“Things That Are Above”: A Down-to-Earth Theology"Dr. Russ Dean Colossians 3:1-11. Year: C – The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost.
He was called St. Alypius. He lived in the sixth century in Paphligonia, a territory now occupied by the modern state of Turkey. His country must have been beautiful. It was a mountainous region that ran along the coast. And what a view he must have enjoyed, from the top of that stone pillar which was his home.
I can imagine that as he stood there, he was the first each day to view the sparkle of sunrise on the waters of the Black Sea. That when it stormed, his eyes were the first to detect the formation of clouds on the horizon. From there he could see every white-capped step as the storm marched across those waters. No doubt, from atop his stone perch, the view of sunset was spectacular.
But I did say that St. Alypius lived on the top of this pillar, so maybe he wasn’t as interested in the site seeing as you and I might be if we traveled to Turkey! St. Alypius, you see, was known as a Stylite. That is, he was a monk whose life had been dedicated to the extreme ascetic practice of living on a pillar. (I’m not making this up!)
The “Pillar Saints,” as they are called, were founded in the fifth century by St. Simeon, who lived in the area of Syria and Palestine. St. Simeon apparently developed this practice in a monastic “one-up-man ship” which resulted in increasingly rigorous forms of self-mortification by those who had given their lives to the Monastery. For nearly 1,000 years, Stylites practiced their strange existence, throughout the lands of the East.
It is said that St. Alypius stood for 53 years on his pillar before his condition deteriorated. (Maybe he suffered from fallen arches!) Tradition has it that he spent the remaining fourteen years of his life reclining on his side, yet still on his post. (“Stylites (Pillar Saints),” by Herbert Thurston. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XIV, Online Edition Copyright © 1999 by Kevin Knight. www.newadvent.org/cathen/14317b.htm.)
Monastic history is replete with examples, as strange as that of St. Alypius, of men and women who gave their lives to the denial of the body and its comfort, in order to “set [their] minds on things that [were] above” (Col. 3:2). I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I want to see the things that are “above” quite that badly!
The Apostle Paul, or perhaps one of his disciples, wrote to the young church at Colossae, in part, to oppose a “philosophy” which had made its way into that congregation (Col. 2.8). This philosophy advocated a certain dedication to the “elemental spirits” (Col. 2:8) as well as to numerous ascetic practices (Col. 2:18, 21-23).
The word “asceticism” derives from the Greek, “askesis,” which refers to athletic training. Athletes train with particular exercises, but the training itself is not the goal. In the same way, “ascetical practices were intended to serve watchfulness, to clear away distractions” (Michael Birkel, Earlham College. – (www.earlham.edu/~birkemi/birkel_2.html) emphases added).
Extreme examples of ascetic practice indicate that some have taken their practice a bit too far. The means has become the end. The true goal has been lost for the sake of keeping the discipline.
In his letter, the writer warns against such practices: “Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking…” (Col. 2.18). Instead, the writer insists, “Set your mind on things that are above…” (Col. 3.1).
In the cosmology (world view) of this philosophy, there was a clean distinction between the world “above” and the world “below.” Like many dualistic philosophies, this kind of religious thinking ordered its adherents to deny the body, to put aside everything of this world, to transcend this world by gaining a knowledge or vision of the world of the spirit.
This dualism is as old as Plato and as current as many New Age philosophies, alive in our culture today. Along the way the “Gnosticism” of the first century, the “Transcendentalism” of Emerson and Thoreau, and the “Transcendental Meditation” of recent decades have emphasized the separation of the worlds of body and spirit, mind and matter, heaven and earth. And on a cursory reading, the advice to the Colossians might sound an echo of this school of thought, “Set your mind on things that are above, not on things that are on earth…” (Col. 3.2).
But the New Testament makes clear its opposition to dualism. The letter to the Colossians offers one of the strongest affirmations of the Lordship of Christ in all of the scripture (The Oxford Annotated Bible, NRSV, p.285.), yet it affirms as an integral part of his Lordship that he is the “firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1.15). In Christ, “God was pleased to reconcile… all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Col. 1.20).
The New Testament makes it clear that Jesus did not just “seem human,” but that his work of redemption and reconciliation is relevant precisely because he was fully human. (“Docetism,” from the Greek word “to seem,” was rejected in the early centuries as heresy for teaching that Jesus did just “seem human.”) The blood of his cross identifies his full humanity because it makes explicit his death (spiritual beings do not experience death).
In addition, it stresses the very earthly reach of God’s work of redemption. God works in and through the very earthly, very human experiences of pain and death. Both of these affirmations would have been whole-heartedly rejected by a dualistic philosophy.
Well, our cosmology has changed. We no longer view the world as a three-tiered universe: with heaven “above,” hell “below,” and earth caught in between. The ever-expanding limits of the living universe and the microscopic discoveries of “inner space” evidence a world that is far more complex than the physical world envisioned by the pre-scientific Colossians. Yet I wonder if our theology has changed much?
The “up” and “down” of heaven and hell are still very much a part of the Church’s language, aren’t they? Do you still think of God as “up there”? And though Jesus instructed his disciples that the “Kingdom of God” was not to be found out there, somewhere but “in your midst” (Luke 17.20-21), we still act as if we are alone in the universe.
