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.