Put on - Colossians 3:12-17
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
I am sure that at some time or other you have faced a challenge which goes something like this: ‘It doesn’t make that much difference whether a person is a Christian or not, because it’s just a matter of personal belief anyhow.’ Well, that was a challenge the Jewish social critic, Dennis Prager, sought to tackle when he was in a public debate with the Oxford Atheist philosopher, Jonathan Glover. In response to those who think it makes little difference whether a person is a Christian, he said this, ‘If you, Professor Glover, were stranded at the midnight hour in a desolate Los Angeles street and if, as you stepped out of your car with fear and trembling, you were suddenly to hear the weight of pounding footsteps behind you, and you saw ten burly young men who had just stepped out of a dwelling coming toward you, would it or would it not make a difference to you to know that they were coming from a Bible study?’
Let me extend the point even further. Just cast your eye over the list of sexual and speech related behaviour described in verses 5-9, where Paul mentions things like, ‘lust’, ‘greed’, ‘anger’, ‘rage’, ‘malice’, ‘lying’. It is a depressing and comprehensive list of things, which to be frank, we see going on all around us today. But then take a look at what we have just read in verses 12-17, where Paul talks about things like ‘compassion’, ‘kindness’, ‘humility’, ‘gentleness’, ‘patience’. So here’s the question: if there was a town in which most people behaved in the way described in verses 5-9, and a few miles further down the road, a town in which most people behaved in the way described in verses 12-17: which town would you rather live in?
Now while there may not be towns which are populated by folk like this, there should be communities within towns where such people are to be found. And do you know what they are called-churches? More specifically, here in Hull, there is a place called St John’s, where such folk are meant to be found in abundance. So here Paul is giving what is meant to be a description of us in increasing measure. So what does this look like?
First, there is the new man. Paul begins with a ‘therefore’ and as someone has said you must always ask what is the ‘therefore’ there for. And the answer is that it connects what is about to be said with what has gone before. And in verses 9 and 10 Paul has spoken about Christians putting off, literally, ‘the old man’ and putting on the ‘new man’. Now we do hear today of the ‘new man’ which my wife Heather was determined to make of our three sons. She said to them that she didn’t want them turning out like their Dad, presumably the old man’ and that their wives were going to thank her for it; so yes, they can cook, clean and change nappies- all marks of the new man (so I am told). But what Paul speaks of here is far more radical: as a result of what Jesus has done on the cross and by virtue of his resurrection, those who put their trust in him are spiritually united to him such that the old person of their pre-Christian days in God’s sight no longer exists, so that when God looks upon us now he sees us through the prism of his Son and so we are increasingly to become like his Son day by day.
And you see what such a change has taken place in the way God views us because of the new identity we have been given, v 12, ‘Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved.’ There is the story of a young boy who was being bullied in the school playground because some of the other children had recently discovered that he had been adopted. After some teasing and pushing he eventually rounded on them and said, ‘Well, at least my parents chose me, yours had not option.’ That boy had tapped into something very important. There is a special value in being chosen. Not that you are chosen because you are special but being chosen makes you special. And Paul is saying that is what has happened to us. God who owns the whole universe has decided to own a people, making them his special possession in his Son Jesus Christ. Of course, such a God who is holy can’t possibly accept anything which isn’t holy and so left all to ourselves we would have no hope; but we are not left to ourselves, for by being united to Jesus we become holy- separated- because he is holy.
But then Paul adds something else which is spectacularly stunning, he says Christians are ‘dearly loved’. There is a burning intensity which moves within the very depths of God’s being when he looks upon his people. This is who we are - the object of gut churning divine love (that is the word used) and so accordingly we are to take on a new character, v 12b ‘…clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.’
