“Tomorrow’s another Day”

(Colossians 2.13-14)

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We heard last week a whopping passage from the Letter to the Colossians, and we met the challenge by focusing on one verse. I’d like to take the same approach this week, since the portion from chapter two we heard a moment ago is also both dense and theological. Whereas in last week’s reading from chapter 1 St Paul was considering Jesus Christ’s status—‘who’ he is; in today’s part of chapter 2 Paul describes Jesus’ ‘work’, that is, what he’s done as lord and saviour. In other words, Paul’s interest here is to describe Christ’s redemption of humankind.

So today I want to highlight verses 13 and 14 where Paul writes:

...when you were dead in trespasses

 and the un-circumcision of your flesh,

God made you alive with him, when he

forgave us all our trespasses, erasing

the record that stood against us with

its legal demands. He set this [record]

aside, nailing it to the cross.

To understand why St Paul describes what Jesus has done for us in his work of redemption and salvation like that we need to understand ourselves. We need to understand that we are moral creatures. We have a sense, however vague or sharp, of right and wrong, and we are gifted with a power of conscience. Our power of conscience means that each of us has a capacity to make reasoned judgments about right and wrong in our situation and experience.

This gift of conscience is both a burden and a joy depending on whether we approve of our own behaviour or regret it. We all know that to be burdened in conscience, to feel the ‘pangs of conscience’, is a distracting, depressing inner weight that slows us up and grinds us down; we know too the ‘lightness of being’ that comes from having a ‘clear conscience’, being in right relationship with our own self, with others, and of course with the Almighty.

Christians view one of the main problems in life as this: how do we move from a guilty conscience to a clear conscience? How do we get beyond the trap of a conscience that convicts us, holds us captive in the awareness of wrong-doing in thought, word and deed by omission and by transgression?  How, in other words, can we move from a conscience-burdened past to a conscience-cleaned future?

In verses 13 and 14 of Colossians’ second chapter Paul seems to me to address that issue.

He uses the image of something like an IOU, a sheet of paper on which are written all the things in our past lives by which we’ve ‘fallen short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3.23). Paul then declares that through Christ’s death on the cross God has erased from that sheet of paper all the claims against us.[1] ‘Erased’ is how we hear it in today’s English translation. But Paul’s word is in fact stronger than that: ‘wipe out’, ‘obliterate’, ‘nuke’, is more like what he says.

Think of this sheet of paper as your life in all its aspects where you’ve shut-out, ignored or discoloured the glory of God for which you’ve been created; think of the contents of the sheet of paper as the things which provoke within you the feeling of a ‘guilty conscience’, the things (as one of our Sunday collects puts it) ‘of which your conscience is afraid’. St Paul is saying that on account of the death of Jesus the debits on that sheet of paper are ‘erased’. If the image were a computer file, then the file would be deleted, off the screen!

Now, Christians have talked about that process of ‘redemption’ in various ways, and a lot of Christians like the image of the sheet of paper--the IOU, a moral balance-sheet, say—erased by Christ’s death. That’s one way of thinking in the New Testament, to be sure, but it can be misunderstood and mis-used.

In my reading, Paul’s point in these verses of Colossians is not to lay out a tight conceptual theory. His point is rather to help believers like us see that life as the pursuit of the moral ideal of Christ-likeness need not be burdened by the failures of the past—of a minute ago, of ten minutes ago, of a week ago, a month ago, a year or ten, twenty, thirty—however many—years ago.

St Paul’s real interest, as I see it, is on how Christians, men and women with consciences, can live without burdened con- sciences. He never argues that Christians will be wholly free from wrong-doing and the sense of guilt that rightly challenges and condemns our wrong-doing. He does, though, insist that there is a way through that. ‘God has erased the record’, he says (v. 14). That is God’s work in Christ toward and for moral humankind: God erases the record; God constantly erases the record. ‘Past, the Past no more be seen!’ as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins once wrote.

So to be a person of faith in Jesus as redeemer is to believe and trust that God has used Jesus’ life and death to erase whatever causes our consciences to be afraid.

To be a person of faith in Jesus also means offering up my burdens of conscience to God as a kind of partnership in Jesus’ own self-offering. It means handing over my guiltiness, big or small, momentary or chronic, to Jesus that they may be joined to his eternal sacrifice thereby drawing down upon me the knowledge of my heavenly Father’s love for me, my Father’s compassion for me, my Father’s affirmation of me. “You are my Son, my beloved, in whom I delight”.

Now, that sort of faith, that kind of trust, has one great aim: that we may ‘triumph’ over the experience of a guilty conscience. Paul’s message is that by handing over our burdens of conscience, our awareness and feeling of having done wrong against God, neighbour and self, we might live what Paul calls the ‘risen’ life. And ‘risen’ isn’t a bad way of putting it, since a characteristic of the awareness of forgiveness, of reconciliation, is in fact a sense of lightness of being, that we’re (as we sometimes put it) ‘on top of the world’. (I remember well that feeling after my first sacramental confession to a priest when I was a teenager. I left the church feeling just like that!)

I remember my spiritual father once telling me: “There’s never a confession of sin without an absolution”. In other words, God in Christ, through his cleansing Spirit ‘everywhere present’, forgives, deletes, erases. All we need to do is present before him whatever needs forgiving. The rest is God’s work, erasing (as Paul puts it), deleting (as we might say).

I think it was Scarlett O’Hara who, at the end of the American film classic ‘Gone with the Wind’, declares: “Tomorrow’s another day”. In a way, that’s just Paul’s point in these two verses of Colossians. The death and resurrection of Jesus means that we can always start again, the past has no ultimate hold over us. Such is the sweet power of the risen Christ.

Finally, be assured that St Paul knew in his own experience what he declared to the Christians in Colossians. He once wrote to his friends in Philippi,

I have not already reached the goal, but I

press on, I go forward, to make it my own

because Christ Jesus has made me his own...

I don’t suppose that I have made it my own;

but this one thing I do: I press ahead toward

the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of

God in Christ Jesus! (3.12-14).

May all of us be of the same mind.

Amen.

~

The Revd Dr Charles Miller, Team Rector

St Helen’s Church, Abingdon-on-Thames

July 28th 2019, the Sixth Sunday after Trinity