The Clothes Make the Man (or Woman)

Colossians 3:1-11

When I was a boy in Sunday School, there was a song that we would often sing.  It goes like this:

            Oh, be careful little eyes what you see;
            Oh, be careful little eyes what you see;
            For the Father up above is looking down in love,
            So be careful little eyes what you see.

Maybe you’ve heard it.  The other verses go on to warn little ears to be careful what they hear, little hands to be careful what they do, little feet to be careful where they go, little minds to be careful what they think, and little hearts to be careful who they trust.

It’s a simple song, but in spite of it’s childlike simplicity, it shares much in common with what we read in the scriptures today. 

In Colossians, we are told that we are a new creation, remade as those baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, and, St. Paul goes on to teach us, as those who now share in the life of Christ, we are to put off the thoughts and actions that define our world full of pain, grief, and shame. It’s a list of vices that isn’t news to any of us: sexual immorality, lust, evil desires, greed, anger, rage, slander, filthy language, lying to get ahead, and creating divisions amongst ourselves.

To borrow the extended image used by St. Paul, these are things that worldly people carry around with them, wearing these thoughts and actions as a garment, as clothes as they walk about.  And, to some extent, whether we like it or not, the old saying holds true: the clothes make the man.  Our identity is shaped by the image that we project to our friends and neighbours, and that image then shapes our attitudes, our thoughts, and our actions.  It’s like the kid who knows she has the coolest clothes, and allows that to become who she is, and shape how she treats other people.

Today’s lesson tells us to strip off that worldly clothes; to strip off that impurity, greed, anger, those lies and divisions, and instead to clothe ourselves with thoughts and actions that imitate Christ.

The implication, of course, being that we aren’t stuck in those sins as though they define us.  As comfortable as we get in well-worn clothes, and as much as wearing that favourite old shirt becomes a habit, if we choose, we can change them, and put on the garments of righteousness given to us at baptism.

Now this list, sexual immorality, greed, anger, filthy language, there are no surprises there, this is nothing new.  These are all things that, at some point, our parents, other family members, our clergy, and our teachers taught us, even if, in some cases, they didn’t practice what they preached.

A stumbling block

Yet, it’s this same list that becomes a stumbling block for so many who have left the church.  We’ve all heard it, I’d say especially from men who have wandered away from the church: “The church is full of hypocrites.  He’s selfish, she’s a gossip.  That one’s as greedy as you can imagine, and if that other one has a drink, you’d never believe the words that come out of their mouth.  Christians?  If that’s a Christian, I want nothing to do with it.”

All of us, as children, were taught to keep away from these worldly desires; all of us, one way or another, were warned to be careful of what we see, do, or say with our little eyes, hands, and mouths, often with the stern message that “God is watching”.

Many of us, for better or worse, were taught that purity – right actions, proper gratitude, good manners – would buy us favour with God.  Many of us were taught that it’s as though God was keeping a tally, like an eternal, heavenly “swear jar”, where we have to throw in a quarter for every curse word that crosses our lips, or do a good deed to make up for our failings.

And, if that’s the case, then those outside the church are right – the church is full of hypocrites.

Because the truth is, once we strip away the glossy exterior, every man, woman, and child alive continues to struggle with impurity and greed, with anger and rage, with filthy language, dishonesty, gossip, and divisions.

The reason for purity.

Oh, be careful little eyes what you see.

The problem, though, with that Sunday School song is that it has the message backwards.

So many, both inside and outside the church, think that the Gospel message is that we are to do good, live the best life you can live, and earn heaven as the reward.  So many think that living a “Christian life”, living a pure and righteous life buys us eternal life.

But that’s to have the message bottom up.

Yes, and it’s so important that the scriptures tell us in multiple places, we’re to avoid immorality and adultery, impurity, and greed.  Yes, we’re to avoid divisions and lewd speech and drunkenness.  Yes, we’re to refrain from anger and dishonesty.

