Sunday, July 28, 2019. Rev. Scott Ramsey, preaching.
Scripture Readings: Colossians 2:6-15; Luke 11:1-13
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Today we are concluding our 4-week summer sermon series, “Bearing Each Other’s Burdens.” We began the series by considering the Apostle Paul’s command in Galatians 6 to ‘bear each other’s burdens, which fulfills the law of Christ.’ We saw how bearing each other’s burdens leads us to the awareness that Christian freedom is not freedom from other people, but is actually freedom for other people, always oriented towards the common good – with our hearts turned especially towards two groups of people: those who are suffering and those with whom we disagree. Last week, Pastor Annamarie preached on the story from Luke 10 about Mary and Martha, about how the work we do to bear each other’s burdens – the work of mercy, of justice, of hospitality – must be grounded in our prayerful love for God and listening for the Word of Jesus, or else we will become anxious and distracted and resentful.
This morning our text from Colossians 2 embraces all of these within the comprehensive umbrella of our life in Christ. Bearing each other’s burdens is not something additional that we have to do on top of everything else. It flows out of our life in Christ. Our life in Christ is something that has already been established, and it is something towards which we are always growing. We do not need to do anything to justify or deserve our life in Christ, but you and I know that we are not yet fully living out our life in Christ. We need to become what we already are. Our life in Christ has already been established, but it is not yet fully embodied.
“Life in Christ” is the central focus of our text from Colossians 2. The prepositional phrase “in him” or “with him” occurs 8 times in this little passage. As you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, and established in the faith.” Our whole lives, from beginning to end, from the time we were rooted, through being built up and developed, all the way through being established, it’s all in Christ. Your entire life already takes place in Christ.
Christ is the soil in which our lives are planted, Christ is the blueprint according to which our lives are designed, and Christ is the goal towards which we are journeying. You are not on your own, trying to figure out what to do with your life; you are not on your own, trying to figure out how you belong in the universe. Our direction is found in Christ; as we build a relationship with him, he will lead us to know what we are to do and how we are to live. Our lives are in him. We just need to become what we already are.
When Paul wrote to the Colossians, he appears to have been writing to people who were being told that they still lacked something. Other leaders were telling them that they lacked something, they needed to do something else to be complete, needed something else to be secure. Whatever this other teaching was, it was beginning to seduce the Colossians away from their sense of being sufficiently rooted and grounded in Christ. Scholars argue about exactly what this teaching was, but Paul wants the Colossians to know that they already have all they need to be secure. “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.” You are in Christ, Paul tells them, you have come to fullness in Christ, so you do not need to chase anxiously after other sources of approval, or other sources of security or control or power. If you try to build your sense of worthiness on anything other than God’s love for you in Christ, if you try and build your sense of worthiness on your good behavior, or the size of your portfolio, or your professional success, or anything else, you are building your house on sinking sand. You are in Christ, Paul tells them, you have been buried with Christ in your baptisms, and you have been raised with him as well. You already have everything that you need.
Now, Paul tells them, become what you already are. Live your life in Christ.
So, what does life in Christ look like?
In this text, Paul says that the death of Christ on the cross accomplished two different things which, when put together, give our lives of faith their basic shape. First, our own sins and trespasses were nailed to the cross, dealt with, so that we already live in the flow of forgiveness. As the Lord’s Prayer says it in Luke 11, we can now forgive those who sin against us, just as God forgives us our sins. Forgiveness of our sins has been accomplished. The second thing that happened on the cross is that the rulers and authorities, the principalities and powers that control so much of the world, were disarmed by Christ, so that we do not need to live in fear of them anymore. The swaggering rulers and authorities, who want to bully and shame us into submission, who think that the world is controlled by force and dominating power, have all been undone on the cross, when Jesus absorbed the fullness of their destructive forces into his own body. The powers of evil were surprisingly undone by the weakness of Christ’s death. Because of that, we do not need to be afraid of any power or principality, any more. It has been done. We have been forgiven, and we have been set free. We just need to become what we already are.
A couple of weeks ago, we talked about how bearing each other’s burdens keep our hearts oriented towards two groups of people in particular: those who are suffering and those with whom we disagree. Life in Christ is endlessly preoccupied by love for the poor and love for the enemy.
What is striking is how demanding both of these can be, and how much we can be tempted to avoid both of them. Lately I have been thinking a lot about how we relate to “the other.” How do we relate to our neighbor who is different from us? How do we relate to the neighbor who is poor and vulnerable? How do we relate to the neighbor who espouses viewpoints that we find terrible or ridiculous? How do we relate to the other?
The 20th-century French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas taught that “the face of the other” – whoever the other happens to be – places a moral demand on us. The face of the other places a moral demand on us. Another teacher, Martin Buber, summoned us to have an I-Thou relationship with the other. These echo the biblical command to “love your neighbor as yourself,” or our summer language of “bearing each other’s burdens.” Our faith summons us to “the other.”
What I am keenly aware of is the temptation to cast the other out of our presence, rather than bearing the burdens of the other. To hide from the other, to run away from the other, to forcibly remove the other who makes us uncomfortable. We dehumanize the poor and we dehumanize our enemies, turn them into something other than a neighbor, so that we can remove them from our presence. We see this in the intense polarization of our society, where we refuse to listen to voices that hold a different view from our own; we see this in the chant at the North Carolina rally a couple of weeks ago to “send her back;” we see this in our personal lives when we avoid someone with whom we are having a disagreement. In many different ways, we want to remove the other from our presence, rather than turning to them, rather than bearing their burdens, rather than honoring the moral demand from the face of the other.
The world, in its fear and greed and thirst for power, turns neighbors into enemies. Christ, in his mercy and justice and love, turns our enemies into our neighbors. The world tells us that we can turn away from the poor, should eliminate our enemies, and should put ourselves and our own interests first. Christ and the cross teach us to turn towards our neighbor – especially our neighbor in need and our neighbor with whom we disagree, teach us to love our enemies, and teach us to bear each other’s burdens, for in so doing, we fulfill the law of Christ.
Friends, you and I are already in Christ. It is accomplished. Our sins have already been nailed to the cross. We are already forgiven people. We have already been raised with Christ. We can love the poor and we can love our enemy, and we can bear each other’s burdens. That is what life in Christ looks like, and our life in Christ has already been established and made sure. We just need to become what we already are. To God and to God alone be all the glory, now and forever. Amen.