Sermon on Colossians 3:1-17; 4:2, 5-6; James 3:10-18. Delivered on 14 June 2015 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.
How does the world work? For all the complexity of his thought, Paul is pretty clear on this point: The customary 'logic' of the world, as we see it working all around us, isn't really a good logic at all. That's because the real logic, the Logos, is the one who was “in the beginning with God” (John 1:1-2). The real Logic of the real world is none other than God's Logic, who stepped visibly into our world and introduced himself as Jesus Christ. But the so-called logic by which the world around us works, its common-sense instincts, its proverbs and principles – without Jesus, these are all bad masters. Paul says, make sure that none of them slap the cuffs on you! Keep clear of their chains! See to it that you don't get enslaved by the world's 'logic', because you belong to a better Logic, a philosophy according to Christ (Colossians 2:8). The principles that underlie the world, the powers behind it – Jesus unmasked them as idols and frauds and “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public spectacle of them” in his cross and resurrection (Colossians 2:15). Instead of being “conformed to the world,” we have the chance to give God the opposite of world-conformity. Paul calls it “logical worship,” meaning a living sacrifice, the offering up of a life “transformed by the renewing of [our] minds” to replace the outline of worldliness with the likeness of Christ (Romans 12:1-2).
So why, Paul asks, do Christians keep insisting on following the frauds when Jesus took their masks away? Why do Christians offer their wrists to be shackled by the flurry of maddened conventions that pass themselves off as wise? Why do Christians think a prison jumpsuit befits a priceless soul better than robes washed white in the blood of the Lamb? After Jesus died to buy us from the world's slavery and manumit us, ushering us into the freedom of his light, “why do you live as if you still belonged to the world” (Colossians 3:20)? The problem with the church at Colossae was that their focus, their attention, was at the wrong place. Real liberty was right overhead, at the right hand of the Father, because their lives were hidden with God by being stored safely in the risen life of Jesus himself (Colossians 3:3). Our lives are stored above, so we “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 earthly things” (Colossians 3:1-2).
Now, this doesn't mean that our goal is an ethereal heaven, or a rejection of the body's goodness in present or future. Our bodies are made by God, they're made to live on earth, and God has no intention to forsake his plan. This doesn't mean that the earth is expendable or a second-rate part of God's creation. God calls us to treat the earth as a garden and to sanctify it for the sake of his name and to do his will here and serve his kingdom here. This doesn't mean that knowledge of the earth and its created realities is unworthy of God's people who bear the mind of Christ. Christ himself wanted to speak to Nicodemus about both heavenly things and earthly things (John 3:12).
But it does mean that the center of our faith is Jesus Christ, whose life flows from heaven into us through the Spirit sent down from heaven. It does mean that we're to live our lives, even on earth, in ways guided by the heavenly wisdom that comes from God's will. It does mean that our orientation is heavenward, in the sense of being toward God and toward edification, which 'builds up'. There's a reason that, in nearly every culture's spatial metaphors, 'up' has superiority – which itself a spatial metaphor, 'super' meaning 'on top' or 'above'. By definition, wisdom 'from above' is better than wisdom 'from below'.
'Earthly' is the easy thing, because gravity is a moral phenomenon as much as a physical one. Our sin is a heavy burden, we remember, that pulls us down into the mud and inhibits our real freedom. Ever been stuck to the ground, pinned down? Thirteen years ago – July 23, 2002 – I was in a horse-drawn cart accident in Ireland. A wooden shaft snapped, the horse bolted, the cart flipped, and I got thrown to the ground and pinned underneath the overturned cart. I could scarcely move; I was trapped and confined. I couldn't stand, I couldn't do anything but roll slowly through the dirt and gravel, peering with dim eyes through the cart's shade at only the slightest glimmers of light beneath the edges. Strength drained from the impact, bones broken and body battered and bleeding, I couldn't raise myself up out of the dirt, couldn't toss the cart aside by my own broken works.
