People in positions of authority are sometimes expected to judge the strangest of things. You may remember the stories in the book All Creatures Great and Small about James Herriot, the vet working in the Yorkshire Dales. I particularly enjoyed the story about how as the local vet he was expected to judge the children’s pet show. You might remember that he got himself into much ‘hot water’ because he did not know that the Mayor’s child always won this event!
The passage read from Luke 12: 13-21 records the time when Jesus was asked, as a person of authority, to make a judgement on a legal squabble regarding a will. Now Jesus did know the Jewish Law inside out and so the man in the crowd was right in thinking that he had the necessary knowledge and authority to make such a judgement. But, Jesus declined the request. He responded by saying, "Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?"
Now here is the interesting thing – Jesus questioned being made a judge over this man, and yet we are told elsewhere in the bible that Jesus will judge us! 2 Tim 4:1, for example, says that Jesus ‘... is to judge the living and the dead’; John 5:28 says that God ‘... has given him (Jesus) authority to execute judgment’; and Acts 17:31 states that God has fixed the day ‘... on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by Jesus ...’ So why did Jesus question the assumption that he might be a judge in this matter?
The reason is because Jesus does not come to judge us in specific and, we might say trivial, legal matters, but in something far more important. Jesus comes to judge us in the basic character of men and women – a judgement that has implications not just for this life, but for all eternity. Such a judgement is far more serious – it will determine whether we will be resurrected to eternal life with Jesus in heaven, or whether we will be among those whom Jesus will say, “I never knew you”. (Matt 7:23) Jesus will judge us on how we have lived as a Christian. Now the way that we should live as a Christian is outlined for us in the Epistle reading for today, the letter to the church in Colossae. Here the Apostle Paul provides some doctrinal basis for how the Christian should live and then in Colossians 3:1-11 goes on to provide some practical guidance:
I. We are to seek the things above
If we go back to the reading from Luke 12 for the moment, we can get an example of what this means. Jesus recognised in the man seeking the legal ruling on the will that he was motivated by greed. The Jewish law gave the general rule that an elder son was to receive double a younger son’s portion. Disputes over such matters were usually settled by rabbis. But this man was determined to get a half share of the inheritance and provided a living illustration of the selfish and materialistic nature that comes from not recognising that we should desire eternal life in heaven rather than amassing material wealth.
Jesus then went on to warn his listeners to, ‘Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." And then to illustrate this he told the Parable of the Rich Fool about the consequences of greed. In the end, the rich man failed to receive eternal life and did not even live to enjoy his wealth.
The rich man lost his salvation because he failed to realise that a focus on indulging oneself and amassing material wealth is not how God would wish his people to live. Rather, because he or she has been raised with Christ through baptism, the Christian should focus their thoughts and desire upon heaven. Matt 6:19-21 records a very similar lesson to the one contained in the Parable of the Rich Fool when Jesus said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth ... but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven .... For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
So Paul teaches here in Colossians 3:1 that we are to, ‘seek the things that are above where Christ is seated ...’ To understand his meaning here we need to understand the true nature of Christianity. As I have previously said, Christianity is fundamentally about having a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. It is not about becoming ‘religious’ in our behaviour.
As Jesus so often pointed out to the Pharisees, and as St Paul went to great lengths to explain, the miracle of Christian conversion freed the Jewish converts from the Jewish religious system with its requirement to diligently obey the religious laws.
In the same way conversion has freed the Christian from the human religious systems of this world today. Human religious systems are linked to earthly sanctuaries, regulations and rites. Unlike religious systems, Christianity has no essential centre of authority in this world – rather, its centre is the risen Christ.
And unlike religious systems, particularly Eastern religions, and popular views of spirituality, Christianity is not an exercise in inner spirituality, mysticism, or visionary enthusiasm.
A Christian is simply a person who has been granted a relationship with the risen Christ who sits at God’s right hand in heaven. And so, we are to vigorously pursue this relationship, to daily hold fast to Christ, as the centre and source of all our joys, to enter his gates with praise and come into his courts with thanksgiving.
Transition. But Christian living is not just an emotional seeking – it also involves our intellect. Through baptism we are raised with Christ and given a new nature including a renewed mind. Christian living also requires us to use our renewed mind. In verse 2, Paul tells us that ...
