How to live a beautiful life
Where do you find the highest, best thoughts? In books? In poetry? On Armadale Farm? On TV? In films? Here's a selection showing at The Vue in the past week. 12 Years a Slave, All is lost, Cuban Fury, Dallas Buyers Club, Endless Love, Frozen (Sing a long version), The Lego Movie, The Monuments Men, Mr Peabody & Sherman, Robocop, Tinker Bell and the Pirate Fairy, Walking with Dinosaurs, The Wolf of Wall Street. 12 Years a slave is a story of loss and redemption but it is clearly an exposure of the grievous and ungodly trade in human life that continued in parts of America and the dehumanising brutality of white slave owners towards fellow human beings made in God's image. The only light in the film is the resilience of Solomon Northup and the decency of the white Canadian Samuel Bass who began the process of liberation for him.
Where do you find the highest, best thoughts? In Robert Burns? In Shakespeare? In The Sunday Post? You know what I'm going to say next. In the Bible, of course. But not all of the Bible is noble and highly minded. Most of the Bible is about human weakness and failure. The Bible from first to last contrasts human frailty with the love and faithfulness of God. In the recent TV Series The Bible the emphasis was on the violence of each time and age in the Bible from beginning to end. In Colossians chapter 3 Paul reaches the highest and best of thoughts. These were not the products of his own human mind – they were the fruit and harvest and consequences of his living in Jesus Christ. Paul's understanding was not human imagination – it was from revelation; he was inspired by the Holy Spirit to reflect the life of heaven in his thinking and writing.
There is a wonderfully clear progression in Paul's thought in the passage from Colossians which we heard read to us earlier. It steers us towards the beautiful life. 'Set you hearts on things above where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things'. Think of all the things that occupy your mind every day and then rethink them with this teaching in mind. There are many distractions and many intentions which cannot conform to Paul's advice. Christians are meant to be high minded people. We not meant to be pompous or self-righteous or suffocatingly pious – but we are meant to think in the context of Christ's resurrection and so we spare ourselves the base opportunities of imagination and action that are all too available.
Paul lists all sorts of things that Christian people are not to be thinking about or doing. Popular culture today is built on most of them. TV and cinema entertainments disproportionately have them; what passes for comedy requires innuendo; advertising relies on debasing human sexuality. Scandal is the daily currency of the newspaper industry. Christians get a bad name for being against things and it is not a fair reflection of Jesus to be seen only to be criticising. But the truth is that we judge everything by Christ's standards even if we do not put them into practice. Arty people like to mock and satirise and abuse Christianity – but it is Christ they are demeaning.
There is an impression given that being a Christian means living a dull prosaic life without joy or risk. That is not true. Being a Christian means that you set a higher standard to try to achieve, it is a constant challenge to be a real Christian. Few of us get near to emulating Jesus Himself. We have seen Christianity challenged in many ways in our lifetimes, by atheists, by Muslims, by hedonists, by political demagogues and by false prophets of alternative lifestyles. Christianity will always be attacked because it is the highest possibility. Christianity is also a rebuke to human conduct and aspiration. Paul calls this idolatry – worshipping, valuing, living for something much less than the one and true living God, our Maker.
Paul lists all sorts of bad character practices which Christians are not supposed to be doing. But why did he feel the need to be writing this way? Is it possible that these newly converted Christians at Colossal were effing and blinding in Church meetings? When I came here I was told that there used to be a bit of that here at Board meetings? The persistent use of bad language indicates a disease of the soul. It shows that someone is not at peace. Bad language is more common place and I read recently that some schools do not now punish it since it is a mainstream form of speaking. For Paul and for us, this cannot be. Whatever the provocation, we can find Christ's peace working for us within ourselves.
'Anger, rage, malice, slander' – Paul teaches that these must have no place in Christian life. Malice is a strong word. It means, 'the desire to inflict injury, harm, or suffering on another, either because of a hostile impulse or out of deep-seated meanness'. No Christians should ever be guilty of malice. Yet in the middle and late middle ages the Catholic Church did have popes and cardinals and others who acted in this way - the Borgias and Cardinal Richelieu in France, for example. They had lost all connection with Jesus Christ though they ruled His Church on earth. As you know a lot of blood was shed to establish the Presbyterian Church in Scotland and many Covenanters were killed. But – they also killed crying “Jesus and no quarter” - that is, “Jesus and no mercy”. We cannot justify such killings. They are not owned by Jesus Christ.
In lesser ways, over the years I have encountered malice in my life as a Minister of the Church of Scotland. I have met people who hated me and brought harm to me in the Church. When I was in Kenya, teaching at St Paul's College, now University I wrote a paper for staff discussion on the practice of churches receiving money from politicians as if these monies were personal gifts when they were actually development monies. A South African member of staff who was also a member of the ANC and hated me for being white and British took my paper and showed it to Church leaders in Nairobi. They called me to a meeting to discipline me and a day later they ordered me to leave Kenya. I was told that my life was now in danger and I had to go. The students were angry at what had happened to me and threatened to go on strike. The College held a party for me before I left. Afterwards the story was publicised in the Christian Weekly magazine and Kenyan newspapers. The South African member of staff did not last long at St Paul's College. But he left in disgrace. He did show and effect malice towards me.
There is occasional malice found in congregations. There is malicious gossip. There is deliberate undermining, there is sabotage. We've had some of that in congregations in West Lothian in recent years. Most churches throughout the world have some rotten apples. Paul sees the danger in the Church at Colossae and he warns that this can be ruinous for Christ's Gospel, Christ's name and Christ's cause.
Christians are meant to reflect the life of our Creator. So, says Paul, 'there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all'. This is interesting; he mentions barbarians and Scythians. Scythians were a tribe who had conquered parts of Greece in the past; some still lived there by the time of Paul. They were regarded as the lowest of the low, violent, looked down upon as savages, bestial, cruel and murderous. Like the IRA at their worst, like Al Qaeda, like Boko Haram in Nigeria. The English regarded the warring Scottish clans as such and that is why after Culloden they were hunted and butchered. There must have been some Scythians in the Church at Colossae. That is testimony to the power of Jesus Christ to change lives. It is the equivalent of an Al Qaeda terrorist becoming a born again Christian today. That is not so far fetched. Some have done so - in Afghanistan. But the news never tells us about these things.
How to live a beautiful life. Paul progresses to the positive. Once the bad things are recognised, the space can be filled with good things. Paul teaches 'clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all in perfect unity'. These are clothes, garments, coverings, protections. They guard our spiritual immune system from harm. They guard our physical immune system from harm. Bad living weakens human beings mentally and physically. Good living is a warm blanket of comfort and peace. Paul tells us how to live a beautiful life. We can do it, not on our own, but in Jesus Christ our risen Lord and Saviour.
Finish, then, Thy new creation;
Pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see Thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in Thee;
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.