You Asked For A Sermon On
(Romans 13:14; Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:5-14)
Nakedness renders very few people more handsome. Most people look worse in the bathtub than they do anywhere else. By the time we are 25 years old gravy and gravity have taken their toll. We look better clothed.
Then what shall we wear? Anything at all? Shabby, old clothes? Or "far-out", ostentatious, unserviceable clothing? Surely we want to wear clothing that suits us. And if we can find clothing that is just perfect for us, we may even say that our clothing "makes" us.
St.Paul was fond of the metaphor of clothing. In his letters to congregations in Rome, Ephesus and Colosse he speaks metaphorically of clothing which should be thrown out, as well as of clothing which should be worn all the time. The apostle knows something we do well to remember: nakedness (metaphorically speaking) is not possible. It is impossible to be unclothed spiritually. He never urges his readers to put on something in order to cover up their spiritual nakedness. Instead he urges them to take off that clothing which always clothes, naturally clothes fallen human beings, and then to put on that clothing which adorns Christians, and adorns them just because they have first put on the Lord Jesus Christ himself.
I: -- Everyone knows that some clothing is not merely old or frayed or threadbare. Some clothing is much worse than this: it is vermin-ridden. Vermin-ridden clothing is not to be washed or patched or simply set aside. It is to be destroyed. Of course! Vermin have to be killed.
For this reason Paul begins his wardrobe recommendations with the startling phrase, "Put to death...". "Put to death what is earthly in you: fornication, impurity..." and so on. Degenerate sexual behaviour is inappropriate to Christian discipleship and must be eliminated.
What the apostle had to say in this regard shocked the ancient world. In ancient Greece a man had a wife for human companionship; he had as many mistresses as he wanted for libidinal relief; and he had a young boy for the ultimate in sexual gratification. As the gospel penetrated the ancient world Christian congregations stood out as islands of sexual purity in a sea of corruption.
Do we still stand out today? Several weeks ago the Toronto newspapers published articles on the promiscuity of NHL hockey players. Players were not named, for the most part (although one Maple Leaf named himself unashamedly as one who had been tested for AIDS). A player with the Montreal Canadiens, a fellow who makes no Christian profession at all, remarked, "I always thought it was supposed to be one man and one woman for life." Does it take a hockey player to remind the present-day church of what it is supposed to uphold? In the ancient world the church stood out as startlingly different; the society surrounding the church had never seen anything like it.
I am asked over and over what I think about "trial marriage". Invariably I say that "trial marriage" is a logical impossibility; it is as logically impossible as a trial parachute jump. As long as you are standing in the doorway of the airplane, you haven't jumped at all. Once you have jumped, however, it isn't a trial; it's the real thing. A trial parachute jump is logically impossible. So is a trial marriage. If a commitment hasn't been made it isn't marriage at all. If a commitment has been made it isn't a trial. We can be sure of one thing: the mindset which foolishly thinks that there can be "trial marriage" will also think that there can be "trial adultery". St.Paul, reflecting the conviction of all Christians of the apostolic era, insists that some clothing cannot be helped by spot remover. It must be destroyed. "Put to death what is earthly in you", is his manner of speaking.
We must be fair and acknowledge that there are additional items of clothing which should be destroyed. "Passion, evil desire, covetousness", with covetousness underlined, since covetousness amounts to idolatry, he tells us. The Greek word for covetousness is PLEONEXIA. PLEON -- more; EXIA, to have. Covetousness is the passionate desire to have more -- have more of anything. It is evil in that the passionate desire to have more corrupts us and victimizes others.
To crave greater prestige, greater notoriety, greater visibility is to embrace compromise after compromise until we have thoroughly falsified ourselves, a phoney of the phoneys. To crave more goods is to fall into dishonesty. To crave more power, greater domination, is to become first exploitative then cruel.
Paul sums up the passionate desire to have more -- covetousness -- as idolatry. Martin Luther used to say, "Our god is that to which we give ourselves; that from which we seek our ultimate satisfaction." What we pursue, what we actually pursue, what our heart is set on when all the socially acceptable disguises are penetrated, is our god. Because we expect to be rewarded by this deity we secretly, yet surely, give ourselves to it. Such idolatry, insists the apostle, we must swiftly put to death.
