Last Sunday’s sermon was the last of post-Easter sermons on the various ways the followers of Jesus receive and react to the news that Jesus is risen. The New Testament gives us a whole encyclopedia of the ways people respond to Jesus’ empty tomb and his return to his followers. There’s no uniform response to this moment, which means there’s space for all of us and our reactions, too. In the letter to the Colossians, we see that our reaction to resurrection is not merely personal, but also communal as we seek to structure our life as a church in the newness of life in Christ.
In the same way Christ is raised, Colossians says we have been raised with Christ. What God has done in Christ, God has done in us. This is the proclamation at the start of our passage. And this is also our proclamation as a church any time we gather around the waters of baptism. It’s what I tell anyone who comes to my office to talk about baptism: we are “buried with Christ in baptism, and raised to walk in the newness of life.”
Just a few weeks back, Kate Stephens stepped into the pool behind me and reminded us of just that, telling the story all over again. “Jesus is Lord,” she said and then, some of you saw it, Kate eagerly reached for my arm, grabbing it before I had said any other words. She was anxious to get to this newness of life just as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, out in the sanctuary a certain 3 yr old – Della Sherouse, my daughter – happened to be sitting in “big church” that morning. She quietly colored in her worship folder, but then looked up right at the moment of immersion – as Kate went under the water and back up again – and Della wheeled around to her mother, “WHAT are they DOING to her?”
The answer: we were reminding Kate – and all of us witnessing it – that she was buried with Christ in baptism and raised to walk in the newness of life. Maybe we’ve seen it enough that we forget just how dramatic this resurrection witness is. Rather than blithely speaking it or casually hearing it, such a claim ought to widen all of our eyes and drop our jaws. It ought to bring us out of our seats and amaze us all over again. We ought to be reaching for it eagerly and anxiously, for what God has done in Christ, God does in our lives, too.
That’s the spirit at the start of Colossians 3 – that wide-eyed “What are we doing?” Colossians reminds us that we have been raised with Christ, and that this resurrection continues to happen as the followers of Christ come up from the waters and eagerly stretch their way into the newness of life in Christ.
The first two chapters of Colossians are full of instruction and reminders to a church that had experienced some challenge. But now chapter three begins a charge – an exhortation. The tone shifts, and the verb forms change to imperatives – commands – as the followers of Christ are encouraged in how to live. This movement from instruction to exhortation – from teaching to encouragement – is seen in many other letters throughout the New Testament. It’s a reminder to readers that what you know is demonstrated by what you do – what you believe is proven in how you live.
The charge begins with an allusion to baptism: “Since you have been raised with Christ.” Earlier in chapter two, Colossians had explained that “when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.” The reference to being raised in chapter three reaches back to that earlier mention and reminds that we live and move in the newness of life. We should leave behind the perspectives, biases, habits and postures of the old way. We leave behind the ways of seeing, doing, and being that have been shaped by this world, and instead walk in the reality of resurrection, complete with all that characterizes such a life. Colossians lists these qualities as compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, forgiveness… and above all else, love, which binds us together in perfect harmony.
The love described here is familiar throughout the writings and traditions of Paul – like in 1 Corinthians 13, where the greatest of virtues is love. So too in Colossians, among these early Christians, love is overarching and all-encompassing. This love holds this community of early followers of Christ, themselves, in harmony. Together in love.
Years later this phrase found its way into the vernacular of First Baptist Greensboro, appearing in our Church Covenant. Baptists don’t have creeds, we have covenants – understandings of the love and commitment of God that enables our love and commitment to one another. And in our covenant, adopted years ago by our church, there is a line that captures First Baptist Church of Greensboro at its best: “walking together in brotherly (and sisterly) love.”
That’s our answer to any who are curious or wide-eyed. What are we doing? Well, all of us up from the waters of baptism and raised to the surface to walk in newness of life, are making this known as we become what Colossians calls us to be: together in love.
It seems straightforward enough. Then again, we ought to remember just what we’re doing. This is more than bland kindness, or general compassion. If we take on this love, we’re taking on a new way of being and doing and most especially, a new way of seeing. We’re claiming to see things not as they are, but as they can be through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
This kind of love is what New Testament theologians would call an “eschatological virtue,” from the word eschaton, which means “the end.” It means we come to understand ourselves not as we are now, but as we can be through the power of Christ at the end when, as Colossians declares, “Christ will be all and in all.” To take on this love means to see ourselves in its light and to eagerly walk in its newness.
A couple months back, I had the opportunity to share dinner with two of the saints of our life together at First Baptist, Randall and Lou Lolley. For those of you who might not know, Dr. Lolley was pastor of First Baptist in the 90s, and has helped so many of us to walk together in love.
My friend, Emily Hull McGee, is pastor of another of Randall and Lou’s former churches, First Baptist of Winston, and she suggested that we younger ministers spend some time with them, gaining whatever wisdom we could. We sat for over an hour at the table in the dining area of their community, sharing general conversation, fond memories, and more than a few stories. But there was one point when the always charming and engaging Dr. Lolley came to the edge of his seat. I asked him what he’d say – as the sage across the dining table – to two younger ministers who hope to have the kind of full life and meaningful body of work that he has. And Randall leaned forward:
“Know who you are. And be who you are. Authenticity. Yeah, I think that’s right. Authenticity. Don’t be who anyone else says you are… the Church needs you to be who God says you are… be who you are as a child of God.”
I’ll always remember that. Because when we come to see ourselves not simply as this world has named us – when we leave that behind as we are buried with Christ – we come to see ourselves as we are, and as we can become, through the light and love of God that raised Jesus from the dead.
