly fine. They would go to their temples and participate in the ceremonies putting on a religious face and then removing any semblance of devotion to a deity once they left the sacred portal.
These dualistic practices were common among the people, and the only real difference between the pagan and the Christian in this sense was how and where they participated in the religious activity. Paul says, “So if you have been raised with Christ…” For one to be raised with Christ one must first die with Christ. To those reading this letter they are being brought back to the foundations of their faith. The idea of dying to self and being made into a new creation. For a disciple this goes beyond putting on and removing a religious façade. To be a disciple one must take on the yoke or the lifestyle of the teacher; they should reflect their teacher in every aspect of life.
“Seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” This is also a bit tricky because mixed with the defense against dualism, is a defense against radical spiritualism. Also within the church of Colossae was this oracle of charisma; these people required spiritual experiences for them to feel as if they had connected to the divine. They were seeking visions of heaven, prophetic wisdom and utterances to give them direction in the future, and other miraculous wonders. I want us to stop here for a moment, Paul is not saying that these things do not occur. Paul himself experienced these very sorts of things and has testified to it, what Paul is warning us against is developing the totality of our faith on these things. This oracle of charisma coupled with dualistic philosophy leads to inauthentic lifestyles. Where people are required to have a manifestation of spiritual power in the place of worship, but a lack of true devotion outside of the place of Meeting. They were becoming empty shells.
You cannot give what you do not have. Paul is saying seek the things above where Christ is. It almost sounds as if Paul is defending what I am saying he is arguing against, but this is where context is key. Paul is encouraging them to look to Christ even through this shell devotion; seek Christ who is seated at the right hand of God. You are there in this place of Meeting seeking this charismatic experience, you have put on your religious mask of devotion so let’s just walk through this. Look to Christ sitting there at the right hand of God…Why is He there?
You have died to your old life and are raised with Christ; who came down from heaven to live and teach us how to live with God, who died on a cross to take the penalty and wrath for our rejection, and who rose again to give us hope that all things can and will be restored. You are a redeemed creature, restored in the glory of Christ. Any other façade is just that, an empty mask void of any power. And if you have not died and raised with Christ any charismatic experience is a vacant empty shell. Because all that you have and all that you are is hidden in Christ. You no longer live but Christ lives in you. And we only receive glory when Christ is revealed, and revealed through us.
Paul is telling them who they truly are. And then he challenges them as they are struggling in this philosophical and spiritual dichotomy that is leaving them empty of true power. They are struggling and defeated. And they, through their pastor write to Paul and are basically asking, “Why are we no longer seeing what we once saw?” The answer is that they have not totally died to self, so they cannot fully be raised in glory. They are living a dualistic lifestyle loving God on Sunday and then loving the worldly pleasures the other six days of the week. Paul gives them a list of vices that are holding them back: fornication. Impurity, passion, evil desires, greed, anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive language, and falsehood. That is quite a list, but one with a common theme. Reflect on that list; this is the type of people the church of Colossae was filled with, but do not be quick to judge them before we look deeper.
After the first five vices on the list we see a phrase in parentheses, “which is Idolatry.” Idolatry is the worship and devotion to things other than the one true God. I find it interesting that this phrase comes after these first five. Fornication, this is sexual immorality primarily associated with prostitution. Impurity is filth which also has sexual connotations, passion is lust, evil desires or cravings, and greed. Three of these are linked with sexuality and those are linked together with cravings and greed. We can quickly focus on the sexual and say that that is the sin keeping Colossae from power, but I want us to consider something a bit deeper. Each of these vices place one individual as supreme and all others are instruments of fulfilment of those desires. One is exploiting another for a single sided gain. This is the cult of self. The next six vices are the tools we use to preserve the cult of self. And where there is a cult of self, we are incapable to build authentic relationships, because those would leave us vulnerable.
All this coming from a church that bore much fruit that Paul acknowledged was growing throughout the whole world. Clearly God can even work through broken and corrupt people. But what could he do if these broken and corrupt people were to stop playing the dualistic game? What would happen if they actually put away their idols and totally died to themselves? In the sermon on the mound Jesus asked why we worry about what we will eat, drink and wear. And He then said seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these will be given to you as well. When we are focused on ourselves we seek to fulfill our personal needs first and then if we happen to have extra we might share. Jesus encourages us to seek a different path, seek the kingdom.
“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 that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!”
What a powerful verse. Our beings are being renewed in knowledge according to the image of their creator. We are being clothed with and in Christ. Taking on his lifestyle and leaving the cult of self behind. Putting away our desires for honor and power, fulfillment and pleasure and taking on the very lifestyle of Christ; a lifestyle of worship, prayer, and service to others. Seek first the kingdom, and let God hold onto our worries. Seek first the kingdom and let God’s kingdom and influence expand around us. Seek the kingdom as we are faced with the struggles of today, the struggles of faith and culture. And if we seek the kingdom first as we encounter those struggles God will direct our pathways through. We are not called to change the world, we are only called to die to self and be obedient to his leading.