Hold Fast to the Head

[A Lenten meditation on Colossians 2.16-3.4 for Wine Before Breakfast.]

I often think I would have been a good candidate for Stoicism.
I would have made a good Stoic.
I’m not the best at enduring physical pain,
which I hear is typical of redheads,
but you better believe I’m good at delaying pleasure
and thinking I’m better than everyone else for it.

I used to memorize verses for Sunday school week after week
until I finally earned enough stars on the chart to win a chocolate bar.

When I was in youth group we did 30-hour famines,
where we wouldn’t eat for 30 hours to raise money for famine relief,
and unlike my hungry peers, I loved the challenge.
I tried to go longer than 30 hours just for bragging rights.

We’re in the season of Lent right now,
and Lent is like Christmas for wannabe Stoic Christians.
It’s a worldwide spiritual stamp of approval on asceticism.
It’s churchy motivation to say to your morning coffee,
or evening television show,
“I banish you with love.”

Now I do think some of us can practice Lenten disciplines
for actual good reasons,
using cravings as reminders of Christ’s sacrifice,
participating in his journey to the cross,
clearing space for God to speak to us,
but others of us have trouble with motivations at Lent.

We’re tempted to give things up
to prove something to ourselves or others,
even to prove something to God,
to earn a Stoic badge of holiness.

If we’re not careful, we get trapped in similar pitfalls
to some folks in the Colossian church,
where, depending on which theologian you ask,
people were getting caught up in Stoicism,
or Jewish mysticism, or Gnosticism,
or some legalistic combination of them all.

It seems like they were treating their bodies harshly
and following strict rules
to prepare them for mystical experiences
involving angels.
They thought the body was shameful,
lesser, or lower than the spirit,
and it needed to be forced into submission
to free up the spirit.

Now as so-called progressive Christians,
we’ve got this Gnostic stuff conquered, right?
We know how to enjoy a good beer,
some wine before breakfast.

We’ve almost convinced ourselves
that sex is a good gift from God.

We’re good with the body,
we’re good with earthiness.

But when it comes to wanting to earn badges
and prove ourselves better than the next guy,

we might have more trouble
than our more conservative siblings.

Paul says, “Don’t let anyone condemn you
… don’t let anyone disqualify you…”
We’re almost always doing this to one another.
Our striving against injustice can become an Olympics of self-denial,
an ongoing test to see who’s least oppressive and most “woke,”
as we rush to call each other out.

It can be really subtle.

“Hey, I didn’t see you at the protest the other day
– were you even there?”
“Oh, you don’t buy fair trade coffee?
That’s too bad.  I’ll just have water.”
“Yeah, I left the worship service as soon
as they used gendered language for God.”
“You can’t really understand poverty
until you spend a year in India, like I did.”
“Wait a minute, you’ve telling me
you’ve never even heard of the Enneagram?”

The Stoics tried to master their bodies,
I think we progressives try to master the latest PC vocabulary,
hashtags, Richard Rohr ideas,
allyship methods (to look like an ally without drawing too much attention).
Which is great, if it’s really about caring
for marginalized people.
Not so great if it’s about self-imposed piety and false humility,
if it’s a shame-based rule system of propping me up and disqualifying others.

Here’s what Paul says about these human rule systems and philosophies:
They actually don’t change our subconscious appetites and attitudes.

No matter how much we fight temptation,
we will still need soothing.
No matter what PC words we use,
our instinct will be to fear what is different from us.
Following these laws and rules
is like chasing a shadow.
It’s all a bunch of hot, puffed-up air
– there’s no substance to it.

Two brilliant theologians named Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat
also helped me see 
that following these philosophies,
systems, rules, is also deeply idolatrous.
It’s about serving something other than the kingdom of God.
Often it’s serving ourselves and serving the gods of the Empire:
Aphrodite, Mammon, War.
Ironically, even if we’re stoically proving
how much we’ve mastered sex, money & violence,
they’re still controlling us
by consuming our attention and willpower.

So what does Paul do to address this pompous idolatry?
He reminds the church about which head they’re attached to.

Has anyone heard of Dr. Sergio Canavero?
Rumor has it that in 8 months,
he will be performing the first human head transplant.
I don’t believe everything I read on the internet,
especially when it sounds like a bad knockoff
of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,
but this is NOT fake news.
This guy is legit.
He even has a volunteer,
Valery Spiridonov, who’s terminally ill.

This is actually more like a body transplant for Valery,
because the motor nerve cells of his current body are killing him.
Valery has volunteered to have his head attached
to the body of a braindead person.
This will take 150 doctors and nurses,
11 million dollars, and 36 hours of surgery.
Many in the medical world don’t think it’s ethical
or that it will be successful.

