Readings: Acts 10:34–43, Colossians 3:1–4 & Matthew 28:1–10
Shortly, we will renew our baptismal promises as part of this morning’s service. The reason we do this is symbolic, because historically, the rite of baptism took place at Easter. Candidates were required to undergo a three year period of preparation for baptism, which was known as the catechumenate.
Writing to the church in Colossae, the Apostle Paul made the statement, “If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.”
What might it mean to be “raised with Christ?”
Many Christians in the world today were baptised as infants, but for centuries in the early church, people were baptised as adults, when they were old enough to profess their faith for themselves. Baptism in those times was believed to be by full immersion, preferably in a stream or the sea, but if neither of those options were available, then most likely in a fountain or a bath sized tank. Full immersion meant being totally submerged beneath the water, therefore going under the water represented being buried in death, whereas emerging from beneath the water was like being resurrected to a new life.
If being baptised means being resurrected to a new life, then Christian women and men must somehow be different people after baptism than they were before. So what might be different about them? Paul believed the answer was in their attitude to life. Having been baptised, that is, having been raised with Christ, their minds had to be set on “things that are above, not on things that are on earth”.
I think it’s fair to say that Christians of my generation and older, were probably taught to believe that heaven is above us, somewhere up above the clouds and the sky. That teaching obviously had as its basis the story of Jesus’ ascension into heaven. We read in the opening chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, ‘When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.’ (Acts 1:9–10 NRSV)
So when Paul was talking about setting one’s mind on “things that are above”, he was clearly referring to “heavenly” things, rather than things that are on earth. But he wasn’t suggesting that people should withdraw from all the work and activities of the world, nor was he suggesting that they shouldn’t engage in normal relationships. Rather, what he was suggesting, is that they should view everything against the backdrop of eternity, and no longer live as though this world was all that mattered. Christians should still be engaged in and with the world, but the way in which they engaged with the world should be different. It should be based on God’s standard of values, and not that of the world.
I recently watched a lecture given by N.T. Wright on today’s passage from Colossians, and he observed that because we have all learned the story of Jesus’ ascension into heaven, and most of us only to tend to think of heaven as a place we go to when we die, many Christians therefore don’t believe there is any connection between heaven and earth, and that Jesus is not present on earth. But Wright also pointed out that in the final chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus said to his apostles that all authority in heaven and on earth had been given to him. “All authority on earth”.
What does it mean for Jesus to have all authority on earth?
Wright argues that this works through the life of the Church in the world. The way in which the Church bears witness to Jesus through its love and service to the world, especially to the poorest of the poor in the world. And this is essentially what Paul was suggesting when he wrote to the Colossians encouraging them to focus on heavenly things rather than things that are on earth.
Paul also wrote that if we set our minds on heavenly things then we have died, and our life is hidden with Christ. Paul was saying that we have died to the ways of the world, meaning that we no longer concern ourselves with how the world judges us, but rather how God judges us. Which goes back to what I said earlier about the way in which we should engage with the world. Our engagement should be based on God’s standard of values, not the world’s.
God’s standard of values has been revealed to us through the teaching of Jesus. We saw an example of that in the reading from John’s Gospel on Maundy Thursday when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.” (John 13:15–16 NRSV)
So if we base our actions on God’s standard of values, rather than the world’s standard of values, then our lives will be hidden in Christ. This means that the world won’t recognise us, because we don’t behave according to the values of the world, but our lives will be revealed in glory when Christ is revealed at the Second Coming. On that day, the judgement of God will overturn the judgements of the world.