New Life in Christ
By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
Here’s where we left off in our series on Colossians. In chapter one, Paul commended the Colossians for their faithful witness. In chapter two, he warned them to beware of competing ideologies. In the text for today, he goes on to admonish them to embrace this new life in Christ. He begins,
“If then you were raised together with Christ,
seek the things that are above, where Christ is,
seated on the right hand of God.
Set your mind on the things that are above,
not on the things that are on the earth.”
The operative word is “if” … if then you were raised together with Christ …” If is one of the most daunting words in the English language. The implication is this: If you have been raised with Christ, what follows is for you; if not, nothing others say will make a difference.
Ask yourself: Have I been raised with Christ? Have I been born again? Am I in the process of being transformed in the image of Christ? Am I going on to perfection, day by day? In case you haven’t heard, that’s the goal – new life in Christ. All else is mere talk.
So, how does new life in Christ come about, anyway? Two words: Choice and response.
First, God chooses you as one of his own and awakens you to his presence by the power of the Holy Spirit. Whether at the moment of your baptism, or a mountaintop experience or a dark night of the soul, God claims you as one of his own and calls you to a high and noble purpose.
A common misconception is that it’s all up to you, that you’re the one who needs to take the first step. That’s just the opposite of what scripture teaches. For example, God called the people of Israel and set them apart from the other nations; God called the prophets and gave them their voice; Jesus called his disciples and made them part of his kingdom. He reminded them,
“You didn’t choose me, but I chose you,
and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit …”
God chooses. That’s the first step. Once he claims you as his own, then it’s up to you to respond in faith – to say, in the words of Samuel, “Speak; for your servant hears.” (1 Samuel 3:9) … or Isaiah, who said, “Here I am. Send me!” (Isaiah 6:6) … or the father who begged Jesus to heal his sick child, “(Lord,) I believe. Help thou my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)
God calls and it’s up to you to respond. No one can do it for you.
A popular saying is, “God has many children, but no grandchildren.” It’s true: Each of us must come to Christ in our own personal way. That’s the moment new life in Christ begins.
So, Paul makes it clear to the Colossians when he says, “If then you were raised together with Christ…” But he doesn’t stop there. He goes on to add: “… seek the things that are above …”
As we heard a few weeks ago, the Colossians were subjected to the influence of heresy, idolatry and all kinds of sinful behavior. It’s no different today. Look around you: The world we live in is full of distorted images, vile practices and foul language. Just turn on the TV or drive over to parts of Bossier City, and you might think you’re living in the days of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Fortunately, there’s another reality – a reality of truth and beauty, kindness and virtue, graciousness, generosity and love. You can find traces of it right here in Minden, right here in this congregation. It depends on where you look. In his Letter to the Philippians, Paul writes,
“… whatever things are true, whatever things are honorable,
whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely,
whatever things are of good report; if there is any virtue,
and if there is any praise, think about these things.”
Kathy and Tate and I heard a great sermon in Pensacola last Sunday. It was entitled, “Rubbing People the Right Way.” The gist was that, while you can always find fault in other people, you can also find the good. You can criticize and cut others down to size, or you can compliment others and build them up. You can discourage, or you can encourage. To encourage others is to rub them the right way.
The point was well taken, and the basis of it all is this: Jesus died for the forgiveness of your sins and rose again that you might receive the gift of new life. Looking to him, he brings out the best in you. As he does, you’re able to bring out the best in others. An old gospel song goes:
Look for the beautiful, look for the true;
Look for the beautiful, life’s journey thro’.
Seeking true loveliness, joy you will know,
As to the home above onward you go.
Now, if you know Paul, you know he’s not about to stop here. And so, after admonishing the Colossians to look above to this new life in Christ, he warns them not to look down – not to revert back to their carnal nature. He says,
“Put to death therefore your members which are on the earth:
sexual immorality, uncleanness, depraved passion,
evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry …”
Just to make sure they get the point, he adds a whole list of vices the Colossians were guilty of: anger, wrath, malice, slander, profanity and lying. He could’ve gone on because, when it comes to all the possible ways of sinning, there’s no limit.
