07.31.2016 Preaching Text: “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above…” (Colossians 3:1a)
You’ve heard of Jesus’ seven last words on the Cross. You’ve probably also heard of the seven last words of the church: “We’ve never done it that way before!”
This phrase is frequently used by pastors who wish to make unpopular changes. The trouble with such glib talk is that while some changes are good, others are not. The devil, in other words, is in the details.
Years ago I worked with an interim pastor who made a startling claim, albeit tongue-in-cheek. She argued that while churches often use the seven last words of the church to justify the continuation of their own particular, idiosyncratic way of doing things, an investigating into their history often reveals that they have in fact done things differently!
This is instructive. Consider, for instance, the way in which Christianity has changed the way people think and act. Today we falsely assume that everyone, everywhere, is born with ethics resembling Christian ones, the kind outlined in Paul’s Letter to the Colossians. History, however, tells a very different story.
Paul tells us there is an “earthy” ethic and a heavenly one. And in baptism Christians are to “strip off” their old ways like dirty clothing and take on wholly new ones (this echoes how candidates for baptism in the early church were stripped of their clothing prior to their immersion in the water and then re-clothed with clean white robes).
Consider for a moment the virtue of pity, or compassion. “If there’s one thing the ancient world needed,” writes the great Scottish New Testament scholar, William Barclay, “it was mercy.” He lists as examples the sufferings of animals and the treatment of the maimed, the sick, the aged, and the cognitively challenged.
“Christianity brought mercy into the world,” he states categorically. “It is not too much to say that everything that has been done for the aged, the sick, the weak in body and in mind, the animal, the child, the woman has been done under the inspiration of Christianity.”
Yet somehow we today persist in thinking that these values have existed everywhere and always. The truth of the matter is that not only are Christian values specific, but they are learned. Which, of course, means they can also be unlearned.
So how do we prevent them from getting lost? The answer is the church. It is the church that has been the bulwark of much of the values and ethical norms we esteem in our culture, only we’ve forgotten where they originated.
Take one of the themes in today’s reading from Colossians about tearing down social barriers, those between the Jews and Gentiles, slave and free, male and female, i.e., between and among all peoples.
Lest we forget, these barriers, prior to Christianity, were considered insurmountable. In fact, the early church scandalized the ancient world with its practice of considering everybody, and I do mean everybody, equal in God’s eyes. As baptized members of the body of Christ there could be no east or west.
Unfortunately, our contemporary world has only a vague sense of this. And the problem has to do with epistemology.
Epistemology is the study of how we come to know what we know. My ability to speak English, for instance, can be traced to the environment in which I was reared, as well as the instruction I received in school and elsewhere. Had I grown up in Azerbaijan, the opportunity to speak English would not be as assured.
The realm of ethics is no different. We learn (or fail to learn) in precisely the same way. Unfortunately, as I said, we’re tempted to think ethics reside in our DNA or are simply to be found in the air we breathe. Notwithstanding, ethics originate from a specific ‘someplace.’
The Judeo-Christian tradition boldly claims that though we all are born with the image of God within, that it is part of our essential being, sin has compromised it, including our understanding and practice of the God-given sense of right and wrong.
Because we have become alienated from the Source of Life, over time, we have lost touch with the will of the Divine.
This means that the world has organized itself without any clear or particular awareness of, or relationship to, its Creator. As such, the “natural” world, biblically-speaking, is characterized as life according to the “flesh,” as both “worldly” and “earthly.”
Baptism, however, again biblically, effectively clears away the dross and dreck of blinkering sin, while simultaneously illuminating our hearts with newfound, heavenly virtues and graces.
Today, we often make the mistake of thinking that there is no need for this kind of spiritual transformation, wrongly assuming that “earthly” understandings of life are synonymous with heavenly ones.
We are told, for instance, to “welcome the stranger,” but forget that this phrase assumes a changed, transformed heart. In the New Testament it is the church that welcomes all people – under the singular lordship of Jesus Christ!
What, for instance, does “tolerance,” a decided Christian virtue, mean when such lordship is stripped away? Does it mean that all values are the same? Or does it refer to differences within the Body of Christ where Christ is understood to be the Head, where each Christian strives to make good on his or her baptism, seeking Christ’s revealed, heavenly ways?
In Bible Study this past week, we were talking about the scriptural role of the church. Generally the biblical witness assumes that role to mirror Jesus’ Great Commandment in Matthew 28: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…”
Yet in Revelation 13, as one of our class members astutely pointed out, in the midst of great persecution the call may not be so much to evangelize but simply to endure in the faith.
Today we face a unique challenge as the Body of Christ. The heavenly virtues and graces that have historically benefited our culture through the church are no longer understood to be heavenly graces. In the same vein, the church, as that human entity responsible for promoting these virtues, is no longer considered relevant.
As secular culture variously appropriates, rejects, and/or misuses the virtues unique to the church, we face an ever-confusing mix of benign neglect, misappropriation, if not downright persecution. Maintaining – enduring – in the faith thus becomes ever-more challenging.
Because opposition to the church today is not like the violent persecution faced by the early church (at least not yet and not here), countering this opposition is in some ways more difficult.
When everyone is throwing around values and norms disconnected to their spiritual origins, it is that much harder to present them in their true light. Which is why it is especially incumbent upon the contemporary church to be the church, rather than fitting into an increasingly secular world.
Rather than blending in with the culture, we have a sacred responsibility to persevere, and to firmly counter its misapprehensions with clarity, resolve, and Christian love, something, come to think of it, not all that distinct from our original baptismal charge.
For in the end, we are told, in heaven, all truth shall be revealed. Amen.