Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 27, 2015
Colossians 3:12-17 Commentary
The Sunday between Christmas and New Year’s Day is a good day to find a guest preacher to fill in for you. I mean, after all the hoopla of the holidays, people are exhausted and after exploring the depths and heights of the Incarnation. So is the preacher. What do you say on this first Sunday after Christmas?
Here the lectionary is very helpful. The Gospel reading for today focuses our attention on the (already?!) 12-year -Jesus speaking in the Temple, while the Old Testament reading parallels that story by taking us back to the even younger child Samuel ministering in the Tabernacle. There are abundant homiletical possibilities in those readings. The Psalm (148) for the day calls for everything in heaven and on earth to praise God. Cosmic praise is surely an appropriate response to the miracle of the God with us.
Our reading from Colossians 3 calls for a very different response. Think back to Christmas. How did your children respond to their gifts? My adult sons and their wives smiled warmly and offered sincere thanks when they received their traditional (and sizeable) checks. Our grandchildren squealed with glee, jumped up and down, hugged us around the neck, and said, “Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you. It’s just what I wanted!” Or at least that’s how it went in my dreams; reality is sometimes a little different.
But how do you respond to a gift that changes your entire life? I think of those people who win the lottery—not just the little ones, but the Mega Millions and the Power Ball. Recently someone won $330,000,000. Her first response was, “Now I don’t have to go in to work tomorrow.” When asked what she would do with the money, she said, “Provide for my grandchildren’s education.” It was a happy day for her. Her life was changed forever by that immense gift. But studies of former lottery winners reveal that such huge windfalls more often ruin people’s lives. In a few years, most of the money is gone because they didn’t respond in an appropriate way to the life changing gift.
What is the appropriate way to respond to the life changing gift God gave the human race at Christmas? Paul introduces the answer to that question with one word. “Therefore….” With that word, he points back the life changing work of Jesus—not only his birth, life, and death, but also his resurrection and coronation. That awesome work of Christ has created a whole new self for us (3:1, 3, 10) and incorporated us into a whole new community (3:11). Paul had sung of the all-sufficiency of Christ in the gorgeous hymn of Colossians 1:15-23. Now here he sums it all up in the closing words of verse 11. “Christ is all, and in all.”
How shall we respond to all that? In effect Paul says, Christ has put on your flesh, therefore you should put on Christ in your flesh. And he explains that not with a call for some mystical practices or heroic sacrifices or esoteric knowledge, but with a call to be Christ-like in our everyday living.
In the immediately preceding verses (5-10), he gives the negative side of post-Christmas living: “put to death,” “ rid yourself,” “you have taken off.” There are things you can’t do anymore, now that Christ has come and is “all in all.” Paul writes a big “NO” over the life we used to live. Sadly, many serious Christians stop right there and live a “NO” kind of life, emphasizing all the things we cannot do because we are Christians.
Thankfully, Paul doesn’t stop there. He focuses on the new life with all its fresh possibilities. You can have a whole new set of attitudes toward life and a whole new set of behaviors, a positive way of living that will give you the joy Jesus promised and show the world how good life can be when “Christ is all in all, and in all.” Those last words are important. In calling for a new way of living, Paul does not emphasize a new set of rules or a new philosophy of life, as the Jewish Gnostics in the Colossian church did (2:6-23). Rules and regulations, knowledge and philosophy are “a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality is found in Christ.” (2:17) Thus, Paul simply points to Christ as the key to this new life.
Using the imagery of putting on clothes, Paul lists 5 qualities or characteristics or attitudes that are Christ-like: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. In Romans 13:14 Paul commands all Christians to “clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ….” Here he gives us the articles of clothing that will make us look like Christ. A better way to put it is this; if we habitually wear these clothes, displaying a Christ-like character, the Christ who is “in all” will become visible to the world.
That is Paul’s first answer to our post-Christmas question, “now what?” Because of the all-sufficiency of Christ, we must put on Christ, clothing ourselves with the character qualities that distinguished his life and death. In the rest of our text, Paul outlines the behaviors or actions that will both demonstrate and sustain and nourish those inner qualities. You have a new life and a new family; now act like it.
Again, note how Christ-centered daily life should be. It is “the peace of Christ” that should rule in our hearts and in our lives together. It is “the word of Christ” that should dwell in us richly. It is “the name of the Lord Jesus” that should govern our behavior. No legalism here.