Calvin summed it up in four words. He called it, “The depravity of man.” Simply put, we’re sinners, through and through. Even our best efforts to be righteous are often misdirected and fall short. If left to our own devices, there’d be no hope. As Paul told the Romans,
“There is no one (who is) righteous;
no, not one.” (Romans 3:10)
The Good News is that God looks upon our sorry, sinful state and loves us anyway. Paul writes to the Romans,
“(Since) all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God;
(they are) justified freely by his grace
through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus … ”
Imagine yourself in courtroom standing before the judge. He reads the charges against you, considers the prosecutor’s argument and weighs the testimony of countless witnesses, all of whom attest to your guilt, then slams down the gavel and pronounces, “Not guilty.”
This is the miracle of God’s grace and love. God counts us as righteous, even though we’re not: As liturgy reminds us, “God shows his love for us in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. This is God’s own proof of his love for us.” (Romans 5:6)
Just remember, God’s grace comes first. “We love him because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) Only as you awaken to what God has already accomplished in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are you able to respond in gratitude and sing from your heart,
O victory in Jesus,
My Savior, forever.
He sought me and bought me
With His redeeming blood;
He loved me ere I knew Him
And all my love is due Him,
He plunged me to victory,
Beneath the cleansing flood.
The upshot of God’s amazing grace is that we have no reason to boast – as if new life in Christ has anything to do with what we’ve accomplished or deserve.
Neither do we have reason to stand in judgment of others – as if they weren’t good enough to make the cut. The gift of new life in Christ is inclusive of all those God calls and who are willing to repent of their sins and walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. Paul makes it clear:
“… there can’t be Greek and Jew,
circumcision and uncircumcision,
but Christ is all, and in all.”
Can you imagine how this must have sounded to the Colossians?
• Within the church at Colossae there were Jewish Christians steeped in the Torah and Jewish traditions, and there were Gentile Christians, who had no background whatsoever in the Jewish faith. Some were circumcised, some were not; yet, in Christ, they were no different.
• The same can be said of landowners and slaves. At least in the church, they stood side by side on a level playing field.
But this pales by comparison to another category Paul mentions. He says the Body of Christ also includes barbarians and Scythians.
Whoa! Who are the barbarians? They’re those who are … well, let’s face it …barbaric. Think of the guys in the Capital One commercials – “What’s in your wallet?”
Barbarians are unclean and uncouth. They don’t wash their hands before they eat or brush their teeth before they go to bed. They hardly ever take a bath and wear the same filthy clothes, day after day. They’re not the type of people you’re likely to invite over for tea.
But, if barbarians cause you to grimace, Scythians will make you sick to your stomach. Dick Donovan says,
“(While) the Greeks thought of non-Greeks as barbarians—
people who spoke a crude language and lived crude lives,
Scythians were an extreme type of barbarian—
known for their savagery and shocking practices
such as drinking the blood of their enemies.”
You get the picture: “Mammas, don’t let your babies grow up to be Scythians.” Yet, Paul makes no bones about it:
“… there can’t be Greek and Jew,
circumcision and uncircumcision,
but Christ is all, and in all.”
In Christ there are no distinctions. “All who follow Jesus, all around the world, yes, we’re the church together.”
Nowhere is this expressed more clearly than in the Sacrament of Holy Communion, where, “They will come from East and West, North and South to gather at the table of our Lord.”
I saw this played out at a Christmas Eve communion service in Hope a few years ago. A friend of the church sent a check for a thousand dollars to do with whatever we thought best. The Missions Committee decided to use the whole thing to buy groceries for needy families.
The church secretary put together a simple form for families to sign up in advance for a box of food. Every family was encouraged – but not required – to come to the Christmas Eve service, after which the food was to be distributed.
The service began at six o’clock. The place was packed by 5:30. There was a quiet sense of reverence and awe as the organist began the Prelude.
When I stood to welcome everyone and give the Invocation, I almost lost it, for, instead of looking out on our small congregation of fifty to sixty staunch Presbyterians, I looked out on a congregation of over two hundred and fifty smiling faces, including our own, ready to praise God, from whom all blessings flow.
It was a rare glimpse of this new life in Christ for which we strive – young and old, rich and poor, black, white, and Hispanic worshiping together and singing with one accord,
“O come, Desire of nations,
Bind all peoples in one heart and mind;
Bid envy, strife and discord cease;
Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee,
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2013 Philip McLarty. Used by permission.