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March 23, 2008 | 6:30 p.m. Vespers | Easter Sunday

Come Up Higher

John H. Boyle
Parish Associate, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 118:1, 14–24
Colossians 3:1–17

It may be a product of where I am in my life’s journey, but lately I have been remembering with profound gratitude some of the many people who over the years have been my mentors, teachers, counselors, and guides, blessing me with their wisdom, care, confidence, and companionship. One of these was Dr. Clarence Cranford, for many years pastor of a Baptist church in Washington, D.C. Affectionately known as “Cranny,” he was an eloquent preacher, an astute scholar, and a sensitive and compassionate pastor and counselor. Many people in high levels of the federal government, in the academic community and business world, along with others from all walks of life, made up the large congregation of which he was pastor.

He had come to the seminary where I was a member of the faculty at the time, for a series of lectures and sermons on preaching and pastoral care. He was a man who combined in his personality both gentleness and strength. His preaching was couched in simple, though never simplistic, language laced with literary references, vivid metaphors, and subtle humor.

In one of his lectures he quoted a poem whose author is unknown to me, but whose words have remained fixed in my memory. Simply this:

I saw the mountains stand,
silent, wonderful, and grand.
Looking out across the land,
where the purple mists were falling,
from each distant dome and spire
I heard a low voice calling,
“Come up higher. Come up higher.”
From the low land and the mire,
from the plane of self-desire,
from the attitude of pelf
and the vain pursuit of self,
“Come up higher. Come up higher.”

I thought of those words, intoned by “Cranny” years ago in my hearing, as I reflected on the words of the Apostle Paul to the Christians in Colossae, in what is now the country of Turkey, about their having been raised with Christ, setting their minds not on things here on earth, but seeking the things that are above and about having their lives hidden or enclosed with Christ in God.

Paul was appealing to them to resist the inroads being made by what he believed was a pagan philosophy that was abroad in the land. It was one that thought of God, if it thought of God at all, as remote not near, that viewed the flesh and the material world as over against spirit and, as such, evil or at least less desirable, relevant, or important. It championed the observance of human traditions and certain rules and regulations aimed at the mortification of the human body and its passions. Ideally, according to this view, asceticism and self-denial were the ways by which one could hope to experience and access the presence of God, gain favor with God, and in a sense, become one’s own savior. I am reminded of one person I met years ago who found meaning in the many surgical operations she had undergone over a period of ten years by referring to the words in the ninth chapter of the New Testament book of Hebrews, “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” So once a year on her personal day of atonement, this guilt-ridden woman climbed up on the sacrificial altar, the operating table, and shed her blood in an effort to assuage her guilt and atone for her sins.

Paul insisted that such a philosophy was antithetical to the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, a repudiation of the incarnation by which the Word had become flesh in Christ and a direct disavowal of the resurrection of our Lord. Furthermore, he was convinced that these neophyte Colossian Christians could be easily seduced by this school of thought and that their faith and the emerging theology of the early church would be corrupted if that were to happen. So he pleaded with them to realign their minds and their attitude so that it reflected not only their belief in the resurrection of Jesus, but their participation in what that resurrection meant, namely, the transformation of their lives.

A careful reading of his words shows that for Paul that transformation was radical and far-reaching. It was a spiritual transformation that for Paul was ethical to the core. It had to do not merely with the ethics of personal piety, which, though important, could nevertheless mask far more fundamental ethical improprieties and sins. His was not a “get-your-mind-out-of-the-gutter” admonition, the kind anxious parents might say to their children when their hormones are raging. Some of that may be implied, of course, but for Paul the stakes were much higher.

What Paul was calling for in his version of “come up higher” involved the ethics of social justice, the ethics of intentional inclusivity, and the ethics of political integrity. For Paul, to be risen with Christ was to be dead to greed and selfishness, to prejudice and hatred, to revenge and exploitation, and to an attitude toward life and people that allows one to put on and embrace the trappings of personal piety so as to be free to treat others as things to be used rather than as persons to be respected.

To put my mind on the things that are above does not mean to fixate on the high and the mighty. It does not mean to get all preoccupied with the glitz and glitter of celebrity or obsessed with perfection and whether I am always doing the right thing. To do that is, interestingly and paradoxically, to be absorbed in myself. Not what the Apostle Paul had in mind. Personal piety is certainly a part of it. But one can be personally pious according to a certain set of moral standards and, at the same time, be either oblivious to or blatantly immoral with regard to other areas of ethical behavior and concern. For example, a person may be impeccable regarding the use of language and would never be caught dead using certain “dirty” words but would think nothing of labeling those he does not like, those different from him, with words that demean, degrade, and damage others.

