Clothed with the New Self

Now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, lies and abusive language—seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self…

This is the last sermon in a series called “Building It as We Fly” and some of you may be glad.  You may have gotten tired of hearing me talk about building “a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of.”  But you may have also gotten that phrase so stuck in your head that you will never be able to forget it, and that may be a good thing.  You may use it as a way of evaluating the church from now on.

Last week I said that if we are going to build a you-know-what that you-know-who would be proud of we will need to remember that a church is not a building, or a set of beliefs, or a code of conduct.  “No,” I said, “ultimately, the church is a group of people; it’s you and me.  If Jesus is going to be proud of the church, he’s going to have to be proud of us.”  I didn’t say it last week, but this week I might add, “He’s going to have to be proud not only of who we are, but also of how we live our lives.”  And that feels a little uncomfortable, doesn’t it?  You might start to squirm in your pew and say, “Now you’ve stopped preaching and gone to meddling!”  But how we live our lives matters.  It matters to Jesus.  It also matters to Paul.  That’s what he wants to talk about in today’s reading from Colossians 3:1-11, but if we’re honest that’s what we want to talk about, too.  As the poet Mary Oliver has put it, we have only this one “wild and precious life” to live, and we don’t want to get it wrong.[i]

It’s the reason I started reading From Strength to Strength, a book by Arthur C. Brooks about “finding success, happiness, and deep purpose in the second half of life,” which is where I am, personally, but you don’t have to be there to appreciate it; in fact it would be better to learn these lessons in the first half of life.

In one chapter Brooks talks about visiting a museum in Taiwan and staring at a massive jade carving of the Buddha.  His guide suggested that this was a good illustration of how the Eastern view of art differs from the Western view.  When Brooks asked him to explain he said, “You Westerners see art as being created from nothing [like a blank canvas on which someone has to apply paint].  In the East, we believe the art already exists, and our job is simply to reveal it.  It is not visible because we add something, but because we take away the parts that are not the art.’”

As Brooks reflected on that conversation he began to think about his own life.  “Here in my fifties, my life is jammed with possessions, accomplishments, relationships, opinions, and commitments,” he writes.  “I asked myself, ‘Can the right formula for a happy life really be to add more and more until I die?’  Obviously the answer is no, but not everyone has learned that.”  Brooks thought about a man he met when he was still a teenager.  He was a software engineer who had grown up poor and never amounted to much professionally until he helped develop a piece of software that is still in use today, one that made him rich beyond his wildest dreams.

He didn’t know what to do with all that money.  Brooks writes, “He bought houses.  He bought cars by the dozens.  He bought gadgets, art, and every expensive knickknack that struck his fancy.  His purchasing ability outstripped his ability to enjoy the things he bought: He used his dining room as a kind of warehouse for unopened boxes full of things he had acquired.  Paintings sat on the floor, unhung.  Cars were not driven.  He actually said to me once, quoting the entrepreneur Malcom Forbes approvingly, ‘He who dies with the most toys wins.’”[ii]

Sound like anyone you know?

To me it sounds a lot like the Rich Fool in today’s Gospel lesson.[iii]  His solution to the problem of what to do when your barns aren’t big enough is to build bigger ones.  But look at what he’s trying to do!  He’s trying to make sure he has enough to retire on, and all of us who have reached a certain age know something about that.  So when he is blessed with this massive harvest his first instinct is to hoard it, to pile it up in the biggest barns he can build.  Only then will he have any peace, only then will he be able to say to his soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”  But as you know, he died before he could enjoy any of it.

This is a cautionary tale.  Jesus is trying to warn us that life does not consist in the abundance of our possessions.  The one who dies with the most toys does not win.  So then, how should we live our lives?

Well, obviously not by building bigger barns or piling things up in the dining room.  Maybe the sculptor who carved that massive Buddha out of a single block of jade would say that it’s not about adding things to your life, it’s about subtracting them until the true you is revealed.  And Paul would agree.  In today’s Epistle reading he has plenty of suggestions about what could be removed from our lives.

“Whatever in you is earthly,” he writes, and then he gives some examples: “fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed.”  A few verses later he adds: “anger, wrath, malice, slander, lies, and abusive language.”  I don’t think I need to elaborate on these.  I think Paul is simply rattling off a list of the better known sins in the same way you might if someone asked you to name them.  “All of these are earthly things,” Paul might add.  “They are things we learn how to do as we grow up in a world like this.  When we were born we didn’t know how to do any of these things.  We were innocent, perfect, and pure.”

Which may be the reason people in those days were baptized in the nude; they may have been trying to return to that previous state of innocence.  I’m not going to demonstrate, but maybe I can show you with these nesting Russian dolls, these Matryoshka dolls.  Let’s say that this is the way you come to your baptism, fully clothed (holding up the doll).  But before you enter the waters of baptism you strip off your old way of life, with all its fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, greed, anger, wrath, malice, slander, lies, and abusive language (taking off the first layer).  It might take a while.  But when you are finished, there you are, naked as the day you were born, ready to be baptized.  You go down into the water and someone dips you under in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  It’s like dying and rising again, and when you come up, you come up to a whole new life, a whole new you.

