This morning we continue our journey through the letter to the Colossians. Up to this point, we have heard about Jesus Christ, we have heard about the grace of God. Today we will hear about what it means for us, for you, for the you are becoming.
We began this journey through Colossians several weeks ago. It is a short letter in the New Testament, perhaps written by Paul, to the most obscure town of any that received a letter from the Apostle’s hand. Across four chapters, it brings us to a deeper knowledge of the risen Jesus, and what mean Jesus means for your life.
Jesus, the one who is the image of the invisible God.
Jesus, through whom all things are made.
Jesus, the glue that holds the universe together.
Jesus, the man who born like us; like us was caught a cycles of poverty, violence, and oppression; like us, grieved the continual distortion of God’s good creation.
Jesus who was faithful to God even to death on a cross.
Jesus who was raised from the dead, and made Ruler over all things.
Jesus, whose grace is more than enough to set you free and bless you forever.
Now, in chapter three, we come to a turn. In each of Paul’s letters to the churches, he begins by working out the basics of the gospel. Then, at some point, he turns to say “so what?” What does all of this mean for your life? This turn is often known in biblical scholarship as Paul’s ethical instructions, but that says too little. His ethics are not simply tacked on to his theology as good advice. It is far more than that.
This is a pastor who is trying to work out the implications of the gospel for those who hear his letter. He is trying to answer the question for them, “so what?” The church is often accused of being irrelevant, of pronouncing pious platitudes and painting grand visions that have no relevance to the daily struggles of ordinary people and the real problems of our society and world.
Preachers often stand guilty of that accusation. If that is ever true of me, I want you to tell me. Because it is not true of the gospel. It is not true of the good news that Paul proclaims, and that we read each week together. This is a word with profound implications for our lives, and today Paul is turning his attention to us.
You and I are riddles, wrapped in mysteries, and shrouded in enigma. The human personality, what makes you “you,” is unendingly interesting. You, like me, probably received the advice along the way to just “be yourself.” Going off to camp for the first time, full of nerves, my Mom said, “Just be yourself.” That gave me a boost of confidence to go into an unknown place and meet new people.
Your child leaves for college, says goodbye for the last time, you say:, “You’ll do fine. Just work hard, and be yourself.” Several children of this church have gone off to college in recent weeks, and I would ask you to keep them and their parents in prayer.
When you are afraid of walking into a new situation, the advice to “just be yourself” is pretty good. It grounds us, gives us confidence and helps the calm our nerves. But at some point, at least for me, the advice has become problematic.
You tell me to be myself. But that assumes I know who I am! How can you be yourself if you are not sure who you are to begin with!? You and I are riddles, wrapped in mysteries, and shrouded in enigma. What makes you “you?”
When I was growing up, my parents loved personality tests. My dad was working on a doctorate that included the use of personality type indicators in Christian spirituality. My mom has a degree in early childhood development, and a natural interest in personality theory. So the topic of personality was always alive in our home, and their specialty was the Myers Briggs Type Indicator.
That’s the one with four letters. INFP, ESTJ, sixteen possible combinations. They would sit at the dinner table and talk about friends and people we knew, and guess at their personalities, trying to come up with some theory that would explain what made them tick: what made them “them.” And I have to confess I caught that bug. I am endlessly fascinated with what makes a person tick. It fascinates me to figure out what makes you “you” and me “me.” There so many theories. The modern and postmodern age is littered with them!
Perhaps Descartes had it right: “you think therefore you are.” You are the thinking animal.
Perhaps Marx got it right: You are your social and economic location; you are your color or culture or class.
Perhaps Freud has figured it out: you are the tension between your conscious mind and your subconscious desires.
Perhaps they are all wrong. Postmodern philosophers reject all of this. They say there is no “you” there at all. You are simply a construction. You construct yourself by some basic building blocks. Though they do not agree on what those blocks are.
Perhaps you are constructed by the things you buy — you are a constructed consumer.
Perhaps you are constructed by the things you experience and undergo. You are a sentient animal.
Or perhaps you are constructed by the stories you tell and and are told. You are a narrated animal.
