This message is based on a sermon originally preached a year ago, Aug 4, 2013, at Christ the King Anglican in Birmingham, AL. It's been altered a bit for the web.
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on 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 one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts 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.
John Donne famously said, “No man is an island.” In order for a man (or woman) to thrive, he must rely on the companionship of his sisters and brothers. This is rarely disputed, right? Humanists and religious folk of various stripes tend to agree that in order to live a full life, one must live in concert with other human beings. In light of this universal affirmation, why is community is so stinking difficult to maintain? There are a couple obvious things that come to mind.
First, our suburban-ization of America might be partly to blame. We wake up, drive to work, do stuff, come home, watch TV, and go to bed. The routine lasts for years. I don't know about you, but I have to be super intentional with my neighbors if I want to get to know them. And, these are people who sleep twenty feet from my house.
Second, social networks and technology make deep community hard. They merely reinforce bite-sized conversations and shallow interactions. I have a buddy who has nearly a thousand Facebook friends, but can't think of anyone to stand in his wedding. Social media spreads our relational efforts far, but not deep. Because of this, we are becoming a generation of acquaintances, not life-long friends.
Those are just two obvious things that stand in the way of genuine community. You can probably think of a few more.
Well, I believe this passage from Colossians brings much needed ancient wisdom to our modern ears. Paul may not have had a Twitter account, but he knew a thing or two about building community.
Context of Col 3
If we were to jump straight past the first two chapters of Paul's letter and start in the third chapter, we’d be skipping some pretty critical insights to Paul's encouragement to the Colossians. So instead, let’s take a minute to walk through what Paul has been saying thus far. The church in Colossi has had an outbreak of false teaching. We have clues throughout the book that someone in their midst is undercutting the authority of Jesus and encouraging believers to maintain Jewish law.
Church history has told us many times over that Christian vitality crumbles without a high view of Christ and the free grace he offers. Naturally, Paul felt the need to remind the church about the cosmic power and deep love of the incarnate Son of God.
Current need for this reminder
Before you tell me this isn't something we struggle with today, let me remind you about the propositions swimming around in our society. It's quite common to hear people say that Jesus was merely a wise teacher. He was good, but in no way did he expect to be turned into a prophet, much less the Son of God!
In fact, I was having coffee with a friend a few days ago who told me this very thing. "Jesus would be appalled if he knew people were worshiping him," my friend said. The reason for his protest shouldn't be too surprising. As we'll see in a moment, the divinity of Jesus has tremendous implications. This is why Paul says things like this to the Colossian church:
Jesus is the image of the invisible God.... For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible.... He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead.... For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
Throughout the first two chapters of Colossians, Paul is reminding believers that they have been raised alongside Christ. Our lives have been bought by his blood. We are a people freed from death. Therefore, we ought to act like it.
I realize this is a lot of background before our actual passage at hand, but Paul believed that before one could discuss Christian discipleship and community, it was crucial to have a proper understanding of the the power of Christ.
Clothing of believers
Col 3:5-17 could be split into two sections: What we kill, and What we bring to life.
Put to death
Paul tells believers to put to death what is earthly because the wrath of God is coming. It's hard for us to catch the gravity of his words here. There's a sense of urgency in Paul's tone. He's afraid we don't understand what will happen if we don't heed his advice.
Alexander Maclaren describes it this way. It's like a man working in a factory who's hand gets stuck in one of the machine's rollers and starts pulling him in. He knows that in a matter of seconds, his whole body will be pulled into and crushed by the machine. Frantically, the man, with his other arm, reaches for an ax and takes off the trapped hand. It's by no means pleasant, but there's no other way.
While this is a gruesome illustration, it captures the urgency in which Paul is telling Christians to put to death the vices of sexual immorality, impurity, wonton-ness, evil desire, and covetousness.
It's no wonder the first four of the five sins listed in v. 5 are related to sexual sin. "Sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry" (Col 3:5). Sin of this sort is particularly hurtful to ourselves. We all know stories of sexual sin slowly creeping into a friend’s life, perhaps even our own, and nearly destroying everyone nearby.
