My sermon from Colossians 2: 8-15, at the Lipscomb University Preaching Conference
See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ. When you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.
See to it that no one takes you captive.
A man on death row, behind bars, in chains, facing death by lions, or the sword, or crucifixion, dares to write about captivity and death.
It’s audacious. It’s brash. It’ ironic. It’s gutsy.
I think what we have here is a clear-cut case of chutzpah.
Paul wants believers to remember, as he does, that it’s not the principalities or rulers or elemental spirits who rule in any form of fullness. It’s not chains or swords that have power. They have been dis-armed. death has been defused.
So, says Paul in this passage, remember what it really means to be dead and what it really means to be alive.
When I think about death and life, I think of what my Ugandan friends taught me.
When we lived in Uganda, I often watched my husband assist in digging graves. It’s what men do when there’s a funeral. Since we were there at the height of the AIDS crisis, we were at funerals almost every week. At burials, men take turns shoveling and dig a grave in the ground, about 8 feet long and 5 feet wide and 6 feet deep, for an adult grave. Ugandans personally prepare the bodies of their loved ones for burial, men cleaning and dressing the men’s dead bodies and women cleaning and dressing the women’s and children’s bodies. They would never dream of hiring strangers for such an intimate occasion. And, around these graves, they don’t hold back emotionally when they cry. Sometimes you can hear a woman wailing a half a mile away as she makes her way to the funeral.
All of this takes place on the family homestead. Ugandans place graves in their backyards instead of in public places. They know what it means, not just to visit a cemetery on Memorial Day but to dwell bodily in places of death.
I learned a lot about healthy grieving from my Ugandan friends. But that doesn’t mean everything or anything is beautiful around those graves. Cotton is placed in the nostrils to keep bodily fluids from coming out. Bodies have to be buried quickly because of the heat and lack of refrigeration. No one says at a Ugandan funeral, “Doesn’t she look good.” Death is not beautiful. The wailing & crying can be chaotic as the rulers and authorities create a culture of fear and suspicion. Fear of curses and spirits. Fear of one another. So, sometimes people cry louder so others won’t think they were involved in the cause of death, that they weren’t in cahoots with spirits or curse. So, while there’s a great amount to learn from my friends when it comes to death, there’s no doubt death has a hold in imaginative ways among them.
So, we learned about death in Uganda, even when we didn’t want to. But we also learned about life. And in the developing world, you can’t think about life without thinking about water.
The Soga region, where we lived was almost completely surrounded by water. There’s Lake Victoria, the second largest freshwater lake in the world, next to our Lake Superior. The Nile River flows out of the lake, heading north up the continent. And there’s Lake Kyoga and streams and tributaries. Winston Churchill didn’t call Uganda the “pearl of Africa” for nothing. It’s a fertile country with a great amount of fresh water.
It’s just the perfect topography for Church of Christ missionaries. Lots of water for full-immersion baptism.
In our years in Uganda, we saw baptisms in the Nile, in lakes, in streams and big mud puddles in rainy season. But there are a few village congregations located at least 20 miles from bodies of water. They have access to wells, but not to full-immersion size bodies of water, and that created a conundrum.
With the centrality of full-immersion baptism for Churches of Christ, we were obviously invested in what church leaders would discern about this central practice when there was no baptistry available.
Would they sprinkle? Would they wait for rainy season mud puddles or trips to the lake? Certainly, many Christian groups around the world have made those kinds of decisions about baptism. The first time we encountered the dilemma, in Bunaibamba village, it was interesting as we studied and discussed the situation and then waited to learn what local leaders would decide.
And after prayer and communal discernment, Ugandan church leaders came up with a solution we never could have imagined.
They decided that when the need for a baptism arose, they would dig a hole in the ground. It was a grave: 8 feet long, 5 feet wide, about 3 feet deep. They placed a plastic tarp in the hole, filled it with water brought to the baptism site by church members balancing pots of water carefully on their heads or in plastic jugs tied on the back of a bicycle. Everyone contributed water to the grave, and the confessing Christian was buried with CHRIST in baptism and raised with him through faith in God’s power. In graves, they brazenly proclaimed JESUS as Lord over every ruler and authority in this universe, especially death. Instead of mourning and crying, these graves were surrounded by dancing and singing and clapping.