I’ve told you before that those new converts to Christianity would often be given a new white robe to wear as a symbol of their new life in Christ.  Paul seems to have that in mind when he says in today’s passage, “you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self.”  But you and I both know that new self can quickly revert to its old ways; that white robe can be stained with sin before the day is over.  It doesn’t mean you have to be baptized again.  You can simply say you’re sorry and move on.  But you might also decide that it’s time to go to work, to pick up a hammer and chisel and see if—like that sculptor carving a Buddha out of a massive block of jade—you can carve something out of your freshly baptized life that looks a little more like Christ.

At the beginning of today’s reading Paul says, “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.”  Look at him like a sculptor might look at his model, and then carve away from your own life anything that doesn’t look like that.

[Back to the dolls]

So, there was the old you, filthy with sin (the first layer), and the original you, innocent as the day you were born (the second layer), and now the new you (the third layer), where your identification with Christ is so complete that all other identities drop away.  Paul puts it like this.  He says, “You have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in…the image of its creator.  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!” (vss. 9-11).

So, all those ways we used to set ourselves apart from others, all those things that used to divide us?  None of that matters anymore.  Now Christ is all.  And not only that, Christ is in all, which is a very big deal for Paul.  Earlier in this same letter he says that “Christ in you [is] the hope of glory” (1:27), and glory seems to be what Paul wants more than anything in the world.  I don’t mean his glory; I mean God’s glory.  Paul wants some of the glory of God for himself.  And so he does whatever it takes to have Christ in him because he believes that the glory of God is in Christ!

Are you still with me?

Let’s look at the dolls again: Here’s the old you, the one you take off at baptism (the first layer).  Here’s the original you, the one you were at birth (the second layer).  Here’s the baptized you, the one Paul calls “a new creation”[iv] (the third layer).  Here’s Christ in you, the hope of glory (the fourth layer).  But then here, in Christ?  The glory itself! (the tiny doll at the center).


If it were real glory I couldn’t hold it in my hand like this.  It would be too powerful.  I would have to use tongs while wearing a pair of heavy, leather gloves.  The glory of God is like pure plutonium, able to create and destroy worlds.  It’s what lit up Mount Sinai like a “devouring fire” and made Moses’s face shine for weeks afterward.  But it is also the power of God to change us from within, and make us into what God has always dreamed we could be, and even now he is able to see his glory within us.  His son, Jesus, was able to do that: to look at the most miserable wretches on the face of the earth and to see within them the dazzling glory of God.  It made him look at them differently.  What he saw, always, was not what they were, but what they could be.

That’s what he sees in you.

In 1501, a 26-year old Italian sculptor named Michelangelo began to carve the figure of David from an enormous slab of marble that had been rejected previously because of its poor quality.[v]  It had been lying on its back in the courtyard of the Florence Cathedral for more than a quarter of a century, exposed to the elements, with only the legs of the figure roughed out.  As one author observed, to bring a finished statue out of that slab would be like “bringing back to life one who was dead.”[vi]  But Michelangelo believed that every block of stone has a statue inside it, and that it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.  Of an earlier work he said, simply, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”[vii]  Now he was faced with this massive, inferior, badly gouged slab of marble, but in it, by virtue of creative genius and a good bit of divine inspiration, he was able to see the heroic figure of David.

In his novel, The Agony and the Ecstasy, Irving Stone imagines what Michelangelo was seeing.  He writes: “The Greeks had carved bodies from their white marble of such perfect proportion and strength that they could never be surpassed; but the figures had been without mind or spirit.  His David would be the incarnation of everything [God had dreamed for humanity]: not a sinful little creature living only for salvation in the next life, but a glorious creation capable of beauty, strength, courage, wisdom, faith in his own kind, with a brain and will and inner power to fashion a world filled with the fruit of man’s creative intellect.  His David would be Apollo, but considerably more; Hercules, but considerably more; Adam, but considerably more; the most fully realized man the world had ever seen…”[viii]

If you have stood at the feet of his finished statue and looked up as I have you can testify that Michelangelo accomplished what he set out to do, but can you believe what God sees in you and what God is working to reveal?  Something even better than that.  But he needs your help.  You won’t get there by addition, by frantically accumulating more and more stuff in the belief that “he who dies with the most toys wins.”  You will get there by subtraction, by walking around your life with a hammer and chisel, and chipping away at everything that doesn’t look like Christ.  Paul puts it bluntly: “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly,” and you know what those things are (remove the outer layer of the Matryoshka doll).  Strip yourself down until you are naked as the day you were born (remove the next layer), and then “clothe yourself with the new self, which is being renewed in…the image of its creator” (remove the next layer).  Carve away the ugly excess until what was hidden before is plainly visible: “Christ in you (remove the next layer), the hope of glory” (remove the next layer and hold up the littlest doll).  If we can become people like that, people in whom the glory of God has been revealed, then our post-pandemic church will make Jesus very proud indeed.

—Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day” (

[ii] Arthur C. Brooks, From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life (Portfolio/Penguin, 2022), pp. 68-69.

[iii] Luke 12:13-21/

[iv] 2 Cor. 5:17.