But we are together in this love. Not alone. To truly give evidence that we have been raised with Christ it’s not enough to see only yourself as a new creation. Colossians says that “In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!”
More than seeing ourselves, this love is a way of seeing other people and understanding them with the newness of life into which we have all been raised through Christ’s resurrection. So we don’t look at people as they are in this world, but as they are in the love of God, and as they will be in the grace of God. To walk together in love is to view people from the end, as they will be in the fulfillment of all things.
I mentioned my daughter Della, who just a few weeks ago was playing in our front yard when something remarkable happened. Some of you may recognize it as I describe it to you. My daughter – 3 yrs old and so full of energy, intensity, charisma – was dancing around the yard as I was working in the yard. I was busily trying to have an uninterrupted block of time to finish. To tell you the truth, I was trying to pay as little attention to her as possible, keeping one eye on her as I busied with the task at hand. But she kept circling around the yard, and smiling at me as she did. And finally there was something about how she was dancing about that even in my busy-ness stopped me. I leaned on the front stoop and watched her for a few moments. And she turned back and smiled, and sort of cocked her head with her hair hanging down to the side, and for just a moment her hair caught the light coming through the tree. And you know, suddenly she wasn’t 3, she was 23. It was this glimpse not of a little girl, but of the adult woman she will become. And then she turned her head and took off, and she was just a 3 yr old with skinned knees and peanut butter all over her face.
It was only a moment, but it was like I had seen a future. And that kind of seeing – that future-oriented seeing – changed me, because it reminded me of the ways I would need to help her become what God has created her to be. When we catch a glimpse of others when the light catches them – when we stop and really see them as the resurrection and its newness shines on them – then just for a moment we see them not merely as they are to us, but as they are to God.
Our Jewish friends have a way of explaining this. In one Jewish tradition, it is said when you really stop and look at another with a vision shaped by the love of God, then in front of every person we meet there is an angel saying, “make way for the image of God… make way for the image of God…” (1)
What if we came to see this world – and those around us – in the light of the love that shines down on the people of God? What if we stop and turn our heads, and catch a glimpse of it? It might just be enough to send us eagerly toward that day when Christ will be all and in all.
In recent months, we have celebrated the graduation of seminarians in the life of our church – Patrick Cardwell, Hannah Chism, Jason Knight, and Taylor Vancil. Two of these – Jason and Patrick – were ordained in our church within the last year. We will have another opportunity for ordination this summer and fall, as our Pastoral Resident, John Thornton, comes to seek ordination. And before ordination, in our church’s practice, a group from our church and wider networks invite the candidate to sit in a chair in front of them, and as they sit in the hot seat do we ask a stream of theological questions until satisfied with their theology and preparation for ministry, trying to make it as difficult as possible!
I heard about an older minister in Mississippi, who has been asking the same question for 50 years in such meetings. He waits until all the other questions have been asked and stands up and says, “I have one more question.” Well everyone knows what’s coming, except the candidate.
He says to the candidate, “Will you please look out the window?”
When they’ve obliged, he says, “Now tell me when you see a person outside”
“I see one,” they’ll answer.
“Do you know that person?” the minister asks.
“Good,” he continues. “Now would you please describe that person theologically?”
He’s asked it for 50 years. And he says he’s discovered over the years that he generally receives one of two answers. Some will say, “Well, theologically, that person is a sinner in need of the saving grace of Jesus Christ” And others will say, “Theologically, whether that person knows it or not, that person is a child of God surrounded and supported by the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ.”
And this minister has observed: “Theologically speaking, both of those answers are correct. But it has been my experience that those who give the second answer make the better ministers.” (2)
Because they see people first not just as they are but as they will be in the love and resurrection of all things in Jesus Christ. Sometimes that happens here, in this community gathered together in love. Sometimes even here, in this church.
I was thinking recently about the first person I baptized in this church – the first person symbolically buried with Christ in baptism and raised to walk in the newness of life during my years as pastor. It was Fridin Mihindou, back in October 2013. Fridin will graduate from high school in just a matter of days, and next week will stand with his senior class as part of our Baccalaureate Sunday. He’s been a part of us since Christmas 2012.
Many of you know that Fridin and his family are refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which they fled when he was a young boy. They spent 11 years in a refugee camp in Gabon before coming to the United States. Fridin recently shared with his good friend and First Baptist deacon, April Eller, a part of his story she had never heard. When he was 11 yrs old and living in that refugee camp, one year around Christmas he received a gift shipped overseas from an unnamed church. It was a box full of gifts and goodies, like those that many of us send out around Christmas. He didn’t say much about the contents of the box – what was useful or meaningful – but to him there was a message, “Someone sees me. Someone loves me.” Fridin went on to tell April his desire to carry that same message in his life. And he said to April, “I remember knowing that I was going to go to a church like that one day – a church that sends boxes to people.”
So Fridin stood in the pool with me – here in a church that sends boxes to people, and a church that seeks to walk in the newness of life in Christ, and a church that seeks to see one another in the light of the love of God. Under the water he went, and back up again, nearly taking me in with his large frame. “Buried with Christ in baptism, and raised to walk in newness of life.” And as the light of Christ’s resurrection shined in on him, the angels said, “Make way for the beloved of God.” And you stopped, you turned your heads and smiled. For you had seen it in him all along. (3)
(1) Jewish midrash often cited by Desmond Tutu
(2) Story told by Tom Long in sermon, “Be Kind”
(3) Thanks to April Eller for relaying this story in a recent Deacons Meeting devotion