II. We are to set our mind on things above
We need to come to a true understanding of the heavenly Christ so that we may discern his will and purposes. The new way of life subsequent to Christian conversion requires us to have a true knowledge of Christ – his likes and dislikes, what pleases him, who he is and the implications of this for the world and for us. It is through discovering Jesus’ mind that the Christian matures.
Many Christians however, become distracted by the things of this world and set their mind on these. This does not mean that we are to have nothing to do with worldly things; but that our desire for them should not cause us to lose sight of the things of heaven.
There is a danger in desiring or coveting the things of this world because, this stems from the self-indulgent nature. And as I have explained before, the self indulgent nature is essentially what leads to sin. We cannot set our minds on Christ and sin at the same time, and so, if we focus on accumulating or indulging in earthly things there is potential that our fellowship with Christ will be seriously weakened or even threatened. And of course this was the fate of the rich fool in the parable.
It is easy to be tempted and so desire the things of this world. Desiring good things, things that bring us comfort, is not necessarily a problem. The problem arises when we decide to actively pursue that desire to the detriment of focussing on what Jesus would want us to be seeking after. And so we must make a choice to resist those desires that are not in accordance with God’s will and purpose for our life.
Transition. So Paul’s encouragement is to use our intellect to understand the mind of Christ, and to choose those things that he would want for us in this life. As we begin to be able to distinguish between the things that God wants us to set our minds on (the things above) and the earthly things that arise out of our self indulgent nature, we come to a third practical activity to live the Christian life ...
III. We are to put to death what is earthly in us
This requires recognition that when we are raised to new life in Christ, our old sinful nature still remains. The roots of sin still lie deeply within us and even the most devout Christian may still be influenced by them. It is easy to fall back into the self-indulgent and selfish ways of the sinful nature.
Many of the Christian converts in the Colossian church would have come from a pagan background. Their specific sins that Paul mentions in verse 5 are the sins of paganism arising out of idolatry: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed.
Paul says that they must put to death these things. This requires an exercise of the will to consciously choose not to, in any way, indulge such actions - or the desires that lead to them. We are to constantly resist such thoughts until they cease to tempt or bother us.
It is this conscious exercise of the will to no longer allow ourselves to be influenced by the old sinful nature that enables the Christian who has been called to a knowledge of God to live a life of holiness.
Transition. In addition to putting to death the sinful, earthly thoughts and desires that we have, Paul says that we must also do something more active ...
IV. We are to put away the life we once lived
The Colossians were told that old pagan ways of living, including old social customs and mores that they had inherited from their fathers, must cease.
We too are to put away the life we once lived. Anything that is not in accordance with how Christ would wish us to live must be challenged - for example old habits, ways of treating women, the use of alcohol, disregard for the mistreatment of weaker people in our pursuit of power or promotion, etc.
It is not popular these days to challenge some of these old ways of life. The Bible indicates that such life styles as living together out of wedlock; having sex before marriage, and indulging in casual sex is not how God would want us to treat our bodies and our relationships with one another. Heb 13:4-5 for example says, ‘Let marriage be held in honour by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers.’
Paul specifically mentions the sins of anger, wrath, malice, slander, using abusive language and lying to one another. I suggest that he focussed on these sins because these are the sins of speech that make harmonious human relationships impossible and can destroy the church. If, as I have said, Christianity is all about relationships, then these sins of speech that can destroy relationships are most serious.
So the Christian is expected to be different in our thoughts, desires and the way we live. To live the Christian life, we must seek the things above and set our minds on these things rather than worldly things. And we must put to death what is earthly in us, and put away the life that we once lived.
This requires us to seek to know how God wants us to live and to identify those thoughts, desires and lifestyles that are contrary to how we should live as Christians. We are then to exercise our will to make choices to live God’s way rather than the way of the world.
And why should we do this? We now come full circle to return to Jesus’ warning in the gospel reading. When Jesus returns he will judge us on how we have lived as Christians. And, if we continue to live by our old self-indulgent ways, like the rich fool, our devotion to Jesus will be spoiled - our relationship with Jesus will be damaged and we will find ourselves subject to God’s judgment. Amen.