Epiphany/Baptism of Our Lord B
January 7, 2018
We have a lot of threads to weave together this morning. We recognize the close of the season of Christmas …
… as we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany, that “aha!” moment when Jesus was revealed as a King to the Wise Ones traveling from the East, …
… and the Baptism of our Lord, when Jesus submitted himself to John’s baptism in the River Jordan, …
… and it’s the first Sunday of the New Year, when Methodists traditionally renew their baptismal vows to shine Christ’s light into the world through prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.
To top it off, this is Communion Sunday!
It looks a little busy up here on the platform – there’s a lot going on. Notice that all of our worship, busy as it may seem at first, has one focus: turning our attention toward God.
As we enter this new year, I’m inviting you to abandon all those New Year’s resolutions that have anything to do with self improvement. You see, ultimately, those resolutions focus our attention on ourselves. They are, to put it quite bluntly, self-ish. And that is not what Jesus calls us toward as Christians. Jesus asks us to center our lives on God, and then offer God’s love to others.
So over the next few weeks, we will explore what it means to be self-less followers of Jesus Christ. We’ll see how serving, generosity, and sharing our stories of faith help us get re-oriented away from working to get our own needs met, toward something much more satisfying, much more rewarding: knowing Christ and becoming more Christ-like.
In his letter to the Colossians, Paul writes about taking off the old self and clothing ourselves in the new life in Christ. At the beginning of chapter three, Paul 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. Paul 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. We become selfless.
As we consciously begin to wear Christ’s attributes of humility and gentleness, forgiveness and love, 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.
Notice 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.
Next week, we’ll talk about being bold as we make those connections with others. But before we can go there, we have to make sure the connections within the Body of Christ are strong and centered on Jesus.
Putting on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience, bearing with one another, forgiving each other as we build one another up in faith – this is not easy work. According to theologian Ken Sehested, “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 we avoid each other because we disagree, it does damage to the Body of Christ, and it does damage to our witness to a world that is watching us more closely than you might imagine. When we confront one another in anger or with abusive language, it damages not only the Body of Christ, to which we all belong, but it also damages our witness to a world that is always looking to see what makes us different as followers of Jesus Christ.
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.
I am convinced that the way we love one another
is the single most effective means we have
of showing the rest of the world
that being a Christian
makes all the difference in our lives.
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. 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 sets us apart from the rest of the world, just as surely as loving each other well demonstrates Christ’s love for us.
You see, 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 own desires instead of seeking first 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 Communion, and it’s helpful to remember that we call it Eucharist because the solemn rite we follow in this sacrament always begins with something we call the Great Thanksgiving.
Paul tells us that, having put off the old sinful self, and having put on Christ, the only response we can offer to God’s great gift of grace 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, giving thanks to God.
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. We have given up being selfish, and like Christ, we become self-less. And it shows. People notice.
They become curious, and want to know why a Christian’s life is different from theirs: why Christians have peace and joy in abundance, whatever the circumstances are; why Christians aren’t greedy like everyone else; why Christians aren’t consumed with lust; why Christians aren’t angry or afraid all the time; why Christians don’t resort to slander and gossip and foul language.
So let me ask you this: 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, what is missing from your life?
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 come to church primarily for what it offers you, instead of to offer yourself to God, 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 abusive talk, maybe it’s time for you to cast off the old you and clothe yourself “with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.”
If you find yourself complaining about the way things in the church are going or the way other people in the church behave, 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.
If you grumble about how your needs aren’t being satisfied, or things aren’t being done the way you like them to get done, maybe it’s time to roll up your sleeves and gratefully join in doing the hard but rewarding work of ministering to the needs of others. “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.” (v17)
If 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 the love of Jesus Christ.
“And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.” When we are grateful in the day-to-day grind, we begin to realize and to demonstrate that it’s not about us, it’s all about Jesus. Christ gave himself up for us, and just as he selflessly entered into our humanity for our sakes, he calls us into selflessness for his name’s sake.
Are you ready? Instead of making New Year’s resolutions that center on self-improvement, are you ready to make just one resolution to become self-less? Are you ready to follow Jesus?
The “Selfless” series artwork and support materials can be downloaded for FREE here.
 Kenneth Sehested, Feasting On The Word, Year C, Vol. 1, 160.