Orientation: Life After Death Right Now

Reference: Colossians 3:1-17

Orientation literally means to face east. In liturgical churches, the altar always faces east (even when it doesn’t: “liturgical east” is a mystical concept defining “east” as wherever the altar is facing, but ideally, this is also geographical east). For the Christian, orientation is, as St. Paul puts it, to “set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God,” and to “set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Col. 3:1-2).

Liturgy literally means “the work of the people.” “Whatever you do, whether in word or in deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (3:17), says Paul.

“You were dead in your sins” but “God made you alive in Christ,” “having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God , who raised him from the dead” (2:12-13). Note that your death is in the past tense, as is your resurrection, achieved through baptism, not through physical death.

It is here the orientation of Christianity parts company from American religion. Those who regard their baptism as a symbolic witness to their conversion, and think they will experience resurrection in the future, after their physical death, when, they will tell you, their soul will spring from their lifeless body and ascend to heaven, need to read the Bible they carry around with them. Paul has news for them in his Letter to the Colossians. Baptism is not a symbol of our effort at all, but the action of the power of God. We were already dead in our sins, but in baptism, God has jolted us alive, raising us from death. Because it is God’s power of grace and life bestowed on us, our role is simply to receive it gratefully. The sooner we receive the sacramental power of grace, drown the sinful stain of the “old man” in us, the better. When we rise out of the baptismal waters, we are raised to new life in Christ. Eternity has arrived at that moment. God’s love indelibly stamps life on us, life in Christ.

Baptism also adopts you into the vast family of the Faithful, who have God as their Father, and therefore each other as brothers and sisters. It gains you entrance to the family table, the Eucharist, the thankful and joyful celebration of God’s chosen people. It incorporates you into the Body of Christ, the community of the Faithful with Christ as the Head. As one family, indeed one body, there is, of course, no division. The genetic image of God is stamped on all of us; Greek, Jew, barbarian, Scythian, circumcised or uncircumcised, slave or free (3:11). Sinful humans, oriented to death and destruction, seek to divide us by ethnicity, economic status, religious background, creating a god of exclusivity who reserves his image for a favored few. But that god, says Paul, is an idol, not the true God.

To be oriented in that direction leads to the practices that are oriented away from life in God: “sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed…anger, rage, malice, slander and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other” (3:5-9). These practices are idolatry. They also describe the lifestyle of some of our leaders rather precisely. Paul does not indicate these practices are all OK as long as you oppose abortion.

Instead, Paul tells us that, in baptism, “you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (3:10). When we, as Christians, orient to the “bright Morning Star” (Revelation 22:16), the “star in the east” (Matthew 2:2), the resulting lifestyle is clothed with “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with one another and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (3:12-14). Further, “let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body, you were called to peace” (3:15).

Thus, the ethics of Christianity arise from the baptismal waters. Baptism is the free gift of God’s unmerited grace. The obvious and appropriate response to such love is to orient to the ethic as modeled and taught by Jesus and clarified by Paul. The consequences of God’s love are not only thankfully received, but also passed on by us to others. In contrast, what David Brooks has denoted as a six decades-long idolatrous culture of the “worship of self” (in his book “The Second Mountain”), has marked American society and religion. It has meant that the Christian ethic is as counter-cultural today as it was in the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, it remains the consequence of receiving God’s grace for any who take their Christian faith seriously. In a context where the marks Paul ascribes to the “old man” permeate our culture and, indeed, much of American religion, the clear contrast he points out between the behavior of those dead in their sins and those responding to the consequences of grace in their lives remains relevant to contemporary life.

Thus, the Christian lives his or her liturgy. On Sunday, in Paul’s time and ours, we celebrate the day of Resurrection, Christ’s and consequently, ours. “Be thankful,” he says (the word in Greek is “eucharist”). “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God” (3:15-16). In other words, do the Sunday Eucharistic liturgy, pretty much as we still do it. And then, do your liturgy of word and deed throughout the week, as already quoted above in the definition of liturgy, continuing to give thanks (see 3:17) as your Eucharistic action lasts the week until you return again to the Sunday gathering anew in the next week. All of this is your reaction to the love of God bestowed upon you.

You are now oriented to baptized life in Christ, doing your liturgy with thanksgiving, living the Christian ethic, in contrast to those dead in their sins, regardless of their religious protestations.