(Colossians 3: 12-17)
My mom was a stickler for winter weather clothing. In those rare instances growing up in Raleigh when measurable snowfall actually fell, my brother and I would be forced to submit to a highly involved dressing ritual that rivaled football players on gameday or the movie monster in the makeup room. Good footwear was essential – galoshes or boots that would keep feet warm and dry. Same for gloves and hats; they had to cover every inch of your ears or wrists, no skin visible. Mom would scotch-guard our jeans (did anyone else do this?) to try and keep legs from getting damp, which most certainly result in getting a cold.
But above all else, the most essential piece of snowfall clothing was the winter coat. This was critical to keeping the core warm. No simple windbreaker would do. Nor a beefy sweatshirt. This coat would need to be thick, either with down or wool or something to that effect. And water-repellent. It would need to zip up all the way to just under the chin; all the way down below the waistline. A good winter coat was the most vital piece of clothing in the winter weather arsenal, and it didn’t matter if the boots or gloves or hat were top of the line – if a good winter coat wasn’t available, you were experiencing the winter wonderland through the glass of your bedroom window.
So first – shout-out to all Moms, including mine, who make sure their kids are properly prepared for the elements. And also a shout-out to the apostle Paul for making sure those Colossians were sporting the proper spiritual attire. Our passage today has him offering some important fashion advice to these young Christians in Colossae, a small but eclectic and cosmopolitan city located in what’s now modern-day Turkey. This faith community, this church was in its infancy, as were the followers of Jesus who comprised it.
And while we’re not certain of the specifics, there was some disruption going on in the church. From what we know, it appears that some outside “teachers” had found their way into the mix and were muddying the waters a bit. Preaching a doctrine that didn’t quite align with what Paul would’ve considered proper and true. At its heart, Colossians is written to a church in the midst of a sort of identity crisis, trying to figure out who they are. And Paul wants to help them get to the bare bones of what is most essential for building up and furthering a community of faith.
So he tells them – and us – that there are some essential pieces of spiritual clothing they need to put on – which is to say, important practices or values or ways of living they need to adopt. He rattles off five: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience. Think of these as the boots and gloves and hats and scotch-guarded jeans of Christian living, if you will. They’re good to have; they’re important components of our overall spiritual dress. Followers of Jesus, and the churches they comprise, ought to be more compassionate, more kind, more humble, more meek, more patient. Certainly can’t go wrong wearing those.
But above all else, Paul says, above all else, make sure that you “clothe yourself with love.” Or, as The Message translation simply puts it, “Wear love.”
Wear love, It says. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it.
Wear love. This is the winter coat of the spiritual get-up; the essential garment for those following Jesus. More than anything else, make sure you wear love.
And it’s worth taking a look at the word here for “love” – the Greek word, that is. You know, the Greeks were so much better at this than we are, really. Our English word “love” can apply to a host of things. I once heard someone say, “You can ‘love’ your mom, and you can ’love’ pizza. But if the word ‘love’ means the same thing for both, your Mom is going to feel real pretty bad.” It’s true.
That’s why I appreciate the ancient Greeks, because they were smart enough to have multiple words for our English “love;” words that highlighted different aspects of love. There is eros, which is romantic love; there’s philia, which is a deep friendship; there’s storge, which is love among family, just to name a few.
And then there’s the word agape, the word used here in Colossians, the most common word used for “love” in the New Testament. It’s the word the gospel writers use when the Pharisees ask Jesus to name the greatest commandment – remember that? They’re trying to trap Jesus, bless their little Pharisees’ hearts; they’re trying to pin him down to just one. But Jesus doesn’t take the bait and instead says: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And the Greek word used both times for “love” is agape.
That’s because agape love involves both God and neighbor together. Think of it as two sides of the same coin or mirror reflections of the other. In agape love, one’s love for God is reflected in and expressed by one’s love for the people; as one’s love for the people is reflected in and expressed by one’s love for God. You really cannot have one without the other.
All of which highlight the fact that agape love is not a feeling, like the love I have for my Mom (or the love I have for pizza). It’s not just compassion or kindness or humility or meekness or patience; the boots and gloves and hats and scotch-guarded jeans of Christian community.
No, agape love is an action – a choice we make to seek the well-being of others over ourselves. That, Paul says, is the garment we should put on above all others. Clothe yourself with agape. Wear agape for love of God and love of neighbor. And see, this is where the clothing metaphor really starts to shine – because agape love is not something that happens internally; it happens externally – how we live, how we behave, the kinds of values we choose to put into action.
