Sermon: Have You Forgotten Who You Are?
I am a huge fan of the band, U2. I particularly love their classic 1987 album, The Joshua Tree. One of the iconic songs on that album is the fourth track, “Bullet the Blue Sky”. It features a famous spoken-word bridge that the band has recreated numerous times over the years. Recently, they reimagined it for their 2015 Innocence+Experience Tour. Over Larry Mullen Jr.’s heavy drumbeat, Adam Clayton’s thunderous bass riff, and the sound of guitarist, The Edge, putting a war through his amplifier, lead singer, Bono, begins to speak: “So this boy comes up to me, his face red like a rose on a thorn bush, like all the colors of a royal flush, a young man with a young man’s blush. And this boy, well this boy, he looked a whole lot like me. The boy looked just like me. And he stuck his face into my face and he asked me: ‘Have you forgotten who you are? Have you forgotten where you come from? You’re Irish, but here you are, all smiling and making out with the powerful like you’re really there for the powerless.’”
Have you forgotten who you are? Paul might not be writing to the Irish, but it seems the Colossians need to hear the same question. Epaphras, the pastor in Colossae, and Philemon, the church’s host, both good friends of Paul, have talked to him about the new church community they lead. Paul is excited about what God is doing in this young church, but he also has a concern. There are those outside of the church putting pressure on the congregation to turn to other ways of living because, well, Jesus certainly can’t be enough. While they have not caved in, Paul picks up his pen to write to them. He wants this small church to grow up in Christ so that they can endure the pressure they are facing.
No one agrees on what, exactly, the pressure on the Colossian church was. Paul does not waste his breath explaining it to the Colossians or to us. Yet throughout the letter, Paul is clear: “Do not let anyone force you to let go of Jesus and grab on to something else.” It would seem that Paul is especially concerned with a Jewish community opposing the church in Colossae. He spends his time in the letter stating explicitly or implicitly: “Don’t let anyone tell you that you aren’t the people of God. Don’t let anyone tell you to keep some days holy, and others not, such as the Sabbath. Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to be circumcised. Don’t let anyone tell you what you can and can’t eat. Don’t let anyone make you cling to Torah rather than Jesus.” Paul is describing very Jewish things. These are the same things the Jews believed marked them out from everyone else as the people of God.
People are telling the Colossian Christians: “This Jesus you talk about is all well and good, but we live in the real world. We live in a world of gods and evil powers and the oppressive Roman empire who have it out for us. This Jesus is nice, but if you want to really belong to the true God, there are some things you are going to have to do. If you want to survive out here, you need to circumcise yourselves. You need to watch what you eat. Make sure it’s strictly kosher. You need to keep the holy days and definitely never skip Sabbath! Stick to the Law and be one of us. Otherwise, we can’t promise you won’t fall to the demons around us.”
While no one is trying to convince us to live like the Jews, we have all heard similar things before. We have heard them in our pulpits and on our television sets. We have listened to sermons before and the preachers have told us: “We live in the real world. There are wicked Hollywood producers and corrupt politicians out there fighting for your soul. If you want to survive out here, if you want to belong to the true God, there are some things you’re going to have to do. There are some ‘right things’ you have to believe and others things you definitely cannot believe. You need to watch where you get your information. Make sure it’s strictly from the Bible. Be praying every minute of every day. And definitely, never skip Church! You’d better strictly obey the Ten Commandments. You’d better do these things if you want God’s love. It’s the only way to survive out here.”
All this is well and good, but we are tired and the Church is not the only thing demanding our attention. When we flip on the television, we see commercials saying, “This is a dog-eat-dog world out here, filled with the pressures of work, the responsibilities of school, the demands of a family, and the expectations of our neighbors. If you want to survive out here, you’d better find the right relationship to keep you from being miserable. You need to watch what you eat and get on a diet program. You need join the best gym. Here is the newest iPhone to keep you up with the times. And definitely, don’t skip the great vacation spots!”