We pray for God to “intervene” as if God were the one perched on some Heavenly pillar…. “Come from your world, into ours, and do something!” When we pray in such a way, I fear that we reveal a mistrust of two of our central tenets of faith: the Incarnation revealed Jesus Christ as Emanuel, “God With Us;” and Pentecost made it clear that though Jesus was no longer in our presence, the Spirit of God would never be farther than a breath away.
It doesn’t really matter whether we stand on a Pillar in order to “set our minds on things that are above,” or whether we refuse to remove God from such a heavenly height, the disappointing outcome will be the same–we will miss God in this “land of the living” (Psalm 27.13). And in real, earthly, practical, existential terms, it is only here that we can meet God. “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” (Psalm 24.1).
In writing to the Colossians, this heaven-to-earth gap is bridged in two ways. The writer begins this section in the indicative mood. His language reflects the affirmation that our death and resurrection with Christ has already been accomplished. Whatever chasm is envisioned between our life and Christ’s life has been bridged by our baptism. We have died. And we have been raised in Christ’s resurrection, even now. This is what Paul means, elsewhere, when he says we are “in Christ.” Heaven has been brought to earth.
But the writer moves on to a second emphasis, this one in the imperative. “How do we ‘set our minds on things above’?” By living on a pillar? By practicing some unearthly form of silence or solitude or celibacy? Not necessarily. The only way to “set your mind on the things that are above” is to have your feet well-grounded in the dust of the earth. By being fully human. By living in the here and now. By experiencing the fullness of life and relationship that God desires for all humanity.
When we rid ourselves of “sexual immorality,” for example, we don’t become less human, or experience less of the “good life.” Quite the opposite. A life of appropriate sexuality is not a life free from pleasure, but a life that has been freed to know the fullness of sexuality, because it is experienced through mutual love, commitment, self-giving.
A life free from “greed” does not become an impoverished existence, but a humanity that is grounded in the rich soil of good living. Greed is selfish and isolating. Real life comes through dynamic relationships. Through sharing, fellowship, exchange.
The entire list of ethical imperatives (“rid yourselves of: anger, rage, malice, slander, filthy language, impurity, lust, evil desires…”) is given as a means of making us, precisely, more earthly, more human, and not less. And by becoming fully human we come to know the life Christ lived. The life God seeks to live in each of us.
I love to observe the way popular wisdom and religious wisdom get all mixed up. We can’t keep “what the Bible says” and what “they say” separate. How many times have I been asked something like, “Where in the Bible does it say, ‘A penny saved is a penny earned’? I know it’s in there!”
Heaven, I believe, is one of those frequently misunderstood concepts. What does the Bible say about our life with God after this one? That we will sit “up there” on clouds, playing our harps for the next million years. Hardly. In that beautiful new world pictured in John’s Revelation, the new Jerusalem itself descends from “heaven” to the earth, where God will live in the midst of the people (cf. Revelation 21-22). It’s life in the big city, forever!
If heaven does, in fact, look a lot like earth, maybe God is trying to tell us that life here is not all that different from life there. So come down from your Pillars, put your feet on the ground. No God has ever been so down-to-earth!
From dust we have come. From dust we shall return. Blessed be the name of the Lord! Amen!
About the author:
Dr. Russ Dean, Co-Pastor, Park Road Baptist Church, Charlotte, NC. is a native Clinton, SC. He is a graduate of Clinton High School, Furman University, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and he earned the Doctor of Ministry degree from the Beeson Divinity School of Samford University.
After serving in associate roles at First Baptist, Clemson, SC and Mountain Brook Baptist in Birmingham, AL, Russ and his wife, Amy Jacks Dean, became the Co-Pastors of the Park Road Baptist Church in Charlotte, NC, in 2000. Together, they share all of the duties of the pastoral responsibilities.
Russ is a regular, contributing editor for “Baptist News Global” and for “The Clinton Chronicle,” and he maintains a blog through his church’s website, offering commentary on theological and current issues. His upcoming book, “Finding a New Way Home: The Unlikely Path of a Reluctant Baptist Renegade” will be published by Nurturing Faith.
Russ has been actively involved in ecumenical and interfaith work. He has served on the Governing Board of the North Carolina Council of Churches and served two terms, including two years as the president, of Mecklenburg Ministries. In 2013 he was recognized by Mecklenburg Ministries, sharing the Bridge-Builder Award with Dr. Rodney Sadler for their efforts in race relations.
He currently serves as the President of the board of the Counseling Center at Charlotte and as Vice President of the board of the Educational Center. He has served as co-chair of the Racial and Economic Justice sub-committee of Charlotte’s Clergy Coalition for Social Justice.
Russ and Amy have two boys, Jackson and Bennett, and their favorite past times involve watching their boys on a baseball field or a concert hall. When he is not with his sons or in the office Russ enjoys slalom and barefoot water skiing, woodworking, camping, and playing and writing music.
Scripture and Music:
Psalm 107:1-9, 43
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23
Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah
Sing Praise to God Who Reigns Above
Now Thank We All Our God
There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy
We Know That Christ Is Raised
Many Gifts, One Spirit (Allen Pote)
Arise, Your Light Has Come (David Danner)
Charity and Love (Daniel Kallman)
Psalm 107 (Robert Clatterbuck)
Now Thank We All Our God (J.S. Bach)
Many Gifts, One Spirit
For Those Tears I Died
Consecration (John Ness Beck)