God’s Story, Our Story: Hidden with Christ
Preaching: Brian Keepers
Text: Colossians 3:1-17
Recently my oldest daughter, Emma, has gotten into comic books and graphic novels. Comic books were my life when I was a kid, so it’s been a real point of connection between us. She’s more of a DC girl whereas I prefer Marvel (those are two different comic book companies). But of the DC Universe, my favorite is Batman. This is largely because of the three films directed by Christopher Nolan, which for me stand above the whole deluge of superhero movies released in the past ten years.
There’s a key scene in the first film of the trilogy, Batman Begins, that goes like this: the millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, who secretly fights crime by night as Batman, runs into his childhood friend, Rachel Das. Bruce is playing up his alter ego, out having a good time, living it up. He bumps into Rachel and he is embarrassed. This is all a show to conceal his identity as the Dark Knight. He says to her, “Rachel, this is not all that I am. Inside, there is more to me than all of this.” She looks him in the eye and says, “Bruce, it’s not who you are on the inside but what you do that defines you.”
It’s not who you are on the inside…but what you do that defines you. Rachel’s indictment of Bruce seems to reflect the view of our broader culture, which tells us: “You are defined by what you do, how you act, what you accomplish.”
The Apostle Paul, however, begs to differ. The main theological theme of his letter to the Colossians, and really all his letters, says precisely the opposite. It’s not what you do that defines you; it is who you are on the inside, at the core of your identity. Or more accurately, Paul says it is who is inside you, and who you are inside, that most deeply defines you. When we put our faith in the person of Jesus Christ, his very presence dwells in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. “This is the mystery of the faith,” Paul says in one of the most famous verses in Colossians, “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”
And our lives are caught up in Christ, hidden with him. Christ is in us; and we are in Christ—this is the good news of the gospel. This means that we are given a new status before God—a new identity as beloved daughters and sons of God. To borrow some more from Paul’s language in Colossians, God has rescued us and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (1:13).
All of this is our reality, by God’s grace through faith. This is why Paul begins all of his letters, including Colossians, by addressing those to whom he’s writing as “saints in Christ.” Saints not in the sense of super-Christians or those who are morally perfect but the Greek word meaning “those who have been set apart.” Set apart as God’s chosen and holy ones because of who Christ is and what Christ has already done on our behalf.
That’s where Paul begins. This is who you are in Christ. Then and only then does Paul move to the practical question: “So how then shall we live? What are we called to do?” Back to the scene in Batman Begins. Paul would say it this way: You are defined by who you are in Christ. And who you are in Christ determines how you are to live.
Last week Pastor Lindsay made the important point that it is essential to understand who a letter is addressed to. Paul and Timothy are writing this letter together to the Christians in the town of Colossae. Like so many of the other churches in the ancient world, the Christians in Colossae faced both external and internal pressures. Externally, they were being persecuted by the Roman Empire. Internally, there was strife and division, primarily because of false teachers who were confusing the heart of the gospel.
We’re not given the exact specifics of this false teaching, but there are clues in the letter that it had to do with a philosophy that insisted faith in Christ was not enough to be accepted by God or welcomed into the family of God. You needed to follow certain rules and regulations and have certain spiritual experiences in order to “break through” to a place of special knowledge. Only a few claimed to have access to the deep mysteries of God, and that made them better than everybody else (or so they boasted). On top of this, a lot of people were getting mixed up with the worship of angels and other spiritualities that took the focus off Christ.
So Paul is strong in his emphasis of the true heart of the gospel—which is that Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection is enough for Jew and Gentile alike. You don’t have to follow special rules and regulations. You don’t need to discover special knowledge or discover the “Secret.” And you certainly must not get all fixated on angels. Jesus Christ himself is the word of truth and he alone is sufficient to put us in right relationship with God and make all things new. This is the mystery of the faith—that Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation. In him and through him all things were created. And in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him Christ was pleased to reconcile all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
In other words, Paul wants them to know that they are new creations in Christ. In their baptism, they were buried with Christ—the old person was put to death; and they have now been raised to new life in Christ through faith. This is their truest reality now—not just when they physically die someday in the future. No, they have been joined to Jesus and have been raised to new life now and are called to live out that new identity in Christ. Here is how Paul says it in Colossians chapter 3:
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 the earth; 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.
Let’s hear that again: 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. You have union with Jesus, and now his life is in you and you are in him, and that makes you a new person. The old has gone; the new has come! And if all of this is true, now you are called to live out that new identity! Let who you are in Christ shape the way you live.
How then shall we live? How do we act out our “being-in-Christ” identity? There are two main imperatives that Paul gives us. First, Paul urges us to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.” He goes on to say, “Set your mind on things that are above, not on things that are on the earth.”
What does Paul mean by this? We’ve all heard the saying that some people are so heavenly minded they are no earthly good. Is that what Paul is getting at? When Paul exhorts us to “set our minds on things above,” he is not saying “just sit around thinking about heaven all the time.” Rather, he means be transformed by the renewing of your mind, and orient your life and devotion to Christ—give him first place—and let God’s truth saturate your minds. Paul’s point is that the way we think about God and ourselves and the world directly affects the way we live. Paul writes in Philippians that we have been given the mind of Christ. Now we must think with it. We must look at ourselves and the world from this Christian perspective. God draws us into his story in Jesus—gives us a new and beautiful story. A new story that tells us our self-worth and security is found in who we are in Christ, not in our vocations or our income or our personal achievements (or lack of for that matter). Right thinking leads to right living.
But right thinking—setting our minds on things above—is not enough if we are going to grow into our baptismal identity and experience transformation. As someone as said, Christians are not just brains on a stick. We’re whole persons—head, heart, body and spirit.