C. S. Lewis provides a comical portrait that many of us can identify with, even if we would not admit it. In the final Narnia book, The Last Battle, the friends of Narnia make one last effort to try and return to the beloved land. Instead, they find themselves in a fatal train accident and awake in Aslan’s Country, their new home forever. But their friends in Aslan’s Country ask them where their sister, Susan, is. Her cousin, Eustace, replies, “Whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says, ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.’” His friend, Jill, then says, “Oh Susan! She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keep on being grown-up.”
Most of us chuckle, but if we are honest with ourselves, aren’t we more like Susan than Eustace or Jill? Our memories are short and our baptisms were long ago. The promises of the commercials and the demands of our Churches are more immediate. They seem to tell us the same thing: “If you want to survive out here, shape up! Get in this line! Watch out for those people’s muck so none of it gets on you. Work hard at the right thing, and maybe you’ll be all right.”
It is at this point that Paul looks at us and Susan and the Irish and the Colossians and he says, “Have you forgotten who you are? God has already planted you in Christ! God is growing you up in Jesus so that you are mature in His love. God is making your faith firm. You don’t have to work so hard to resist the powers of the world! God has secured you to Himself. The only thing left for you is to be thankful!
“Have you forgotten who you are? Everything that God is, everything that it means to be God, lives in Jesus, in the flesh! And you are in Him! God has given all of Himself to you. You don’t have to keep special days and be circumcised and keep the right diet. You don’t have to worry about being the people of God and keeping the Law. Jesus has already given you Himself and he is in charge. No other gods, no other rulers, no other authorities, no other laws have power over you. Jesus rules over them. No one has the power to pull you away from him. All these things pulling on you, Jesus tells them what to do. You don’t have to listen to them! They aren’t in charge!
“Have you forgotten who you are? You are already part of the people of God! God has already circumcised you. He has already cleansed your hearts and taken off all that is dirty and sinful in you. Jesus died to deal with your brokenness. Jesus bore the thrash of the whip, the sting of the thorns, and the pounding of the nails. Jesus tore off all His flesh and died on your behalf. All that is broken inside of you died with Him. He removed everything this world can claim. The powers of this world have no right to you. You have died to them with Jesus. And now you are part of God’s family. God has claimed you as His own and nothing else can rival His claim.
“Have you forgotten who you are? You’re baptized! God has buried the person you used to be with Jesus. God has done away with your sin forever. He has raised you to new life. He has shown you that He is the kind of God that raises the dead. He has made you alive to His raising-the-dead power. He has made you alive in the kingdom over all kingdoms. He has connected you to the love of the risen Jesus by faith in baptism!”
This was clear to me when I recently visited a church in Grand Rapids. Just like the church I serve at in Philly, this church pours a pitcher of water into the baptismal font at the start of service. But they do something I have never seen before. The pastor calls up several individuals on the anniversaries of their baptism. The pastor looks at these individuals, who have many years between them and their baptism, and he proceeds to dip his hand into the baptismal water and draw a cross on each of their foreheads. He then says, “Remember your baptism. This is who you are, a beloved child of God.”
Have you forgotten who you are? You are a beloved child of God. The great 16th-century Reformer, John Calvin said, “Those who possess Christ have God truly present, and enjoy Him wholly”. In baptism, God has claimed you as His own and given you everything. He has given you Himself.
For some of us, it is easy to remember our baptism. It happened just recently and is fresh in our memories. God has claimed you as His own and you know it. For some, our baptisms are long ago. We can remember it if we work at it. God has claimed you as His own and His promises are far more certain than our memories. For others, including myself, we were baptized as children. We cannot remember, no matter how hard we try. God has claimed you as His own before you could even begin to remember anything else. And then for others, you have not yet been baptized. You have not yet stepped into this reality. God makes the same offer to you. He has already declared His love for you in the death and resurrection of Jesus before you were able to recognize it.
How does God’s love change your life? None of the pressures in your life have any power over you. Jesus has conquered all. God has made them His tools to show His love for the world. He uses families to show His intimate love. He uses your neighborhood to bring peace and justice to the world. He uses your work to add value and meaning to everyone’s daily lives. He uses your Church to put His roots down in our towns. He shows us His plan for the world in your schoolwork. He speaks His love to you and to me in Scripture and in prayer.
Each and every day of your life, remember your baptism. This is who you are, a beloved child of God.