July 31, 2016
View a video of this sermon here.
Did you ever play “Dress Up” when you were little? Maybe you dressed up as a superhero, or you put on your parents’ clothes to play a game of make-believe, pretending you were all grown up. Maybe you put on a costume for Halloween, or to act out your part in the Christmas pageant. Whatever you put on, it gave you permission to be someone different for a short time, to pretend you had more power or grace or holiness than you actually possessed. You could be someone new.
A couple of years ago, I listened to an interview with one of the actors from Downton Abbey. She described how putting on those amazing period costumes affected her. Her posture changed, even the way she spoke suddenly became more refined. Wearing the costume automatically put her into the character she was portraying. Putting on the dress made her into someone new.
Maybe this is why Paul chooses to use clothing as a metaphor in his letter to the Colossians. Paul writes about taking off the old self and clothing ourselves in the new life in Christ. Colossians 3:1-11 tells us to strip away everything from our lives that is not of God, so that we can put on the new self, the self that is constantly being restored to bear the image of God. In that process, Paul tells us, there is no longer any identity that matters, except for Christ, who is all and in all.
But, even though the assigned reading for today ends there, Paul does not! He goes on to describe what we are to put on, once we have stripped away all the sinfulness and self-centeredness, and have given ourselves over completely to become followers of Jesus Christ.
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. – Colossians 3:12-17
This taking off the old and putting on the new that Paul describes is the essence of following Jesus. We renounce sin in all its forms and repent of our old, broken way of living for ourselves. Then we turn away from that life and toward the new life in Christ that is filled with grace and peace. We begin living for God, and in the process, we become more and more like Christ.
Clothe yourself with Christ’s attributes of humility and gentleness, forgiveness and love, Paul tells us. As we consciously begin to wear these attributes, we may find that they don’t fit very well at first. They won’t fit at all if we try to put them on without first taking off the pride and anger, the lying and the fear that marked our old life.
For Christ’s goodness to live in us and fit us well, we must strip off everything that connects us to sin. Then, and only then, will the characteristics of Christ-likeness begin to fit. As they become more and more a part of our thinking and speaking and doing, we find that something else happens. Putting on these external behaviors does something to our internal spirit.
“Let Christ’s peace rule in your hearts,” Paul writes. What began as an outward change of behavior now becomes and inward change of heart. The peace of Christ begins to take over the way we think and behave, ruling not only our hearts, but also our actions.
It is important to remember that all of the Christ-like characteristics we are to put on are social ones. We are connected to one another, and as Christ’s body, we are sent into the world to connect with others, as well.
Kenneth Sehested writes, “There is more than functional purpose for being clothed with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bearing with one another, forgiving each other, binding us to each other – such work is not for the faint of heart. This is not conflict-avoidance advice. … This is about what to do when bare-knuckled emotional brawls break out.”
Because they will. People whose lives are connected by a common purpose, as we are in the church, are bound to come into conflict with each other from time to time. The question isn’t whether, but how will we respond to that conflict when it arises.
When you avoid me because you are angry or disagree with me, it does damage, not only to the Body of Christ to which we both belong, but also to your witness to the world that is watching. When I confront you with anger or abusive language, it does damage, not only to the body of Christ to which we both belong, but also to my witness to a world that is always looking to see what makes us different because we follow Christ Jesus.
That’s why Paul puts one Christ-like virtue ahead of all the others. “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony,” he writes. Even when we disagree, as we sometimes will, speaking the truth in love will keep us in harmony with one another, and keep our witness to the rest of the world intact.
Paul goes on to say, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” This change of heart, this movement from clothing ourselves in Christ to finding inward peace, happens when we immerse ourselves in the Word of God.
John W. Coakley writes, “The texts of the Bible … are not to be treated as objects to be understood, containers of ideas to be questioned or debated, rather, they are to be taken into oneself through the whole shape of daily life.” The author of Hebrews puts it another way: “The Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). And in his second letter to Timothy, Paul writes, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). When Christ’s word dwells in us richly, our lives bubble up in worship and praise, and we are filled to the brim with thanksgiving.
Giving God thanks and praise is the one thing you can do that will set you apart from the rest of the world. Because the rest of the world is busy trying to be self-sufficient, instead of God-dependent. The rest of the world is busy paying attention to its physical desires instead of seeking the Kingdom of God. The rest of the world is obsessed with hatred and fear, with anger and lies, instead of the love, peace, and truth that Christ offers to all who will call on his name and turn their lives over to him.
