This was a complicated sermon to go out on. But it brought my previous weeks’ sermons to a closure as a unit. Essentially, I am saying (amid commenting on some difficult scriptures) that we still need an other-worldly orientation in our spiritual life. Mainline liberals have not known how to be other-worldly; evangelicals are too much so, and in a narrow way. What I try to set out here is a way to stay grounded in God’s eternal existence, which provides us a kind of transcendence or simply refuge amid the disappointments of life (and worse). Raising our minds to this eternal being of God is an important task of worship together. It is a theme that I usually focus on at the end of the year and Advent/Christmas/Epiphany.
Colossians 3:1-11 (and Colossians 1:15-20); Luke 12:13-21
Finding and hoarding treasure have such an irresistible allure to young children, as numerous games of pirate have reminded this still rather new father. The allure of treasure starts young, and innocently enough. And so our scripture readings today tap into that primal urge to have a treasure. But the only thing that is immediately clear about these passages is that the very idea of having treasure is being twisted and played with. So a warning to pirate wannabes: you will likely be disappointed, or at least confused.
Last week we negotiated the boundary between personal prayer and prayer for the kingdom. The kingdom of God goes well beyond our personal lives, calling on us as a church community to be an open family of love; and it goes beyond our congregation, calling on the whole world to be a ordered by God’s justice. But we don’t need to choose one over the other, the personal at the expense of the universal. As the Lord’s prayer demonstrates, our personal longings and needs can and should remain attuned to the longings and needs of all (that includes all of creation and the whole environment.)
But I mentioned last week how both church history and our consumerist culture encourage a separation in our spiritual life, driving American Christianity to be about nothing more than our personal needs and desires. The church has often understood the whole point of Christianity to ride on what happens to us after our earthly lives. The Kingdom of God then becomes exclusively a reality beyond this world, a purely heavenly reality. And then something has gone wrong. / Reacting to this emphasis in traditional and conservative Christianity, many church leaders (me included) rightly push us to shift our focus to the work of the church as a community, or even activism by the church in political affairs. All of this has its place in God’s kingdom. Jesus is clearly very interested in how people are living their lives now, because the kingdom of God is becoming real during his ministry. After praying, “Thy kingdom come,” he adds, “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” But, strangely enough, both liberals and conservatives share a vision of Christian faith that is stuck in this world. Conservatives think that everything hinges on what we do here and now to get us out of this world and into heaven, while liberals want us to stay here and do transformative work.
But it is a shame when liberal and conservative Christians feel that they must choose either the kingdom of God at work in the world, or the Kingdom above and beyond this world. In my experience, when one thinks one has figured out what God’s kingdom is, it is time to think some more, and keep pondering. After all, Jesus spoke about the kingdom in parables. In our denomination, the United Church of Christ, I think it is fair to say that my colleagues in ministry mostly think about the kingdom of God as something we work for here and now. Thanks to this commitment, our church—our denominational church—is doing great things. But I think we need to go beyond this.
So we also need to consider the kingdom of God beyond this world. But since this “beyond this world” has been consigned to the conservatives, who see it as the opposite of the kingdom of God in this world, the interpretation of what the kingdom beyond this world means has become stale and shallow for everyone. It becomes solely about whether one’s soul ends up in heaven or hell (because, remember from last week, 82% of conservative evangelicals still affirm a literal hell). Some evangelical leaders continue to track their progress by counting how many souls have been saved by making a single decision for Christ. Jesus seems more interested in how his fellows live their full lives, than in some single decision they make in a crusade for Christ or in a deathbed conversion. Because salvation does not amount to just “saving your soul”—that sounds kind of self-interested anyway, doesn’t it? Salvation is about glorifying God, both in your soul and with the body of Christ, the Christian community.
So I don’t want to take away from the importance of the destiny of our soul—the Bible does speak this way too. But how else can we think about the kingdom of God as something beyond this world? To ask the same question differently: How else, besides the clichéd image of our soul floating away after death, does our Christian faith raise us above and beyond the world?
Our gospel reading raises this same question, again differently. What does Jesus mean by not storing up your treasures here? The line comes at the end of an admonition and accompanying parable, both found only in Luke’s gospel. The main point of the passage is the danger and pointlessness of greed. That’s an important point, but not one that I’m concerned with today. The rich man is not the stereotypical embodiment of greed. He has plenty of land, no doubt inherited, which happens to produce well one year. So he wants to store up the goods, rather than give away the extra. (It doesn’t mention whether he tithes his crops like he is supposed to.) So he tears down his normally ample barns and builds bigger barns to store his goods. He is not trying to gobble up more farmland, or to acquire things just for the sake of acquiring them. Instead, his purpose seems to be to take it easy and enjoy himself: “Soul,” he says to himself colorfully, “you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, and be merry.” Fate would have it that he never saw those many years of relaxing and enjoying himself. Jesus concludes with a brief commentary on the parable: “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich eis theon, rich to or toward or into God.”
The passages following this story also have much to say about how what we treasure says a lot about what kind of person we are. Ravens have “neither storehouse nor barn,” a deliberate echo of the parable, “and yet God feeds them.” And a little later: “Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven…. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
A crude reading of these passages would conclude: you can invest yourself in worldly goods and face an uncertain return, or invest yourself in God and face a sure-fire and everlasting payoff. But there is much in these passages that does not work with that reading. Jesus says “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions;” and he talks just after about not worrying about your life and what you will eat, and not striving after possessions. And he is talking not about where your soul will go, but that where your treasure is, there your heart will be, now. In other words, Jesus is talking about our attitude toward living this life, not about how to get to an afterlife. And nowhere is Jesus talking about giving money to God as opposed to keeping it for yourself. (Which means these passages won’t work perfectly well for my upcoming stewardship series.) So having treasure in heaven, or being rich toward God is not strictly speaking about investing in or doing things for God as opposed to here in this world. But what then is it? What does it mean to have a treasure in Christ?