[v] “How a Rejected Block of Marble Became the World’s Most Famous Statue,” by the editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (

[vi] Ibid. The author was Giorgio Vasari, who wrote an early biography of Michelangelo

[vii] Nils Parker, “The Angel in the Marble” (

[viii] Irving Stone, The Agony and the Ecstasy (New York: Doubleday, 1961), p. 197 in this PDF version (

Hold Fast to the Head

Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.

We’ve been talking about building a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of, but if we’re going to do that we will need to remember that a church is not a building, it’s not a set of beliefs, it’s not a code of conduct.  No, ultimately, the church is a group of people; it’s you and me.  If Jesus is going to be proud of the church, he’s going to have to be proud of us.  So, what can we do to make sure that he is?

Take a look at the first verse in today’s Epistle reading—Colossians 2:6—where Paul says, “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him.”  As far as Paul is concerned, if you want Jesus to be proud of you, you should continue to live your life in him.  It sounds obvious, but I think it may be the most important verse in the passage.  Because we are living in a time when everybody seems to be having ideas about what the post-pandemic church should be, and not all of them are helpful.

When I do an online search for “post-pandemic church” I get 59,400,000 results in 0.44 seconds.  There’s an article from the Wall Street Journal asking, “Post-pandemic, will church ever be the same?”[i]  A blog post from Carey Nieuwhof offering “Five post-pandemic church growth accelerators.”[ii]  An article by Ed Stetser in Outreach magazine with “3 Trends shaping the post-pandemic church,”[iii] followed by “Six predictions for the post-pandemic church” from Peter Marty in the Christian Century.[iv]  You can see how you might be overwhelmed by all the good advice that’s available these days, but in my research a few topics stand out.

One of those is “Hybrid Church,” which recognizes that during the pandemic many people started accessing worship online, and that even when the pandemic is over many people will choose to do the same.  This morning, for example, we may have four hundred people in the room, but as many as sixteen hundred watching our webcast, and another 12-15,000 watching our broadcast.  Hybrid Church means that we have to consider the needs of those who are not in the room as well as those who are, and that we need to make space for those who choose to participate virtually as well as those who choose to participate in person.

Some of this is exciting to me.  Six months ago I drafted a document called “the Five Expectations of Membership at Richmond’s First Baptist Church” while thinking specifically about those who could not, or would not, attend church in person.  Let me share it with you and ask you to imagine that you are in Queens, New York, or Oak Ridge, Tennessee, or Bangalore, India, perusing these five expectations on a computer screen.  Here they are:

  1.  Relationship with God

This is where it begins. Click HERE to find out where you are on your spiritual journey and how we can help you take the next step.  You may already be further along than you think, or you may need someone to point the way.

  1.  Partnership in our Mission

Our mission is: “to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia—and beyond.”  You can help us by looking around you for anything that doesn’t look like heaven, and then rolling up your sleeves and bringing heaven to earth right where you are.

  1.  Participation in Worship

There are lots of ways to do this. If you live in the Richmond area you can worship with us in person or on television. If you have Internet access you can worship wherever you are, online. You can also start or join an FBC Microchurch (click HERE to learn more).

  1.  Membership in a Small Group

Small groups are where relationship happens, either in person or online. You need to have at least one place in life where you can say, “It’s been a hard week.”  Small Group registration is open two times a year, in January and August. Sign up HERE to be notified.

  1.  Support of our Ministries

You can do this in several ways: you can give your time as a volunteer, you can share your talent as a ministry leader, and you can give your resources to help us meet the needs of the church and the needs of others.  Click HERE to find out more about all three ways to give.

We haven’t put all the pieces together yet.  If you tried to click on those links most of them wouldn’t work.  But I’ve given those five expectations even more thought in the past six months, and I’m still excited about how they might give people who are living anywhere that has an Internet connection a way to be active, participating members.  You may hear more about that in the days ahead.

But today I hear Paul saying that if we want to build a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of, we need to continue to live our lives in him, “rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as [we] were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”  I like the idea of being rooted in him, and being established in the faith “just as we were taught.”  Because this is not about having to do something new in the post-pandemic era; this is about returning to our roots, about remembering everything we have been taught in church.

I think about those babies being rocked in the nursery, and someone singing to them, “Jesus Loves Me this I Know.”  I think about those first Sunday school classes, where children hear the great Bible stories of the Old and New Testaments, and learn to sing songs like “This Little Light of Mine,” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”  I think about our children entering the youth program, and learning that along with studying the Bible and singing the songs we have to get our hands dirty once in a while.  I love the pictures on Facebook of our young people working hard to bring heaven to earth wherever they are on mission.  That’s the kind of lesson that will stay with them long after they grow up.

But when they do grow up we have Sunday morning Bible study for every age group, Wednesday night suppers and fellowship, choir practice and breakout groups, and worship on Sunday morning where we continue to learn and grow in the faith.  Paul isn’t saying we should change all that.  I’m not saying we should change all that.  I think this is how we “continue to live our lives in him”—in Christ.  But don’t miss this warning: Paul says, “See to it that you aren’t taken captive by philosophies and empty deceit.”  And in the post-pandemic age I think he would warn us against embracing any new way of doing church that isn’t really church, because everybody seems to have ideas about what we should do.  “Continue to live your lives in him,” Paul says, “rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”  And just to make sure, he takes us back to our baptisms.

