Sunday, September 28, 2014

Living Letters from Paul: A series on the Epistles, week 3

The Right Answer Really IS Jesus!
Colossians 3: 12-17
September 28, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Dear Sisters and Brothers of the 21st century American church, Greetings from Colossae!

We are the recipients of one of the Apostle Paul’s shorter letters. And we need to say, it isn’t even exactly clear whether Paul himself or one of his students wrote this letter to us. But Paul knew about us, and he knew many of us by name, as personal friends. Colossae was the home of Philemon, who was the one addressed in Paul’s very short letter by the same name. Our congregation was in a diverse medium sized city in what is now the country of Turkey. We were an established Christian community, but we had been led astray by some false teachings.

You see, all around us, in our city, were those who followed other beliefs. Some worshiped angels. Some worshiped the stars, practicing astrology and counting the stars themselves as deities. Others called themselves Christian, but they devised all sorts of special diets and secret rituals that were supposed to help them come to an exceptional kind of understanding and connection to God. As far as they were concerned, Jesus Christ alone wasn’t enough; there had to be something more that people needed to do.

In the letter to the Colossians, you’ll find an early hymn of the church, a song that was probably sung together by many Christians in the first century. It’s in what you would call the first chapter, although the letters didn’t have chapters and verses when they were originally written. Those weren’t added until much, much later.

Here’s a little bit of that Christ hymn:
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

When you get a chance, read the rest of it. In fact, when you get a chance, read the whole letter – it’s only a few pages in your Bible. Meanwhile, listen for God’s word to you today in this part of our letter that is called Colossians 3: 12-17

12 Therefore, as God’s choice, holy and loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. 13 Be tolerant with each other and, if someone has a complaint against anyone, forgive each other. As the Lord forgave you, so also forgive each other. 14 And over all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity.15 The peace of Christ must control your hearts—a peace into which you were called in one body. And be thankful people. 16 The word of Christ must live in you richly. Teach and warn each other with all wisdom by singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 Whatever you do, whether in speech or action, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus and give thanks to God the Father through him.

This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

There’s an old, old church story. It might be true, and you’ve probably heard it. 
One Sunday a pastor was using squirrels for an object lesson for the children. He started, "I'm going to describe something, and I want you to raise your hand when you know what it is." The children nodded eagerly.
"This thing lives in trees (pause) and eats nuts (pause)..." No hands went up.
"And it is gray (pause) and has a long bushy tail (pause)..."
The children were looking at each other nervously, but still no hands raised.
"It jumps from branch to branch (pause)
and chatters and flips its tail when it's excited (pause)..."
Finally one little boy’s hand went up very slowly. 
The pastor quickly called on the child.
"Well," said the boy, "I know the answer must be 'Jesus'
... but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me!"

Remember that squirrel – and the right answer. We’ll come back to it.

As I studied Colossians this week, I kept returning to the hymn to Christ in the first chapter, this poetic and beautiful statement of who Jesus is, what he does, his place in our world and in our lives. That hymn forms the very foundation of the text we are looking at today. Here it is in its entirety, from Colossians 1: 15-20, Common English Bible:

“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the one who is first over all creation, because all things were created by him both in the heavens and on the earth, the things that are visible and the things that are invisible. Whether they are thrones or powers, or rulers or authorities, all things were created through him and for him. He existed before all things, and all things are held together in him. He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the one who is firstborn from among the dead so that he might occupy the first place in everything. Because all the fullness of God was pleased to live in him, and he reconciled all things to himself through him— whether things on earth or in the heavens. He brought peace through the blood of his cross.”

And in the following few verses, we are given the application to our lives:
“Once you were alienated from God and you were enemies with him in your minds, which was shown by your evil actions. But now he - Jesus - has reconciled you by his physical body through death, to present you before God as a people who are holy, faultless, and without blame. But you need to remain well established and rooted in faith and not shift away from the hope given in the good news that you heard.”

Stay firmly grounded – that was the message – don’t be swayed from hope in the gospel. You see, whatever it was that was going on in the life of the church at Colossae, they had drifted away from their purpose, their mission. They had lost track of the reason for their existence and the urgency of their work. So Paul calls them back to the center with this beautiful hymn, which was probably familiar to them, and then he reminds them of certain crucial facts – their identity, their vocation, and their dwelling place – Jesus the Christ.

