If I am clothed with the new self, how do I make sense of the self I see in the mirror?
Epistle Reading: Colossians 3:1-11
For Sunday, August 1, 2010: Year C - Ordinary 18
I have spent much more time with the Gospels than I have the Epistles. The Gospels are stories. I like stories. I can understand stories better, especially if there are pictures. The Epistles seem like…what? Like theology. But not like the kind of theology I like — more like ethics.
Knock it Off!
Pretty much the basic premise of most of these letters is that a group of fledglings Christians in one city or another are doing something wrong, so they get a letter telling them to knock it off and then a prescription for how to do it right. Not surprisingly these letters easily lend themselves to sermons full of pull-yourselves-up-by-the-bootstraps righteousness. Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, in her gracious and hilarious book, Salvation on the Small Screen? 24 Hours of Christian Television, said that of the entire Bible verses quoted during the 24 consecutive hours that she watched TBN, over 85% were from the epistles. A lot of, this is what you have to do and not much of this is what Jesus has done.
Of course there are other way to read these books, the ways Karl Barth and Martin Luther and I am sure you as well read them, that insists on the radical grace of God’s reconciling work in Christ. So in that general spirit, I read this week’s epistle as descriptive rather than prescriptive. It is not about what we should do or how we should live, but rather what has already been done for us and in us.
The author tells us that we have already been raised with Christ, and that we have already died and our lives are hidden with Christ in God. So when Christ is revealed, then we will be revealed with him.
Glimpsing What I’ve Become
Barth writes, “Anthropological and ecclesiological assertions arise only as they are borrowed from Christology. That is to say, no anthropological or ecclesiological assertion is true in itself and as such. Its truth subsists in the assertions of Christology, or rather in the reality of Jesus Christ alone” (Church Dogmatics II, I, p.148f). What I think Barth is getting at (there certainly are no pictures in Church Dogmatics) is that the only way to understand this text’s charge to “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry),” and to “get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator,” is to understand that this is what Christ has done – and done in me – already.
So even as I read this text as descriptive, I have to read it really as descriptive of Jesus the Christ, because I have died and I am hidden. I remain hidden from myself. So I can only attempt to live out my renewed life through faith, only glimpsing what I have become in the love and mercy of God in Christ.
The Hardest Question
If I am clothed with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator, how do I make sense of the self I see in the mirror?
Russell Rathbun is a preacher at House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota, the author of Midrash on the Juanitos (Cathedral Hill Press, 2010) and the curator of The Hardest Question.