I bring this up not only because it’s weird science,
and I love weird science,
but also because I think Paul would get a kick out of it
because it’s a literal version
of the metaphor he’s using in this passage.

When you were baptized,
you were attached to a new head.
You experienced a change of address,
a spiritual relocation.

You became part of the body of Christ,
and Christ is now your head.

And because we’re part of Christ’s body,
He takes us everywhere.

He carries us through crucifixion and death
– we died with him.
In baptism we followed him under
– we were buried with him.
And now Paul says we’ve been raised with him,
even that we’ve ascended with him,
that in some strange way we’re hidden in God with him,
in the realm of the already-not-yet.
Christ’s story is our story too.

There’s this little phrase Paul writes over 160 times in his letters:
“in Christ.”
We hear it so often it’s lost its punch.
But it’s a strange phrase!
I mean, Muslims don’t say they are “in Muhammed.”
As Canadians, we don’t say we’re “in Justin Trudeau.”

And yet Paul says we are “in Christ.”
We are organically united to him.
Instead of following the legalistic shadows
of what was to come,
we get to be part of the reality,
the dynamic life of the body of Christ.

So Paul says don’t go running off like detached limbs.
Hold fast to the head.

How do you do that?
Set your heart and mind on things above.
Now we have to be careful with that phrase,
because it’s easy to misinterpret Paul
and think he’s responding
to Gnosticsim with Gnosticism,
saying that focusing on higher spiritual heavenly stuff
is better than focusing on lower bodily earthly stuff.

But it’s actually quite the opposite.
When Paul writes “things above,”
he’s not talking spiritual, airy things…
He’s talking kingdom things.
“Reign of God” things.
Because in Paul’s spatial metaphysics,
“above” means:
“the place where Christ is seated on the throne.”
And the reign of Christ is not just spiritual
– it is very much concerned
with the body and the stuff of this earth:
“Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”

And this is where we come back to
Brian & Sylvia’s theme of empire.

Because it turns out that getting a head transplant
as a Christian is bit… anti-imperial.

The empire wants to be your head. 
The rulers & authorities want to be your head.
The powers and principalities want control over your imagination.
They want to shape your worldview and steer your body.
They want the allegiance of every single cell.
They want to be your central nervous system.
They want you numb and distracted.
They want you too shameful and fearful,
too busy fighting amongst yourselves to question the system.

But here’s the thing –
The death and resurrection of Christ
defeated the empire,
disarmed the powers and principalities,
and shamed the rulers and authorities.
They just haven’t quite admitted that yet.
Full victory is still to come.

But you all – you know it’s true.

You decapitated the powers.
Because you’ve been adopted by a different head.
You’re animated by a different imagination,
you’ve been swept into the plot of a different story.

So keep setting and resetting your hearts and minds on that.

You died.  You were buried.  You will rise again.

Your life is now hidden with Christ in God.
It’s not fully revealed yet.
It’s protected, safe in God’s hands,
Waiting for Christ to return,
waiting for its glory to shine.

One of the best things about being “in” Christ,
about having Christ as your head,
is that instead of a long list of rules
to memorize and follow,
you just have to stay connected
– let the lifeblood flow from head to body.

Hold fast to the head, and let your ethics flow from that.
Stay immersed in the covenant story
and your actions will be shaped by it.
Don’t need no baggage, don’t need no ticket,
just get on board.

When people judge you or disqualify you,
or when you judge or disqualify yourself,
believing you’re unworthy because you smoke a pipe,
or don’t smoke a pipe,
or because you speak in tongues,
or don’t speak in tongues,
or because you’re buying too much
or too little,
or because you aren’t vegan or married
or in full-time ministry,
or whatever other measure of holiness
is being held up today…

Remember that things can’t affect you when you’re already dead.
And you are dead.
Your life is hidden with Christ in God.
It can’t be snatched away.

Reset your mind on the covenant story.
Rehearse it daily.

Feel those ligaments and sinews
connecting you to the head.

And if you must fast,
do so to get even more in touch with that story,

with the Jesus who fasted
and suffered and died and prevailed.

The Eucharistic meal we will soon share
is a retelling of that great narrative,
a chance to reanimate our imagination,
to recast our vision
around the beautiful, hopeful, liberating kingdom of Christ.

Because you, my friends, are “in” Christ.
You are “in” the one who is before all things,
who holds all things together with the weak force of love,
who will reconcile all things to himself.

So this morning, when you reaffirm that
“Christ has died,
Christ has risen,
Christ will come again,”
Know that, by the grace of God,
you also speak of yourself.


Beth Carlson-Malena

2 Responses to “Hold Fast to the Head”

  1. Kevin Burgess

    Brilliant! Thank you.

  2. Amanda

    Thank you!!! Yes!


Leave a Reply