Paul is calling us not so much to the realm of heaven, somewhere far removed from the dirt and grime and hurly-burly of earth and the world in which we live, but to a “heavenly-mindedness” rooted in the truth and life of Christ that transforms how we live in the midst of the dirt and grime and the hurly-burly of life.

Heavenly-mindedness is not absentmindedness that overlooks the social and economic conditions that make life oppressive and unbearable for so many in our society and in the world. Rather, it rolls up is sleeves and commits itself to work to make a difference in a world where on Sunday some talk about the lilies of the field and the gold-paved streets of heaven and on Monday morning are back at it, lying, cheating, stealing, and creating hell for people who are different because their names sound funny, their skin isn’t the right shade, and their love life is not what they are accustomed to.

Paul goes to some length in this third chapter of Colossians to explain what he means by setting our minds on the things that are above and not on the things of the earth. When I distill to their essence the lists of behaviors and attitudes Paul uses to illustrate the alternative mindsets, I realize that he is drawing upon his exposure to ancient Greek culture, which, in its timeless treasure of literature, rooted human tragedies in certain human passions and impulses gone out of control: love, lust, hate, power, and greed. Today’s media remind us that what is ancient is also current, as they parade before us the tragic collapse of otherwise well-respected financial institutions and the tragic “fall from grace” of otherwise well-regarded persons in positions of power.

There is nothing magical about being a Christian. We can’t assume that we are necessarily immune to such tragedies and to their tragic consequences. When Paul writes, “Set your minds,” he implies intentionality. He reminds us that we have a choice as to whether we come up higher, whether we commit ourselves to “heavenly-mindedness” and, ultimately, to the work of God’s kingdom to care for the creation and to care for one another. Yet even when in all sincerity we make the choice to do so, it is not always possible for us to sustain the choice with consistency. In other words, we are not going to do it perfectly. We will oscillate between setting our minds on the things of earth and those that are above.

Toward the end of 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby, at the age of forty-three, suffered a stroke that left him totally paralyzed, except for his ability to blink his left eye. He was a victim of what is known as locked-in syndrome. He used his left eye to blink at each letter of the alphabet he needed as they were read to him by someone. In this way he laboriously produced his best-seller book, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which was later made into a critically acclaimed movie with the same title. He died a few days after the book was published in 1997.

What you and I can hope for and strive for in our efforts to come up higher is to avoid getting locked-in to the things that may matter momentarily but do not matter ultimately and eternally. It’s the difference between whether we focus our lives on the goal of what we can get out of life and others or on the goal of what we can give of ourselves to life and to others.

In the fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians, this same Apostle Paul sets forth in a masterful way his argument for the resurrection of Jesus Christ and its implications for our lives. Toward the end of his discourse he declares, “Behold, I tell you a mystery.” It is almost as though he realizes that in spite of his efforts to explain it, there is something incomprehensible about the resurrection. It strains our credulity, our capacity to believe that something so impossible is possible.

We are not always comfortable with mystery, though we may be intrigued by it. We want to be in the know, beyond the shadow of a doubt. Peter Gomes of Harvard University asserts that we are more into mastery than we are mystery. To live with such mystery as that of the resurrection is to live in faith and by faith.

Paul ends his discussion of the resurrection with the words, “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” He seems to be saying that the way to live with this mystery is to do the work the mystery calls us to do, the work of the Lord, to care for the earth (of all things) and to care for one another.

In her fascinating book The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, historian and new president of Harvard University Drew Gilpin Faust recounts the story of Henry Ingersoll Bowditch, whose son Nat was killed in Virginia in 1863, after being left wounded on the battlefield. Nothing could comfort the grief-stricken father. He subsequently made a monument for his son and then crusaded for better ambulance service on the battlefield, something that might have saved his son’s life. As book reviewer Adam Gopnik put it, “There was no comfort to be found; but there was work to do, no pride in death, merely unending sorrow and the possibility, some distant day, of meaning” (“In the Mourning Store,” New Yorker, 21 January 2008).

There was work to do.

Christ is alive! If you have been raised with Christ, come up higher.

There is work to do, caring for the world and one another.

Let’s get to it.