That's what it's like to live in an 'earthly' way. The 'earthly' people think they're free, but sin isn't freedom, sin isn't liberty. Sin means weakness. Sin means slavery. Sin means the path of least resistance. Sin means wriggling in the dirt and the rough stones, instead of standing tall the way we were meant to live. 'Earthly' speech, 'earthly' actions, 'earthly' attitudes, 'earthly' thinking – they trap us, they limit us to the most impure, most compromised forms of human expression. That's not what we were made for. We originate on earth, we're meant to live on the earth, but we weren't meant to be 'earthly', not in that way. Sin binds us to an 'earthly' life, a less-than-human life. We oppose sin, not just because we're reflexively against modern culture, not just because we're cantakerous contrarians, but because sin gets in the way of a more-than-earthly life.
That day in Ireland, a passerby – or perhaps it was the cart's driver – came and knelt in the stony ground, gripping the cart and lifting it and tossing it aside; I don't remember his face, but his silhouette sketched against the freshness of the noonday sun was the sign of my freedom. I stood up from the dirt, surveyed the injuries of the others, and set myself to the work of prayer. More importantly, I can testify that Jesus came and knelt in this stony ground alongside us. Coming to the lowliness of our position, the earth stained by human sin, he gripped the tomb of our demise, lifted it onto his shoulders, and was buried in death – taking our burden away, and lifting us up from the muck and mire through his risen life. And the glimpse of Jesus, radiant with the brightness of God, is the victory banner of our freedom. Physically, gravity doesn't just hold us to the earth; it tethers our world to the sun. Spiritually, gravity wasn't meant to chain us to the lowest lows. The Christian life is about being propelled by the Spirit into Christ's orbit, falling further and further upward into the heavenly 'heaviness' of his glory.
Yet even Christians have to be told to break ties with earthly talk, earthly deeds, and earthly wisdom, and to replace them with heavenly talk, heavenly deeds, and heavenly wisdom. What's wisdom? Wisdom is skill for living in the creation, especially the moral order that God decrees. There's a true wisdom, but there's also a phony kind of wisdom, earthly wisdom, a pattern of living that looks skillful but isn't, because it misidentifies in practice what the real moral order is. “False wisdom is the attitudes, aims, and values of the dominant society,” as opposed to the kingdom of God (Richard Bauckham, James, p. 153). We see that all around us; sometimes we see it in us and among us: ways that look like they're bound to “get ahead,” assuming that “getting ahead” is the ultimate good of human life. That's what James means when he denounces certain ways of living as wisdom that “doesn't come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, and devilish” (James 3:15). These ideas, these practices, these attitudes – they aren't from God, they don't resemble his character, they aren't what the Spirit is up to. Instead, we're supposed to live by “wisdom from above” (James 3:17), because Jesus himself is the Wisdom of God who came from above 'for us and for our salvation'. Paul says that these other options, these fake skills, these false paths, only really have “an appearance of wisdom” but are ultimately “of no value in checking self-indulgence” (Colossians 2:23).
Paul and James both identify kinds of actions, speech, and attitudes that are 'earthly', in the sense of being unmoored from God's orbit, weighed down by sinfulness, unedifying, and dominated by phony wisdom. Paul talks about “fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed” (Colossians 3:5), and he adds “anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language,” as well as lying (Colossians 3:8-9). James mentions “bitter envy and selfish ambition,” as well as anything “boastful and false to the truth” (James 3:14). And who can forget James' stirring passage about the wayward nature of the earthly tongue, which is “a restless evil, full of deadly poison,” able somehow to not just bless God (as it was created to do) but yet to “curse those who are made in the likeness of God” (James 3:8-9)?