Others might say you are constructed by the image you project. This is the performed self, and it is a theory that deep resonances in our own society. You perform yourself — you construct yourself — through clothing, through music, through images. This is perhaps what lies behind Snapchat, or Instagram, or Facebook. These apps are tools we use to project an image that creates a self. They enable you to make a “you.”
What makes you “you?” The writer of Colossians has his own take on who you and I are, and what makes you “you.” He begins chapter three saying, “Therefore if you were raised with Christ…” One sentence later, he writes, “You died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Died and Raised. Hidden with Christ. That is how Paul defines you.
He has spent now two chapters describing this Jesus who died and was raised to new life and new creation. Now, he wants to take that template. Of dying and rising, of new and eternal life, and say, “That is who you are too.” You have died. And you have been raised. What does he mean by this?
The death of Christ reveals our own dying ways. The ways that we use one another and hurt one another with greed, with violence, with oppression, with hatred, with bitterness; often with simple apathy and indifference. The death of Christ reveals the ways we are unloving toward one another, the ways we are unfaithful to God, and destructive of ourselves. In the death of Christ we have died, because Christ has revealed our dying ways.
But in the resurrection of Christ, we have been raised. The resurrection of Christ reveals the ways we can live, the ways we can flourish with one another. Through service and sacrifice, through generosity, through compassion, Christ reveals how we can flourish. Most especially through forgiveness, he reveals how we can live and flourish. The risen life of Christ puts into the world a new possibility. A possibility for living instead of dying, a possibility for flourishing instead of withering. The possibility is there because you have been raised with Christ and that risen life lives in you here and now.
You are a riddle, wrapped in mystery, clouded in an enigma. Paul agrees. But Paul wants us to see more clearly the nature of the mystery that is you.
Ultimately, the mystery of you is not the mystery of your mind or your deep compulsions;
the mystery of you is not the mystery of your social location;
the mystery of you is not the mystery of searching for yourself or finding your story.
The mystery of you is not the mystery of dancing before the world, of making us laugh or cry.
The mystery of you is not your performance for everyone else.
The mystery of you is that you are hidden with Christ in God.
The mystery of you is that you are still being revealed; because Christ is still being revealed in you. You are not a static being. You are a dynamic becoming. You are changing, growing into the image of the one who created you. That is the mysterious force that is working within you, if you will let it.
Paul describes this as a change in “mindset.” It’s a change in the practical way we think about ourselves and the world around us. The question is not “who are you?”, but “who are you becoming?” How is the love and grace of Christ working to bring out the you who is hidden in God? What habits or practices are being put away because they don’t fit this new you? What new habits and new practices are you discovering that fit the you you are becoming?
Next week we will spend more time on this, as we continue in chapter three. But here in these first few lines, Paul identifies habits and practices that no longer fit the you you are becoming. Moral corruption, lust, and greed. Treating people like objects that can be used for your own gain. This is not the you that is hidden in God. Malice and slander, seeking to hurt others out of revenge or in order to satisfy your own desires or build yourself up. That’s not you. At least that’s not the you you are becoming.The you you are becoming is holy mystery, being revealed as Christ is revealed in you.
When I was teaching speech communication to seminary students, I used to remind them of this verse. My job was to teach students how to read scripture and speak from the pulpit in a way that brought life to a words on the page: to turn ink into blood. In every class, one or two students would say, “I can’t do that. That’s not me. That’s not who I am.”
I would try to say, gently, something like this: “You don’t know who you are, yet. You are not a static being, you are a dynamic becoming. You are a work in progress. God is calling gifts and graces out of you that you have not yet imagined. And if you do not trust that is true… you will fail this course.”
Thank God for the “you” you are becoming, for the risen Christ who has the power to breathe true life into you.
As I close, I leave you with this, written by Parker Palmer in an article several years ago entitled, “Now I Become Myself.” He begins,
“What a long time it can take to become the person one has always been. How often in the process we mask ourselves in faces that are not our own. How much dissolving and shaking of ego we must endure before we discover our deep identity—the true self within every human being that is the seed of authentic vocation.”
Your true self, is raised with Christ, created in the image of God. Go, be the you you are becoming. Amen.
Rev. Patrick W. T. Johnson, Ph.D.
First Presbytearian Church
Asheville, North Carolina
August 14, 2016