Saturday, 31 July 2010

9th Sunday after Trinity: If you only look down, all you'll see is dirt


Colossians 3:1-11
The New Life in Christ

So if 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 is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. 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!

Luke 12:13-21
The Parable of the Rich Fool

Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ But he said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’


Cambridge is a beautiful city. I was very lucky to have been able to study to be a priest there and enjoyed three years of living in one of the most exciting and vibrant places in England. But notice the difference between those two sentences; Cambridge is a beautiful city, or Cambridge is an exciting and vibrant city. I have to say that I felt that it was a vibrant city long before I noticed it was beautiful.

Those of you who have worked alongside me will know that I don’t usually notice details such as colours, clothes, hairstyles and the like. When I was writing this I was trying to remember what colour each room in the house was and decided that, without looking up, I honestly couldn’t recall the colour of the walls in my study where I was sat. I’m not joking about this. I actually had to glance up between sentences to see that the walls are a very pale blue.

Alison despairs with me over this, and I suspect it’s one of the reasons my study is always so messy, because I simply don’t notice things like that. Well the same was true of Cambridge. We lived there for months before I began to realise how beautiful a city it was. In fact once I had started to notice I made a point of purposefully looking up and around to try and take it in.

I’d noticed the vibrancy because I’m kind of more attuned to what people are doing and thinking around me. That’s just the way my mind works, and so my attention is naturally drawn to them, and we were surrounded by a multi-cultural array of excited students on every side. But in order to see anything else it was important that I consciously changed my focus. Only then did I begin to realise what it was about the beauty of the city that everyone raved about.

And so for the rest of my time at Cambridge, whenever I was around the city I would say to myself, ‘Look up.’ So gradually my perspective on the city changed, and became broader. I began to ‘see’ the place that was my home.

This idea of seeing a different perspective is what we find in our readings today. I want to begin with the Colossians reading, but the parable of Jesus will help us to understand what St. Paul is writing. And that will be necessary because the language St. Paul uses is not all that easy to follow.

If we ignore the first part of the first sentence it starts out fine, if I remind you, with:
‘ 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,’

Now that’s all quite understandable. That sounds just like what I’ve been saying so far, only with a spiritual slant to it; a kind of ‘look up...’ Now if we could just leave it there then all I would need to say is that, as Christians, we need to think about Godly and heavenly things and all will be well, our perspective will change, rather like my perspective about Cambridge changed, and we’ll be better people.

But that’s not enough, and St. Paul knows that’s not enough. If we left it there it would merely be self-help Christianity. If you do something, you’ll be a better person. But that’s rather like putting the cart before the horse. Christianity doesn’t start with what we do, it starts with what Jesus did.

St. Paul makes it clear that it’s not about anything that you’ve done, not at first. Sure we have to put our own will into it, but that’s not where it starts. Listen now to the second half of the sentence he began with:
‘...for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.’

This isn’t about thinking ourselves into a different space; this is about already being in a different space and actually seeing it for what it is. St. Paul affirms that something has already happened and everything that follows on in this passage is actually a kind of ‘...therefore’.

The key to all of this is that statement, ‘...for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.’ It all hangs on that, so we need to understand the spiritual perspective in order to see the spiritual surroundings. Or to put it another way, imagine I took you into Cambridge but surrounded you with a wrap-around photo of Birmingham. Would you even see that you were somewhere else?

This is, of course, joined by the phrase the whole passage began with:
‘So if you have been raised with Christ...’

So what do these phrases mean, that we have died and our life is hidden with Christ? I mean, I don’t feel very dead, at least not at the moment. What does St. Paul mean that we have died and are hidden? And what does he mean by saying that we have been raised with Christ? If we’re still alive, how can we have been raised?

I think that we can read this as a sacramental statement about baptism. Let me remind you what a sacrament is again. It is an outward and visible sign of something that God has done within you which is invisible but nevertheless real. Normally, in the Church of England, when we baptise babies and children we do so by pouring water on their heads as symbolic of being washed clean.

However, that’s not the way that St Paul would have likely experienced baptism. For the early church, as with the modern Baptist church, the Greek Orthodox church and some other denominations, baptism is done by full immersion. The reason I mention this is because there are two symbols inherent in baptism. When we pour water over someone’s head that is an outward and visible sign of God washing them clean.

But God is accomplishing something else in baptism. When someone is baptised by full immersion the significance of going down into the water is that it is about dying. As we go down into the water that is the old person dying, and as we come up out of the water that is a sign of having been reborn in Christ.

However these are not just symbols; this is what God accomplishes in baptism, or to put it another way; a sacrament effects what it symbolises. We die and we are reborn. The whole idea of being ‘in Christ’ is that through our baptism we die with him and are raised with him. Something has happened in a very real and spiritual sense. It doesn’t mean that we are now perfect; far from it. You might like to think of it as God’s down-payment on what he will accomplish in the future.

So what St. Paul is saying is that as baptised believers we are now members of the kingdom of heaven as ones who have died and been raised with Christ. We may be currently resident on earth but our real home is in heaven; that’s what we have been baptised into.

The subjects of the kingdom of God are baptised believers meaning that they have died with Christ and been raised with him. We live in God’s kingdom, even right now whilst we’re resident on earth, and that’s why our perspective should be different, not because of anything we’ve done but because of what God has done for us.

Let me go back to my analogy about living in Cambridge. I can tell you that Cambridge is a beautiful city, but you have to be a resident to really appreciate it on a daily basis, and even then you have to make a conscious effort to look up and see the beauty of where you’re living. If you only look down, all you’ll see is dirt.

The same thing is true of being a member of the kingdom of God. As baptised believers, through the work of God you have died with Christ and you have been raised with him. You live in the kingdom of heaven even if you’re currently resident on earth. However, are you looking up or down? If you only look down, all you’ll see is dirt, and that’s actually what St. Paul is saying.

With his list of prohibitions what he’s telling us is that we need to let go of the ways of the lives we used to live. Those ways are not suitable for subjects of heaven. Living like that is ignoring the fact that we are residents of the most beautiful city of heaven; it’s like looking down the whole time and only seeing dirt when we should be learning to look up and see beauty.

Being a Christian should change our perspective, but the change of perspective begins with having become Christians, not the other way around. We have to be careful not to put the cart before the horse. Trying to be a good person; trying to see good in everyone, should flow out from being born again in Christ. We cannot make ourselves good simply by trying to see the best in everyone, we must first be born again.

And that finally brings us back to the parable Jesus taught. What we see there is someone with an earthly perspective. This is a man who thinks only of himself. He’s looking down, not up. If he were looking up, not only would he see the beauty of heaven, and realise that all the earthly goods that he can stack into his new barns are like worthless dirty rags compared to the beauty of heaven...

...but his heavenly perspective would also cause him to see the physical needs of those around him and he would be moved to use his abundant resources to help them.

So the challenge to us is to ask, are we aware that we are citizens of the kingdom of heaven, by virtue of having died with Christ and been born again, as revealed through our baptism? And has that changed our perspective? Remember, if you only look down, all you’ll see is dirt. Amen.

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