So What Are You First, Christian, or Something Else?

If you are going to call me something I suggest you call me a Christian first.

If you are going to call me something I suggest you call me a Christian first, and I am commanded by Paul here to let the life of Jesus be all over me in the way I act and treat others so the title of “Christian” would have validity.  I am not hiding my ethnicity, age, or gender.  These are part of me, but they come after my union with Jesus. 

 

This last Sunday I had the joy of preaching from Colossians 3:1-17.  I entitled the sermon, “What you wearing?” with the subtitle, “Wha’d you call me?”  Please don’t worry about the spelling or grammar.

I don’t usually write my sermons, and don’t have very extensive notes, but I thought I might want to share some of my sermon thoughts on my blog.  This passage I find especially pertinent to the recent presidential election as it has affected the unity of some of our congregations.

In brief, one can look at this passage and see Paul’s argument built first on who we are in Jesus Christ, that we are joined to Christ in his resurrection, and that our life should now have a focus on things above, not on earthly things.  He makes a big deal of this union with Jesus in the idea that we died with him, our life is now hidden with Christ in God, and that he is our life.  This of course reminds me much of Galatians 2:20, which you can look up as it is one of the great verses in the Bible.

That is pretty total and complete in our association with Jesus.  We are not just following him, we are certainly not just remembering what Jesus did or imagining what he would do, we are not simply imitating him.  We are all wrapped up in his death, burial, and resurrection, and future appearing.  This is just an amazing and glorious set of ideas and it is rich in what it means for us, as to the power available to us to live a new life.  This all happened by grace through faith, it all happened by the will and power of God at the cross.  It is a victory God accomplished for us.

So then Paul begins an application of this truth by telling us about not setting our minds on “earthly things.” He tells us to put to death whatever belongs to our earthly nature.  He gives a list and it comes at us in two parts.  First is a series of sins that are very personal in our behavior: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, and greed, which is idolatry.  These, as well as those sins I have yet to mention, Paul says are part of the life we used to live.

I like telling people here that the means to see these kinds of sins “put to death” does not come about by effort, or will power, or determination, or from strong feelings of guilt and regret from constant and even addictive falling into sin.  Our liberation comes from the same grace that saved us.  In justification (when we are saved) it is an act of God’s free grace that saves us, through faith.  In sanctification it is a work of God’s grace, but get this clearly, it is grace and not our strength that delivers us from sin.  Faith gets us the victory!  This is so important, and so wonderful, and so freeing from the frustration that we experience when we attempt to make ourselves holy.  Of course I get a lot of this theology from the book of Galatians and Romans, but it is important to remember it when we read such commands such as to “rid yourselves of all such things…”

Now the second list begins, and note here that these are sins done in the context of community:  anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language.  Then he tells us not to lie to each other (again a social sin).  Paul uses the language of taking off and putting on, like clothes, as a metaphor of how we are to deal with our sins.

Later he will tell us what clothes to put on: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  He will tell us to bear with each other, and to forgive whatever grievances we have, and he trumps it all with this, “Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”   That pretty much does us in as there is now no room for excuses or justification about an unforgiving heart.  He tells us to put on love, which binds everything together.

You may have noticed I seem to have jumped over verse 11, which may seem very out of place in this passage about behavior.  Actually it couldn’t be more on target.  I have mentioned the distinction between personal sins, or internal ones, as compared with social ones.  Notice in verse 11 Paul says, “Here.” I believe, as he is writing to the church at Colosse, he is referring to the church of Jesus Christ.  In other words, here, in the church, we don’t look at each other (or call each other) simply by our earthly distinctions such as our ethnic, cultural, or gender designations.  These of course are important and God given, but these are not ever an excuse to have us abuse each other.  Our social sins can be actively engaged when there are differences in a church, differences of any and all kinds, and right now we can be aware of political differences.

We are not color blind when it comes to racial or ethnic distinctions; that is not the application of this text as it is not the application of a similar verse in Galatians.  We know that because the context of the book of Galatians is Paul’s defense of the Gentiles from having to become Jews. We all can see color, we can all hear language, we can all usually tell gender. Yet he proclaims this new unity which supersedes all others because Christ is all, and is in all, and this refers to Christians in the Church of Jesus Christ.

I appreciate Paul’s admonition greatly since he seems to be pointing out that in a multi-ethnic church there might be great temptation to stress the differences.  Paul stresses Christ, and the personality of Jesus Christ, as what ought to define us.

So, Paul calls us to unity, and encourages us to let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts, because we are called to peace.  We have to live our lives in every part, with every word or deed, in the name of the Lord Jesus.  If peace is our calling then everything about our political discourse as Christians ought to keep that in mind.

So, for some people who bother us we might see something “earthly” about them that makes us doubt them, or be afraid of them.  Maybe like people in Paul’s day were afraid of Scythians.  Maybe people might see me as an old white man and suspect my racial attitudes, or some might be afraid of a young black man, or despise someone else because of their gender, immigration status, etc.

If you are going to call me something I suggest you call me a Christian first, and I am commanded by Paul here to let the life of Jesus be all over me in the way I act and treat others so the title of “Christian” would have validity.  I am not hiding my ethnicity, age, or gender.  These are part of me, but they come after my union with Jesus.  Certainly my politics come after my union with Jesus, and if that is what I lead with, and condemn you because your politics don’t agree with mine, then I am living in the old life and not the new.  Honest and sincere discussion is fine, disagreement is fine, but sin is never fine while love is always the finest thing we have and the finest way to live.

I challenge you to read the lists in the passage, both the negative ones and the positive ones.  Compare your diatribes on Facebook and the internet; compare your comments about others to the list that reveals the personality of Jesus.  How do you measure up?  If it has been anger, rage, malice, slander, filthy language, and lying then you have been living in the old self and you need to repent.  God doesn’t care how “right” you feel about your political opinion.  You need to remember where “here” is, it is the church, and that kind of stuff doesn’t have any place “here,” in God’s house with God’s people.

Randy Nabors is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America, is Pastor Emeritus of New City Fellowship in Chattanooga Tenn., and the Urban & Mercy Ministries Coordinator- The New City Network at Mission to North America (MNA).  This article appeared on his blog and is used with permission.