s185e01 Somerton Park Sunday 18 5/8/01
"If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God." Colossians 3:1
Bishop Spong tells us that the ancients believed that heaven was literally "up there", just behind the blue which we call the sky. Modern physics tells us that if Jesus ascended into heaven 2000 years ago, rising vertically with the speed of light, he would still not have left our galaxy :-) And while I would immediately concede that it is quite possible that the earth and all that we find so familiar is in fact not the centre of the universe and the sole focus of the attentions of God - this does tell us that for all our wishing to escape the temptations and frustrations of this naughty world :-) - it is in fact very hard, even for God, to escape elsewhere.
So I would concede that the picture that St Paul has of the universe and the picture that I have been given by scientific enquiry over the last couple of centuries are indeed quite different. In fact I would go even further and say that I think St Paul's view is incorrect - but this does not particularly fuss me, for St Paul was not in the business of describing the composition or mechanics of the creation, or even in his writings commending his own view of the structure of the universe to our universal and unquestioning acceptance - as one could conclude from the teachings of some who "take the bible literally".
Wherever St Paul pictures Christ and God to be is immaterial to what he writes for. He writes for a quite different purpose - that our relationships with each other are based on mutual respect.
St Paul, when he talks about setting our mind on things above, does not mean that we get down on our knees, rapturously contemplating the beatific vision or whatever. In the words of that hymn beloved of chiropractors: "Prostrate before thy throne to lie ... and gaze and gaze on thee" :-)
When we set our mind on things above, our relationships with those around us are vitally affected. We are bidden to put to death whatever is earthly - anger, wrath, malice, slander and abusive language ... When we are told "Do not lie to one another" we can be left in no doubt as to what St Paul is talking about. It is about how we get on with other people! - not about how we get on with God.
And we are left in no doubt whatsoever that this appropriate behaviour is not to be extended to only some of those around us. St Paul tells us at the end of this passage, in words which cannot be excised from the rest - "In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free ... (Colossians 3:11). So if all the divisions of the world of which St Paul was aware are broken down, the appropriate behaviour of mutual respect which he enjoins on us is equally to be extended to all.
Both of our other lessons for today, also talk about our human interactions.
The Old Testament lesson from Ecclesiastes talks about the futility of toiling relentlessly, in a futile effort to gain peace, most often in comparison with or over against our neighbours.
And Jesus declines to rule on the question of a family inheritance - a classic matter of the "rights" of one over the "rights" of another.
The parable of the rich man is often taken to be a parable about a person whose life is completely neglectful of God, and it is possible that this is the case. However I suspect that the proportion of (openly) unbelievers in society would have been considerably less than now. I think however that we are given an indication that this is in fact not what the parable is about, for Jesus ends with the words of God: 'You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' (Luke 12:20). The rub is not that this person "couldn't take it with him" but that someone else would benefit from his industry, and I think we can rightfully assume that this is despite his best efforts all his life. God will reign and others will benefit from things we have achieved - for good or for ill. I would say "Praise the Lord!" but then I pray that my legacy will be of a little assistance to other people. I suppose that the parable tells us that there are others who would be less than happy with this state of affairs.
So this man could in fact be a very devout person, whose religion was no different from the barns in which he stored his grain - it was all for himself.
The problem for those who take the Bible to be literally saying that we must acknowledge that heaven is "up there" somewhere, is that St Paul himself is uncertain of just where Christ can be found. For our reading for the epistle today ends with the words: "but Christ is all and in all!" So we find the risen Christ, not gazing up into the sky, but in everyone around us, including, of course ourselves.
St Paul obviously hadn't read the rubrick of the Book of Common Prayer of 1552, which states quite categorically: "And as concernynge the naturall body and blood of our sauiour Christ, they are in heauen and not here. For it is agaynst the truth of Christes true natural bodye, to be in moe places then in one, at one tyme." (The First and Second Prayer Books of King Edward VI "Everyman's Library" p 393) - which is replicated in our 1662 book with somewhat more usual spelling. :-)
So the precise physical location of the risen Christ, or indeed of heaven itself, is really of no interest whatsoever to St Paul. He is far more interested in the way we interact in the day to day minutiae of our lives.
Of course we have this word "fornication" which crops up here and elsewhere, and I find it interesting that it often comes at the beginning of such lists. I am quite convinced that God is not the least bit interested in how we relate to one another in an intimate and loving way. God is much more concerned at how we relate to one another in a vicious and biting way. Indeed in the context I would say that what fornication for St Paul is, is explained in the words that follow - "impurity, passion, evil desire and greed" - all things which concern self aggrandisement at the expense of others. And of course, as I suggest is likely was true for the man who had large silos for his grain, this can be as much a religious attitude as a physical one.
If our Christianity is proclaimed in such a way as to deny salvation to others, of what earthly good are we to others? Who will benefit from all our religious exercises - precisely no one!
It is quite a remarkable statement that St Paul makes - that "Christ is all and in all". I wonder how literally some people who take the words of the Bible so literally explain these words?
If we don't actually believe that "Christ is all and in all", then it behoves us, if we are to be faithful to St Paul, to actually take a look and see - if nothing else - to prove him wrong. Here the words of the gospel from last Sunday will, I am sure, bear true: "So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened." (Luke 11.9-10)
I have no doubt whatsoever that St Paul is very right, and we will find the risen Christ wherever we take the effort to look.
Links to other sites on the Web:
About the author and links.
To a Lectionary Index of Archived Sermons.
To a Scriptural Index of Archived Sermons.
Back to a sermon for next Sunday.