Three times in two verses, Paul reminds us to be thankful, to have gratitude in our hearts, to give God our thanks and praise in everything we do. The word for thanksgiving is Eucharist, a word we closely associate with worship. We don’t know if the early church was already using this word to mean Communion, as we use it now, but it’s helpful to remember that we call it Eucharist because the solemn rite we follow in this sacrament always begins with something called the Great Thanksgiving.
Paul tells us that, having put off the old sinful self, and having put on Christ, our hearts are transformed by Christ’s peace as we take God’s Word into ourselves. The only response we can offer to such a great gift is our continual thanks and praise. Our lives become lives of worship, so that everything we do or think or say is done in the name of Jesus, even as we give thanks to God through Christ.
A church was looking for a new pastor, and the District Superintendent (DS) sat down with church leaders to talk about what they wanted to see in this new person. “Someone who can attract young families,” they said. This made sense, because the church had been in decline for many years, and the congregation was aging. So the DS asked them, “what is it about your church that young families would find attractive now?”
They looked at each other, then at the floor.
“Well, what attracted you to this church when you first started to come here?” the DS asked encouragingly.
“It’s the fellowship. This is where I can see my friends every week, and we can catch up with each other’s lives,” one woman replied. “It’s where I get a sense of belonging, where my friendships were formed.”
The DS thought for a moment, then said, “Yes, and these days, people who are under the age of 35 with children can get that same sense of belonging and friendship building at their kids’ soccer games, or other sports activities. They build friendships with other parents whose kids are involved in the same things their kids are involved in. They don’t need church for ‘fellowship,’” the DS said. “What else?”
“Well, church is where I get involved in helping other people. We work at the food pantry or take a meal to the homeless shelter, and I get a lot of satisfaction out of that,” said one man.
“Yes, and people who are under the age of 35 do those things, too. They just don’t need a church to help them do it. They are very involved in social justice issues, but they work through secular organizations to get that same satisfaction,” the DS told them. “What else?”
The room was silent. Someone coughed.
Finally, the DS said, “What’s the one thing that church has to offer that soccer teams and social agencies often don’t? … Anyone?”
Still no answer.
“Okay, look at it this way. What difference has being part of this church made to your faith? How has following Jesus Christ, as a member of this congregation, changed your life?”
“Oh pastor,” one man grumbled, “You don’t want to go there. That’s getting too personal!”
“Well,” the DS answered, “it’s the one thing you have going for you that other social groups and service groups don’t. The one thing the church can claim as its own is Jesus, and if you can’t identify how Jesus has changed your life, what makes you think anyone else would be attracted to your church?”
Sometimes it’s the people in the pews who need Jesus the most.
When we put on Christ, we look different, we act differently, we speak differently, because we not only wear Christ on the outside, we are filled with Christ from the inside. And it shows. People notice. They become curious, and want to know why our lives are different from theirs, why we have peace and joy in abundance, whatever the circumstances are, why we aren’t greedy like everyone else, why we aren’t consumed with lust, why we aren’t angry all the time, why we don’t resort to slander and gossip and foul language.
If no one is noticing how your life is different from theirs, why is that? If no one is asking you how you have such peace, why is that? If no one is remarking about the joy you always show, why aren’t they? If no one can see Christ in you, ask yourself why.
Could it be that you haven’t really been changed, that you have not ever experienced the transformation Christ offers to all who will call him Lord? Is it possible that the person who needs Jesus most is you?
If you are like the person who comes to church to see your friends, but Christ hasn’t changed your life and made you new, maybe it’s time for you to strip off the old you and clothe yourself in Jesus Christ.
If you come to church for the satisfaction of serving others, maybe it’s time for you to strip off the old you and clothe yourself in Jesus Christ.
If you talk one way at church, but your language at home and at work is laced with criticism and slander and abusive talk, maybe it’s time for you to cast off the old you and clothe yourself “with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” Maybe it’s time for you to start bearing with your sisters and brothers in Christ, and if you have a complaint against another, forgive each other, just as the Lord has forgiven you.
“Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
 Kenneth Sehested, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1, 160.
 John W. Coakley, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1, 162.