(A sermon based on Colossians 3:5-11 for the Seventh Sunday of Easter 2014)
Among the many things in the Hebrew Bible that fascinate me there is this one: toward the end of the book of Joshua, in which we read about the conquest of the Promised Land by the Hebrews, we find this line: “A long time afterward, when the LORD had given rest to Israel from all their enemies all around, and Joshua was old and well advanced in years …” (Joshua 23:1); then, in the very first verse of the very next book, the book of Judges, we read this: “After the death of Joshua, the Israelites inquired of the LORD: ‘Who shall go up first for us against the Canaanites, to fight against them?” (Judges 1:1).
So in one place we read that the Hebrews had been “given rest … from all their enemies” and in the other place we read that they needed someone to lead them in battle against their enemies. Which was it? Well, it was both. The Lord had brought them out of their grave of imprisonment in Egypt and had given them new life in Canaan but they still had to take action to keep that land and to grow in that life. They had been given life but they had to claim the life and to develop the life.
That is how Colossians leads us to think about the new life that we have in Christ. On the one hand, earlier in the letter Paul had said, “When you were buried with (Christ) in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses …” (2:12-13). And earlier in this chapter Paul had said, “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” (3:1-3).
Paul, then, has made the point that we have died with Christ; we have died to our former life, to our trespasses and sins. That death to our former life and our being raised to new life is a past event and an ongoing reality. Now, though, Paul says, “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly …” (v. 5). We have died but there are still things, if we want to live fully the life that is ours to live in Christ, that we need to put to death. God has in Christ done everything that can be done to save us; we now have the privilege and responsibility of living out the life that God has given us in Christ. That includes working on what we need to work on to become all that God means for us to be.
We might compare it to gardening. Weeds and grass already exist in the ground when we introduce our vegetable plants or our flowers. Have you ever noticed how well the weeds and grass will grow if you do nothing to them but how poorly your vegetables and flowers will do if you don’t feed them, water them, and remove the weeds from around them? In our lives, the weeds will prosper if we leave them alone and don’t take steps to eradicate them. But the flowers of love and grace will do poorly if we let the weeds of selfishness grow and don’t feed the flowers of grace and love.
So what are the weeds that we need to kill?
The things that Paul told the Colossians to put to death were things that characterized the life they once lived; they were things that characterized a life lived apart from God. Two things are particularly noteworthy about the two lists that he offers: (1) most of the items have to do with the state of our hearts, which makes sense in light of the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, and (2) all of the items have to do with the state of our relationships, which also makes sense given the emphasis of Jesus on loving God and loving other people.
So the first list (v. 5) at first (and accurate) glance seems to deal with sexual sins. But for the Christian, what is the nature of sexual sin? The nature of sexual sin for the Christian is sexual activity that is driven by lust, by a desire for self-gratification, and by a drive to have what you want regardless of the cost to other people; it is to put sex (or anything else other than God) at the center of your world and to let that be the point of your life. Such attitudes and actions do not put God at the center of your world and do not lead to whole and healthy relationships. And we can work on such attitudes—no one can work on them for us but us. They aren’t automatically taken away when we become Christians; when they pop up we have the privilege and responsibility of dealing with them before they get out of hand.
The second list (vv. 8-9a) would be judged by many people to be less serious than the first because the attitudes and actions on it sound less “dirty” than those on the first, but they are just as harmful to our relationship with God and with each other. They come down to attitudes of anger and to actions of speaking that want to strike out and hurt someone. We ought not to nurture bitterness toward each other and we ought not to speak evil of each other; such destroys our relationships.
It comes down to this: Paul calls us to work at killing those attitudes, motivations, and actions that lead us to dehumanize others and in the process to dehumanize ourselves [cf. N. T. Wright, “Colossians and Philemon,” Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 1986), pp. 140-143]. We have put off a life in which we live that way and have put on a life in which we are continually reclaiming the image of God in Christ so that we can live in relationship with God and with others in ways that are sound and healthy (vv. 9-10).
Such is the wonderful life that is given to us in Christ; all we have to do is pick it up and run with it! What motivates us? “If (Paul’s) theology is a theology of grace, the practical response to that grace is gratitude—gratitude in action as well as in word” [F. F. Bruce, “The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians,” The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), p. 138]. If God has given us life in Christ, how can we not do all we can to claim that life?
John tells the story about the woman who was caught in adultery and who was at risk of being stoned to death for her sin. At the end of that story, when no one was left but Jesus and her, he asked her if there was no one left to condemn her. When she said “No,” he responded, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and sin no more.”
I wonder what her life was like from then on. I wonder how her gratitude for God’s grace caused her to work on what she needed to work on and to change what she could change …