He may still have those Galatians in mind, remember them?  Some of them had been led astray by a bunch of so-called Judaizers who came along after Paul and told them that if they really wanted to follow Jesus they needed to become Jews: they needed to be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses.  Some of the Galatians had actually done it—allowed themselves to be circumcised—and Paul basically pitched a fit.  He doesn’t seem to be as angry in this letter, but he is concerned about how some of these Colossians have been persuaded to add other requirements to the simple formula of salvation by grace through faith.  They have begun to observe special days and seasons, to go without food and mortify the flesh, to worship angels and dwell on visions as if all of that made them more spiritual and more worthy of God’s grace.  “No,” Paul says.  “You trusted Christ for your salvation.  You entered the waters of baptism.  You have everything you need.”

Paul seems to believe that in the waters of baptism we celebrate our identity as the children of God.  It’s a different kind of ritual than circumcision.  In circumcision a Jewish male would give up a little bit of his flesh to remind himself that he was a child of the covenant, but in baptism Christian converts gave up all their flesh.  Look at Colossians 2:11 where Paul writes, “In him you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ.”  Did you catch that?  Paul calls baptism “the circumcision of Christ,” but he doesn’t mean that you cut off a little bit of flesh; he means that you put off the entire body of flesh.  You drown it in the waters of baptism.  You bury it as Christ was buried.  Now, all of this may seem a little extreme, but remember that when you come up out of the water you rise as Christ rose to a whole new life, a resurrection life, in which the flesh no longer has any power over you.

And so it is with us: we don’t need to add anything to the simple faith that brought us to the waters of baptism.  We don’t need to add anything to the ritual that puts an end to our life in the flesh and raises us to life in the spirit.  Paul says, “Don’t let anyone disqualify you” because you don’t do all these things that they are advocating.  And may no one disqualify us if we don’t do all the things the experts advise in building a post-pandemic church.  Instead, Paul says, “Hold fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.”

It’s a little hard to picture—holding fast to the head (I keep thinking of my grandson, Leo, sitting on my shoulders and holding fast to my head so he won’t fall off).  But if you have read some of Paul’s other letters you know that he loves this image of the church as the body of Christ, with Christ himself as the head.  In the same way the head controls the body, Christ controls the church, and as long as we do what Christ tells us to do we should be fine, post-pandemic or not.

I talked about this in a recent podcast.[v]  Maybe you haven’t heard it, and maybe you didn’t know I have a podcast.  I’m still trying to figure it out myself.  But I was responding to a pre-pandemic post by a blogger named John Pavlovitz who suggested that people are leaving the church of Jesus Christ because the Church isn’t talking about the things that matter to them, and then he listed some of those things (this was back in May, 2019).  He said, “[The people who are leaving] have been waiting for you to oppose the separation of families, to declare the value of black lives, to loudly defend LGBTQ people, to stand alongside your Muslim brothers and sisters, to denounce the degradation of the planet—to say with absolute clarity what you stand for and what you will not abide.  And you have kept them waiting too long.”[vi]

There are some who would say those things Pavlovitz listed are exactly what Paul meant when he warned us not to be taken captive by “philosophies and empty deceit.”  There are others who would say that those things are exactly what Micah meant when he talked about “doing justice, and loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8).  That’s one of the problems we face in the post-pandemic church: we have become so divided we can’t even seem to have the conversation anymore.[vii]  But I said, “I don’t think there is one, clear answer to the question of why people are leaving the church, but I think there is one, clear answer to what we can do about it: We can do what Jesus told us to.”

And then I talked about how the five essential ministry areas of Richmond’s First Baptist Church are built on five clear commands of Christ.

  1.  He told us to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength: that’s our Ministry of Christian Worship.
  2.  He told us to love our neighbors just as much as we love ourselves: that’s our Ministry of Christian Compassion.
  3.  He told us to love one another, just as he has loved us: that’s our Ministry of Christian Community.
  4.  He told us to make disciples by baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit: that’s our Ministry of Christian Invitation.
  5.  He told us to make disciples by teaching them to obey everything he commanded us: that’s our Ministry of Christian Formation.

That’s what we’re trying to do at Richmond’s First Baptist Church: we’re trying to build our ministry around five clear commands of Christ.  And yes, people might still leave us.  They left him.  But it won’t be because we couldn’t figure out how to give them what they wanted.  As I’ve said before, “When you make up your mind that you will do whatever it takes to get people to come to church, then you will get just the kind of church you deserve: a congregation of fickle religious consumers who will leave you as soon as the church next door opens up an espresso bar.”[viii]

So, back to the beginning.  If the church is people, how can we be the kind of people Jesus will not be ashamed of?  First of all, we can continue to live our lives in him, “rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as we were taught, abounding in thanksgiving” (Col. 2:6-7).  Secondly we can remember our baptisms, and remember that “when we were buried with him in baptism, we were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (Col. 2:12).  And finally, we can hold fast to the head, “from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God” (Col. 2:16).  And pre-pandemic, mid-pandemic, or post-pandemic,

That’s a pretty good way to be church.