It reminds me of the Tony-Award winning musical, The Music Man. Are you familiar with that story? A con man named Harold Hill arrives mysteriously to a small Iowa town and poses as a music teacher. He convinces the town that they need a boys marching band, and he collects all their money to order instruments and shiny new uniforms. His plan is to then skip town with the money and move on to the next town to carry out the same scam. While the boys are waiting for their instruments and uniforms to arrive (which are not coming), Hill “rehearses” them through what he calls the “think system.” If the boys will just think hard enough about playing the notes, then they’ll automatically learn how to play the instruments without ever having to actually pick up an instrument and play a single note! Of course the whole idea is ridiculous! Anyone who has ever learned to play an instrument knows that the only way to become a skilled trombonist or clarinetist is by doing the hard work of practicing scales and putting in hours of rehearsing the music. You can’t just think the right notes, you have to actually practice! This is true for any skill we want to develop, right?
Well it’s also true for growing into our baptismal identity and becoming more like Jesus. Just doing the “think system” isn’t enough. It’s going to take practice! This leads to the second main imperative Paul gives us. Set your minds on things above, and then strip off the old and put on the new.
Here’s how Paul says it: Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry)….These are the way you once followed, says Paul, when you had a different identity. But now you must get rid of all things! It’s not who you are anymore! Your life is hidden in Christ—you belong to Jesus and you are part of a different story. Paul goes on: Seeing that you stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourself with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.
So Paul is saying that the way to live out this new identity in Christ, to put off the old and put on the new, is to practice certain virtues that we see in Christ. He uses the image of putting on clothes that fit this new identity we have in Jesus. Let me read it again for you, only this time from the Message.
So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master has forgiven you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it. (The Message)
It’s quite a list, isn’t? These things aren’t automatic, nor do they come naturally to any of us. It’s hard work. And we’re called to put these clothes on—put these Christ-like virtues into practice, even when we don’t feel like it. Perhaps you’ve heard the saying that most often we don’t think or feel our ways into a new way of acting; we act our way into a new way of thinking and feeling.
I find C.S. Lewis so helpful in thinking about how this works. In his classic book Mere Christianity, Lewis has a wonderful chapter titled, “Let’s Pretend” where he makes the distinction between two kinds of pretending. He says there is the bad kind, where the pretense is there instead of the real thing; like Harold Hill pretending to be a music teacher in order to take advantage of others. We call that deception and hypocrisy.
But there is also a good kind of pretending, says Lewis, where the pretense leads up to the real thing. Like when you’re not feeling particularly friendly, but you know you ought to be, so the best thing you can do is “put on” a friendly manner and behave as if you are a friendlier person than you actually are. “And in a few minutes,” Lewis points out, “as we have all noticed, you will really be feeling friendlier than you were. Very often the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already. That’s why children’s games are so important. They’re always pretending to be grown ups—playing solders, playing shop. But all the time, they are hardening their muscles and sharpening their wits, so that the pretence of being grown-up helps them to grow up in earnest.” (p. 163).
So it is with discipleship. We set our minds on things above, and we put on these clothes of Christ-like virtues daily—so that God, by the power of the Holy Spirit, might harden our muscles and sharpen our wits and transform us to grow up in earnest into Christ. Not feeling particularly compassionate? That’s ok, play the part anyway! Not feeling particularly patient? That’s ok, put on patience anyway! Not feeling like forgiving someone who has harmed you? I understand, but act as though you have forgiven them anyway. And soon enough your heart will follow.
Of course none of us can do this on our own. To be hidden in Christ is to be incorporated into Christ’s body, the church, and we can only put on these clothes and grow as disciples of Jesus in community. There are times when we don’t know how to put on compassion or kindness or humility, or we don’t want to put them on. We need our community to help us do it, to hold us accountable. Mike and Rachel, Lucas John will need the whole family of God to help him become who he is in Christ. You will need this community to nurture him in the faith. None of us gets dressed up in Christ all by ourselves.
As we set our minds on things above and as we practice getting dressed up together into the image of Jesus, something beautiful begins to happen. Not only does this become our witness in the world—our way of living missionally as God’s people. But it becomes our worship. A lifestyle of worship. The more we practice, the more we actually become like Jesus from the inside out. Over time, following Jesus becomes more like second nature—so that whatever we do, in word or deed, we find ourselves doing it all in the name of Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Let me close with this. Once there was a wicked man who fell in love with a virtuous woman. The man knew that, in his present state of wickedness, he had no chance to woo her and so he put on the mask of a saint to disguise himself. Sure enough, the woman fell in love with the man—or perhaps it is more accurate to say that she fell in love with the saintly mask. Years later, when a spurned lover of the man showed up, she tried to expose the man as a fraud and insisted he take off his mask so the woman could see his ugly face as it really was. The man protested but finally acquiesced to her demand. When he took off the mask, he discovered what he could not have anticipated: under the mask of a saint, his face had become transformed. It was the face of a saint. In the act of playing the part of a saint, he actually became the role he was playing.
So it is with us. Since we have been raised with Christ, our lives are hidden in Jesus. Even now, we are more than what is visible. So let’s pretend—in the best way Lewis speaks of. Let’s put on the mask of Christ, which is to finally be free to take off all the other masks of the false selves we wear. Let us set our minds on things above and practice getting dressed up into the character of Jesus.
And know this: it is only when Christ returns that the mask will be removed, the veil will be lifted, and what a joy it will be for us to discover that when Jesus looks into our faces he will see the very reflection of his own. The faces of saints, radiant with beauty and holiness, fully transformed into Christ’s image and likeness!
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.