It is possible to be so heavenly minded, you’re no earthly use. Do you know that expression? It refers to people who have their heads in the clouds, as it were – they like to look very pious and holy. They want people to notice that they are religious. There’s one example which Nicky Gumbel mentions – he wrote most of the Alpha course – & it concerns a woman who was so pious she used to pray before everything she ever did: before she got out of bed in the morning, she would pray about which side to get out. Before putting on her socks, she would pray about which colour to choose & so on.
It’s possible to be so heavenly-minded, you’re no earthly use. Because people like that are so wrapped up in their own piety, they don’t notice the rest of us suffering human beings around about them.
But Paul is speaking about a rather different kind of heavenly-mindedness here, v1: So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is. & what he’s saying is this: within you, you have an urge to do worldly, dark things – very human urges: v5: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry) & v8: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language. Those gossipy tongues… those critical comments about another’s behaviour… the anger we foment within us when we think that we are right & someone else has wronged us, or let us down. We all have these worldly urges within us; they are to be seen here in this church, and in most other churches too!
They are the works of the ego; they are earthly things, v5; the old self according to v8. & Paul’s saying: “You have these tendencies within you, but since you are in Christ, you have another set of urges & it’s that other set that you need to be expressing.
Some of you will know the play by George Bernard Shaw called Pygmalion, or the film version called “My Fair Lady”. In it, a girl from a poor and working-class background, called Eliza Doolittle, is trained by a teacher to speak & behave like an aristocrat. Or at least that’s what he tries to do. But again & again her working- class roots show through: she acts in a rude & clumsy way &, instead of saying something like “Oh, may I have a glass of water, please?” she says, “Ay mate, giz a glarss er water, wil yer?” Her old self keeps on popping up.
& that’s what Paul’s saying here: these Christians in Colosse have been baptised, the old self has died, they have been renewed, but again & again the old self keeps making itself known.
Someone will complain that this is very demanding; that it’s hard to be good. It is. Others will want excuse to excuse their selfishness or gossip on the grounds that “it’s only human nature”.
But what this word today is saying to us is that we have a spiritual nature & it’s that spiritual nature we need to nurture & encourage. At the end of Ch1 he’s told them that the new reality they were living in was “Christ in you, the hope of glory”. That’s the spiritual nature. So you need to shed everything that conflicts with or contradicts the Christ in you; it’s not about becoming so heavenly-minded you’re no earthly use – no, it’s about letting go of all those habits which damage or inhibit the spiritual nature, the Christ in you.
You maybe heard of the story of the native American boy, who was being nurtured by his grandfather. His grandfather explained to him: “Inside you there is a dark wolf & a light wolf. They are fighting for the right to control you.” & the boy asked, “Which one will win?” To which his grandfather replied: “The one you feed.”
When it comes to our nature, the battle between the very human & worldly nature on the one hand & the spiritual nature of the other, it’s the same: the one you feed will win out.
If you engage in gossip; if you criticise & reject; if you find fault in others again & again; then you feed the fallen human nature: you can see that in v8: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. It’s very tempting to gossip & criticise – you get together with your friends & they’re doing it, so you join in. Because most people abuse others behind their backs, it’s very tempting to just join in. That way, you feel like one of the gang.
But on the other hand, if you reflect, meditate & pray, you build the spiritual nature; if you share in fellowship with other Christians, you build the spiritual nature. If you set your mind on what is godly & true, v2, you build the human nature.
But as I said last week, this isn’t an individual thing; it’s something we do together. As a congregation, we’re called to live out what we have become in Christ – resurrection people, renewed in the image of God. We’re to love each other; serve one another; carry each other’s burdens; worship together & our focus should be on seeking to serve the kingdom of God. I’ll say it again: you cannot grow in faith; you cannot become a mature Christian unless you are an active member of a church fellowship. It’s here that we learn from each other, get support from each other and grow together.
There’s a story in which a black American has a strong urge to worship in a very nice church near his house, but the problem is, it’s a whites-only church – they still exist in some parts of the U.S. & of course some of you will have had experience of this. And each time he tries, he’s politely turned away. So he sets about praying about it & asking God that he would be let in: “Lord, make it possible for me to get admitted to that church! I’ve been trying to get into that church since I was a kid”, he prays. “It really hurts. Please make it possible for me to get in.”
He prays & he prays with no result until one day he hears a still, small voice, which he recognises as that of the Lord. “Don’t worry, Curtis,” says the voice, “I’ve been trying to get into that church for over 200 years! And they still won’t let me in!”
The apostle Paul knew it 2000 years ago and we need to learn it: when we gossip, we push God out of the church; when we criticise & complain, we feed the very human, worldly nature within us rather than the spiritual & the church suffers. Small-mindedness and pettiness damage church. On the other hand, churches grow when Christians grow; and Christians only grow when they feed the good wolf within, the light wolf, when they nurture the spiritual nature.
This week why don’t you ask yourself whether you are setting your mind on the things which are above or are your eyes focused firmly on the things of this earth? As we share together in Holy Communion, pray that the Holy Spirit might give you the strength to look up, to where your life is hidden with Christ in God and to feed the spiritual nature, especially when the very human nature within you is shouting loudest…
Finally, we may well ask: “How do we do this?” to which Paul has an answer in v9: you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self. When people were baptised, we believe, in those days, they took off their old, worldly clothes & put on a white robe. (I mentioned this a few weeks ago.) & the white robe symbolises purity, newness & the spiritual. So Paul’s saying: “You are wearing different clothes now; act in a way that is appropriate!”
We’ve been renewed, so we should live that renewed life. We’ve been given a spiritual nature, so we need to allow it to drive us, steer us & lead us. Each time you do something unbefitting, small or petty – & we all do things we regret now and again – each time that happens, say to yourself: “That’s not me; that’s the old me; note to self: don’t do that again… No need for guilt; just let it go.”
& when we all start doing that – when we ignore the very human & silly divisions between classes and castes, between Tamil & Sinhalese,between rich and poor – because, frankly, the idea that there’s any difference between us is just laughable – when we start seeing each other as brothers & sisters with no right to look down on others, still less judge them; when we start doing that as a fellowship of God’s people, then we’ll become the people God wants us to be.