He isn't finished yet. Also to be killed are "anger" and "wrath". ORGE, anger, is smouldering resentment which nurses a grudge and plots ways to even the score. THUMOS, wrath, in this context refers to a tantrum, the childish rage, childish decompensation, which is no less sinful for being childish. The adult who still has uncontrollable tantrums; the adult whose hatred still smoulders; these people are pitiable. After all, they think they are well-dressed when in fact their shabby clothes are verminous.
Lastly, the apostle speaks of "slander", "foul talk", and "lying". Slander is the ruination of someone else's reputation. Foul talk is abusive language, assaultive language, of any kind. Lying is deliberate misrepresentation. The slanderer is as lethal as a rattlesnake. The abusive talker is as brutal as a sledgehammer. These people plainly damage others. The liar, on the other hand, while certainly deceiving others, principally damages himself. You see, the liar who lies even in the smallest matters has rendered himself untrustworthy. Once he is known to be untrustworthy no one will say anything of any importance to him; no one will confide in him. All he will hear for as long as he is known as a liar will be nothing but froth. Of course the liar can be forgiven; but the liar can never be trusted. Far more than he victimizes others he victimizes himself.
The apostle never minces words, does he. There is clothing we must not merely shed; we must get rid of it. "Put to death", he tells us, the impurity which defiles, the craving which corrupts, and the talk which either damages others or renders us untrustworthy.
III: -- At the beginning of the sermon I said that nakedness (metaphorically) isn't possible. We jettison the clothing which we must only because we have first put on, already put on, the new clothing which becomes all of us. In his letter to the Christians in Rome Paul says, "Put on the Lord Jesus Christ." We do put him on -- in faith -- so that he becomes ours and we become his. To the Christians in Ephesus Paul writes, "Put on the new nature , created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness." To the Christians in Colosse he says, "Put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator."
It is plain that Christians are those who, in faith, have put on Jesus Christ himself. As we put on him we put on that renewed human nature which he is and which he fits onto us; as all of this happens the image of God, in which we were created but which has become scratched and marred and defaced -- this image of God is re-engraved and now stands out unmistakably.
If this is really what has happened (and what more could happen?), what is the result of our having put on Christ?
(i) The first result is startling; the first result is so public, so notorious, so blatant that it can be observed and noted without contradiction even by those who make no profession of faith at all. The first result is that the barriers throughout the world which divide, isolate and alienate human beings from each other are crumbled. "Here there cannot be Greek or Jew", says Paul, "...nor barbarian, Scythian, slave or free person; but Christ is all and in all."
The barriers in the ancient world were as ugly as they are today. The Greeks regarded themselves as intellectually superior to everyone else. They were the cultured of the cultured. The Greek language was considered both the most expressive and the most beautiful sounding of any language. Why, compared to the sound of Greek all other languages had a harsh, unmusical, brutish sound: "bar-bar". Greek people therefore regarded everyone else in the world as a barbarian.
We modern people look upon the study of foreign languages as a mark of the educated person. No one brags of being unilingual. But the ancient Greeks boasted of knowing one language only. They despised the study of foreign languages. They argued that since every language is inferior to their own, and since everyone who speaks an inferior language is inferior to the Greek people themselves, why waste time studying the inferior languages of inferior people? Max Mueller, an internationally acclaimed linguist of the late nineteenth century; Mueller insisted that a desire to learn other languages arose only through the indirect illumination of the gospel of Jesus Christ, arose only when the people who spoke these languages were no longer seen as barbarians but as brothers/sisters.
Just as Greeks thought themselves intellectually superior, Jews thought themselves religiously superior. They regularly spoke of non-Jews as "dogs". Furthermore, since Jews were God's chosen people, then all others had to be God's rejected people, didn't they?
The Scythians mentioned in our text today are named inasmuch as they were regarded as the lowest form of human life. "More barbarian than the barbarians", is how the Greeks spoke of them. Scythians were held to be barely human, scarcely human.
Utterly unhuman were slaves. In the ancient world the slave was not considered to be a human being in any sense. Slaves had no rights. They could be beaten, maimed or killed with impunity -- any why not, since killing a slave, through overwork, for instance, was no more significant than breaking a garden-rake through overuse. No less a philosopher than Aristotle had said that a slave was a highly efficient tool which unfortunately had to be fed.