Jim Somerville © 2022






[vi] John Pavlovitz, “Dear Church, Here’s Why People Are Leaving,” May 14, 2019 (

[vii] Ed Stetser writes, “It’s important to remember that Americans faced more than a pandemic in 2020. We witnessed racial injustice, riots, political division, mixed messages from politicians and scientists, and economic collapse. A lot transpired in the past year that will have negative ripple effects for years to come. One of the effects is the U.S. fracturing into many smaller factions and tribes. We are deeply divided, so much so that people have referred to this time as a ‘cold civil war’” (

[viii] Jim Somerville, When the Sand Castle Crumbles (Issuu, 2010), p. 18 (

The Hope of Glory

God chose to make known [to his saints] how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

Dear friends, we are nearing the end of this sermon series called “Building It as We Fly,” in which we have been taking lessons from the founders of the early church as we think about how to build a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of.  One of those founders was the Apostle Paul, and when he encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus he asked the question, “Who are you, Sir?”  In the sermon I preached on that passage I said that in order to do what we are trying to do each of us, and not only Paul, will need to answer that question.  I think that’s essential.  And when people stand in the baptistery and say, “Jesus is Lord,” they may be letting us know that they have found it.  But that’s not the only answer that matters; there is our answer, individually, but there is also the church’s answer, corporately.  Along with asking, “Who is Jesus to me?” we need to ask, “Who is Jesus to us?” and in today’s reading from Colossians I think we get an answer to that question.

Paul is writing to Gentiles who have only recently become believers, and apparently they are still trying to figure out what to believe.  In their commentary on this letter Fred Craddock and Eugene Boring point out that “On a pastoral level, [Colossians] addresses a serious theological and ethical problem that has gained a foothold among some of the members.  Paul calls it a philosophy and a deception with empty promises (2:8).  Apparently this ‘heresy’ offers perfection and spiritual fulfillment through a mixture of visions, worship of angelic beings, festivals and rituals based on the calendar, dietary restrictions, and asceticism (2:9-23). For the [people who embraced it], Christ was only the beginning in their movement toward full maturity.”[i]

I can almost hear Paul saying, “What?!  Haven’t you heard anything I’ve said?  Jesus is all you need!”  And so Paul does what Tony Campolo once suggested to a room full of preachers.  I was in that room, and Campolo (who is a White sociology professor, but also someone who has learned a great deal from Black preaching) said, “If the sermon isn’t working, and you can tell that people aren’t listening, just start quoting one of the old hymns.  Say, ‘I don’t know about you, but…

My hope is built on nothing less
than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
but wholly lean on Jesus’ name!

On Christ the solid rock I stand,
all other ground is sinking sand,
all other ground is sinking sand!

That’ll get ‘em going!”  So, that’s what Paul does: he starts quoting a hymn that would have been familiar to the church, a hymn about Christ being everything they need.  Listen to how many times it refers to “all things”:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

It’s a good hymn.  It’s one of my favorite passages of Scripture in all the Bible.

  • I love that line about “the image of the invisible God.” The Greek word is eikon, and if you know anything about Greek icons they are not images that are meant to be worshiped, but something more like windows through which we can catch glimpses of the divine.
  • And then the hymn affirms that Christ is the “firstborn of all creation,” and the one in whom “all things were created,” which reminds me of the opening verses of the Gospel of John, the ones that claim: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.”
  • I also love that line about the one in whom “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” It reminds me of a quote from Marcus Borg, who said that Jesus showed us “what a life full of God looks like.”[ii]  Both statements seem to affirm that Jesus was full of God, which may be another way of saying that he was fully God, which is only another way of saying that he was fully divine, at least in my way of reading it.

This hymn makes some audacious claims about Christ, and the Colossians may have had a hard time believing them.

Will Willimon, the former Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, tells this story from his time in seminary:  He says, “In a church history course in my last year at Yale Divinity School, the professor invited an Orthodox priest to lecture. He gave a rather dry talk on the development of the Nicene Creed. At the end of the lecture an earnest student asked, ‘Father Theodore, what can one do when one finds it impossible to affirm certain tenets of the creed?’ The priest looked confused. ‘Well, you just say it.  It’s not that hard to master.  With a little effort, most can quickly learn it by heart.’  ‘No, you don’t understand,’ continued the student, ‘What am I to do when I have difficulty affirming parts of the creed—like the Virgin Birth?’ The priest continued to look confused. ‘You just say it.  Particularly when you have difficulty believing it, you just keep saying it.  It will come to you eventually.’  Exasperated, the student pled, ‘How can I with integrity affirm a creed I do not believe?’  ‘It’s not your creed young man!’ said the priest. ‘It’s our creed (meaning the church’s).  Keep saying it for heaven’s sake! Eventually, it may come to you….  Even if it doesn’t, don’t worry. It’s not your creed.”[iii]

I think that priest would say the same about the Christ hymn in Colossians 1:15-20.  Those recent converts to Christianity may have had trouble accepting the idea that Christ was the image of the invisible God, or that he was the One through whom all things were made, or that in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.  One of them may have said, “I’m not sure I believe everything in that hymn.”  If the Orthodox priest had been there he would have said, “It’s not your hymn!  It’s the church’s hymn!” and Paul would have agreed.  He might have added, “We’re not asking you what you believe; we’re telling you what we believe,”

And that reminds me of the Bible.