After he called them back to themselves, to who they were in Jesus, he spent some time teaching and encouraging them in their actions. Some of that was in the negative sense – don’t be deceived; don’t be arrogant; don’t be led astray; avoid sexual immorality, greed, and corruption; set aside the old self, that was headed toward death. And then we come to this very positive instruction, framed in a lovely metaphor of what to wear:

Because God has chosen you, made you holy, loved you: wear compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Forgive each other as you have been forgiven. Then put on love over all of this, like a cloak, you will be covered in love. If you do this, Christ’s peace will control your hearts and you will be thankful people, in whom the word of Christ lives. That’s what you’ll look like. And here’s what you’ll be doing: Teaching one another, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Singing to God with hearts full of gratitude. And whatever you do, in thought or word or deed, you’ll do it name of Jesus, giving thanks to God through him.

Remember that TV show “What Not To Wear”? It ran for ten seasons! “ What Not to Wear” was the show where friends would nominate a woman whose wardrobe was less than optimal. After she was followed around and observed for a while, and if she agreed to the program, Stacy and Clinton would go into her closet, throw out all the clothes they didn’t like, then give her some fashion advice, and send her shopping for new clothes. Sometimes the subject would do alright, but mostly not. Then Stacy and Clinton would step in, show the woman how to dress, get her hair and makeup done, and she would stun her family and friends at the big reveal. People would gasp when they saw the transformation. Women went from dumpy to dazzling, from frumpy to fabulous. The woman’s kids and husband would cry tears of joy. Friends would be jubilant.

The show tapped into a feeling that many of us have, that feeling that we can look better, and as a result, feel better, just by changing our wardrobe. That’s how fashion works – that’s how they sell us clothes! Stacy London, one of the stars of “What Not to Wear” said it well: “Fashion is an industry to make money. It plays into human psychology. We want to belong, we want to be loved...”

Stacy nailed it – and the fashion industry taps into that place in us, that place that craves positive attention, that place that knows we could be better. We want to belong, we want to be loved. Somehow, if we are wearing the right thing, everything else will fall into place. We’ll be popular, we’ll be attractive, we’ll be successful.

This section of Colossians digs even deeper. It isn’t telling us what not to wear – it is giving us personal consultation on what to put on every single day.

Imagine that your shirt is compassion, 
your socks are kindness,
your trousers or skirt are humility, 
your shoes the footwear of gentleness,
your jacket is patience, your coat is love.

Imagine putting on Christ every day – not just wearing a cross on your lapel or on a necklace, but donning the nature of Jesus like a uniform, like a clerical collar, like a robe of love, every single day.

Throughout human history, what people wear has been a matter of interest. In first century Rome, only the emperor could wear purple; only male citizens who had reached adulthood could wear the toga. In the middle ages, only the wealthy could wear certain colors or fabric, and members of guilds and religious orders could be identified by their dress. The very rich dressed all their servants and often their children in matching uniforms, identified by a family crest or symbol.

It is not much different today. We still identify and classify people based on what they are wearing. Walk into a bank wearing a torn t-shirt and flip-flops – see if you are treated differently. Show up anywhere dressed in a military uniform, and watch the reactions. Wear a grass skirt and a coconut bra anywhere but a luau…I dare you! It really does matter what we wear.

But here in Colossians, whether you are wearing high heeled shoes or battle fatigues, or both! – what to wear is this kind of spiritual clothing that identifies you as a member of the Christian household. You wear it at home, to your job, on the golf course, at a picnic, when you’re vacationing, and when you go to church. You put on Christ, and you are clothed in love.

At the Academy Awards, when the movies stars get out of their limousines and walk down the red carpet with all the cameras flashing, someone always asks them, “Who are you wearing?” And they answer with designer names – Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Armani, Celine, Chanel, Givenchy, Versace. I haven’t noticed you all wearing those designers but I hope that anyone who meets us knows to whom we belong.

I told you at the beginning about the preacher and the squirrel, and about the right answer, and I said we’d come back to it. A couple of weeks ago, in the children’s time, Nan and I asked a question that really stumped the kids. We tried coaching and hinting, and they made a lot of guesses, but we weren’t getting there. Finally, Nan called out to Brayden,

“Brayden, what’s always the right answer?” Brayden looked up – I’m not sure if he’d been paying much attention— and he said, “Jesus?” Yes! Because in confirmation and in Sunday School, we joke with the kids that if they aren’t sure about how to answer our questions, they should answer “Jesus.” Because even if they are wrong, they are right! But most of the time, they are right.

Try it with me.

What’s the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament?
Who was born on Christmas?
Why do we celebrate Easter?
What living person can we always count on?
Who loves you more than anyone, and always will, no matter what?
Who is the head of the church?
Who calls the church together and makes us one?
Where should you turn when your heart is heavy?
Who are you wearing?

See, as it turns out, the right answer really IS Jesus!
May Christ enfold you, like a cloak of love, and may the love of Jesus dwell in you richly, no matter what clothing you have on. 


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