And please understand that I don’t mean “action” like sending your sweetheart a card and chocolate on Valentine’s Day – which you should do, incidentally. No, agape love is not the sweet or romantic love, the kind that makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. In fact, oftentimes agape love can lead to the exact opposite. It is the “speaking the truth in love” love that Paul would write about to another church; another community of faith undergoing its own set of challenges. When we put on this kind of love, this “love of God/love of neighbor” love, it has a nasty habit of leading us into uncomfortable spaces we might otherwise choose to avoid, were it not for the compelling pull and transformative possibility of God’s kingdom on earth.
It’s a harder, denser, some might even say abrasive love – which can be confusing because it might look like something else. This past week, I watched video of 15-year old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg speaking at the UN on climate change. There was fire in her young belly, tears in her eyes as she called out world leaders on their blind eye to the global warming crisis. On the surface it looked an awful lot like anger and bitterness. But I have to think there was some love in there; an agape kind of love that stirs people to action when they see injustice happening and are empowered to speak the truth to those who need to hear it.
And this agape love, Paul tells us, is not just the most essential piece of spiritual clothing – it is itself a sign of community. It is what keeps the church from being a mere social club. When we put on this kind of love, we see things we may not have seen before. When we wear agape love, it empowers us to bring about change – whether it is change for the world, or change for just one.
Noted author and former Gilchrist speaker Tom Long recounts the true story of something that happened at a Yankees baseball game many Septembers ago, something that did not make the evening news or ESPN highlight reel. At some point in the game, a foul ball is hit into section 131, lower left field stands. It is heading right towards a boy of about nine years old who had come to the game that night for just this moment. He has a pair of cheap binoculars around his neck, an oversized Yankees baseball cap on his nine-year old head, and on his left hand he wears a small Little League glove with a hardly-broken-in look; the kind worn by a kid you let play right field in late innings of hopeless little league baseball games.
The ball is angling directly toward this boy’s outstretched glove; and it seems destined to find its way in there. That is until, quite suddenly, a man of about 35 wearing an expensive knit shirt and horn-rimmed glasses and sitting in the row behind, reaches over the boy, jostles him aside, and catches the foul ball. He holds up the ball in victory, thoroughly impressed with himself. The boy, despite his mother’s comfort, is clearly crushed.
Now everyone in section 131 saw this happen. Everyone witnessed a grown man out-hustling a nine-year old kid for a foul ball. And in that moment, without thinking, everyone made a conscious decision to just ignore it. The pitcher was beginning his next windup. The batter was taking his stance. The game, like life, was moving on.
Until someone – no one knows exactly who – until someone speaks into the silence: Hey. Hey, you! Yeah, you. Give the kid the ball. I said, give the kid the ball!
Horn-Rims stares straight ahead as if he doesn’t hear. So the guy says it again: Give the kid the ball!
At this point, a couple other people nearby join in: Give the kid the ball. Give the kid the ball. Tell you what – you folks in the first few rows, join me, would you? Give the kid the ball! Give the kid the ball! Give the kid the ball! Feels good, doesn’t it?
Horn-rims hears this and shoves the ball in his coat pocket – which infuriates the whole section, of course, so even more join in – so maybe back to half the sanctuary – Give the kid the ball! Give the kid the ball! Give the kid the ball!
It keeps growing, this chant; growing to people who hadn’t even seen what happened – so now everyone in the pews – Give the kid the ball! Give the kid the ball! Give the kid the ball! And now it’s spreading to the center field stands, and to the right, and the whole outfield, and even players hanging out in the bullpen – so now choir, you get to join in – Give the kid the ball! Give the kid the ball! Give the kid the ball!
A look of defeat now appears on Horn-Rims’ face. Hesitantly, he reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out the ball. A slight pause, then he hands it down to the nine-year old kid and gives it to him. Someone is now heard saying, He gave the kid the ball! He gave the kid the ball! And so everyone joins in: He gave the kid the ball! He gave the kid the ball! He gave the kid the ball!
There’s more to the story. Later that same game, another foul ball finds its way to section 131. And the guy who catches it walks over to Horn-Rims and hands it to him. The next foul ball was caught by a man in a muscle shirt who was sporting a Fu Manchu mustache. He turns and tosses it to the kid – remember the kid? – but because the kid already has one, he tosses it back to Fu Manchu guy, who looks even more pleased than when he caught the ball originally. Everyone in those stands is smiling and laughing – a bunch of New Yorkers, for crying out loud! – because they’d come that night to see a baseball game and instead witnessed first-hand a city parable about justice and grace.
And it all started because some guy no one knows chose to wear some agape love that evening to section 131, and put that love into action with five simple words.
My dear siblings in Christ: show compassion. Be kind. Exude humility and meekness. Be patient. Do all those things. But don’t ever, ever step out of your house without putting on agape love. Required clothing for followers of Christ in these love-strained times of ours.
So wear it. Never be without it. I’m telling you – this love that has the ability to make a kid’s day at a baseball game absolutely has the power to change the whole world
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.