We, as followers of Christ, have a way of storying ourselves to others in order to describe who we are. We story ourselves in this way: We are broken, flawed, imperfect, on a journey.
Even our cultural icons who are not following Christ story themselves this way as well. Angelina Jolie recently was quoted in an interview in the the NY Times as saying: If people after watching the movie “By the Sea” want to think Brad and I have terrible fights, are imperfect, have insecurities and can be depressed and emotional, of course that’s true. We have problems, arguments. We are two very human, flawed people. And I think that’s a good thing to show.
We as followers of Christ are ever aware of our sinfulness; so, it appears that we are very content with storying ourselves this way. The way we story our lives seems to align well with the Book of Common Prayer’s prayer of repentance:
We confess that we have sinned against thee in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved thee with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of thy Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in thy will, and walk in thy ways, to the glory of thy Name. Amen.
Even though we have become very comfortable with this way of storying ourselves, this does not seem to be the way Paul goes about storying who we are. Let’s turn again to the opening verses of Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians:
From Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, 2 To those in Colossae, saints and faithful sisters and brothers in Christ:
Paul refers to the Colossians as saints and faithful in Christ.
Now, as a quick caveat, Paul is not really saying that God sees us as saints and faithful because he sees us through Jesus-colored glasses. This is a fairly modern way of interpreting these verses. In contrast, Paul appears to be saying that our lives and our actions are different because we are in Christ. We conclude this because Paul talks about the Colossian believers being characterized by faith, love, and hope in the next verses.
So, how does Paul’s way of storying us line up with how we story ourselves? It doesn’t.
Yet, I have a problem with one of the terms Paul uses. He uses the term saint. Saint is an enigmatic term. If someone were to call themself a saint, I would label the person a bit arrogant or slightly imbalanced. I put this on par with some eccentric Christian groups that call certain members apostles or prophets. I can accept that these are biblical designations; but, I have a hard time when someone self-identifies as an apostle or as a prophet. I usually start moving in the opposite direction when I hear this.
Regarding the word saint, we typically reserve this designation for someone who is extra special in a good way. It is a way of giving high praise to someone, someone really good. We might say: “Oh, Mary, she is a saint. Her husband is such a jerk but she patiently puts up with him and all his madness; and she really does a great job caring for their kids.”
Yet, even though this may be getting a bit closer to the way Paul stories us, it doesn’t really match up because Paul uses saint and faithful for all the Colossian believers. He stories them and us in a completely different way than we do. And why is this? What is the basis for his story?
Paul bases his understanding of the Colossians and of us from what happened in Jesus’ life.
Let’s look at one story in particular – at the story of when Jesus touched the leper. The story is in Mark 1:40-45. Do you remember what happened in that story? A leper approached Jesus, knelt before him, and said: “If you want to, you can make me clean.”
To get the full impact of this, we need to place ourselves in the first century. In the Jewish way of thinking, no one could touch a leper and be clean afterwards.
But this is not how Jesus thinks. We read this: Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out and touched the man. “I want to,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured.
Jesus not only touched the leper, he completely healed the leper.
Now, we all know Jesus is God. So, healing lepers was not difficult for him. What we in our western 21st Century context tend to overlook, which Paul certainly didn’t overlook, is the whole concept of cleanness. Jesus being God makes the unclean clean. But after the cross, Jesus takes this to a whole new level. Now, whenever anyone turns to Jesus, Jesus touches that person making the person clean, and making the person holy. Jesus makes us holy by pouring out upon us the promised Holy Spirit, and by his and the Father’s coming to live within us.
This indwelling of the triune God places each and every one of us as followers of Christ in a whole new dimension. This holiness dimension is intimately interlinked with what Paul wrote in verse 13: God transfers us out of the kingdom of darkness and moves us into the kingdom of his beloved Son. In this transfer, a whole new process begins within us, a powerful process of transformation. This is why Paul refers to the Colossian believers as Saints and Faithful.
Now, let’s turn back to our personal stories. When we turned to Jesus, he not only touched us, he came to live within us. Yet, this “coming within us” doesn’t seem to shape the way we story ourselves. We story ourselves as broken, always missing the mark, and “on a journey.”
Why is it that we story our life in such a one dimensional way? Why is our story so negative? I think it is because we are part of a community that has storied itself this way for centuries. We somehow think it makes us more approachable, more authentic.
Yet, is our story really accurate?
If we were really as broken, and imperfect as we say we are, who would want to be our friend? And what would we really have to offer anyone? If Jesus offers us no help to change us, what do we have to offer anyone? If we are really honest, this way of describing ourselves is an exaggeration, overemphasizing one dimension of our life.
Our story certainly doesn’t align with how Paul stories himself or the Colossians. And if we think about it, we story ourselves in a way that actually disconnects us from the Beloved. Paul intentionally weaves our story into the story of the Beloved. We have been transferred into his kingdom and we are now in him.
Now, to describe ourselves more in line with how Paul stories us doesn’t mean that we need to be perfect. The reason Paul is writing this letter to the Colossians is because they weren’t perfect. They were having their own struggles. Why else does Paul write the third chapter of the letter the way he does? Yet, even though they were having some struggles getting along with one another because of some doctrinal disagreements, Paul doesn’t frame their story as one of brokenness and helplessness in this world of sin.
Look at how Paul describes the Colossians in Chapter 2 starting with verse 9:
9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. 11 In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; 12 when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, 14 erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.
Having touched us, having come to live within us, Jesus has opened up a whole new set of possibilities for our lives, a whole new way to live. Jesus is now our life. In describing our life in Christ Paul in 2:10 says that we have come to “fullness”.
Why, then, does this perspective not shape the way we story our lives?
I think it is for a couple of reasons. First, it is because we don’t believe the Scripture. Second, it doesn’t fit in the way we have schematized how we talk about ourselves in our world. Our schema is: We are sinners, broken and flawed; but saved by grace and by grace alone. Yet, this schematic way of describing ourselves is not the whole truth. We are sinners. Yet, when we turned to Jesus something wonderful happened to us. God came to live within us, he is now with us, and he is now working to produce the fruit of the Spirit in us – in our lives and in our relationships. And he puts within us the deep desire to obey his commands, the desire to live out our lives the way he wants us to live. Yes, we obey imperfectly, hitting and missing. Yet, over time, we find that we become more consistent, we do obey, we do change. We grow in wisdom and in grace. We never arrive at perfection; but we see ourselves moving forward nonetheless.
So, how can we properly nuance our story so we affirm our imperfections while affirming the transformational power and beauty of the gospel? How can we properly nuance our stories so we weave the Beloved and his life into our stories, especially since he has so intricately woven himself and his life into ours?