Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 26, 2021
Colossians 3:12-17 Commentary
Commentators use a variety of terms to describe this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s set of ethical commands. Leonard Klein calls it a “haustafel, a table of duties for those in various estates.” Elsewhere I have called it “the Christian’s wardrobe.” Yet no matter how its proclaimers label Colossians 3’s set of invitations to Christ-likeness, there can be little denying that they reflect a diverse set of virtues that need something to bind them all together.
Because those who follow the RCL may not have recently proclaimed the apostles’ letter to Colossae’s Christians, our hearers may benefit from our brief explanation of its context. Colossians is part of Paul and Timothy’s effort to counter the heresies that dog the Colossian Christians. The apostles highlight the sharp contrast between the sufficiency of Christ’s person and work and the hollowness of the heretics’ claims.
Colossians 3 may be divided into three sections that each highlight that contrast. In verses 1-4 Paul and Timothy compare the heavenly things which they call their readers to seek to the earthly things to which heretics summon people. In verses 12-17 they contrast those heretics’ deadly ways of living with the lively self that the Spirit is renewing within God’s adopted sons and daughters.
Just prior to this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, Paul invites his hearers to “take off” those deadly characteristics. Unlike the characteristics of holiness, however, while those traits are diverse, they don’t need something to bind them all together. They’re already “bound together” by Satan, sin, and death.
The apostle summons his brothers and sisters in Christ to empty their closets and put into the dumpster things like sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, and greed. The apostle calls Colossae’s Christians to discard anger, rage, malice, slander and lying. These are, after all, practices that characterize what he calls “the old self” which gets its fashion sense from the evil one. They’re, after all, “clothing” that’s more suited for coffins than baptisms.
Jesus’ friends can tear off and discard that old, tattered “clothing,” says Paul, because we’ve already “put on” the “new self” (10). So it’s not like those who strip off things like sexual immorality and rage are somehow left figuratively naked. God dressed Christians in Christ Jesus when we were baptized. So the “rags” that are greed and slander cover up the “clothing” that is the image of the God who creates us.
As part of that new self, the apostles invite their hearers to put on “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (12). They elsewhere speak of those virtues as belonging to God the Father or God the Son. That helps remind Colossians’ hearers that we’re compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, patient with each other, and forgiving primarily because those things characterize the God whom we worship in Jesus Christ.
But the apostles go on to insist in verse 14, “Over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” God unconditionally and eternally loves God’s dearly beloved people. Yet God goes even farther than that. God also lovingly sends the Holy Spirit to equip Christians to love not only God above all, but also our neighbors as much as we love ourselves.
Verse 14’s explication of that is a theologically rich one that deserves its proclaimers’ careful attention and unpacking. Epi pasin toutois (“above all this”) seems to make love the “capstone” of verses 12-13’s virtues.
Yet the biblical scholar N.T. Wright sees in “above all” outer garment imagery. In that light, Colossians 3’s proclaimers might render the phrase “above all” more like “on top of everything.” Wright suggests that it’s almost as if the apostle invites his hearers to put the “clothing” that is love on top of the other pieces of clothing that are compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.
Yet Colossians 3’s proclaimers want to note that the apostles never actually call their hearers to “clothe” themselves with love. While in verse 12 they summon us to “clothe ourselves” with certain virtues, in verse 14 they literally simply say, “Above all this, love” (Epi pasin toutois agapen).
So might Paul and Timothy be subtly suggesting that while God’s dearly beloved people have a role in clothing ourselves in Christ-like virtues, we can’t do it by ourselves? That we’re like spiritual babies or toddlers who need the Holy Spirit to help “dress us” in love?
Yet Jesus’ friends might also hear in the apostle’s assertion, “Above all, love,” echoes of Paul’s earlier claim in 1 Corinthians 13: “These three remain, faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” In other words, faith, hope, and love endure. But “above all,” love.
In this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson the apostles call that love the bond (syndesmos) that holds together diverse Christ-like virtues. If Wright (as well as other scholars) is right in suggesting that the apostles are using clothing imagery throughout this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, Jesus’ friends might think of love as the piece of clothing that holds compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience together.
So Christians might think of compassion as the lovely shirt or blouse that doesn’t quite reach the waist, and humility as the dress pants or slacks that are too loose around the middle to stay up. After all, love isn’t just what Eugene Peterson’s Message paraphrases as Christians’ “basic, all-purpose garment” without which we should never be. It’s also the outer garment or belt that holds our Christian “clothing” together.
Yet love doesn’t just bind together the diverse Christian virtues. It also binds them teleiotetos, “in perfect unity.” In verse 11 the apostles insists, “There is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” It’s a lovely description of the complete unity Jesus’ diverse friends have through our Elder Brother. Now, in verse 14, Paul and Timothy add that love completely unites the compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, and discipline that characterizes Jesus’ adopted siblings in and through whom his Spirit lives and works.
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers might spend some time considering and exploring with our hearers just how love perfectly unites those virtues. Those Christ-like characteristics are certainly expressions of the kind of self-giving, unconditional love about which the apostles write. Such love for God and our neighbor is also a motivation for our compassion, kindness, and other virtues. What’s more, true love, by the power of the Spirit, helps remove the sinful elements that sometimes weasel their way into our flawed humility and gentleness.
If verse 14’s insistence that love is above all is the heart of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, proclaimers might also explore just how verses 15-17 amplify that claim. We might think about that this way: those verses describe the implications of the Christian love that is “above all.”
Since love is above all, Jesus’ friends can let Christ’s peace rule in our hearts (15a). We love, after all, because God first loved us and, as a result, planted God’s peace deep within us. What’s more, God’s dearly beloved people are thankful (15b) because the Spirit nourishes within us an all-surpassing love for God and our neighbors.
Because love is above all, we also celebrate and proclaim God’s love in the context of Christian worship (16). And on top of it all, because love is on top of it all, God’s dearly beloved people do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus (17) whose love for us spills over onto our loving and grateful service to God and our neighbors.
Since I am what my family and friends sometimes call “sartorially challenged,” I periodically seek out fashion advice from sources that consider themselves expert. So I recently consulted Vogue magazine’s September 12, 2021’s “Ultimate Guide to the Fall Fashion Trends.”
It invited me to “Try a Sweater That Makes You Smile.” After all, “classical knits are essential, but … the brighter the color, the better sweater.” I was also challenged to “Bloom Even After Dark.” After all, “Florals aren’t just for spring. Rich and moody blossoms … call for a windswept autumn day, their crimson colors playing off the leaves.”
That advice sounds, well, interesting, but trendy. So Colossians 3’s proclaimers might stick to calling our hearers to the tried and true clothing that never goes out of style: Christ-likeness. It may not be especially trendy in a culture that increasingly seems hostile to holiness. But the Spirit gives it the kind of staying power that, by God’s amazing grace, won’t wear out before Christ comes again.
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