There’s a legend in my family about my first Christmas. After all the toys were opened, all I wanted to play with was the orange from my stocking. The tradition of playing with unorthodox toys has continued, especially with our firstborn, Ben.
Now, if you ask around, which present do you think most people would like? Toys or clothes? Most folks would prefer toys: big kids and little kids alike. And this is precisely the attitude which Colossians is trying to combat: rather than being clothed with Christ, the church at Colossae prefers “playing church.”
To take just one of the instructions to us, we’re encouraged to “let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts.” Now, I understand that recently there was a college football team that came within one second of losing a particular conference championship game.
And that the referees had to confer in order to put that one second back on the clock, which enabled them to kick a field goal and win the game. Without referees, that game would have been chaos, would it not? And as much as we like to gripe about them getting it wrong, we need referees or line judges or umpires or timekeepers: some type of officials when we play sports. The word “rule” used in this passage of Colossians is literally “be referee”…let peace referee your thoughts and feelings. Peace should settle disputes, not stir up self-interest; it will be your internal “traffic cop,” that enables you to do that work which God has given you.
But “letting peace rule” or referee is only one of the many things which we are invited to allow happen in our lives in this short passage. Let all of these attitudes and actions wash over you:
bear with each other
—do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus
What a beautiful list. But is it just a list, another group of things which we have to do? I don’t know about you, but I could do without any more of that. But if we think of this not as checking off to-dos but as encouragement to live up to the high calling we’ve received, I think it starts becoming more clear. It’s a reminder of who we are truly made to be. It’s an invitation to stop “playing church”…and start being church. Let’s think about what this invitation entails.
First, being clothed with these things is like our uniform as followers of Jesus. It advertises who we are and what we do. Christie and I officiated at a wedding before Thanksgiving at which this was one of the Scripture readings. It was interesting to see how people dressed for that occasion. There were beautiful dresses and tuxedos, the formal best of so many people. Why? Because it was a sign of respect and love for the bride and groom, for the commitment they were making. No ripped jeans and stained t-shirts for arguably the most important day of their lives. When we put on Christ, as Paul says over and over again—put on the attitudes and actions which demonstrate and emulate Jesus for others—then we show our love and respect for God and one another. A church that cares more about what people wear and how they look than with the attitudes and actions described in Colossians is a church that is just playing at church.
Second, being clothed with these things means doing what needs to be done, sometimes—often?!–at the expense of the things we like and cherish. After eliminating the custodial position and cutting the pastor’s hours in half, the people of First Baptist Church of Brattleboro (VT) didn’t know what else to do to keep going. [Read the full Boston Globe story.] One of their primary ministries is hosting a homeless shelter, and in this economy the church resources had dwindled. So they finally came to a decision, and voted 20-4 to sell their prized original Tiffany stained glass window. Vera Deyo, 50+ yr church member, said: “In life, you give up things and God makes you rich again.”
The people of First Baptist Brattleboro are learning what it is to be the church instead of just playing at it. It would be easy to pretend everything was okay, leave the beautiful stained glass in place, put on worship, and give up the mission of the church…and then turn out the lights one Sunday for good. But we weren’t given the gift of Jesus in this season to play at church. “In life, you give up things and God makes you rich again.” I hope when I’ve been a part of the church for 50 years, I’m that wise.
Mike Slaughter, pastor of Ginghamsburg UMC said on Twitter the other day that “Baptized means dead, buried & out of the way. If we still have personal ‘preferences,’ we weren’t held under long enough.” It seems to me that a large part of being church, of living out Colossians is laying aside our personal preferences.
Third, I’d like to take a moment and directly address the college students and young adults who are here, and those of you who will be one shortly. The church needs you. We need your enthusiasm for actually doing what we promise we’ll do. In my experience, it’s easy for people who have been a part of church for a long time to delude ourselves that what we’re doing is important, when we’ve actually lost sight of the goal. And that’s why we need you, to be honest.
We could talk about the ways that you benefit from being a part of the church—the wisdom, the encouragement, the challenge, the call which comes from being a part of the Body of Christ. But this morning, let me just say that God needs your enthusiasm, your passion, your unwillingness to compromise…and so do the rest of us. Help us remember what it means to do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus. And nurture that desire that I know so many of you have now, because without it, we – you and all of us – will find ourselves just playing church.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.