Now it couldn’t have escaped your notice that all of those virtues characterise one man in particular- the Lord Jesus Christ. It was the Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who said, ‘I believe that there is nothing lovelier, deeper, more sympathetic, more rational, more manly, and more perfect than the Saviour; I say to myself with jealous love that not only is there no one else like Him, but that there could be no one.’ Why did he say that? Because he was entranced by the character of Christ who saw a poor widow weeping by her only son’s coffin and was moved with deep compassion and raised him from the dead; Jesus who from the cross saw his distressed mother and in an act of kindness called for a disciple to take care of her; Jesus who in humility washed the grime ingrained feet of his disciples; Jesus who gently took Jairus’ daughter by the hand and raised her to life and who showed patience by putting up with the taunts and beatings of the Roman soldiers rather than retaliating. Well, says Paul, you are to put on each one of these virtues every day of your life as you would carefully put on an individual item of clothing each morning, holding them in place with the all-embracing over-garment of love (v14).
Of course, when you do that other things will always be completely out of place in your life, such as harbouring grudges (v 13). A friend of mine puts it like this: ‘To harbour a grudge is to cultivate a virus in the blood stream of the soul; to refuse to forgive a brother or a sister with whom you worship is to introduce that virus into the blood-stream of the church. There we must pray for those we dislike or resent until we see them as those for whom Christ died, loved by God and our brothers and sisters in the new family of salvation. Nothing dissolves differences and disinfects attitudes like prayer. Prayer strengthens the antibodies of forgiveness and forbearance like nothing else and in its rescue resentments die and love is safe.’ (Peter Lewis). Where does the Christian draw the reserves necessary to neutralise the virus of resentment? The same places he goes to for all his spiritual resources, the cross of Christ, ‘Forgive as the Lord forgave you.’ When the Lord forgave you by dying for you, you didn’t see any conditions attached, any small print did you? It was complete, comprehensive and unconditional. And Paul is making it clear that as the new man in Christ, we are to be like Christ in this important regard- we forgive with no strings attached. I know we sometimes justify our refusal to forgive by saying something like, ‘But you have no idea what that person has done to me.’ Maybe, but do we not have some inkling, however faint of what we have done to Christ when our sin, including that sin of an unforgiving attitude, hammered home the nails to hold him to the cross? ‘Forgive as the Lord forgave you.’
Let me tell you something: Julian Lennon, son of Beatle John Lennon, once ruefully said these words, ‘Dad was a great talent, a remarkable man who stood for peace and love in the world. But at the same time he found it very hard to show peace and love to his first family- my mother and me.’ Isn’t that incredibly sad? But what is sadder is when Christians sing of Jesus’ peace and forgiveness and show little of it in their first family- the church. That should not be dear friends and needn’t be if we make sure we are wearing the outer garment of love.
Which finally brings us to the new society.
While verses 12-14 is addressed to each one of us individually, verses 15-17 are addressed to all of us corporately, that is as a collective church family- God’s new society.
So here’s the question: in a group of a few hundred people, as we have here at St John’s, of different ages, from different backgrounds, different languages and cultures, how is it going to be possible to have any harmony and common direction? Well, think of an orchestra. Here you have a large number of different people, each playing different instruments so how could one possibly expect to have any harmonious music emanating from them, why isn’t it just one grand cacophony? The answer of course, is that they are all playing the same music under the same conductor. Sure, each has his different part to play which makes the finished product all the richer. What is our sheet music? It is the Gospel, the Gospel of peace which Christ has won for us on the cross (1:20). And this is the Gospel which rules our lives together within our fellowship. The word ‘rule’ here is not the word associated with the rule of a king. It is a word associated with an umpire of an Olympic game, someone called in to arbitrate, ensuring the game is being played properly. So it is in the church. Sure, it is a peace which is rooted in our own hearts but which works itself out in the way we live and work together as Christians in a fellowship like this. So here is the test or ‘rule’ when we are thinking about whether we should take this course of action or not: is it in accord with the Gospel? Will it promote the Gospel? If the answer is yes, you seriously consider it. If the answer is ‘no’ then why are we bothering even thinking about? Let the main thing be the main thing and the main thing is the Gospel of peace to which we have been called together.
