“CHANGE YOUR CLOTHES”

COLOSSIANS 3:1-17

 

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           There is nothing like putting on a new shirt and a new pair of pants.  I fondly remember when my mother took me shopping for “back to school” clothes.  Wearing the new clothes helped soften the return to school.  In fact, my mom usually bought me enough back to school clothes that I could wear something new every day of the first week.    

    

            We usually feel better about ourselves when we put on something new.  We have more confidence.  We have more energy to tackle and complete our assignments.  We feel more comfortable and better received among our peers.  The saying, "Clothes make the man (woman)" has an element of truth to it, and in our text today, Paul encourages the Colossians to change their wardrobe.  He tells them that since they now belong to Christ, they ought to look the part.

            Listen to what 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.  Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden in Christ in God.  When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you will also be revealed with him in glory.

            Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire and greed (which is idolatry).  On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient.  These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life.  But now you must get rid of all such things - anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth.  Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.  In that renewal there is no Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

            As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves 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, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

 

            Because we are now in Christ, Paul says, we need to dress the part.  We need to get a new look. 

            Of course, the first step in doing this is getting rid of the old look, the old clothes, and that can tough.   As much as we like to put on new clothes, some of us have a hard time getting rid of the old ones.  Someone said there is nothing as comfortable as an old shoe.  There is some truth in that, and many of us enjoy wearing an old pair of jeans or we have our favorite T-shirt. 

            Paul addresses that here.  In fact, he lists several habits that we should abandon.  As we look at the list, it becomes obvious that it is easier said than done.  Some of the things Paul mentions here - greed, anger, questionable language, lying - have established strongholds in our lives.  We may have even justified some of them and found ways to make them look acceptable, but Paul reminds us that God doesn’t think very highly of them, and if we continue in them there will a severe price to pay.

            Annie Dillard, in her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, writes:

 

            At the end of the island I noticed a small green frog.  He was exactly half in and half out of the water. He was a very small frog with wide, dull eyes.  And just as I looked at him, he slowly crumpled and began to sag.  The spirit vanished from his eyes as if snuffed.  His skin emptied and drooped; his very skull seemed to collapse and settle like a kicked tent. 

            An oval shadow hung in the water behind the drained frog: then the shadow glided away.  The frog skin bag started to sink.  I had read about the water bug, but never seen one. "Giant water bug" is really the name of the creature, which is an enormous, heavy-bodied, brown beetle.  It eats insects, tadpoles, fish, and frogs.  Its grasping forelegs are mighty and hooked inward.  It seizes a victim with these legs, hugs it tight, and paralyzes it with enzymes injected during a vicious bite.  Through the puncture holes shoots the poison that dissolves the victim's muscles, bones, and organs - all but the skin - and through it the giant water bug sucks out all the victim's body, reducing it to liquid.

 

            Certain behaviors suck the life out of us.  We cannot walk with Christ and at the same time do things you know are contrary to what the Bible teaches.  Our spiritual life will be sucked out of us. 

            So, first we take off the old stuff, and that can be tough because some of that old stuff has become so comfortable, but it’s not good for us.  It triggers God’s wrath and we do not want that.  Then, after taking off the old stuff, we have to put on the new stuff, and that can be easier said than done, because we are not accustomed to wearing they new stuff.  It’s an altogether different style of clothes.  We need to put on a shirt of humbleness, and a sweater of patience, and pants of forgiveness.  We aren’t necessarily accustomed to wearing fine clothes like that, designer clothes, top of the line clothes like that.

            This may seem far afield, but stay with me.  Our kids, our daughter and our son, both have a twenty-one month old boy.  The two cousins were born two weeks apart.  And when we visit them, they are constantly trying to teach those boys table manners.  The boys, of course, do not care about any of this.  For them, food is pleasurable.  At least, most of it is, there are some vegetables that get tossed as soon as it hits their plates, but for the most part, food is pleasurable.  Getting it into their mouths, by whatever means, is the pathway to pleasure, and table manners are the "monkey wrench" by which pain is introduced into this pleasure-system.

            At this point in their lives, the boys associate food with fun and table manners, like using one’s fork or spoon at this point, just get in the way of having fun.   And, I am personally, looking forward to how the table manners indoctrination will unfold over the years with these two boys.  That is to say, I hope, our son and our daughter get to experience what we had the pleasure of experiencing when we were attempting to teach them their table manners.  I hope they get to experience that moment when Jack and Eliot, that’s their boys’ names, become old enough to argue that they really do know the proper way to eat, but shouldn't have to demonstrate it when it's just parents and siblings at the table.  "We know what to do when we're out," they said.  "Don't worry about us.  Do you think we'd eat this way and make these horrible noises if there were real people around?"  Which always led me to wonder why Trudy and I weren't considered "real people."