But we don’t do that to earn our place in the church or in the family of God.  And, our place in the family of God doesn’t depend on some heavenly tally, whereby any one of us could pat ourselves on the back and say, “wow, aren’t I a good Christian”.

No.  We do our best to live in imitation of Christ because all of us – no matter what we’ve done, or whether our struggles are invisible or open for all to see – all of us have been invited to take off our worn-out earthly clothes and instead clothe ourselves with the grace of Christ.

I don’t try to live a pure life to earn heaven.  It’s the opposite.  Because Jesus loves me, I will live my life in a way that honours him. 

And if our neighbour’s struggles are more public than our own, we reach out to them in love, knowing that it’s only by the grace of God that we haven’t found ourselves in their situation in this broken and messy world.

Indeed, the Church – our church – is not called to be a museum for saints.  The church is a hospital for sinners, a home for the beloved children of God who have accepted the invitation into God’s family.

Yes, be careful little eyes what you see; and be careful little ears what you hear. 

But remember, it’s our Lord himself who says that it isn’t what goes into a person that makes them unclean; it’s what comes out of a person that makes us unclean.

It’s our Lord himself who raises the bar, saying that even just looking at another person with lust in your heart is to commit adultery.

And by the same token, if we pat ourselves on the back for our clean living, what have we done but allow pride to puff us up, allowing us to see ourselves as better than a brother or sister struggling with sex or drugs or drink or gossip or gambling.

We choose to take off those worldly habits because we love God, not to earn God’s love.

God is Watching… but that’s not a threat.

We have to remember, too, that God is watching.

But, even there, I fear sometimes we’ve got the message bottom-up.

For the Father up above is looking down… in what?

Too often, “God is watching” has been used as a threat.  But that goes back to that whole mistaken understanding of God as the great tally-keeper of good and evil.

As we heard in the Old Testament, yes, God is always watching.  But he watches as a loving Father; he waits patiently like a parent ready and willing to welcome a child back with open arms, no matter the mess we’re in – ready to take off the dirty, stained clothes we’re wearing and clothe us in his love.

Yes, God is watching, but he’s looking down in love, calling us to put off the ways of the world.  Not because our impurity makes him love us less, but as any loving and patient parent, he wants to spare the wayward child from learning lessons the hard way.

Being a disciple means to be one who is studying a discipline.  The scriptures use the image of a runner training for a race; no athlete who wants to win the race sits around eating donuts when they should be training on the track.

A disciple of Christ is one who is learning, studying, training to be like Christ.  And while no amount of failure can change the fact that he loves us and that he sees our value and our worth, it’s hard to say you’re training for the Olympics if you never go to the gym.  If we’re disciples, if we’re studying the way of God, that means we have to learn to love what he loves and to hate what he hates.  It means we live lives that keep things in perspective, not allowing our desires or pleasure to become the driving force in our lives.

Our Witness in the World

Be careful little eyes what you see?

Yes.  Because, at the end of the day, it’s not just about you.

God’s plan for every church is that it is not just the place where people gather to praise and be fed and to fellowship and to have their wounds healed.  It’s the place from which we, you and me, are sent out to share that healing, that belonging, that love with people who are desperate to hear it, who are desperate to be invited to belong, and to be told that they are loved. 

There are people – even our own neighbours – who are desperate to take off their worn-out, dirty clothes, and to put on the garment of God’s love and forgiveness as they accept their place in his family – this family.

But, for better or worse, in the eyes of the world, the clothes make the man or woman

If we’re to do that work God has given us, to be his messengers, his hands and feet in our community, we have to live lives that reflect his forgiveness, that reflect that, every time we mess up, he stands ready to re-clothe us as we commit once more to be his disciple.  

We’re to live lives not to show how pure or righteous we are, but to show how good God is, as we live for him instead of for ourselves.  The worn-out clothes of self-righteousness won’t get us far.  But, by the grace of God, with minds set on things above, clothed in forgiveness, and following the way of Christ, our lives themselves will preach the Gospel to a world that is desperate to hear it.

May God give us grace to live as his disciples.  Amen.