And yet in the early days of the church the spiritual leader of the congregation was frequently a slave. Freemen and -women, people whose social class was incomparable to that of a slave; freemen and -women recognized the manifest spiritual depth of the slave who was leading their congregation. They recognized the spiritual authenticity, spiritual authority, the godliness of someone whom the society at large didn't even regard as human, and deferred to it. Only in a Christian congregation could this phenomenon be seen. It happened nowhere else. It was the single most public consequence of putting on Christ.
One consequence of putting on our Lord, of putting on our new nature in righteousness and holiness, is that the congregation is a living demonstration of the collapse of those barriers which divide, isolate and alienate people from each other.
(ii) A second consequence: in putting on Christ, in putting on that new nature which is being renewed after the image and likeness of God, we become clothed with the character which shines in our Lord himself.
We put on compassion and kindness. Compassion is literally the state of being attuned to someone else's suffering. It is the exact opposite of what we mean by "do-gooder". The do-gooder does good, all right, does what he regards as good, but does it all from a safe distance, does it all with his hands but is careful to leave his heart out of it, lest his heart become wrenched, never mind broken. The compassionate person is completely different; the compassionate person's heart is attuned to someone else's suffering, even if there is very little that that person can do with her hands. If you were afflicted or tormented yourself, which person would you rather have with you: the do-gooder who can only tinker remotely, or the compassionate person who may only be able to resonate with your pain? Always the latter, for the latter will in the long run be infinitely more helpful and healing than the tinkerer.
We put on kindness as well. Kindness is holding our neighbour's wellbeing as dear as our own. Such kindness has about it none of the negativities surrounding "do-goodism". In the time of our Lord's earthly ministry the word "kind" was used of wine; wine was said to be kind when full-bodied red wine had no sourness about it. Such wine was rich to the palate and delightful, but without any sour aftertaste. The same word is used by our Lord himself when he says, "Take my yoke upon you, for my yoke is -- is what, easy? The English translations say "easy", but the Greek word is CHRESTOTES, and everywhere else it means kind. An ox-yoke was kind when the yoke fit so well that it didn't chafe the animal's neck. When our Lord tells us that his yoke is kind he means that the obedience in which we are bound to him will not irritate us, chafe us, rub us raw.
When we put on Christ, continues Paul, we put on lowliness, meekness and patience. Lowliness is humility, and humility, you have heard me say one hundred times, is simply self-forgetfulness.
Then what about meekness? Meekness is strength exercised through gentleness. All of us have strengths; to be sure, we have weaknesses as well, but all of us have strengths. We can exercise our strengths heavy-handedly, coercively, domineeringly, or we can exercise our strengths gently. When Paul wrote his epistles the word "meek" was used every day to describe the wild horse which was now tamed (and therefore useful) but whose spirit had not been broken.
Patience means we are not going to explode or quit, sulk or sabotage when things don't get done in congregational life exactly as we should like to see them done.
We put on forgiveness, and forgive each other, moved to do so simply by the astounding forgiveness we have received from our Lord himself.
(iii) The final consequence of putting on Christ: we put on love, with the result, says Paul, that the congregation "is bound together in perfect harmony". He maintains that a congregation is to resemble a symphony orchestra. An orchestra never consists of one instrument only playing the same note over and over. An orchestra consists of many different instruments sounding many different notes. The full sound of the orchestra is what people want to hear. Whether the full sound is a good sound or an unendurable sound depends on one thing: is the orchestra playing in harmony?
We should be aware of what the metaphor of harmony does not mean for congregational life. It does not mean that the goal of congregational life is uniformity or conformity; and it does not mean that voices which shouldn't be heard all the time shouldn't be heard at all. (The sharp crack of the timpani drum and the piercing note of the piccolo are not heard often in an orchestra, but when they need to be heard they should be heard.)
It is love, says the apostle, and love only, which renders congregational harmony as glorious as Mozart's. For it is such love which renders our life together honouring to God, helpful to us, and attractive to others who may yet become Christ's people as they too are persuaded to put on the Lord Jesus Christ. For as they do this, they will find, as we have found already, that to put on him is also to put on that human nature which God has appointed for us. And to clothe ourselves in this is to find that clothes do indeed make the man -- and the woman as well.
F I N I S
Victor A. Shepherd March 1992
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