I found when sharing the gospel in Pakistan, many Hindus would tell me that they believed in Jesus as the incarnation of God, but only one among many. Their basic world view was the Hindu one, a world populated by hundreds of thousands of gods, and they found a place for Christ in that. On hearing about the resurrection they nodded and smiled. But what they understood was that Jesus had left one life and taken on a new incarnation in his resurrected body, just as every other Hindu does many times. They heard the Gospel, but interpreted it within a Hindu worldview.
In his letter to the Colossians, Paul seems to be addressing a group of Christians who are being influenced by belief systems other than the gospel. Specifically it seems that they had absorbed certain Jewish ideas about various spiritual powers to which people pay rather too much attention. You could say that belief in these powers was for some the “organising principle” of their lives and they fit what they heard about Christ into this worldview.
At a more basic level, millions of Christians today perhaps fit their relationship with Christ into the standards and values of the culture around them. This has been a constant temptation both for the Church as a whole and for individual Christians and groups of Christians. How do we live in an empire without being co-opted by it?
Paul is responding to a very similar situation when he writes:
So then, as you received Jesus as Lord and Christ, now live your lives in him, be rooted in him and built up on him, held firm by the faith you have been taught, and overflowing with thanksgiving. Make sure that no one captivates you with the empty lure of a “philosophy” of the kind that human beings hand on, based on the principles of this world and not on Christ (Col. 2:6-8).
In trying to witness to the Gospel in our own day, we may get a little nervous when we hear that we must be “not of this world”. Paul goes even further that that and says: Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth (3:2). This sounds, at first, far too other-worldly. But in the previous chapter Paul had been urging the Colossians not be seduced by people who hate the body. His argument so far is an affirmation of creation, so is he is not likely to go off in the opposite direction now. If God has been pleased through Christ to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven (1:20), is Paul now going to tell people to ignore all of those things that are visible? If Christ is seated at the right hand of God it means that ultimately he rules although that isn’t totally apparent yet. That’s the point of the Ascension. So “setting the mind on heaven” is not just a metaphor for something like having ‘spiritual’ thoughts. It is a way of getting people to think through – and live the consequences of Christ’s victory. In more modern terms it means to live the consequences of the belief that Christ is king.
The statement in 3:3-4: For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Paul tells the Colossians that they are dead to the empire, that what the empire offers simply doesn’t “do it” for them any more. What really gives them life is Christ, but that of course isn’t immediately visible to everyone. Whether it was the games and pageantry, the security of belonging to the greatest empire the world had ever known or the economic opportunities afforded by the empire (to some) none of those things is really a reason for living for the Christian. Christ is. For a person whose life is football or shopping or theatre, the meaning and purpose of their life is clear to everyone. For someone whose life is Christ that cannot be so clear, it is therefore hidden with Christ. Those who know Christ know that he is the true ruler of the world, but that is by no means clear to everyone. The statement has much the same meaning as Romans 6:11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
So to “seek the things that are above” means something like: “Allow your vision of life, your worldview, your most basic life orientation to be directed by Christ’s heavenly rule at the right hand of God….Seeking that which is above is a matter not of becoming heavenly minded, but of allowing the liberating rule of Christ to transform every dimension of your life.”
To keep our minds fixed on the things above means what we see is not what we get –there is much more than what we see although the economic powers that be certainly don’t want us to look for satisfaction in anything beyond this world. Paul is asking his Christians and us to see things which are just beyond the vision of normal sight.
Praying the Divine Office is a very practical way of keeping your mind fixed on the things of heaven, five times a day.
© Fr. John Hemer, used with permission.