Scripture | Psalm 107:1-9, 43 | Colossians 3:1-14
Paul paints such a study in contrasts. Anger, greed, meanness, ugliness, lying… vs. mercy, kindness, patience, humility. Paul isn’t describing two kinds of people, he’s describing two different ways for us to live in our own skin. If you’re anything like me, you know what both those ‘selves’ feel like.
And I for one know which place I’d like to live in my own head. I mean, it’s kind of a no-brainer. One’s a place where nothing’s ever right, and no one can be trusted, and the world is hopeless. The other’s a place with calmness, trust and confidence. And the thing is, those ‘places’ have nothing to do with what’s going on out there. They have everything to do with what’s going on inside our own hearts and heads.
So how do we live ‘in Christ’? How do we get to that place of peace?
It isn’t a matter of willpower and self-improvement. “Living in Christ” isn’t a program of trying harder, or being more diligent, or forcing ourselves to be better. In fact it’s the opposite of that kind of striving, striving, striving. Paul is inviting us to claim what’s already ours. He’s asking us to embrace what’s already been given: New life. A full life. A lovely, glorious life!
Notice: Paul is not saying, “What is wrong with you people? Get with the program!” He’s not scolding, he’s encouraging. He’s not judging, he’s inviting. Hey, people, look! Look up! There’s a whole new life right in front of you – and it’s yours for the taking! Why do you keep living in that ugly place in your heads when in Christ, there is so much more?
It’s like shedding your old skin and having a completely new one, the way Paul describes it. It’s like a new set of clothes, Paul says, a whole new wardrobe. Put on this new way of life, he tells us.
I like Eugene Peterson paraphrases Paul in his translation called The Message:
In the early church, new Christians literally put on new clothes when they were baptized. Most people would be baptized as adults, and their baptism was highly symbolic. The baptismal pool would have three steps going down into it, and three steps going back up. Going down into the water meant dying with Christ; the old life of sin was washed away; coming up was being raised to new life. As they emerged from the water of baptism, they were covered with a new white robe – new clothing, a new identity, a new start. It was a dramatic way of saying, “You are a new person now. You are clothed in Christ. He is your life, that really is life.”
You are in Christ. Whatever else is going on in the world, you are living in it in a new way – with Christ’s own Spirit.
Now, I’m going to state the obvious: getting baptized does not make us saints. It doesn’t magically take away the ugly voices in our heads or take away the old impulses and knee-jerk reactions. We can put on all the clean, white gowns we want but we may still not be Christ-like. We can be as determined as we want to be good people, but the old habits and patterns still haunt us. We all have our challenges. We all do. No sense in pretending we’re better than we are.
Not a saint in the bunch, I’m afraid. No offense.
So does anything change?
Or do we just give up trying and accept that we’ve got some less-than-lovely feelings and attitudes? Do we chalk up meanness or flying off the handle as “the way we are,” or figure our greed or selfishness is “just being human”? Do we compare ourselves to others and convince ourselves we’re not really that bad?
I mean, do we really believe a new life is possible? What do you think? Is it?
I’ve got to believe it is, or everything I stand for is a sham.
And I do believe that it is, because I’ve seen new life grow again and again. People wrestling their demons to the ground. People coming clean about the things that are destructive in their lives, that hurt themselves or the world or the people they love. People finding hope, and relief, that it doesn’t have to be that way. Kindness, forgiveness, patience, love – they really are possible. They are.
And thank God they are. In this world of ours, thank God they are. The world does not have to be an ugly place. At least, we have a choice about our part in it. Jesus offers us a better way, a way of life the world desperately needs.
That old-self/new-self struggle, it’s not just about us and our own happiness. It’s really important that we remember this. It’s not just about us and what kind of mood we’re in on any given day, or if we’re feeling good about ourselves. How we’re living affects everyone around us. It changes the world.
And – you need to know this - it affects how other people see the faith we profess.
The world is watching us. If we claim to be Christian, they want to know what difference it makes in our lives, how it shapes us. Does it make us more loving and generous - or just more judgmental? Are we full of joy and peace - or does it make us kill-joys? Are we walking the walk – or just talking the talk? In other words, are we living any differently than the rest of the world, or is this just another club we belong to?
There’s a quote that makes its way around Facebook from time to time:
No pressure here, guys – but people are watching. When they see you, they’re making judgments about Jesus.
What kind of Jesus do they see when they see you? Are you living ‘in Christ’?
You know, I cringe every time there’s something nasty in the news about a Christian leader. You know what I’m talking about. Some priest is accused of child abuse… a minister has run off with the church’s money… a pastor is inciting his congregation to protest at the funeral of a fallen soldier. It’s terrible, just terrible. Good people are hurt, and Christianity gets a bad name. Again.
But it’s not just the big news-splashes that determine how people see this faith. It’s how we live, too. We are ambassadors for Christ, Paul says in another passage, and he’s right.
So how do we live in a new-self way? How do we keep living in Christ, even when the going gets tough?
I don’t know how you manage your old-self/new-self struggle – I would love to hear your stories - but I’ve found something that helps me with mine. It has to do with that image of ‘putting on Christ.’
For starters, I’ve learned to pay attention to those times when I’m obviously not living out my better angels. I know the signals. I can tell by how I’m feeling. The self-talk gives it away every time. I know which voices in my head are worth listening to and which ones mean trouble. The self-doubt. The judgment. The hopelessness. They’re the warning signs that I am in trouble. They’re symptoms, if you will.
What helps me get back to my ‘Christ-self’? Different things work for me, and you may have your own bag of tricks. Some people call them “spiritual disciplines” but I think of them as re-tooling.
- Going for a walk and really noticing what’s around me.
- Paying attention to beauty, and breathing deeply.
- Talking to someone who has my number and can talk me off the ledge – again - who can help me see more clearly.
- Journaling out whatever’s frustrating or anxiety-provoking.
- Simply praying. Praying, praying, praying.
This may sound strange, but sometimes I just sit still and ‘feel’ myself put on Christ, like a robe. I imagine the warmth of Christ’s Spirit settle on my shoulders. I feel gentleness and compassion surround me, and hold me, like a blanket. I feel courage coursing through my blood, making me strong again. I feel my mind clear, like a fog is lifting from my mind. I feel myself set my sights on ‘things that are above,’ as Paul puts it.
It really is amazing. I feel like I am ‘putting on Christ,’ and it’s such a relief. The ‘new life’ is back. I’m patient. I feel tenderness and respect towards others. I have a sense of the goodness of the world, even in the face of evil. I am not afraid.
We ‘put on Christ’ once and for all in our baptism. But we can call on Christ again and again, to remind us of the new life he gives. We can be renewed into the creatures God meant us to be.
We don’t have to settle for being Christian in name only. We’re invited into a life that really is life. There is So Much More…
It’s a promise, a promise Christ keeps.