Have we spurned earthly talk? Have we really put aside evil desire and greed and envy? Have we denied earthly wisdom? Well, what wisdom sits at the wheel of our car: earthly, or heavenly? (Some of us might be in trouble on that one!) What wisdom guides our attitudes toward our church family: earthly wisdom, or heavenly? You know that some have, over the years, withdrawn their involvement here because of needless personal offenses. That's different than finding the whole church corrupted in doctrine or dominated by a Diotrephes like Gaius had to deal with in 3 John – some of you have seen that first-hand. But do we insist on lamenting the color of the carpet? Do we pick on one another's clothes? Do we look down on one another for our musical tastes? Or do we set our personal preferences aside and focus on living out proactive forgiveness?
What wisdom chooses our words? Are they earthly words – compromising, one-sided, unkind, bitter, careless – or heavenly words – truthful, fair, gentle, peaceable, careful? Jesus said, “On the day of judgment, you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37). Jesus, you mean I'll be held to account for every unsavory suggestion, every off-color joke, every explosive expletive? “Every careless word...” Jesus, you mean I'll be held to account for every comment about immigrants and foreigners and the people I see at Walmart? “Every careless word...” Jesus, even what I say about Democrats and Republicans, MSNBC and Fox News, Obama and O'Reilly? “Every careless word...” Okay, but what about the people who personally cheat me and rob me and belittle me? “Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you … If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? … But love your enemies, do good, and lend without expecting anything in return” (Luke 6:27-35).
Even in the church? “Don't speak evil against each other, brothers and sisters. Whoever speaks evil against another or judges another, speaks evil against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you aren't a doer of the law but a judge” (James 4:11). We have to be careful here, because in today's culture, we automatically assume that making any evaluation of right or wrong is 'judging'. But from first to last, James is telling us kinds of behavior and attitudes that are right and kinds that are wrong, and he doesn't mince words about it. What he's talking about is substituting our own agendas and preferences for God's wisdom, and about rushing to condemn others within the church as being unsalvagable by Christ. When we do that, then we're setting ourselves up as judges who can revise or adjust God's law, rather than as people called to submit to it as it finds its perfection in the Spirit.
And we believers do sometimes set ourselves up as judges of the law – and not just in the 'liberal' direction. It's obvious how readily we do that today, but what James probably had in mind were those who made their own personal biases the real standard – especially the rich pretending to be better than the poor (James 2:1-7; 5:1-6), or some Christians pretending to be above others on the grounds of a more socially acceptable list of pet sins (James 2:8-13). James aims to undercut our presumptions, not just the presumption of being “able to save and to destroy” as God can (James 4:12), but even about being confident in our plans when so much in life is beyond our control (James 4:13-16). And even if we find that someone stands afoul of God's law, the course of church discipline reaches its pinnacle in letting the offender “be to you as a Gentile and tax-collector” (Matthew 18:17). And how did Jesus and his apostles treat Gentiles and tax-collectors? He drew them near to salvation with his unyielding love and compassionate mercy, for “whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save his soul from death and cover a multitude of sins” through “constant love” (James 5:20; cf. 1 Peter 4:8).
Anger, wrath, malice, slander, foul language, derogatory and bitter remarks and complaints – that's what earthly wisdom recommends. But what does earthly wisdom get us, in the end? “On account of these, the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient” (Colossians 3:6). Yet wrath isn't God's plan for us, it isn't what God wants for us. God “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). God's desire is not for us to live by earthly wisdom. Instead, God wants us to live by heavenly wisdom that produces heavenly thinking, heavenly doing, and heavenly talking. This kind of wisdom is “the God-given ability of the transformed heart to discern and to practice God's will” (Richard Bauckham, James, p. 152).
James says that “the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy” (James 3:17). First of all, before anything else, heavenly wisdom is pure. It's a pure heart that produces the best love (1 Timothy 1:5), and Paul asks us to “not participate in the sins of others; keep yourselves pure” (1 Timothy 5:22), and yet without being exclusionary or self-righteous. Pure wisdom also has to yield pure religion, pure piety, and that means “to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27).