And, again, note how relentlessly positive Paul is about the Christian life. What an attractive people we would be if we focused on the “yes” of peace and gratitude and teaching and singing! Of course, there are ways of living we must avoid; Paul does call us to “die,” and “take off,” and “get rid of.” But his last words in our text are a clarion call to live toward God in Christ, rather than away from the world.
I’m not going to say much more about the behaviors outlined in verses 15-17, except these three general comments. First, all of the “you’s” are plural, which makes sense, given Paul’s words about the body of Christ in verse 11. We are in this together, since Christ is in all. So, although we must put on these attitudes and display this behavior in our personal lives, we need each other to do that. Following Christ is a personal matter, but never a private matter. So Paul calls on the community to “let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace.” In an individualistic age, Paul’s insistence on the corporate is a needed reminder. We can’t do this alone. We must do it in our life together.
Second, isn’t it interesting that Paul highlights the role of music in the Christian life? As preachers, we believe that the main way of dwelling in the word of Christ is “teaching and admonishing” one another with all wisdom. That’s why you are reading this page. But haven’t we all experienced how the right song will seal the message of a sermon better than anything else. It doesn’t matter what kind of music, says Paul; it could be a song or a hymn or a spiritual song. It must only be wisely chosen, so that it fits with the teaching and admonition, and it must be sung with gratitude in our hearts to God. Let those who have ears to hear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
Third, it strikes me that those closing words of verse 17 are a most helpful guide in a morally ambiguous world. Yes, there are specific rules given by God which must not be shunted aside in the name of general principles. But in those gray areas of life where we can’t really be sure how the rules apply, let these two words determine our behavior. “And whatever you do, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Could you do this morally questionable thing “in the name of Jesus?” And can you genuinely “give thanks to the Father” as you do this thing?
On this first Sunday after the Big Event, Paul calls us to live our ordinary lives focused on the One who came to live and die among us. The Incarnation calls us to Christ-like and Christ-centered living down in the trenches where things can be very messy and very confusing.
Paul’s image of clothing made me think of the pictures from a recent Wall Street Journal (a gift from my unused airline miles). That issue covered a recent show of designer clothes. I’ve never seen more elaborate and outlandish outfits in all my life. Contrast that with the articles of clothing Paul describes. Without using too much imagination, here’s how I would describe this wardrobe.
When we get dressed each day, we begin with what? Our underwear, what old timers called “foundation garments.” When Paul talks about compassion and humility, he is talking about the foundation garments of life, because those two character traits are fundamental to human relationships. They summarize how we feel deep down inside about each other and about ourselves. Putting on compassion means that we feel with each other. And humility is how we feel about ourselves—not negative feelings about ourselves, but a lack of focus on ourselves. Humility will keep us from insisting on our own way, our own rights, our own agenda. Without compassion and humility, human relationships don’t work.
Next, Paul calls us to put on the basic work clothes of the Christian life—kindness and gentleness. Those are the jeans and sweatshirt we wear in the everyday world. Kindness means, at least, be courteous and considerate of other people. That’s not very fancy or sexy, but simple human kindness will do more to demonstrate the life changing work of Christ than almost anything else. And put on gentleness, because we are all so fragile that we need gentle treatment. In a violent world, the children of God must wear gentleness like old worn out jeans.
Then, each day we must put on the shoes of patience. The world is filled with problems, but problems become splits, divisions, and warfare when we run out of patience with the problem. So, says Paul, put on the shoes of patience and keep walking with each other, even when it feels like an endurance race. And just because we humans can so easily annoy each other, we need to carry a full wallet of forgiveness. Realistically, we can’t keep from “grieving” each other, as Paul says. So we’ll need to reach into wallets daily and pull out a big wad of forgiveness, sometimes 70 times 7.
The final article of clothing Paul mentions is the overcoat of love; “and over all these virtues put on love, which binds them together in perfect unity.” Indeed, we can’t and won’t put on any of the other articles of Christian clothing without love. In contrast to the heretical teachers who were leading the Colossians astray, Paul says the main thing you need for Christ-like living is not deep philosophy or secret knowledge or obedience to a long set of rules, but Christ-like love that covers a multitude of sins.
In Ephesians 6 Paul describes the full armor of God. Here he describes the Christian’s workaday wardrobe.
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