            And I wondered about their basic premise: that they would be able to turn it on in public if they hadn't practiced it consistently in private, and here’s the point.  Practicing something consistently, practicing something day in and day out, helps it to become “second nature.”  Practice may not make one perfect, but practice will over time make one comfortable.   And that's the goal.   Just as the rules of grammar are not learned for the purpose of making us grammar teachers, the rules of eating are not learned for the purpose of turning us into Emily Post.  The rules of grammar are practiced so that you can eventually forget them and enjoy speaking, just as table manners are practiced so that you can eventually forget them and enjoy eating.

            It appears that mothers, and football coaches, and military commanders, and drill instructors are on to something, and you can almost hear their litany: "Practice things until they become second nature ... until they become habitual ... until they become comfortable ... and until you are confident you can perform them under stress." 

            Over the past several years, I have become interested in the subject that is often referred to as "character development."  And while the subject is immense, to the point of being overwhelming, one thought is becoming clearer and clearer in my mind ... that character development has less to do with the correctness of any particular decision we make, and more to do with the consistency of the behaviors we practice.  In short, character development has more to do with habits than choices.

            Take truth-telling.  That's a practiced behavior, if ever there was one. How does one learn to tell the truth?  One learns to tell the truth by telling it over and over again, until it becomes virtually impossible to lie or deceive.  Unfortunately, the contrary is also true. The first lie makes the second one easier to tell. And the first lie may even make the second one necessary to tell, given the need to cover up the first one.

            When it comes to putting on these new clothes, we need to identify desirable behaviors and practice them until they become second nature.  Because not all desirable behaviors are a part of our first nature.  That's what Paul says to the Colossians.  He tells them that if they have really been raised with Christ, they should walk away from the way they formerly walked ... putting behind them their old nature and its practices, while putting on their "new nature," which (he goes on to suggest) is something one keeps working on, and working on, until it fits.

            Want to become more patient?  Practice it daily until it becomes second nature.  Want to become more forgiving?  Practice it daily until it becomes second nature.  Want to become more compassionate?  Practice it daily until it becomes second nature. 

            Let me close with a story about a man named Frank Baker.  He was a scholar, a thinker, a writer, chronicler of church history, who served on the Duke Divinity School faculty for twenty years, and who developed Alzheimers.   Frank suffered from Alzheimers for a number of years before he died.   Fortunately, Frank was a relatively peaceful Alzheimers patient rather than a feisty one which allowed him to stay at home through most of his declining years and which allowed his wife Nellie to care for him with a minimal amount of help.

            Shortly after Greg Jones came to be Duke Divinity School's dean, he and his wife Susan paid a courtesy call on the Bakers.  Without apology, Nellie welcomed them in, gave them tea and cookies, introduced them to Frank, and included her husband in the circle of conversation as if he could still participate.  Which he couldn't, of course.  There he was, all dressed up, sitting in his wheelchair, with friends in the living room, but there was "nobody home"... if you know what I mean.  Which everybody overlooked, out of kindness ... and respect.  Although, on several occasions, Frank interrupted to say: "Now who did you say you were?"

            At last, the pot was drained of tea and the conversation was drained of pleasantries.  Leading to good-byes from all but one.  That one being Frank.  When suddenly he broke into the conversation, clear as a bell, to say: "By the way, if you ever need anything to eat, stop by and we'll give you whatever we have cooking on the stove."  It was the most intelligent sentence he had said the entire hour.  Heck, it was the only sentence he had said the entire hour. But it made wonderful sense.  And it was warmly received.

            Only later did Greg and Susan learn that Frank and Nellie Baker had opened their home ... and their dinner room table ... to scores of students across the years.  Two and three nights a week, they had students over for dinner.  And every Sunday they trolled the narthex of their Methodist church, finding strays who might like a warm and friendly place to have lunch.  And every time volunteers were sought for a local soup kitchen or meal preparers were needed for the local homeless shelter, it was Frank who said: "I think Mother and I can do that."

            Long after most of his mind was gone ... most of the wires had been cut ... most of the connections had wafted away with the wind ... Frank Baker knew enough to invite a stranger to partake at his table.  It was the case of the practice becoming the person ... and the habit taking over the man.  When everything else was gone, that's what was left.

            Let’s put on these new clothes.  Let’s wear them regularly.  In time they will become more and more comfortable to us.