Can we say we do both those things, or have we learned to specialize in one to the neglect of the other? And if we do both already, then we can move along and add to it being peaceable, which is the only way to get “a harvest of righteousness” (James 3:18). We're called to “contend for the faith” (Jude 3), but not to be contentious and divisive people. We stand where God has called us to stand, but we reach across the gap with outstretched hand, seeking to “agree with one another, live in peace” (2 Corinthians 3:11), and to “live peaceably with all” so far as they'll let us (Romans 12:18). And to that, we'll add gentleness, one of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23). If someone is discovered in sin, Paul tells us to “restore such a person in a spirit of gentleness” while avoiding the temptation ourselves (Galatians 6:1). Gentleness is how we redirect sinners, gentleness is how we correct those who disagree with the faith we hold (2 Timothy 2:25), and the gentleness of heavenly wisdom should be shown in all the works of our lives (James 3:13).
Paul talks about this heavenly wisdom as a new outfit, an outward enactment of an inward change, because in baptism, we become “raised with [Christ] through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (Colossians 2:12). You “have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its Creator” (Colossians 3:10). Old self off, new self on. Off with the First Adam, on with the Last Adam. What does that mean? It means, “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12). That's the character of a holy people who experience the love of God. What would it look like if the world couldn't help but admit that the church is where to go when you want to experience compassion and kindness and patience?
Paul reminds us to “bear with one another: if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Colossians 3:13). Does that mean that we never mention behavior that bothers us, that we bottle it up inside? No, it means the opposite of bottling it up inside; it means letting it go, which often means gently broaching the issue as needed but not harping on it. And if it's a matter of out-and-out sin against us, we try to work things out, we bring it to the church body for mediation if needed, and we give it into God's hands and out of our hearts. It means that we're always looking for the good, always seeking reconciliation, always stretching ourselves and finding ways to stop personal conflicts from growing before they get in the way of our common mission, like when Paul and Barnabas split up for a while because Paul wouldn't forgive Barnabas's cousin Mark (Acts 15:37-39). Yet by Colossians, Paul can commend Mark: “If he comes to you, welcome him” (Colossians 4:10).
What does that mean for heavenly wisdom in dealing with those outside the church, those who aren't just sinning but are dead in their sins, but whom God invites to life in Jesus Christ? What does heavenly wisdom ask us to do with pre-Christians, even pre-Christians dead-set against the witness of Christ's body? How do we conduct ourselves toward outsiders? “Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders” (Colossians 4:5). Again, we can't escape the necessity of heavenly wisdom. To conduct ourselves wisely at all, we need to be formed and shaped by the revealed Word of God and tutored through experience by the Spirit of God. That experience isn't just our own private experience; it's the experience of the whole church, the whole Christian community, both here and far away, both now and long ago. How do we get wisdom? “Ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly” (James 1:5), and God will lead us through whatever experiences we need to develop endurance and maturity, if we navigate according to what we find in his gospel (James 1:3-4).
Conducting ourselves wisely toward outsiders means “making the most of the time,” or “making the most of the opportunity” (Colossians 4:5). Our opportunities aren't unlimited. “The time is short” (1 Corinthians 7:29), and “night is coming when no one can work” (John 9:4), for “yet in a very little while, the one who is coming will come and will not delay” (Hebrews 10:37). We conduct ourselves wisely when we “let [our] speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt,” so that we practice the skill of being able to give the right kind of answer in the face of each kind of questioning or accusation (Colossians 4:6). And so we explain the gospel, first with our lives and then also with words chosen by heavenly wisdom for the situation at hand (cf. 1 Peter 3:15-16). But we can't do this unless we first ditch our earthly wisdom, with all its earthly deeds and earthly talk, and replace our own pretended self-sufficiency with “the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD” (Isaiah 11:2), the same Spirit who rests on and comes from the Son who ascended to the Father, who with the Son and the Spirit is “the only wise God … to whom be glory forever” (Romans 16:27)!