"Everything that Rises Must Converge" Colossians 3:1-11
Everything that Rises Must Converge is a magnificent title. So compelling, in fact, that southern gothic writer Flannery O’Connor not only used it for one of her short stories but it was also utilized when a collection of her short stories was published together in the form of a book.
She lifted the title from a quote by Jesuit priest, philosopher, and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. He writes,
“Remain true to yourself, but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love! At the summit you will find yourselves united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge.”
O’Connor herself was a lifelong Roman Catholic. She was also a southerner. After brief stints in Iowa and New York, she returned to her family farm in rural Georgia upon contracting lupus.
Her stories are undeniably southern yet they are not romantic or nostalgic for “the good old days.” In fact, O’Connor takes aim at both romanticism and nostalgia in many of her stories perhaps most pointedly the aforementioned tale Everything that Rises Must Converge.
In this story, O’Connor paints a picture of an older white woman who is constantly talking about her family’s glory days. This woman is disturbed by the recent integration of the bus system in her city which forces her to share close proximity with African-Americans. She says that she does not so much mind that “those people” seem to be generally on the rise in society but that she’d merely prefer if they would keep their ascent far away from her—on their side of the tracks as it were.
Of course, when reading this part of the story it’s hard not to hear the title of this tale ringing in our ears. The perceived rising cannot help but intersect with the life of this woman—however uncomfortable it makes her. Tragically, the story moves to an abrupt end when she suffers a stroke and seems doomed to spend the rest of her life stuck in the past, trapped within the deadly dual prison of nostalgia and romanticism.
When venturing into Colossians we encounter the Apostle Paul warning the community of Christians in Colossae and beyond about the possibility of encountering a similar fate. It is far too easy, he seems to say, to let our old selves drag us back into our old stories. It is for this reason that the apostle proclaims that we “have been buried with Christ in baptism” (Colossians 2:12).
Christians often speak of Jesus’s gravesite as “the empty tomb.” Yet in view of what Paul is saying here, we might do well to consider that tomb the largest mass grave in human history. Moreover, the bodies keep piling up.
Swarms of “old selves” contorted with sin are sent into a kind of eternal exile. Sexual perversion, unrighteous anger, lecherous lies—all these are destined for the pit. We might, of course, want to add a few in our own day such as sexism, racism--any form of bigotry really.
Paul would no doubt agree with this while also being rather perplexed if we didn’t comprehend how well these fit in with what he was saying. For Paul, sin is ultimately that which separates. It cuts off the connections which ought to be the very source of life. Through sin we find our own life is severed from our fellow human beings, from every living creature, from the cosmos, and from the life of God.
According to the rich theology pulsating throughout this letter to the Colossians, there is no place for division amongst Christians. Rather, Paul announces that a new creation has been inaugurated wherein difference (or we might say diversity) remains a sign of life whereas division is done away with altogether.
Of course, it is all too easy in our current context to miss this message entirely. Instead of admiring Paul’s panoramic view of new creation inaugurated on earth it is possible to find that we are instead craning our necks to catch a glimpse of some sort of otherworldly existence in this mysterious place called heaven.
After all, isn’t that what Paul is on about? “Set your mind on the things above” he says “where Christ is…not only earthly things” (Colossians 3:1-2). Forego the earthly and retreat into the heavenly, we might hear. Isn’t this the Christian hope? Well, to put it bluntly, absolutely not. And yet, we must not be too quick to toss out heaven because of the bad ideas constantly tossed upon it.
For Paul, the hope of the Christian life is not about getting to heaven. He foresees a day when heaven and earth will at last intersect in eternal union almost like a marriage (actually, marriage is almost like this). Nor is that the whole of it. Paul pictures a new reality wherein the heavenly dimensions have intersected with this world in the here and now through the person of Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit active and at work in the church.
Paul reminds the Colossians that if the church has “been raised with Christ” (Colossians 3:1) then we are invited to fully participate in this heavenly-rooted reality. Faith in Jesus is not an escape hatch out of this world but an invitation to sink our whole selves deep into Jesus and to find the life of heaven flowing through us in the church and for the life of the world.
We are to seek the things where Christ is because, as Paul makes clear, our “life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). Our true selves do not reside in the past. Christians need not look through the lenses of nostalgia or romanticism to reach self-knowledge. In fact, they cannot do this with any expectation of success.
Neither does shame or regret from the past control us or condemn us. Rather, our life is hidden with Christ in God and when Jesus is finally and fully revealed then we will at last know ourselves. Therefore, when Pierre Teilhard de Chardin says to remain true to ourselves, Christians cannot read that any other way than to hear him saying “remain true to Christ.”
At last Paul turns to the most obvious divisions in his own time, proclaiming that there is no longer any ethnic, cultural, or class separation but that Christ “is all and in all” (Colossians 3:11). It was difficult for people to believe then. It seems all but impossible to believe now. But if we follow the logic of Colossians 1:19-20 which states that “God was pleased…through him to reconcile all things to himself” then it seems that Paul is simply declaring the full extent of that reconciliation.
For Paul, our work is not to struggle and strive to achieve the prize of reconciliation but rather to move further into the heavenly-rooted life. We must seek to fully know this Jesus who has achieved reconciliation. This does not mean we ought to all take a vacation and ignore the brokenness of the world.
Instead, our vision should then shift from saving the world to bearing witness to the world’s savior in every aspect of our lives. We come to rest in his accomplishment. Such resting may take many forms. It may even look like repentance. After all, what is repentance if not ceasing the difficult work of carrying a weight far too great for us to bear?
Finally, we must recognize that none of this is ancillary to the Christian life. We cannot hope to encounter a new creation wherein any part of our selves remains separated from Jesus. Nor, it seems, can we hold out hope that worldly divisions will remain.
We fail to imagine the fullness of the Christian calling if we picture a resurrection life which maintains a comfortable distance between “them” and “us”—whoever we would put into those categories. Instead we encounter the radical claim of the gospel that foresees a world in which everything that rises must converge.
-Fr. Matt Aughtry