July 18, 2021 Series on Colossians
Colossians 3:1-11; Matthew 20:1-16
Minds on things above
It’s been 5 years since the last one and on Friday the 32nd Olympic Games will start. What an unusual journey for the world’s best athletes! Before they were included in Team USA, they first had to qualify.
I followed the US Olympic Trials and I saw elation and sadness. For some the hard work paid off; for others it was not enough to receive the coveted ticket to the biggest sporting event in the world. And now, the athletes are Olympians and in Tokyo they will wear the official uniform of the USA. They will represent the USA. Once included in the team no-one and nothing can take this honor away from them.
But there is a lot of pressure on the athletes: they have to perform like Olympians. They have to keep their focus, trust their coaches and their training programs, they have to remind themselves that they are able and capable of accomplishing what they have set their minds on. In short, as athletes they have to become the Olympians that they are!
Now, it is true that a poor performance in the Olympics will not disqualify them as Olympians, but they do not go to the Olympic Games with that mindset. They want to perform as well as possible- they want to win gold! And to win they need to focus on the prize, they have to be disciplined, motivated.
The Apostle Paul is of course familiar with ancient sporting events. In Philippians 2:16 he writes: “….on the day of Christ I did not run in vain…”. In 2 Tim. 4:7 we read: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” And perhaps the most familiar of his use of athletic metaphors is in 1 Cor. 9:25-26: “Athletes exercise self-control in all things, they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air…..”.
In his letter to the Colossians, the Apostle Paul makes it clear that God, in Christ has given us hope in heaven. God, in Christ has rescued us from darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of God’s beloved Son. Once again, let me remind you that he is saying that what God in Christ did for us, is a done deal. In chapter 3 he is saying that we have been raised with Christ. In terms of the Olympic Games metaphor, we could say that we have already been elected to be on God’s team to represent Christ. And now we need to become who are! In order to become who we are, the Apostle is saying, we need to focus: we need to “seek the things that are above”. We need to “set our minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” And when we do this, we will “also be revealed with him in glory”; we will receive the price. Why? For Christ is on the right hand of God.
Let me try to unpack this wonderful message: The expression, Christ being on the right hand of God is from the OT world. Being on the right hand shows a position of power. God’s right hand is the power with which God intervenes to do marvelous and powerful things. Christ is in this position of power.
The Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 51 asks how we benefit from Christ being on God’s righthand? The answer is: “First though his Holy Spirit he pours out gifts from heaven upon us and second, by his power he defends us and keeps us safe from all enemies.”
Christ pours out gifts and keeps us safe. This is a remarkable theological statement. Consider how much focus, energy, and effort people spend to feel secure and safe. Think about the focus and energy people spend to accumulate enough for the future. We work and toil, we plan and do everything possible to be secure and safe. And the Apostle says that we are already safe and secure. We are already on God’s team.
And yet, so often we are still so concerned about our happiness, our security, our identity, our standing. So often we still stress and frantically try to make the team as if we are not part of it already! Imagine if we were to focus on what is above, that is what God in Christ has already given us, then we can live with less stress and more joy, less thought about how I am treated and more about how I can treat others, less concerned about my grievances and more dedicated on how I can serve and love others!
“Set your minds on things that are above” means to focus, to think about people and the world in a different way. It means to change your paradigm! In other words, to see yourself as God sees you, to see others as God sees them, and to see the world as God sees it.
Yes, you’ve already been raised with Christ, death is conquered, it does not have any hold over us. There is thus no need to selfishly step on others to get to the top, or to see others as enemies or competition for scarce resources, or to be anxious and afraid about the future. Instead we can rejoice for all God’s gifts, mercy and grace have already been bestowed upon us.
“Setting your mind on things above” does not mean to withdraw from the world, or to become so spiritual that we have no impact on the world. Let me remind you again about the metaphor that Jesus uses to show our relationship with the world: we are like salt. Salt that stays in a saltshaker is useless. It is safe for it to be in there, but it has no use. In order to make a difference salt has to be mixed into food. That is how it enhances the flavor of food. Withdrawing from the world is not what God wants.
“Setting our minds on things that are above” means that we are different, we are liberated from things that prevent us from focusing on what we already are in Christ. It is to acknowledge that Jesus is the Lord of our lives!
The Apostle Paul continues with examples of how people who set their minds on things that are above, live. They are like new people. They don’t see others as enemies. It does not matter to them whether people are Jews or Greeks, circumcised or uncircumcised, slave or free. They don’t follow the “normal, worldly way” that underlines differences.
The reference to Jews and Greeks points to national or ethnic differences; circumcised and uncircumcised are about religious differences, and slave and free are about social or economic differences. Furthermore, the word in Greek for barbarian indicates the most uncivilized category. Scythians were extreme violent people. “New people” who have been brought on God’s team and who are “setting their minds on things that are above”, do not focus on differences between people. On the contrary, Christ is all in all. This is what matters.
I have tried to explain this by using my own, incomplete metaphor. Imagine people in a dark room, each person holding his own lit candle. It is obvious that your own candle will provide, what you would consider a bright light. You may even think that your candle is brighter than the one at the end of the room. In the dark room, everyone will focus on their candle.
Now, imagine they take their lit candles and they move out of the dark room into the bright July sun. The sun’s light would make the candles obsolete. No-one would be focusing on the dim light that their candle provides. They would clearly see the insignificant light of their own candle.
Instead of protecting your own candle and looking down on the light the other candles provide, everyone will celebrate and enjoy the bright sun light!
Christ is like the bright sun light. When Christ is all in all, we will not focus on whether someone is white or black, wealthy or poor, straight or gay. My example leads me to think of the RCA denomination and the discussions that are going on about differences between people. We focus on differences instead of rejoicing that Christ is all in all!
Let me close with the parable in Matthew. We come across workers who are really upset. Why? At the end of the workday they were all paid the same wages in spite of some working a much longer day. To be clear, the landowner did not hold back wages from those who worked a longer day. They received what was promised to them. But those who worked only part of the day received the same amount as the others. The landlord was generous to them. Did you notice that the ones who were grumbling made it about them and us: “These last worked only for an hour, and you have made them equal to us who have born the burden”. Think about it: They are complaining, not because the landowner treated them unjustly, but because he was good to the others. They wanted the landowner to treat those who worked a shorter day differently. They wanted them to be paid what they deserved. And here is the revelation and the good news: God does not treat us, or others based on what they or we deserve!
So, this parable is not about us. We always make everything about us, don’t we? No, this parable is about God! The parable is clear that God is merciful, generous, gracious, and slow to anger. Verse 15: “Are you envious because I am generous?” This is an important theological point to remember. God is indeed generous! God looks at us, and at all people, with loving eyes and a generous heart.
We are citizens of God’s kingdom. We know that God is loving, generous, and gracious. We know that God has given us in Christ everything we need for Christ is on the right hand of God. Therefore, we set our eyes on things above, we do whatever we can do to become what we in Christ already are. And therefore, we treat everyone with respect, love, dignity, and honesty. We do not focus on the differences. We will not always succeed – sometimes we will fail, but we know that we won’t get kicked off God’s team. And that is why we will do our very best to live in such a way that everyone will see that we represent Christ for He is the Lord, He is all things in all people. Amen.