We are coming to an end of our series on the book of Colossians. It is fitting that our study of Colossians would culminate in a baptism this morning. Paul’s word, and God’s words to us could not be more fitting. Remember the issue in Colossians is putting of the old and putting on the new. Paul says in chapter one of Colossians that God has ‘rescued us from darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his Son…’ What better picture of going from darkness to light than a baptism?
Normally, I would say a few words about the vows and the baptismal covenant, but Paul actually does the work for me. The first verses of chapter three are actually pretty important. He says,
So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, 3 for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.
Then Paul shows us explicitly how to go from darkness to light. Put off, put to death the old person and, since you have been raised with Christ, ‘clothe yourself’ with the characteristics of Jesus. Literally, clothe yourself with Christ. Paul says Christians are ‘in Christ’ and ‘with Christ,’ and the catalog of virtues he mentions reflect that fact.
What was happening in the church of Colossae, as we know, was that they were confused as to how to live in Christ, how to live that new kingdom life. They were vexed as to how to get away from the indulgent and permissive culture they lived in. And so some came up with a whole list of ‘don’t dos.’
Some thought that they should live according to the law. Some thought they should reflect the dualism of the philosophers. Paul says in Colossians 2, 20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”? 22 All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence.”
When faced with the sexual immorality and the indulgence of the culture, the Colossians thought that return to a tighter system would work. Paul, says, though, that creating lists of ‘don’t dos’ are actually ineffective against vice and indulgence. His solution is simple but deeper than might seem on the surface.
What Paul says, is basically, put to death what is earthly and clothe yourself with the character of Jesus. Put off the clothes of earth, and put on the clothes of Eden, of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Our baptismal liturgy says to renounce evil and turn to Christ.
How is that done?
Paul is clear that there are two levels to the earthly nature. He says to: Put off, put to death what is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry)… anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another…
The first list of vices are the obvious ones, fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). These reflect the baseness of sin, the craving of what one does not have. This is the rockstar list, desires out of control. Greed for what others have and envy that what they have is not ours. Like the celebrity who tried to explain away his affair with his stepdaughter by saying, “The heart wants what it wants.” Or like the composer Wagner who said, “The world owes me what I need.”
But Paul has another list, he says also to put to death anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another…
Paul’s earlier point is that external rules and regulations can help some things, but that the real issue is the condition of the heart. Fornication, impurity and passion–rules might help here, but evil desire, greed, anger, malice…these things are much more difficult to avoid and to put off, or put to death. Did you know there was“A rabbinic tradition taught that if a man wants to keep his mind on the Law, he should not walk on a road behind a woman, even if she is his own wife.” One writer comments on this, “This advice ignores the fact that walking alone on the moon or making everyone wear floor length gunny sacks will not solve the problem of lust that lies buried within our hearts.”
We all know the 10 commandments. These are somewhat easy to pull of aren’t they? But Jesus first and then Paul say that it is the heart that is the true source of the problem. Jesus says in Matthew 5, 21“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23
Not too tough to refrain from killing. But to refrain from hatred and anger and malice?
Paul says that the list of vices (which certainly is not exhaustive) is part of the earthly nature. We are to put that nature off like a pile of rags–or to put it another way, we are to kill it.
Jesus words again, Matthew 5:29 If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.
For Paul and for Jesus, the sinful nature, the earthly, what in us which is of the kingdom of darkness needs to be cast aside and eliminated. This is serious business. This is why baptism and becoming a Christian is serious business. It is a serious choice and like what the Prayer Book says about marriage, Therefore marriage is
not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently,
deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it
was instituted by God.
Ann Lamott says it well this way,
“…when you ask God into your life, you think he…is going to come into your psychic house, look around, and see that you just need a little cleaning–and so you go along for the first six months thinking how nice life is now that God is there. Then you look out the window one day and see that there’s a wrecking ball outside. It turns out that God actually thinks your whole foundation is shot an you’re going to have to start over from scratch.”
What Elizabeth is doing this morning is entering into a lifestyle of constant putting to death and constant clothing oneself with Jesus. Baptism is a one time thing, but the baptismal life, the Christian life, is a lifestyle that is taken on daily.
How do you put something to death? Only by bringing life and healing.
Paul says putting off is not enough but that since we are raised with Christ, Clothe yourself with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love…Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs 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.
You see the pattern–put off, put to death; clothe yourself, put on Christ.
If the life of the Christian was all mortification and no life we would be people most to be pitied. But Christ is risen and those who are Christ-followers are risen to life abundant. A life of forgiveness, compassion, humility, meekness, patience and love. And we are also a people of truth and wisdom and a people of worship.
