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” (https://www.loc.gov/programs/poetry-and-literature/poet-laureate/poet-laureate-projects/poetry-180/all-poems/item/poetry-180-133/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 (https://www.britannica.com/story/how-a-rejected-block-of-marble-became-the-worlds-most-famous-statue).
[vi] Ibid. The author was Giorgio Vasari, who wrote an early biography of Michelangelo
[vii] Nils Parker, “The Angel in the Marble” (https://nilsaparker.medium.com/the-angel-in-the-marble-f7aa43f333dc).
[viii] Irving Stone, The Agony and the Ecstasy (New York: Doubleday, 1961), p. 197 in this PDF version (https://unclesuraj.files.wordpress.com/2016/09/book_-the-agony-and-the-ecstasy_-a-biographical-novel-of-michelangelo.pdf).