Our Colossians passage may shed light on things, but it also prompts questions right off the bat. “So if you have been raised with Christ,” it begins, “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” Now, Paul believes in the actual future resurrection of the body; he makes that clear in Corinthians chapter 15. We will be raised with Christ at the resurrection of the dead, he believes. But notice how he puts it here: “If you have been raised with Christ.” The baptism which all his audience had experienced is for Paul a dying to oneself, and being raised into new life with Christ, already. And baptism isn’t merely a symbol; he means dying and rising pretty literally, I think. So his talk about death and resurrection does not only point ahead to our death and afterlife; it is also about the whole way we approach life here and now. And so when he tells them, “Set your mind 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,” he’s not saying, just spend your time daydreaming about all the good things to come, when you get to heaven. Rather, “to set your mind on things above,” according to one commentator, means to take on “a sustained devotion to and enactment of a life cause.” And that is why Paul will immediately go on to talk about how the church should be living now. He tells them, put to death fornication, impurity, evil passion, greed; anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive language; lying to one another. And then (thankfully, because I’m not crazy about all the items on his list of vices), he goes on after our passage to talk about virtues and good practices to adopt: above all, “love which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”
So when Paul says, set your mind on things above, not on earthly things, he means live your life in a way that reflects the new life you have in Christ. But that’s not really my topic; we talked about that earlier this summer. Now, what about the end of Paul’s sentence: “Your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Sounds a little like having your treasure in heaven. But what does it mean? Does anyone think that you know? If so, I invite you to come up and explain it to me and the rest of us. Because this is deeply mysterious language. In fact, just about every time Paul uses the very simple word “in,” he slyly invokes a mind-blowing mystery. We think we know what the word “in” means. “I have a buck 50 in my pocket.” Easy. But do we really know what Paul means when he says “in” throughout this letter, when he talks about the Colossians’ “love in the spirit;” or says, “in [Christ] all things hold together;” he tells them, “live your lives in Christ;” or, “you have come to fullness in him.” Typically, Paul talks about being in Christ or in the Spirit. In our passage, he goes one step further up the Trinity: “Your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Did you know that? Did you know you are, here and now, in God? When someone asks you, ‘Why do you go to church, anyway?” do you tell them, “Because my life is in God.” Not “…will be in God;” Paul says we are hidden with Christ in God.”
What on earth—or not on earth—does this mean? Paul doesn’t exactly explain it. But the reason I think we find this language so puzzling, so mysterious, is because Paul thinks the reality playing out before our eyes, the everyday world of flesh and blood, is not as real as it seems. He thinks we have died, and now our life is hidden with Christ in God. He thinks that what we see is not the whole story; our real life is hidden. And he looks for our real life to be revealed with Christ in glory.
We find this puzzling and hard to grasp, because we mostly do not think in the same way. We have become accustomed to think that what we see, this world of sometimes true bits of beauty, of sometimes genuine love, of sometimes stirring moments of justice, is as real as it gets; and moreover, this world of inevitable disappointment, of never quite hitting the mark, of repeating the same mistakes and foibles until it’s just boring—that all this is as real as it gets; and not to mention this world of mind-numbing stupidity, of cruelty to the point of savagery, of enlisting the highest-sounding ideals, including religion, to commit the most base acts of inhumanity; of catching, as Dostoevsky famously described it, babies with bayonets—that this is as real as its gets. Isn’t it always in the name of this ‘reality,’ the reality which we can see, that people—the cynical “realists”—tell us that utopian thinking is bunk, that human beings will always be set against one another in their groups, that the hope for a world where “there is no longer Greek and jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free” is just an empty dream? Remember from before the liberal Christians who, nobly, place all their stock in working to transform this world; and the conservative Christians, who think that what we do here and now is very important, not on behalf of this world, but because it is a kind of testing ground that will determine what our afterlife will be? Strangely enough, they agree: this world is as real as it gets.
It is not, Paul is telling us. “Set your mind on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” What he means when he says that your life is hidden with Christ in God, is that Jesus was not just some teacher who shows us a way of life; he was not someone put to death by Romans to reconcile us to God; he was not even someone who rose from the dead to secure our afterlife. Jesus is, also, “before all things; in him all things hold together.” “He is the image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation.” Jesus in other words, reveals—and continues to reveal today—the eternal, absolute, perfect being of God in our pallid, only half-real world. It is not obvious to Paul how Jesus has done this. I don’t think it is obvious that Jesus of Nazareth alone reveals God in this way; Paul is talking about the Christ who lives and reigns now, “the head of the body, the church,” as he puts it. And Paul admits that Jesus is not finished revealing the eternal, absolute, perfect being of God. Recall what he said: “When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.”
But this great mystery, that the eternal, absolute, perfect being of God is genuinely known among us, even though always imperfectly, for we cannot really know God’s eternal, absolute, perfect being, has got to be a part of our spiritual life. Not all of it. We rightly place before God our personal concerns and desires. We rightly bind those desires to the total transformation of this world to God’s vision of what it should be, praying thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. But beyond God’s will, whether on earth or in heaven, is the first petition of the Lord’s prayer: Hallowed be thy name. God is hallowed or holy because eternal, absolute, and perfect—and we only get a glimmer of that reality in Jesus, or in Paul, or in the church at its best. But even so, that glimmer is very real, the most real. And thanks to what God has done in Jesus, reconciling all things to God, that otherworldly glimmer does not take away from our personal needs, or our grand visions of the kingdom, but is their renewal.