Hidden With Christ in God
A Sermon on Colossians 3.1-11 & Luke 12.13-21 by Garry Deverell, 1 August 2004
Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God . . . Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).
In the last thirty years or so, this text has become quite a large problem for many Christians. For it appears to support what Manning Clark used to call the "wowserism" of the "life-deniers". Wowserism, in Clark's lexicon, refers to a deep suspicion of anything to do with human desire or passion. The son of a clergyman, Clark rejected the church in later life because he came to believe that Christianity was a religion which rejected the body and all that was earthly or material. Christianity, he said, was too much about words, heaven and spirit, and too little about art, the body and human longing.
Is Clark right? Is this what Christianity is like? Is that what Paul intended to say?
Well, before I press on, let it be known that I agree with Clark, and indeed with more recent critics like David Marr and David Tacey, in their assessment that there is a great deal of wowserism amongst Christians. I grew up amongst the wowsers, and I have no desire to live that way. I would argue, nevertheless, that there is a darker dimension to the human experience of earth and body and passion that Clark and his followers have, I think, failed to acknowledge or appreciate. With St. Paul, I contend that there is a fundamental problem with human desire, and it's this: that human beings would rather possess a whole heap of things, than allow God to possess them. That human beings would rather possess a whole heap of things, than allow God to possess them. The name given in Scripture for this tendency is "idolatry". Not a popular term these days, I grant you. Nevertheless, I happen to believe that idolatry is amongst the biggest problems that we have, and it is exactly the problem that Paul seeks to address in the passage we are reading today.
When Paul told the Colossians to set their minds on heavenly things rather than on earthly things, he wasn't talking about heaven and earth in the literal way we still, despite all our sophistication, tend to think of them. He was simply saying this: "That space in your home and heart where God would like to be is not simply vacant. You fill it up with other stuff. Stuff which has nothing to do with God or the practise of love, joy and peace; but is rather about your greed, your status in the world, and your desperate desire to avoid God's call on your life. That's idolatry, the desire that keeps you from God". Get it? The "earthly" is everything that pushes God out of the frame. The "heavenly" is where God has been evicted to.
Now, Jesus spoke a little more specifically. He told his disciples this: Be on guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of one's possessions. Now I reckon that sums up the problem pretty well. Because what gets between us and God is simply the desire for every bloody thing under the sun but God. More money. More street cred. More security. A bigger house. A surgically styled body. A bigger orgasm. A bigger credit account. Or whatever. Do you see where Jesus was heading with this? For Christ and for Christianity, there's actually nothing wrong with desire as such. What Christ objected too, however, was idolatry: the desire of shadows and chimeras rather that the real thing. For our every craving for every advertisable whatever is just that: a shadowy displacement of (or, in the language of psychoanalysis, fetishization) of that which we have lost or put aside as irrelevant. God. And if we keep on chasing shadows, says Jesus, one day we're going to wake up dead. "Dead" meaning that the joy has gone out of life. We'll have gained the world, maybe, but lost our souls in the process. "So it is with anyone who stores up wealth for themselves, but is not rich toward God'. So says Christ.
Now one fellow who understood all this particulary well, I think, was Meister Eckhart, a German theologian and priest who taught and wrote in the 14th century. Eckhart was certainly not a wowser. He spent a considerable percentage of his time speaking about the wonder of creation and of the human body. He celebrated human desire in fresh and disarming prose. For all this, however, Eckhart was not an innocent. He was far from naive. He understood that the body, and human emotion, and the beauty of the earth could only be celebrated with a true and holy passion if, if we had first disciplined ourselves to receive them as gifts from God rather than objects for our consumption, accumulation or possession.
At the heart of celebration, he said, is discipline. In order to experience God's love, joy and peace in life, you first need to detach yourself from every desire to consume, accumulate or possess. Yes 'detach'. That is Eckhart's equivalent for the Pauline phrase 'to die with Christ.' 'Detachment from created things', he said in a famous sermon, is the 'one thing necessary . . . detachment leads me to where I am receptive to nothing but God'. Eckhart, like Jesus and Paul, could see that our human hearts and minds are full to the brim with things. Things which are shadows, illusions, idols. Things to which we are willing to sell even our souls. Things which have nothing of God in them. At least, not in the way that we see or relate to them. And the only way to be rid of their poison, says the Master, is to detach. Let go. Cease to desire for them after the way of consumption, accumulation or possession. Gelassenheit was the word he used, 'let be'. Because if we could just . . . cease . . . be still . . . let things be . . . then suddenly we would see that God gives himself to us not as something to be possessed or owned, but rather as a gift which owns or possesses us. Only by allowing God to own and possess us will life become a passionate and joyous celebration, says Eckhart.
You see, the only wealth we need is God. I'm serious about that. The only 'thing' we need is not a thing at all. It is God. When we detach from things, God comes to fill or possess us by God's Spirit. And suddenly the world is full of life once more. Not the life which we put there ourselves, through complex psychological processes of greed and wish-fulfillment, but the life which God himself is as the gift within our hearts and our world. So when Paul says 'You have died with Christ and now your life is hidden with Christ in God' he wants us to know that we don't have to be capitalists anymore. We don't have to face our neighbour with envy or greed. We can allow them to be what they are: a gift of God to be celebrated and loved, not a symbol of desire all we don't have.
And so we come full circle. We are back to where we began. I do believe, you see, in an earthy, imminent, sensual spirituality. And I believe it is what God has in store for us. But none of this is magically ours. We are called to place ourselves in the way of God's grace by confessing, and dealing with, our attachment to things. Eckhart said that if we want God to write God's word and will in our hearts, then we have to become like empty tablets, ready for that writing to begin. God calls us to detach, to empty ourselves of the desire for things, to die with Christ, so that we may truly welcome the whole world, in all its splendour and pain, as God's gift of love, joy and peace in Christ. . . Now all of that is both very easy, and very difficult! We shall be exploring these things more in the weeks and months and years to come. But, for now, it is appropriate that Meister Eckhart should have the last word, a word of paradox which lies, I believe, at the crux of our faith:
Detachment is the best of all, for it purifies the soul and cleanses the conscience and enkindles the heart and awakens the spirit and stimulates our longings and shows us where God is and separates us from created things and unites us with God.