When someone reads the Bible from this pulpit on Sunday morning they usually say, “The word of the Lord,” and we say, “Thanks be to God.”  But someone visiting with us for the first time might object, “I’m not going to say, ‘Thanks be to God.’  I don’t believe the Bible is the word of the Lord.”  To which Paul might reply, “It’s not your book; it’s the church’s book!”  And that’s true: we are the ones who love this book, who have embraced this book, who have learned to listen to these ancient words written by primitive people living in faraway places and somehow hear in them the word of the Lord.

I’ve been thinking about it this way recently:  If we asked every member of the church to step up to the pulpit and give their testimony, telling us who God was to them and what God had done for them, it would take a long time.  But some of them would do such a beautiful job that when they finished everyone would murmur their approval.  Some would say things that might sound a little crazy to the rest of us, but we would still listen, politely.  Others would focus on only one thing, like the time they asked for healing and received it, while others would speak straight from the heart in a way that moved us to tears.  But if we recorded everything they said and published it in a book, it would be a very special book, wouldn’t it?  It would be The Testimony of Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  We wouldn’t agree with everything that was in it.  We would like some entries better than others.  But it would be our book, and we would put it in a place of honor, and probably bring it out and read from it on special occasions.

Now imagine that we had the written testimony of our founders, the fourteen people who gathered for a prayer meeting in June, 1780, under the leadership of the Reverend Joshua Morris.  Don’t you think that on Founder’s Day we might bring that book out of the archives and blow the dust off the cover and read for ourselves once again what those founders had said about who God was to them and what he had done for them?  And then imagine that we had a book that dated all the way back to that time when the ancient Hebrews were beginning to bear witness to who God was and what God had done.  Imagine if someone had written down those words and we had a book full of their testimony.  Wouldn’t that be special?  Well, we do have a book like that, and we call it the Bible.

It’s not a book that was written by God and dropped down from heaven; it is the inspired testimony of God’s people through the ages, lovingly collected and preserved in the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments.  It is a chorus of praise to who God is and what God has done in the lives of his people.  And yes, when we read it, we like some parts better than others.  Some parts are beautiful and poetic; some parts sound a little crazy; some parts take your breath away while other parts bring tears to your eyes.  But if anyone ever dared to say something disrespectful about the Bible we might say, “Hey!  It’s not your book.  It’s our book!”

And it’s not the only book we have.  If you are here in the sanctuary and if you look in the pew rack in front of you, you will find a copy of our hymn book.  We don’t look at it in the same way we look at the Bible; we don’t make any claims about its inspiration or authority.  But through the centuries thousands of hymns have been written by people who offered up their creative and musical genius in a chorus of praise to God.  And people who know something about these things have gathered up the best of them and put them in this book.  It may not be your favorite book, and some of the hymns we sing on Sunday may not be your favorite hymns, but every once in a while everything comes together, and there you are standing in a packed sanctuary on Easter Sunday singing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” at the top of your lungs and wow, just wow!  Right?  You can feel it in your chest.  And even if you are not one hundred percent sure about the Doctrine of the Resurrection it doesn’t matter, because it’s not your belief, it’s the church’s belief.

So, here is this ancient hymn, embedded in the first chapter of Colossians, a hymn that affirms the church’s belief in Christ as the image of the invisible God, the One by whom all things were made and through whom all things are being reconciled.  “Christ,” Paul says, “in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”  If you have trouble believing it, don’t worry.  It’s not your hymn; it’s the church’s hymn.

I suppose that’s what I’m trying to say in all of this: that if we are going to build a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of we will have to know who he is to us, individually, but we will also have to know who he is to us, corporately.  And the church’s confession of faith may not be the same as our confession of faith.  It may be bigger than ours—bolder.  It may stand on the shoulders of those spiritual giants who went before us, and while they were willing to shout their beliefs we may only be able to whisper.  But as that Orthodox priest might say, “Don’t give up.  Just keep saying it.  You’ll get the hang of it eventually.”  And he may be right.  If we can just keep lifting up the testimony of the church through its scripture, its hymns, through its fearless confessions of faith, we may find that we come to a place where it isn’t only the church’s testimony, but ours as well; a place where we can say it and mean it with all our heart.

It’s not in the passage we read today, but in Colossians 1:27 Paul talks about “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”  I love that line.  I love it so much I named the sermon after it and then just never got to it.  But I’ve been thinking about it, and only yesterday I pictured God pouring himself into Christ like water into a glass, until all that glorious fullness overflows the glass and runs down the sides.  But I also pictured the glass sitting in a bowl, and that’s the church, and all of the glorious fullness that is in Christ fills up the bowl that is the church until the bowl begins to overflow onto the world around it.  That is, we have Christ in us—the one who is the image of the invisible God, the one in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell—and we have so much of Christ in us that it overflows onto the world around us, or at least it should.  And maybe that’s the hope of glory.  Maybe it’s not our hope but the world’s hope.  Maybe the world is hoping for a taste of the glory of God, spilling over and out of a church that simply cannot stop loving him, and believing in him, and singing his praises, both now and forever.


—Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004).

[ii] Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity.

[iii] William H. Willimon, in an article in The Christian Century, February 7–14, 1996, p. 137.

Transferred into the Kingdom

God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

When I came to work on Friday I found an envelope on my desk that had already been opened, and a note from Donna Earley that read, “Wonderful letter!”  Donna is our Director of Stewardship and Development; she’s the one who gets the envelopes with checks in them.  But this one also came with a letter and that’s what she wanted me to see.  It was from someone who confessed that he hadn’t been raised in the church.  He didn’t know much about Christianity.  But his wife liked to watch our Sunday morning worship services on television and when she got so sick that she needed almost constant attention he would sit beside her and watch with her.  He said he got to the point where he liked watching our service almost as much as she did, and when she died two years ago he kept watching.  So he was sending a check, just to say thank you, but he did have a couple of questions for the pastor if he ever had time to call.

I had some time right then, and when he picked up the phone I said, “This is Jim Somerville from First Baptist Church.”  He was glad to hear from me, and when I asked about his questions he said first of all he wanted to know if his wife was still suffering and I assured him that she wasn’t.  I quoted Revelation 21:4, where it says that God himself will wipe away every tear from our eyes and “mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”  He liked that.  He mentioned again that he didn’t know very much about Christianity but said he was learning by watching our services on television.  I said, “Becoming a Christian is kind of like moving to France.  If you ended up in a little village in France you might not know the language, the customs, or the culture, not at first.  But eventually you would figure out how to go down to the local bakery and get a cup of coffee and a fresh croissant in the morning.  You would learn enough of the language, customs, and culture to get by.  So, stick with us, or better yet, come and visit us.  You’ll figure it out.”

I don’t know if he will visit us or not.  I hope he will.  But that analogy I used on Friday stuck with me as I prepared to preach on today’s passage from Colossians, because right there at the end of the reading Paul says that we have been rescued from the power of darkness and “transferred” into the kingdom of his beloved Son.  I thought, “What if you were transferred to France?  What if you had to learn a whole new language, customs, and culture?  Is that what it’s like to be transferred into the kingdom of God’s beloved son?  Do you have to learn a whole new language, customs, and culture?”  And that reminded me of a book I read in seminary called The First Urban Christians by Wayne Meeks.[i]  When Meeks talked about baptism he said it was like being transferred from one culture to another.

There was a diagram on page 156—one of only two in the book—and it may not surprise you that that’s where the book fell open when I took it off my shelf last week.  I love diagrams.  I love them so much more than the kind of dense commentary Meeks offered in the written portions of his book although you need that, sometimes, to make sense of a diagram.  This one showed something that looked like stairs going down and stairs coming up again, but each of the steps was labeled, and the labels referred to everything Paul says in his writings about the act of baptism: about what actually happened for new believers when they went down into the water and came up again.  Without handing out copies of the diagram let me see if I can explain it to you.

On one side was “the world,” and on the other side was “the body of Christ.”  These “stairs” I was talking about took you down into the waters of baptism and up on the other side, and along the way you left behind all the language, customs, and culture of the old life and took up the language, customs, and culture of the new.  So, you left behind “the god of this world,” Satan, demons, etc.  That was the first step.  You left behind “many gods,” and “many lords.”  That was step two.  You left behind the “old you,” along with all those old vices you may have practiced.  You left behind those old divisions that kept you from being in community with others.  You submitted yourself to Christian instruction, so you could learn the ways of your new life.  You took off your old clothes, which was a symbol of dying to the old ways, you descended into the water where you were washed or “buried” in baptism.

And then you came up again.

You came up out of the water and took a deep breath of Holy Spirit.  You put on a new, white robe as a symbol of your new life in Christ.  You may have been seated on a chair and lifted up by the other members of the church to symbolize your “enthronement,” like the groom at a Jewish wedding.  And in that moment, feeling a little giddy, you may have shouted out “Jesus is Lord!”  You may have whispered Abba! the Hebrew word for “father,” as a reminder that you had been adopted into God’s family.  You may have felt a rare unity with your brothers and sisters who were lifting you up, and when they put you down again there may have been warm embraces all around.  Instead of vices you would take up virtues.  Instead of the old, sinful self there would be a whole new you.  You may have entered into a period of further instruction so you could learn everything you needed to know about living in this new community where there was only one God, the Father, and one Lord, Jesus Christ.  In the end you would be firmly established as a member of his body—the Church.

Can you picture that or do I need to print out the diagram?  Going down those steps on one side and coming up on the other, leaving behind one way of life and taking on another?  I think you can, and if we are going to build a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of this will be essential: to understand that the church has a language, customs, and culture all its own, different from the world around it.  You may still live in the United States of America, but when you become a Christian you become a citizen of the Kingdom of God, and that identity becomes more important to you than any other: more important than where you live, what you do, or how you vote.

