The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


Hiding with God and from Myself

If I am clothed with the new self, how do I make sense of the self I see in the mirror?

by Russell Rathbun

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.

Radical Grace

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 RathbunRussell 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.



  1. Bill Cook says:

    Thank you for your writing. I appreciate the centrality of grace in your article. It is a solid reminder that presses us away from a pelagian legalism.

    At the same time, I wonder if your article presses a little too hard against allowing the text to speak to how we actually live. The writer clearly expresses a concern that the proclamation of faith is interpreted also in the lives of the believers. Not as a legalistic imposition, but as an expression of faith itself. The believer is saved by grace, and invited to partake in a new way of life centered in Christ. The offer and embrace of a new way of life is also an expression of grace.

    I read Barth not as pushing against an expectation that the texts are to be lived, but as a reminder that ethics flows out of Christology. Again, saved by grace, and called to a new way of life that reflects the image of God made visible in Jesus.

    I am reminded that Paul begins and ends Romans with a statement that he proclaims “the obedience of faith.” This is not a new legalism, but a reminder that what matters is “faith working through love.”

    Again, I do appreciate your article. Just that it stirred up these reflections in me, and I wanted to share them with you.

    Thanks again.

  2. Russell Rathbun says:

    Bill, I like how you read Barth and the text. There is no “End of the Ethical,” but ethics are always rooted in Christ. We are released to love our neighbor. We are freed to be obedient. It is a given-ness. The real hard question for me is why I don’t always live in this freedom.


  1. [...] doing, stop!  The rest of the sermon then becomes a self-help program to get life back on track.  Rathbun adds pointedly: If I am clothed with the new self, how do I make sense of the self I see in the [...]

How do you read?