Even though my own baptism was over 30 years ago, I’m still learning more about it. I love the book of Colossians because it celebrates our joy in the ongoing, never-ending, discovery of treasures in CHRIST. When troubled couples go to marriage counseling, they are encouraged to remember what it was like when they first fell in love, to recall that sense of wonder they had in each other. They remember those honeymoon days when they argued back and forth “I love you more.” “No, I love you more.”
There’s something of that experience in Colossians. It’s this glimpse into the sense of wonder inherent in new faith. Paul is eager for the journey of young CHRIST-followers, and he encourages them to treasure the gospel.
Colossians reminds us that that baptism is not over in one big splash. It’s ongoing, more like standing at the overlook of Niagara Falls, overwhelmed with the reality that the torrent of water never, never, never stops. The reality of LIFE in CHRIST is an ongoing experience of heaven breaking in, but not in a trickle, in a torrent that will never stop.
Sometimes it helps to go back to the beginning and recall what baptism means, and this is what Christians believe about baptism:
Baptism symbolizes dying with CHRIST.
In Colossians Remixed, Walsh and Kessmat point out that human beings have a problem – profound sinfulness marked especially by a desire to elevate oneself and exclude others.
I think that’s a legit definition of sin: elevating self.
At the heart of the human problem, according to Christian belief, is the need to die to sin, die to self.
So, while our every sinful instinct is to elevate ourselves through our own power and strength, Christians submit to being lowered, de-elevated, if you will, under water, vulnerable in thin, air-pocket-rendering, baptismal clothes, holding our noses, completely at the mercy of another person. And it is in that symbolic submission to God’s way, and in giving up our own way that we are mysteriously raised to LIFE, LIFE that embraces others- and all God’s creation – with self-less love.
Sometimes when I’m writing sermons, I have a silly habit that you cannot see when I’m talking. I personify words, so ALIVE and LIFE and CHRIST get all capital letters. They own the page.
But death, death is all lower case letters.
It’s a defeated word.
It can’t even start a sentence.
Because that’s what happened on the cross.
JESUS put death in its place. And Christians rightly want to identify with that moment in baptism, with God’s triumph over death.
But, even after baptism, death relentlessly seeks to control us, to reclaim that capital D. Even after baptism, death obstinately wants to start all our sentences.
Oh, death is imaginative. And death is not stuck back in ancient beliefs and philosophies about elemental spirits. And death is not stuck in cultures like Uganda with fear of spirits and sorcery. death finds sneaky ways into the rulers and powers and elemental spirits of our culture.
Think about it: Consumerism is death’s resource. A measly human tradition, consumerism is all about the elevation of self.* Advertising tells us that products are indispensable for constructing our image. It’s all crap. death is a liar, making us into homogenous communities with the same clothes and the same glasses and same phones and same cars.
death has other imaginative resources. It seeks to bind us again through social games that appear alluring at first but it’s empty deceit. Societal games end in factions and cliques and circles of exclusion.* Exclusion is about the self and ultimately it ends in violence and death.
And it’s death’s resource, death’s ploy to take healthy competition and the gifts God gave us for the good of others and twist it, contorting us so that we are competitive at the expense of others. So that we are more concerned about earthly rule and authority than we are about God’s power.
Oh, death has imagination. death is devious and resourceful and inventive. death can take hold of a good thing like relationships and sex and food and wine – and squeeze every last breath out of it.
But Christians, as nonconformists to this world, rebelliously take a counter-cultural stance. We stand in watery graves and submit to the claim of the Christian faith, that sin and death were nailed to the cross of Christ, and we’ve been set free.
And even though we live in the presence of death, knowing it’s in our very backyards, we have been taken captive by a different philosophy.
Our minds are set on the time when LIFE with all caps will utterly destroy death, every last lower case letter of its entire existence.
Grace be with you.
Martin, Ralph. Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon: Interpretation Commentary Series. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991.
*Walsh, Brian and Keesmaat, Sylvia. Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004.
Wright, N.T. Colossians and Philemon: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1986.