During the Advent Season I listened to a sermon on the theme that Jesus saves. I doubt few if any of my fellow parishioners went home thinking as I did. One of the scriptural passages of the sermon dealt with John the Baptist. The thought I carried home with me was that while Jesus might indeed have saved John the Baptist eternally, in this world John ended with his head being cut off. The image of his lost head lead me to think about whether salvation has any tangible results in this life. The climax of the sermon called for celebration of the saving power of Jesus but I had a difficult time experiencing that emotion because I kept thinking about John’s lost head. Can we expect this saving power of Jesus to appear on our behalf in the moments of pain and suffering in this life? Or is it reserved to provide a perfect world after we escape the present life? Can we expect Jesus to enter into our living today or is he just standing at the door of heaven waiting for us to arrive?
The lectionary passage from Colossians 3:1-4 may raise similar thoughts to those created by the sermon about John the Baptist. Verse four points to a future hope, “you also will be revealed with him in glory.” A negative attitude towards life in this world seems to be suggested in the preceding verses: “seek the things that are above” (1), “set your minds on things above, not on things that are of the earth” (2), and “for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (3). Does the meaning and celebration of Easter have us looking to an eschatological future hope while diminishing the life we live in the present world? Part of the Easter message would be that the fragile life of the present will not continue into the future, but can salvation offer us any hope in dealing with the suffering that results from the temporal nature of our present existence?
In the blink of an eye the status of our life or life itself can drastically change. The life we are living is gone forever. I experienced this back in 1964 when a car accident changed who I lived with, the food I ate and the church I attended. In the moment I did not realize the drastic changes coming. However, most of us live as if life as we know it will continue on forever. Moreover, many of us live as if the only values are the temporal. Perhaps this gives us a key to understanding what is meant by “setting our mind on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (2). In the material preceding and following this passage Paul speaks to the negative results of living as if the temporal is all of life. Here he calls us back to a proper sense of value. Living as if the temporal is the only value or placing earthly above the heavenly does not lead to the understanding of the world that should guide the Christian. But instead of viewing the heavenly values as only a future hope we should seek to bring the heavenly into the temporary to create a present hope and healing.
Most systems of religion recognize that the temporal nature of life or death is the fundamental problem that must be solved. Death terminates our life and causes the pain and suffering often experienced in our life today. Easter speaks to the solution of this problem. The future expectation of a life “revealed with him in glory” might help us emotionally deal with the temporal nature of this life. Easter promises that resurrection defeats the outcome of death, the prime enemy of living.
While this promise is good news I still think about the sermon and the head of John the Baptist. Should John be content that he gets his head back in heaven? Are we merely trying to do away with this life to get it over with to go on to a future life in glory? Can Easter speak into the present temporal existence? Again, reading Paul’s narrative prior to and following this passage suggests the reality of the future should enter into the present to change the perspective of how we live this life. We are to bring added value to the now as we carry the future values into the present. How we live our life becomes different. Moreover, we are to join with each other in community to affect change to bring justice into our world to alleviate pain and suffering. The Wesleyan holiness tradition of which I am a part, and most Christian traditions, view themselves as advocates to work for justice. Early Nazarenes did this with a call for women to be treated as equal to men in following a call to ministry. Christians today recognize this as they call for racial harmony and advocate for the stranger.
Several statements in the passage recognize the change or new focus brought because of Easter. Paul first mentions “so if you have been raised with Christ” (1). Later, he affirms “for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (3). What does it mean to be raised with Christ while living in this temporal world? Is this just a way of saying we are Christians sharing in Christ’s resurrection? What does it mean to be dead and have one’s life hidden with Christ? Does Paul mean that we are dead to all values except those of the coming Kingdom? As mentioned in the previous paragraph the new Easter resurrection message should transform how we live in our world today.
Paul gives some indications of how one is to realize the values of Easter. He admonishes us to “seek the things that are above” (1) and to “set your minds on things that are above” (3). How might becoming a Christian affect what we seek or desire? Christians can be often misunderstood because outsiders do not understand what they are seeking. Becoming a Christian is more than having a religious experience. It is a change in what we value and what motivates us to action. What we seek changes as we focus our minds on “things that are above.” Later in the advent season I heard another sermon that contrasted the romantic birth narrative of joy found in Luke with that of a narrative shrouded in suffering recorded by Matthew. Here salvation came to be viewed as taking place in the moments of suffering. Matthew tells the story among unsavory elements of our world where death and suffering intrude and interrupt living. While I went home thinking thoughts about salvation taking place in the midst of suffering some questions remained such as “Why do Joseph, Mary and the child get to escape to Egypt while the children of Bethlehem are put to the sword?” It does become critical that the resurrection proclaimed at Easter provides not only a future promise but a living hope for life today. This Easter message also calls the Church community into the world to work for salvation and change in the midst of people suffering from discrimination or disease or poverty or genocide. The future hope of resurrection seems more real as the Church demonstrates concern for those caught in the trap of their temporal existence. The more we seek and set our minds on things above, the more we reflect and carry the Easter message into the world and make it seem as if it is a future reality. The more we seek and set our minds on things above, the more we care for those who live in this temporal world. Our vision of a future hope where death is defeated calls us to work for the transformation of this world. In the midst of our efforts to bring transformation to our local world the Jesus of Easter shows up and brings his healing.