Pentecost +8 2019
Rev. Doug Floyd
Ecclesiastes 2:1-11, Psalm 49, Colossians 3, Luke 12:13–21
Tomorrow is the Feast of St. Oswald. Oswald was the grandson of Ida, the man who founded the kingdom of Northumbria. When Oswald’s father Ethelfrid was killed in a battle, his uncle Edwin, a pagan, who took over the kingdom. Oswald and his brothers found refuge with Columba at Iona in Northern Scotland, and he was raised in a Celtic monastic community. For the Celts, a monastic community involved some celibates monks but also families and an entire community. While he grew up, his grandfather’s kingdom split into several pagan kingdoms. His elder brother Eanfrid eventually returned to claim one of the kingdoms, but he was also killed in battle.
In 635, Oswald sensed a call from the Lord to return to his family’s land and reclaim the kingdom. He ended up recovering all the kingdoms and restored the kingdom of Northumbria as a Christian kingdom. According to Bede, Oswald “brought under his sway all the nations and provinces of Britain, which are divided into four languages, namely the Britons, the Picts, the Scots, and the English.” He played a key role in bringing Christianity throughout his kingdom.
Oswald sent to Northumbria for help in cultivating a Christian community, and eventually, Aidan came and started Lindisfarne, which became a key center of education, farming, training, and helping the needy. When I study these early Celtic communities, I am inspired by their faith, their rhythm of life, and the way they touched the culture. At the same time, I realize that it is easy to idealize past generations like the New Testament church, the Benedictine communities, the Moravians, and other Christians communities or movements across history.
These stories still contain elements of truth, but they sometimes fail to reveal the struggle, pain, and difficulty of cultivating community. Paul’s letters make it clear that his Christian communities struggled with division, racial conflict, doctrinal confusion, and more. Instead of offering five easy steps to building community, Paul continually refocused these churches on Christ and His redeeming action in our midst.
In Colossians, he continues to discuss the role of hope, faith, and love in relation to the community. Our hope is in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. This opens our future and the future of all creation: death and evil will be defeated and the kingdom of God will prevail.
Our faith is rooted in the goodness of God revealed in Christ. He has gathered us to himself, he will preserve us in His life, and he will present us before the Father as blameless. Our identity will continue to unfold in Christ throughout this life and the life to come.
Our love takes shape in the living community of Christ. In Colossians 3, we see a pattern of this Christ-shaped love. First, Paul returns to the theme of life in Christ. Then, Paul talks about the practical shape of working out life together. Today, I’ll spend a few minutes thinking about living in Christ and living in community.
First, Paul opens with this beautiful and almost mystical sounding meditation on our place in Christ:
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1-4)
Paul calls us to seek things above and think about things above. How do we do that? Do we try to imagine our life in heaven? Do we try to imagine our relation to Christ ruling and reigning beside the Father? He connects the first two phrases about looking above to our position in Christ. “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” I’ll return to this phrase in a moment because I think it is key for interpreting Colossians 3 as well the call to live in love.
Paul ends this passage with a promise. “When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” We are looking forward to the full unveiling of Christ. When He is revealed in glory, we will be revealed with him. Our hope is secure in Christ.
Now let’s return to the phrase, “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” In the work of the cross, Christ has delivered us from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light. We have been caught up in a glorious work, and we somehow share in the glory of Christ. But this is hidden. How is it hidden?
Think about the Gospels. When Jesus walked upon the earth, most people could not see his glory. The people Jesus encounters throughout his life and ministry misunderstand him. The disciples misunderstand his reference to his coming death. He takes Peter, James, and John up Mount Tabor, and they suddenly behold His glory in a way that is brighter than the noonday sun.
This coming Tuesday the church observes the Feast of Transfiguration. This moment when the glory of God shines out from Jesus on Mount Tabor. Except for this moment of glory that the disciples still misunderstand, this glory remains hidden throughout the life Christ.
The Orthodox Church celebrates The Transfiguration as a revelation of the destiny of God’s people. Following the writings of Gregory of Nyssa, there is a sense in which we are climbing Mt Tabor and rising from glory to glory. This hope of glory is now hidden with Christ in God. ‘
In today’s reading, Paul reiterates this promise that “When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col 3:4). For now, that glory is hidden. To look above is to see and think about our life in community in light of Christ.