I think that understanding was essential to Paul’s efforts to establish the early church.  He never left the Roman Empire, which was huge, but everywhere he went within that Empire he planted churches, little colonies of the Kingdom like this one in Colossae.  Paul himself had never been there, apparently, but Epaphras, one of his fellow missionaries, had.  He was the one who shared the gospel with the Colossians, and when they believed it and received it, and were baptized into the body of Christ he brought word back to Paul, who may have been in prison in Ephesus, not far away.  In fact, this letter to the Colossians may have been Paul’s first contact with them.  He writes, “We have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus.”  But he may have also heard what was lacking in their faith.  They had been transferred from the dominion of darkness into the kingdom of the beloved Son, but they hadn’t yet mastered its language, its customs and culture.

And so Paul tells them that he’s praying for them, and if you can hear it, he is praying that they will learn the ways of life in the Kingdom.  Listen, because we may need to learn some of these things, too.  He writes:

Since the day we heard of [your faith in Christ Jesus] we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.  May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.  He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins (Colossians 1:9-14).

Did you get all that?  Paul wants the Colossians 1) to lead lives worthy of the Lord, 2) to please God in every way, 3) to bear fruit in every good work, 4) to grow in the knowledge of God, 5) to endure all things patiently, and 6) to give thanks to the Father, who has enabled them to share in the inheritance of the “saints in the light.”  This is what life in God’s kingdom looks like!  But it isn’t easy to live that way—not then and not now.  Even though they had been transferred into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son the Colossians were living in a world where the power of darkness was still very much evident.

And so are we.

Back in 1989 Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon wrote a book called Resident Aliens that gave me a whole new way of looking at things.[ii]  I had been a pastor for about three years, and I may have been operating on the assumption that America was essentially a Christian nation and that the church was the place we Americans gathered on Sunday morning for worship.  Hauerwas and Willimon helped me see that that was no longer true.  They talked about the “collapse of Christendom,” and speculated that it may have happened in 1963, when the Fox movie theater opened on a Sunday night and one of them and a few of his teenage friends went to the Methodist Youth Fellowship at Buncombe Street Church, let themselves be seen, and then slipped out the back door to join John Wayne at the Fox.  “That evening has come to represent a watershed in the history of Christendom, South Carolina style,” they wrote.  “On that night, Greenville, South Carolina—the last pocket of resistance to secularity in the Western World—served notice that it would no longer be a prop for the church.  There would be no more free passes for the church, no more free rides.  The Fox Theater went head to head with the church over who would provide the world view for the young.  That night, in 1963, the Fox Theater won the opening skirmish.”[iii]

Since then things have only gotten worse.  We can no longer count on American culture to prop up the church or push young people through its doors.  If anything American culture is dragging them out.  More than ever the church has to have its own language, customs, and culture, and Hauerwas and Willimon said as much back in 1989.  Using language from a modern translation of Philippians 3:20 they referred to the church as “a colony of heaven” and explained:  “A colony is a beachhead, an outpost, an island of one culture in the middle of another, a place where the values of home are reiterated and passed on to the young, a place where the distinctive language and life-style of the resident aliens are lovingly nurtured and reinforced.”[iv]

They gave the example of Jews in the Dispersion, who were “well acquainted with what it meant to live as strangers in a strange land, aliens trying to stake out a claim on someone else’s turf.  Jewish Christians had already learned, in their day-to-day life in the synagogue, how important it was for resident aliens to gather to name the name, to tell the story, to sing Zion’s songs in a land that didn’t know Zion’s God.”[v]  But now, Hauerwas and Willimon would say, that’s how it is for the church in America.  It is no longer an extension of the surrounding culture but a culture of its own, often quite different from the surrounding culture, as if a group of people from France had come to this country and started a social club where they spoke only French, and celebrated Bastille Day.  “That’s us,” Hauerwas and Willimon would say.

Or at least it should be.

Looking back at that book from a distance of 33 years I would say the church hasn’t done nearly enough to distinguish itself from a culture that has become increasingly secular.  Paul says to the Colossians, “You have been rescued from the dominion of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of God’s beloved son!”  But here we are, living in the dominion of darkness as a colony of heaven.  The light of Christ should be shining so brightly among us that it could be seen for miles.  But is it?  Do we stand out from the surrounding culture in a way that makes it obvious we have been transferred into the kingdom of God’s beloved son?  I’m not so sure.  There have been too many times when I couldn’t tell the difference between those on the inside of the church and those on the outside.

But there should be a difference.  Becoming a Christian should be like moving to another country where you have to learn a whole new language, customs, and culture.  If we’re going to build a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of it needs to be like that.  It can’t be just like the world around us, and for Christ’s sake we can’t keep dragging our politics and our prejudices into his church.  We may live in the Divided States of America but we are citizens of the Kingdom, remember?  So, back to that man who wrote the letter: I hope he will visit us some time, and when he does I hope he will discover that life in this church is different from life in the world—that it’s deeper, richer, more loving, and more forgiving.  And if he should ever decide to join us and be baptized I hope he will feel as if he has been transferred from the dominion of darkness into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son.

—Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians: the Social World of the Apostle Paul (New Haven: Yale, 1983).

[ii] Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville: Abingdon, 1989).

[iii] Ibid., pp. 15-16.

[iv] Ibid., p. 11.

[v] Ibid., pp. 11-12.