“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 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.When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:1-4).
Some time ago, an acquaintance of mine came to a crisis in his life. Perhaps it was the kind of crisis that psychologists like to refer to these days as an identity crisis. He felt that he had to know what it was to be a real person, a real man. Some, perhaps most people, experience this crisis early in life, in adolescence, even though they don’t quite understand what’s happening to them.
But this friend was already pretty far along in his journey. He had been brought up in an atmosphere in which Christianity was simply taken for granted. He was married and was raising a family, and settled in his life work. But he had by chance been attracted by a group which for lack of a better term we can call a kind of “beatnik” group which advocated and practiced a life absolutely free from all structures of responsibility. And this group insisted that this kind of life represented the call of reality.
To become a real person, a real man, one has to break out of all the structures which merely carried one along, determining one’s life. One must declare one’s independence from all that and become real. I have thought a lot about this crisis in my friend’s life. Not just because it was his problem but because it is a problem which threatens all of us, a demand which all of us feel.
To become a real person: I think we will all certainly agree that is a desirable goal. We can recognize there is something legitimate in my friend’s quest. I suppose all of us at one time or another have felt that kind of longing. We live our lives, you know, and are sort of carried along by the structures of our society, home and family, church and school, and all the standards given by society – the rules of the game with which we are expected to comply. And we go along with the game until the moment of truth comes when we get sick and tired of it all and we are led to ask the question, “Why?” Why an empty mimicry of living up to other people’s expectations? And then we feel the tug, the demand for reality, the urge to kick over the traces and live our own life, a real life as a real person.
What shall we say to this? I think first of all we shall have to say that this desire for a real life is a necessary and good thing. If we never feel it I suspect that we will never come alive, and we spend our lives, whether it be in the ministry or elsewhere, mouthing second-hand slogans and echoing hand-me-down formulas.
But the question is, what is reality? And how does one find it? By breaking out of the structures one has inherited? How can we be sure that in so doing, we do not just sink into one level of falsity and unreality after another? Is there anything “out there” that is “real?” The question which my friend’s rebellion posed was this: was this identity crisis just a kind of attempt at self-sanctification in reverse? An attempt to make something real out of himself on his own? I think it was Freud who once said that man is a bottomless well – there is nothing there – ultimately, just one level of depth after another. And there’s no end to it.
We cannot “sanctify ourselves” either by being good or by being bad; by meekly submitting to the given structures or by revolting against them
It is in this light that I would like you to consider the words of our text today. The word of God warns us, I think, that in and of ourselves we are all, in like measure, false and unreal. This is part of what we mean when we say that all men alike are sinners. We cannot become real persons of ourselves. We cannot “sanctify ourselves” either by being good or by being bad; by meekly submitting to the given structures or by revolting against them. For reality, the gospel declares, is God’s gift. In Christ he has revealed what is to be true man, and in him he gives this to us as his gift.
It is a humbling thought and no doubt, even an offense. For I suspect we always like to believe we can make it on our own. But it is also a great gospel, for it means that we are not left in our darkness and aloneness to seek a reality which we could never find. He gives it to us as a pure gift. In Christ, Paul says, the whole fullness of the deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness of life in him. You were buried with him in baptism and you were raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.
You, who were dead in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him. He disarmed the principalities and powers and triumphed over them. And a little farther on, Paul says, “You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Fullness, truth, reality – all this God gives us as his gift in Christ.
I believe that this is the answer to my friend’s quest. It is the only answer strong enough to bear the burden of our search for reality. It tells of a God who has borne the burden of this search himself, a God who entered into my world, lived under the structures of its laws, and borne its rebellion, exposed it for what is and tells of a God who conquered. He does not call us merely to more of the same, the same old routine of mimicking what the world or society or whatever expects of us. He calls us, in effect, to join his rebellion – to battle against unreality and untruth wherever it may be found. In this, he gives us a real life. We have what we seek in him. Reality, real life, is his gift to us.