By Fr. Mark Perkins
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a three-part devotional series on incorporation and action — who we are in Christ, and what we do as Christians. In the first installment, Fr. Mark Perkins reflected on Christ’s invitation in John 1 to join him in the Father’s bosom. Here he considers how good works flow from ontology in Colossians. In the third and final part, Thomas Fickley reflects on what it means to be Christ in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “As Kingfishers Catch Fire.”
We previously considered Christ’s invitation to dwell with him in the bosom of the Father. Now we turn more fully to what this union means for life together as Christians. As we shall see, who we are in Christ defines what we do as Christians. Christian living flows from Christian being.
We concluded last time with the Eucharistic union promised by Jesus in John 6. That union bears fruit, as Jesus elaborates in John 15:
“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.” (15:4-5)
It is commonly noted that imperatives in St. Paul follow upon and flow from indicatives. That is to say, St. Paul first indicates who we are in Christ before identifying what we ought therefore to do as Christians. Jesus expresses this same logic in John 15: because we are branches grafted into the vine which is Jesus, we inevitably bear fruit.
St. Paul elaborates the same vision — by means of different images — in Colossians. At the heart of the letter lies St. Paul’s repeated affirmation that Christian life is absolutely complete in Christ, who is “the image of the invisible God” (1:15) in whom “dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily” (2:9). Yet, strangely, St. Paul also claims that his sufferings “fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church” (1:24; others translations have St. Paul claiming to “complete” [ESV] or “fill up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” [NRSV]). We must either conclude that St. Paul’s theology is irreconcilably incoherent — or that, somehow, what St. Paul suffers is not in addition to but rather is a constituent part of Christ’s work. (The latter option — participation — indicates the solution to the false Reformation-Era dichotomies of faith versus works and imputed versus imparted righteousness.)
“And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power: In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead. And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses…” (Col. 2:10-13).
We were once alive to sin and dead to Christ, a situation that our baptism precisely reversed. Now we are alive in Christ, and, precisely because of this, we are also “dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world” (2:20). As a result of this inverted situation, the entire purpose and trajectory of our lives must change:
“If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3:1-3)
This must be one of the greatest claims in all of Scripture: “your life is hid with Christ in God.” We dwell in Christ in the bosom of the Father. And because, in Christ, we are alive (to Christ) and dead (to sin), our lives must change. As we “seek those things which are above,” we live out, existentially and morally, what is already true ontologically.
St. Paul provides lists that illustrate specifically (though not comprehensively) what this looks like. We are dead to sin; we must therefore “mortify” — put to death — that which is earthly in us: “fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry… anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth” (3:5, 8).
As St. Paul continues, note his verb tenses:
“Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds. And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him: Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all.” (3:9-11)
We “put off the old man” and “have put on the new man” — both past tenses, referring back to our baptism (in 2:12). That new man “is renewed,” presently. (The ESV and NRSV render this as present continuous, “is being renewed,” which seems right). This renewal involves the breaking down of the false divisions and antagonisms of the world. The things that pit us against each other — the things that, apart from Christ, divide us one from another — these have absolutely no place in Christ, who “is all and in all.”
Having cast the old antagonisms aside, we replace them with life in Christ. “Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies...” (3:12). The ESV gives us “compassionate hearts” instead of “bowels of mercies,” which is not exactly wrong but can be misconstrued as a mere feeling of pity. Instead, St. Paul suggests that, at the core of our being as Christians, we must be merciful. (The verbs of putting off and putting on suggest garments, and so the NRSV has it, “Clothe yourselves with compassion.” While the KJV rendering mixes metaphors — how does one “put on” bowels, exactly? — it faithfully captures mercy’s centrality to Christian existence.)
That is the logic of the Lord’s Prayer (“forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”) and of the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt. 18:21-35), whose failure to pass on mercy disqualifies him from receiving mercy.
But, again, we must not reverse the order and suggest that our merciful actions are what make us Christians — instead, the Christian who is in Christ already is merciful at the core — only one must live it out. The entire, beautiful picture of Christian life which follows in Colossians all proceeds from and depends entirely upon the reality of our incorporation into Christ.
This does not, of course, make Christian living optional. It is, rather, a true expression of who we are, ontologically — and we must live this way. Otherwise we make our lives living contradictions of our baptism and work to shape ourselves into enemies of Christ.
I’ll give St. Paul’s apostolic injunctions the last word:
“Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye. And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to the which also ye are called in one body; and be ye thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. And whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him.” (Colossians 3:12-17)
Fr. Mark Perkins is Assistant Editor of Earth & Altar. He is also Assistant Curate at All Saints Anglican Church, Charlottesville and a full-time history teacher.