And just how we ensure that the main thing remains that way is spelt out in the next few verses: ‘Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.’ The peace of Christ does it ruling by the message of Christ doing its indwelling. Do you see that? And this is to happen ‘richly’, that is lavishly, extravagantly- there is to be no meanness when it comes to sharing the word of Christ. This is the food which sustains us, the energy which enlivens us, the music we are meant to be playing together.
There is the positive instruction of God’s life-giving truths- so we ‘teach’, but also the correction to our behaviour ‘admonish’ and both are to be done in a godly, sensitive and courageous way- ‘with all wisdom.’ And will you notice that this is something all Christians are to be doing, it is part and parcel of what it means to be a Christian and belonging to a fellowship like this. So, yes it takes place in the small groups, when we have formal one to one meetings, but also the informal, for example, after the service over coffee or tea- continue the teaching and admonishing by talking about what you have heard in the sermon or over Sunday lunch.
But don’t you find it interesting what Paul says should be the means by which we all teach each other? Here is a literal translation of verse 16, ‘teaching and admonishing one another with psalms, with hymns, with spiritual songs, with thankfulness (literally ‘grace’) singing in your hearts to God.’ Here is the guard against mere moralism, a trap we all easily fall into, especially when we try to correct each other- saying we should be doing this and not doing that. The best way to build each other up is to praise up God- the psalms are all about God and his messiah, Jesus, and so should be our hymns and spiritual songs, and as we are filled with grace/gratitude towards so wonderful a Saviour, then we will share that with others so they are built up too. One of our main purposes in meeting like this is to magnify Christ- and when that happens our hearts are enlarged too both towards God and each other.
Now to some extent, this is where differences in culture kick in. We have formal songs in a formal setting like this. When Paul wrote to these Christians they were probably meeting in the house of Philemon which was more informal with impromptu singing going on. And this still happens. When Heather and I first went to South Africa and visited a Zulu church in a black township the people came in singing, they kept singing (except when I was preaching) and went out singing, as they shook my hand at the door they kept on singing! Here it is (clip). They were doing what Paul says here and do you not thinking it was an enriching experience? It certainly was for Heather and I and we didn’t even speak Zulu!
So what difference does it make having a new life in Christ? Paul sums up everything he has been saying in verse 17. There is the scope of the Christian life- ‘and whatever you do in word or deed’- there is no act, no thought, no word which is to be left untouched by our relationship to Jesus. There is the Lord of the Christian life ‘do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus.’ This is not a matter of asking ‘What would Jesus do?’ But ‘what would Jesus approve of?’ And then we have the manner of the Christian life, ‘giving thanks to God the Father through him’. This is the sixth time in the letter Paul has spoken about Christian being thankful people or as Augustine put it a ‘Hallelujah from head to toe’.
Let me end by sharing with you a moving example of someone who cultivated this Christian character which was especially marked by thanksgiving and see if in some small measure we might be able to copy him.
John Bradford was one of the first English Reformers to be burned at the stake in Smithfield market for his evangelical convictions under ‘Bloody’ Queen Mary in 1555. Tied to the stake, he turned to his fellow martyr, John leaf and said, ‘Be of good comfort, brother; for we shall have a merry supper with the Lord this night.’ How do you think he got to be like that? In part in this way: while many of us take meal times as an opportunity to thank God for his kind provision, Bradford saw every part of the day as a Gospel reminder. And so when he woke up in the morning he would ‘call to mind the great joy and blessedness of the everlasting resurrection…..that most clear light and bright morning…after the long darkness’. Seeing the sun, he would praise the Light of the World. Rising he would think on how Christ raises us up. Dressing he would pray, ‘O Christ, clothe me with thine own self’ and remember ‘how we are incorporated into Christ…how he clothes us.’ When returning home he would think ‘how joyful a return, it will be to come to our eternal, most quiet, and most happy home’. And when finally undressing at night he would think of ‘putting off the old man, with his lusts’ and readying himself for the sleep of death: ‘As you are not afraid to enter into your bed, and to dispose yourself to sleep; so be not afraid to die.’ ‘Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
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