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Colossians 3:1-11

Sixty years has passed since I was baptized on a memorable Sunday evening at Lifeline Baptist Church near my home in the Cloverdale subdivision of Little Rock. What made the event memorable had to do with the Baptist minister’s desire to make sure I was fully immersed. As he brought me up out of the water he changed course and took me back down under the water surprising me in the process. Unfortunately I do not remember the reason why I chose to be baptized on that particular Sunday evening but the double immersion has stamped the event on my memory. I do recall having a relationship with God during those years. My family represents the full ecumenical range of baptismal practice except none of us experienced baptism as an adult. Early in her life my future wife knelt at a Nazarene altar to be sprinkled with baptismal waters. My son and daughter experienced infant baptism. We brought them up explaining their baptism looked forward towards their personal acceptance of Christian faith. Today they both affirm that faith in their local church. Our lectionary passage begins with a reference to baptism: “you have been raised with Christ.” [3:1, NRSV] Baptism symbolizes our death to sin and resurrection to eternal life in Christ with the promise of hope in life now and after death: “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”. [3:2-3] Baptism proclaims that our living should be different because we have died to the old life of sin and raised to new life in Christ.

Colossians 3:1-11 can be compared to Ephesians 4 and Galatians 5. Each contrasts two ways of living: in Galatians living by flesh or Spirit; in Ephesians living as Gentiles or by the truth found in Jesus; and in Colossians living by the things of earth or the things above. The flesh, Gentiles and the earth denote the old way of living prior to baptism. Paul warns of the consequences of living by the old ways. In Galatians he says “those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” [5:21] In Ephesians he maintains Christians would be “alienated from the life of God.” [4:17-18] In Colossians he claims the “wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient.” [3:6] What makes the flesh, Gentiles and the earth to be viewed as leading to death and judgment? We ask this question because we know there are good things about the flesh. Many Gentiles lived with a high degree of ethical purity. And God created the earth with many riches and beauty. Paul, himself, shows the value of human life when he relates Christian faith to household codes or family relationships in each of the passages. What makes these three symbolize the old way of living in sin? All represent living without bringing God into what we do or think. Paul points Christians in a different direction: “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus.” [3:16]

These three passages clearly depict the radical transformation that should result from becoming a Christian. Ephesians records “You were taught to put away your former way of life, … be renewed in the spirit of your minds and … clothe yourselves with the new self.” [4:22-23] Galatians calls believers to live by the Spirit and not by the flesh. While God’s grace may raise us to new life, Paul expresses expectations that we are to take a role in the transformation of our self, a “self-transformation” as it were. Colossians begins with a call to action: “seek the things that are above.” Do the things of God become the motivation for what we think and do? Paul establishes a priority for Christians to “set your mind on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” [3:2] His admonition to responsible living clashes with modern Christians who feel that being saved by grace means that Christians are transformed only by the action of God. How does one seek God? Paul suggests one way is through devotional activities: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.” [3:16] A second way that we seek God is to bring him into everything we do. In Colossians 3:18-25, Paul talks about household codes pertaining to marriage, children and slavery. What makes his discussion of these matters different from secular household codes is his introduction of Christian faith into the relationships. Husbands, fathers and masters must act differently in these power relationships as do wives, children and slaves. While for his time Paul maintained a social conservative stance on many of these cultural issues, the seeds planted by him allow later Christians to transform the relationships in radical ways. Christians will understand marriage as being between equal partners in Christ. Christians protect children from harm and abuse. Christians advocate the end of slavery and racial discrimination. Christians should seek more than being a nice person by simply Christianizing cultural practices; they should seek to redeem evil cultural practices

Paul makes strong appeals for separation from the former life.  In Galatians he contends, “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. [5:24] In Ephesians he reminds Christians: “You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self.” [4:22] In Colossians he instructs: “put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly.” [3:5] The language of crucifixion and death speaks to the radical lifestyle change to be made by Christians.   Later in Colossians the language again reflects how images of baptism convey the radical nature of the change: “seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self.” [3:9-10] Colossians in particular suggests images of baptism that will become standard in the Christian community.   In later centuries, Hippolytus in his Apostolic Tradition describes scenes from baptism that illustrate the radical change expected in the life of the believer and sounds like Colossians:  “3. And they should take off their clothes.  ….. 11. they should stand in the water naked…. 20. and afterwards, each drying himself, they shall dress themselves, and afterwards let them go into the church.” [1]

In Galatians and Colossians, Paul clearly indicates one particular way the gospel should change the nature of the Christian community. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. [Galatians 3:27-28] “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!” [Colossians 3:11] At a cultural level the differences remain, but the question is whether they should matter in the Christian community. It may be understandable that people feel more comfortable with other people like themselves. However, the gospel conveys the message that with these differences the church community should be united in Christ. Moreover, Christians should be advocates and players in bringing reconciliation to the political and racial differences that so often divide our society. Colossians teaches us that our faith should factor into what we do and how we relate to one another.

The baptism I experienced sixty years ago set a course that would change the direction and substance of my life.   A few years after that baptism and more than fifty years ago I joined the Church of the Nazarene declaring my faith in God.  The question one asks at the end of any life is whether the faith declared in baptism and the testimony given when one joins a church has continued to shape how one lives.   Does one’s living encourage unity in the body of Christ and in secular society?  The values from above should shape our earth.  Paul does not call us to escape this earth for heaven but to transform the earth with the gospel of heaven.   In so doing, we have the promise: “When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you will also be revealed with him in glory.” [3:4] [2] [1] Hippolytus.  On the Apostolic Tradition.   Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press,  2001. [2] Charles Talbert.  Ephesians and Colossians.  Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007. NT Wright. Colossians and Philemon: An Introduction and CommentaryTyndale New Testament Commentaries.  Nottingham, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2008.  William Barclay.  The Letters to The Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians.  Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1957.   “Another Look: The NT ‘Haustafeln.’” Chaplain Mike.  Steven Macks.  “Wives Submit to your Husbands: Layers of Meaning in Colossians 3.”   Feb 22, 2017.