Colossians 3 is not about a mystical yearning to behold Christ in some rapturous vision, but rather it is a reminder that we are caught up with Christ now even though it is hidden. As Markus Barth has written, “We are not dealing with flight from the world as the determining moment in the life of the Colossians, but rather with the Messiah who is enthroned as king over all creation and thus over this world, and who is to determine the life of the Christians in Colossae.”
We might better understand the opening of Colossians 3 if we think about how we often feel from day to day. Most of us do not feel like we are walking in clouds of glory. Life can feel mundane, challenging, frustrating, and often inglorious. Sometimes it feels as though days and weeks and months fly by in a blur. Life is repetitious. We wake, we wash, we eat and go to work. Then we eat and work a little more. We come home and relax and eat. Finally, we sleep until we wake and start over again. It does not seem like an earth-shattering drama. Then again, we all know people always living in drama. Something crazy has just happened. But then it happens again. Drama or chaos simply becomes another form of repetition.
Eugen Rosenstock Huessy has commented about how life and even war can be boring. He remembers how World War 1 was mostly boring with a few chaotic and destructive battles in between. Long periods of waiting with not clear idea what about happening. This sounds about like our lives. Lots of waiting. Then something happens. Then lots more waiting.
If we are looking and thinking above, Paul is suggesting that we keep our minds on the work of Christ in our midst even in the midst of the ordinary rhythms of daily life. Christ reorients us. Even now, we are living lives of hidden glory in Christ. He is truly at work in us. He is shaping us. He is preparing us for the full unveiling of His glory in us.
For now, this glory looks like love being shaped into us as we live in the challenges of family, friendships, and community. The community at Colossae is the very place where this glorious love is moving from warm feelings to reshaped lives. Our thoughts and actions are being shaped by the cross-shaped love of Christ.
In verse 11 of chapter 3, Paul writes, “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free, but Christ is all, and in all.” A group of strangers has been gathered in Christ to become a new family. This group is made up of various races, social classes, outsiders and insiders, or we might say liberals and conservatives. People from all walks of life have become a new family where Christ is all and in all.
Thomas Merton once wrote an essay where he suggested that we are changed as we live in long-term relationships of reciprocal love. Think of marriage. If we stick it out, we come face to face with our weakness, our anger, our impatience. As G.K. Chesterton once said, “Marriage is a duel to the death, which no man of honor should decline.”
In the church community, we step into a family called together by Christ. In this reshaped family, we come face to face with our own struggles and vices. The late Scott Peck used to say that community is not possible until people face conflict, struggle through it, and learn how to love in the midst of it. Community can often be a magnifying glass to our human sinfulness.
Paul is challenging the Colossians to put to death our earthly vices or to acknowledge the reality of our sinfulness and keep turning out eyes to Christ. Community brings our brokenness into the light where we keep reorienting our eyes to our Savior who bore our sins to redeem us, to deliver us from the kingdom of darkness, from the power of sin and death.
These attachments to anger and jealousy and hatred and lust reveal areas of our lives that need to be touched and healed by the grace of God. Over the centuries this act of confessing and releasing our sins has taken shape in the work of spiritual direction, sometimes in small groups, and often in long term friendships.
In a culture of the temporary, churches often take that shape as people and pastors move from community to community without ever finding a place where they truly face their own vices and work through them in the place of grace.
One way to subvert the unrestrained consumerism in our culture is to live out long relationships where we must learn to forgive, show grace, and find love. This happens in marriage but also in friendships and in small groups. This is the place where we practice virtues of compassion, kindness, humility, forgiveness, and more. Paul says that in this place, love binds our virtues and lives together in perfect harmony. This all happens in the mundane rhythms of living out life together. It doesn’t seem so glorious. And yet, in one sense we are all climbing Mt. Tabor together. By His grace, we are moving from hidden glory to hidden glory.
Christ who is our life appears, we also will appear with him in glory.
 Markus Barth, Helmut Blanke, and Astrid B. Beck, Colossians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, vol. 34A, Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008), 393.