Often the most powerfully subversive things are those which look very similar to what they are challenging. I am a great lover of Renaissance art (I studied it many years ago) and Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic ‘Last Supper’ is a great example of this. All the traditional features are there: the long table, the twelve apostles seated around Jesus, the bread and wine centre stage, and so on. But what made this picture so influential – and it became legendary almost as soon as it was finished, even in a pre-modern age without the sort of press coverage it would get now – is what Leonardo did to make it different. He changed the moment depicted from ‘do this in remembrance of me’ to ‘one of you will betray me.’ He changed the composition from a flat table to a long room in perfect perspective, and he replaced the usual serenity of the disciples with shock and horror. It is one of the greatest paintings of all time for good reason.
St Paul does the same today. Colossians chapter 3 – especially verses 1-17 – is one of the most famous in the New Testament – and again, it’s for good reason. It begins today with Paul at his most surprisingly subversive; just like Leonardo he appears to fit the normal religious culture of his time – but instead he radically subverts it.
As we’ve observed before, the dominant Greek religious culture valued the spiritual world over the material, and relied heavily on hidden knowledge revealed to the discerning spiritual seeker. At face value, this is also Paul’s starting point: (v2) ‘Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.’ Similarly he also talks of being hidden – but, as he’s been arguing brilliantly in chapter 2, the traditional religious culture has been looking for hidden treasure in completely the wrong place. Rather than finding new secrets, for a follower of Christ our lives are already ‘hidden with Christ’ (v3). We don’t need to hide anywhere else!
And instead of accessing ‘things above’ with rituals, strange diets and secret knowledge, we do this simply by setting our hearts and minds (note: heart and mind – will and intellect) on these realities. This is because Christ already dwells in us: we have died to our old lives (v3) and have been raised with Christ (v1). Again, note the past tense: not ‘will be raised’ if we do this or that or the other, but ‘have been raised’. It is a done deal, a spiritual reality. We don’t need to add to it, just go deeper into it!
So, just as we wondered if Paul was back-tracking on everything he’d said last week, we find he’s actually reinforced it. The only ‘hidden’ thing we need is to trust that we are (eternally) hidden with Christ, our very life and future hope. What marvellous news this is! May God grant us grace to set our hearts and minds on this awesome reality, and find our life today permeated by these glorious ‘things above’. Amen.