Now, what is the danger from these sins? The wrath of God. This is an odd phrase to see in the New Testament, right? We figure that phrase needs to stay in the Old Testament. It does good for those of us on this side of the cross to remember that God does not change, and his hatred of sin still burns strong. God loves you so much that he desires for you to mature in Christ, which means immediately taking off sin. Paul’s not done.
Do you see that the next grouping of calamities are relational in manner? "Anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self" (Col 3:8-9). Our focus is starting to turn towards the way we relate to each other.
Paul is addressing a small gathering of believers. He knows sins like these will splinter a congregation in no time. It wouldn't be too difficult to find stories of churches getting torn apart by slander and malice, right?
Being renewed in life
Paul continues. "Put off the old self," he says, "and put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator" (Col 3:10, 12).
The phrase I want to emphasize here is "being renewed." We hear it throughout the New Testament. In 2 Corinthians, Paul says “our inner self is being renewed day by day.” In other words, becoming more Christlike is a gradual process. This is very comforting to me. Some of us are haunted by sins and vices that we just can't seem to shake. This life is plagued by decades of trying to shed sin. It's been said many times from the church I attend that churches shouldn't be a museum of saints, but a hospital of sinners. In other words, we know that fighting against sin can be a long, arduous battle, which is fought day by day. We are slowly being renewed.
Let's now turn our attention to the second half of this passage. And, I’m thrilled to tell you, it’s not as gruesome. Col 3:12–15:
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
Among Scriptures chosen to be read at weddings, this section is fairly popular, and you can see why. It's one of the most beautiful passages on Christian love in the entire Bible. Here, Paul lists five virtues that should clothe each Christian. You're being redeemed by Christ –- this is what you should look like.
This reminds me of what those in liturgical congregations do during Lent. Historically, Christians don't just give up certain activities, but also take on new ones. In other words, the Holy Spirit scoops out our selfish attributes and fills us with the virtues of Christ. The point is that whenever there’s a void, something needs to fill it. In other words, Paul realizes it's time to find some new clothes.
What are those virtues? Compassion, kindness, humility, meekness (or some translations say gentleness), and patience. These virtues stand in direct opposition to the sins listed before. Do you know what else is interesting about these virtues? They're not things encouraged by culture. If the world had a list of virtues, these wouldn’t be at the top. The world values control of power, manipulation, force, and revenge. Oftentimes, the hero on TV gains victory by manipulation, arrogance, and violence.
The Christian is told to be clothed with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Each of these items deserves to be fleshed out a bit more, but I'd like to focus on what they look like when put into action. Paul decides to show us what it looks like when a Christian is properly dressed. When you are clothed with these attributes of love, you will do two things: bear with one another and forgive others as the Lord has forgiven you.
If you spend enough time with someone, you're going to wound them. It's inevitable. This is why Walter Wangerin, in his book As for Me and My House, says that the most effective way you can show love to someone is by exercising forgiveness. How freeing is it when you come to your friend, express your regret, and actually receive forgiveness? It's liberating! It's as if we can move again. Without forgiveness, we grow cynical and stale.
Christ in Community
This message was originally delivered in a season when our church was promoting the small group ministry. Small groups provide a space for church members to gather in one another's homes for prayer and fellowship. Our church called these "Community Groups." I've recently had several insightful conversations with people about Community Groups. It's our belief that Community Groups are where relationships go deep. At our church, these groups meet about twice a month and are filled with laughter, food, spiritual discussion, and prayer. This is just one example of a place where we can start practicing the the Christian virtues listed by St. Paul, especially patience and forgiveness.
Be forewarned, though; Community Groups are wonderful, but wherever community is practiced, people inevitably get ticked off. We all come to the table with different expectation and agendas. No group of people are exempt from the selfishness that can emerge in community, whether that be inside or outside the church.
But, when believers are purposefully clothing themselves with Christlikeness, they operate differently. They are gentle people who are quick to forgive. They are kind and patient listeners who will humbly console you through dark times and celebrate your victories. Communities become places of healing and growth when Christians act like Christ.
Don't you want to be in a place like that? We are invited into the family of God where we feast together and share life with one another. We are day by day taking off the old self, and wrapping ourselves in the likeness of our savior.