One of my favorite comics is Calvin and Hobbes, about a 6 year old boy and his stuffed Tiger Hobbes, who is real to Calvin. One cartoon is particularly funny. One panel has Hobbes asking Calvin about his New Year’s resolutions. Calvin says he didn’t make any and then says, “See in order to improve oneself, one must have some idea of what’s ‘good.’ That implies certain values. But as we know, values are relative. Every system of belief is equally valid and we need to tolerate diversity. Virtue isn’t ‘better’ than vice. It’s just different.” Hobbes then says, “I don’t think I can tolerate so much tolerance.” To which Calvin replies, “I refuse to be victimized by notions of virtuous behavior.”
Paul gives us a list of virtues that is not just a list of good things, but reflective of the nature of Christ himself. If we are to put off the old we are to put on Christ. We are to reflect his very nature, a life of forgiveness, compassion, humility, meekness, patience and love.
One writer says, ‘These teachings [from Paul] constitute an inescapable call to make the ethics of the Savior the ethics of the saved.’
How do we get there? Episcopalians, especially the old school ones like us, like duty. We like to do things because it is the right thing to do. But it is almost impossible to make Paul’s list duties. Think about it, you don’t wake up and say, ‘I’m going to be humble, meek, compassionate and patient today.’ You can only get there by total transformation.
It cannot be done without the power of the Holy Spirit and it cannot be done in isolation.
We cannot be Christlike without the power of God doing a work in our lives. And we cannot do it alone.
If we were to baptize Elizabeth (or anyone) and tell them to be on their way and thanks for being a part of this we would be selling her short. The call of Christ is a communal people. Elizabeth is called to the church just as much as she’s called to Jesus. Listen to Paul:
Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with 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 the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs 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.
Forgiveness and bearing each other’s burdens. Forgiving as Christ has forgiven us. Teaching the truth in wisdom and worshiping. Those things can only be done in a body, which is the church. One writer has said, ‘[salvation] is a joining together of this person and that person, of the near and the far, of the good and the bad, of the high church and low church, of the liberal and fundamentalist. It is a social [public] event. No one is joined to Christ except together with a neighbor.’ We never do private baptisms at Epiphany because to be baptized into Christ is to be baptized into his body.
To be in the body then, we learn what forgiveness and compassion and love are all about. We also learn the truth and we seek to gain wisdom on the way. In a body we also worship. Paul says, with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs 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.
To be a Christian is to have a life of gratitude and praise. Sometimes we lose sight of this. Duty says, ‘get your butt to church!’ But a transformed life is a life of worship every day, with gratitude.
Put off the old, put on the new.
I read a book recently called God Grew Tired of Us about the lost boys of the Sudan. If you don’t know about the chaos in Sudan it is really basic, the Muslim government of the north went on a killing spree in the early 90s of all who were not Arab. Thousands of ‘lost boys,’ that is little boys, escaped, many of then naked, because the attacks occurred in the middle of the night.
The author of the book, John Dau, tells his story as one of those lost boys. He talks of being so thirsty that the boys would beg other boys to pee in a cup for them. He describes being so hungry that they would eat mud. He describes being beaten on several occasions by government soldiers who he would unfortunately meet on the road. He describes traveling 500 miles to find safety in Kenya.
In the Kenyan refugee camp John met a white Episcopal priest named Fr. Jphn. Fr. John gifted the refugees with a church service that he called synagogue, because they were like the children of Israel passing through without a permanent home. It was worship under a tent. But John Dau describes these worship services this way:
‘I belonged to a group of about 75 boys, who gathered for two hours every evening. We sang in Dinka. Sometimes we knelt and prayed, sometimes we felt the Spirit moving us to prophesy, and sometimes we just held each other. We jumped and clapped hands. And we danced. Ours was a demonstrative, emotional synagogue. It was the sweetest thing when I felt the Spirit of the Lord moving through me. It was like drinking cold water on a hot day. I knew the Lord had kept me alive in the desert and in the forest, and I was sure he must have a plan for me to do something good with my life.’
This is what it is to worship and to celebrate and to live together in love.
The contrast of what he experienced is also not so different from going from darkness to light, putting off the old–the desert, the forest, the danger, the hunger the despair; and putting on the new–the singing, the clapping, the dancing, the Spirit of the Lord–like drinking cold water on a hot day. There’s was an experience of freedom, worship and transformation.
Wherever we find ourselves today–maybe we’re trying to build the biggest barn like the man in Jesus’ parable, maybe we have wandered the desert and filled ourselves with the stuff that Paul mentions. We know there is something else. We can see a life that is worth living.
My invitation is to take that life, the life that Jesus offers. The living water, the abundant life. Ask the Lord to come in and to take his wrecking ball if necessary and to change us.
Let us pray.