Summary of the Text
A Christmastide Community: A recent podcast reminded me that there is no such thing as a “neutral” marking of our time—our minutes and our hours, our days and our weeks, our months and seasons reflect the pervasive values of our society. So for the Church, one of the most important reasons for observing the Christian calendar is to learn to live into a different rhythm, a different awareness of what makes the world go around.
In Advent, we are taught to prepare in fast—even as our world’s economic engines whir in turbo-mode for the all-important shopping season. Then, in Christmastide, we are taught to celebrate the incarnation, learning to unpack the fullness of this gift, even as the rest of the world takes a somber turn in anticipation, often in anxiety, over the coming year. The Christian calendar is a way of resisting the conformative pressures of our world, though we may not always let it.
Nevertheless, the alternative calendar reminds us that we, the people of God, are called to be an alternative community, living out the values of the incarnate Messiah whom we welcomed on December 25th. What does a community formed by the incarnation look like? What are its values and the virtues? And what might such a community offer to the world? This passage from in Colossians 3 begins to describe the character of this community, or in the words of Eugene Peterson’s translation, the qualities of the “new wardrobe God picked out” for us.
Love, Practically: What follows then is a fairly typical Pauline list that is centered around the foundational Trinitarian quality of others-centered love: “Regardless of whatever else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment” (v14). But unlike his poetic ruminations on love’s qualities in 1 Corinthians 13, Paul’s description here is interesting in their practicality—”compassion, kindness, humility”; “being even-tempered, and quick to forgive.” He leads with these deeply relational, communal ways in which he expects for Christ-formed community to behave toward one another. Love of God is inextricably connected to our love of one another.
I make this rather obvious observation—that love is relational—because somewhere along the way, we in the church have made it seemingly plausible to say “I am loving” without regard to how we behave toward others. To be clear, I am not being nitpicky about all the imperfect ways in which we struggle to love, but rather the ways in which we give ourselves permission to “not love.” American Christianity has become better known for who it doesn’t love, rather than for its extravagant loving.
Clearly, Paul was aware of all the accusations that would come his direction—that he was being too unguarded in his call for love; that there were false prophets and extremists who would ruin the gospel, etc.. And there probably were. But the Apostle nevertheless keeps it disarmingly simple—“forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you” (v.13). In other words, for all the good reasons we could come up with for limiting our love, they can never stack up against the truth that it all begins with God’s mercy. Divine love, in this sense, is never an individualistic experience.
One of my professors, Miroslav Volf, tells a story of presenting the central thesis of what would eventually become his theological classic Exclusion and Embrace in a lecture. (Volf argues that in a world full of enmity, Christ’s call to embrace is both valid and needed.) His mentor Jürgen Moltmann, who had been listening intently, now pointed his finger toward Volf and asked, “But can you embrace a četnik?”—the Serbian soldiers who had been herding Croatians into concentration camps, raping women, burning down churches, destroying cities. Volf, a Croatian, was startled by the thought. But he caught himself enough to reply, “No, I cannot—but as a follower of Christ I think I should be able to.” Paul, I think, would agree.
Communal and Personal: That these are the “values and virtues” of our community is not meant to diminish the importance of my personal work in incorporating them into my own life. But, thinking about them as communal qualities first means that we do not get to work on such traits apart from the sacred mess of a living community of faith. “Peace of Christ ruling in [our] hearts” is not separate from “the one body [we] were called to in peace” (v. 15).
I don’t think I’m alone in my experience of people who would diligently work on personal “peace,” who were then ill-equipped to live this out in community with others. I remember one exceedingly inner-peace-exuding individual who prayed the most beautiful prayers, and provided thoughtful insights, but was an absolute nightmare to work with. He was only peaceable from a distance. Here is what I think happens: when a person thinks of “peace” first and primarily as an individualistic quality, and pursues it as such, what they often end up practicing socially is conflict avoidance. When cornered with unavoidable tensions of real life, they reveal their stunted heart.
Differences, tension, conflict—they are all normal part of healthy social interaction, and Scriptures provide wonderful tools to help us navigate through such hurdles—humility, gentleness, patience, to start. The result of doing this is growth, both personally and in our relationships.
Let’s be honest. As preachers, and leaders in ministry, to actually encourage our congregations to lean into the conflict feels really scary. It is easier to caution against bringing up controverted topics, and or even go through the tedious process of making a policy statement, for the sake “church unity.” Most churches have a long, growing list filed under the heading, “Things We Don’t Talk About for the Sake of Unity,” which include some very important issues of our times. But where else would be better for us to listen to one another in empathy, if not the alternative community of the incarnation? How else would we become peacemakers, lest we trust in the peace of Christ to provide the foundations of our unity? Perhaps we cannot, but as the bride of Christ we should be able to. This, I think, is how we practice trust in the reality that “the message of Christ dwells among [us] richly” (16).
Paul’s Context: Finally, I want for us to remember one particular context of this letter. (Yes, I know we preachers like to talk about context at the beginning of things, but I think it punctuates my point better here at the end!) In the fourth chapter of Colossians, Paul writes that men named Tychichus and Onesimus is coming to them (4:7). Onesimus, of course, was coming back to Colossae, from whence he had escaped his life as a slave. We know more about his situation from Paul’s note to Philemon, but for now remember both Philemon and Onesimus were members of the church together. What Paul describes in the epistle of Colossians is nothing less than to describe the ontological reality that defines all of our interconnections. So while “legally” Paul may have no authority to declare Onesimus free, he describes the true reality of their situation where “Christ is all, and is in all”(11), made equal in love, in brotherhood, “bound together in perfect unity” (14).
It is this reality, that the Church is called to live into.
The Rev. Jin Cho is an Anglican priest serving in the diocese of the Churches for the Sake of Others. He has 25-plus years experience as a pastor and a church planter and received his Doctor of Ministry degree from Fuller Seminary, writing on the topic of race, evangelicalism, and the local church.
Currently he works with churches and non-profits to have courageous conversations around justice issues. He and his far more interesting wife Esther will celebrate their 25th anniversary this year, and they have two extremely extroverted middle-schoolers. They reside in Orange County, California.
In shalom, each person enjoys justice, enjoys his or her rights. There is no shalom without justice. But shalom goes beyond justice. Shalom is the human being dwelling at peace in all his or her relationships.
Nicholas Wolterstorff, Until Justice and Peace Embrace, Eerdmans.
The Passing of the Peace
In the Anglican liturgy the passing of the peace comes after confession and absolution, on the heels of our reminder that we are forgiven. This too is no coincidence. Our forgiveness and reconciliation flow from Christ’s forgiveness of us.
Out of gratitude over the enormous debt our king has forgiven, we forgive our debtors. Receiving God’s gift of reconciliation enables us to give and receive reconciliation with those around us. In the end, God is the peacemaker. It is not simply “peace” that we pass to each other.
It is the peace of Christ, the peace of our peacemaker. Christ’s peace is never a cheap peace. It is never a peace that skims the surface or papers over the wrong that’s been done. It is not a peace that plays nicey-nice, denies hurt, or avoids conflict. It is never a peace that is insincere or ignores injustice. It’s a peace that is honest and hard-won, that speaks truth and seeks justice, that costs something, and that takes time. It is a peace that offers reconciliation.
Taken from Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life by Tish Harrison Warren. Copyright (c) 2016 by Tish Harrison Warren, p.175. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com