Tuesday, January 26, 2016

New Clothes

New Clothes
Colossians 3:12-17[1]
For those of you who may keep up with the latest styles, it’s pretty obvious that I’m no fashion guru. I do try to look my best, mind you, especially in professional situations. But I’m aware that my wardrobe wouldn’t make the cover of GQ magazine. I wear clothes that are functional more than trendy. Some of my clothes are 15 years old, which means they are long out of style. And I tend to go with a certain look and stay with it. It makes it easier that way. I don’t have to make too many decisions about what to wear. I like to keep things simple and functional when it comes to my wardrobe.
But then some of you may have also noticed that I’ve made a wardrobe change recently. This Fall, I’ve started wearing bow ties on special occasions. Now, I know that bow ties are the trademark of the Presbyterian pastor down the road. I must say I sort of fell into this trend by accident. My son and his fiancée are getting married this week, and the theme of their ceremony is art deco. So all the men in the wedding party are wearing bow ties—the real thing, not pre-tied clip-on’s. So I figured I’d buy a couple of bow ties and learn how to tie them before I get to the wedding. Well, I have to say, I had so much fun with it, that I decided to incorporate it into my wardrobe. I don’t know that it makes me look any more trendy or stylish, but I like my “new look.”
As I mentioned on Christmas Eve, this year’s Gospel readings during advent are all about the changes that Jesus’ birth brought to our lives. They change the very ground on which we build our lives. Jesus made it clear that what he had come to do was to make it possible for “the last to be first,” which also means that the “first shall be last.” It turns everything upside down. Or, maybe, as one contemporary prophet puts it, the world is flying upside down and Jesus comes along to turn things right-side-up.[2]
One of the metaphors for this kind of radical change of life in the New Testament has to do with clothes. St. Paul is particularly fond of talking about “taking off” behaviors that diminish and harm ourselves and others and “putting on” the qualities that defined Jesus’ life.[3] And so in our lesson for today, he calls us to change our wardrobe, so to speak. Paul goes through the closet of our lives and pulls out what is no longer beneficial, and sets us to the task of filling our wardrobe with a whole different set of clothes.
In particular, he calls us to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Col. 3:12).[4] That in and of itself is a tall order, if you really think about what it means to make those qualities the defining marks of your life. To some extent, I think he summarizes all of the qualities that he wants to see in our lives when he tells us to “clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col. 3:14).[5] In fact, he tells us to do this “above all.” That shouldn’t come as a surprise to us, since the whole Bible teaches us that what God wants from us is to love our brothers and sisters—all our brothers and sisters.
Now, we’re familiar with the fact that the Bible presents this kind of challenge to us—we are to leave behind the ways that belong to life apart from Christ, and we’re to put on our “new clothes” instead. But I’m not sure we get the motivation for all that. It’s not just that you’re supposed to be a good and kind and nice person. There’s much more behind it. One aspect is that since Christ died for us, we’re also called to die to all that characterizes a life that is motivated by selfish desires and is essentially harmful to others (Col. 3:5-9).
But there’s more: because Christ has been raised to new life, we too have a new life within us.[6] And the Scriptures call upon us to let the qualities of that new life be our new wardrobe. Because we have been “raised with Christ” (Col. 3:1), and “Christ is our life” (3:4), we are to let the life of the risen Christ shine through our character and actions. St. Paul depicts this in terms of a “renewal” that God has brought into our lives. But it goes beyond that—this renewal that is underway is changing everything for everyone, whether they know it or not. It is a transformation that means that “Christ is all in all” (Col. 3:11). That might not say it clearly enough: I like Gene Peterson’s translation of this phrase in The Message: “From now on everyone is defined by Christ, everyone is included in Christ.” Since we are all caught up in God’s work of making all things new through Jesus Christ, we are to let that newness shine in us and through us.
In a very real sense, I would say that our Scripture lesson for today is a call for us all to take a close look at the wardrobe that defines the way we live our lives. All that is selfish and harmful to others, all that diminishes us and others, has become like clothing that is out of date. And just as we sometimes have to go through our closets and clean out clothing that we no longer wear, so we’re to take all those ways of being and acting that are no longer useful or beneficial, and clear them out of the closet of our lives. And in the place of those old behaviors and actions we’re to fill our closet with a whole new set of clothes: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. In a word, whatever constitutes authentic, sincere, and truly loving ways of being and acting. After all, that’s the kind of life that Jesus embodied. What St. Paul is really asking us to do is to clothe ourselves with Jesus.[7] His way of life, his love, his character, and all that goes with it, are to be the “new clothes” in our wardrobe.

[1] ©2015. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/27/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman NE.
[2] Cf. Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, 88-89. He defines “flying upside-down” by saying (p. 10), “What is truly profound is thought to be stupid and trivial, or worse, boring, while what is actually stupid and trivial is thought to be profound.”
[3] Many scholars speak of this as the tension in Paul’s letters between the “indicative,” or the newness that becomes real in a person’s life when they are transformed by Christ, and the “imperative,” or the practical realization that this transformation does not take place overnight, but must be intentionally cultivated. Cf. Andrew T. Lincoln, “The Letter To The Colossians,” New Interpreters Bible XI:647: “although they have already put on the new person, they still need to clothe themselves with specific virtues.”  Cf. also P. T. O’Brien, Colossians, Philemon, 213.
[4] Cf. E. Lohse, Colossians and Philemon: A commentary on the Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon, 147: “All of the five terms that describe the new man’s conduct are used in other passages to designate acts of God or of Christ.” (compassion: Rom 12:1; 2 Cor 1:3; kindness: Rom 2:4; 11:22; Eph 2:7; Tit 3:4; humility: Phil 2:8; 2 Cor 10:1; patience: Rom 2:4; 9:22).
[5] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:784: “love is the sum of all the mercy, goodness, humility, long-suffering and mutual forbearance and forgiveness that those who are chosen and sanctified and loved by God are to ‘put on’ as a garment which is prepared for them and suits them.”
[6] Cf. Michael Barram, “Colossians 3:1-17,” Interpretation, 59 (April 2005): 190, where he says that “the living Christ provides the basis for all Christian conduct”; and further, these behaviors become “the norm for believers because Christ is alive and reigning with God.”
[7] Of course, this is a process. The church is always made up of people who are simul justus et peccator (“at the same time both justified and a sinner”). Or as Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 353, says it, “God sanctifies his church by calling the godless through Christ, by justifying sinners, and by accepting the lost. The communion or community of the saints—or the holy or sanctified—is therefore always at the same time the community of sinners; and the sanctified church is always at the same time the sinful church. Through its continual prayer ‘forgive us our trespasses,’ it recognizes itself as being in sin and at the same time as being holy in the divine forgiveness of sins. … In the confession of sin and faith in justification the church is simultaneously communio peccatorum and communio sanctorum.”

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