As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
It never occurred to me until this week, which I spent clothes shopping for my daughter and studying this passage from Colossians, that it might be useful to take the Apostle Paul along with us to Aeropostale or Delia’s. Paul has some pretty good ideas in this passage about clothing- how to dress for success. Although Paul has never been my favorite biblical character, he might be good company for me at the Mall. Wardrobe shopping for a teenaged girl these days is not for the faint of heart. One needs all the fortification and support one can get. So if I took Paul with us while shopping for clothes, here’s how I imagine it would go:
“Are these shorts too short?” my daughter asks, holding up some shreds of fabric. I get out my reading glasses to see them.
“It would be an exaggeration to call those shorts,” the Apostle Paul whispers feverishly in my ear.
“What do you think about this shirt,” she asks, holding up a see through garment with a big opening cut in the front and in the back.
“You wouldn’t dare let her wear that would you,” hisses Paul behind me.
“Oh, I love this dress,” she cries, holding up something that looks like two handkerchiefs held together with gossamer ribbons for shoulder straps.
I just sigh and imagine the Apostle Paul gasping as he clutches his chest and checks his pulse for signs of a heart attack.
“Oh toughen up,” I say to Paul. “I thought you might be some help here. You had some pretty good things to say to the Colossians about how to dress appropriately.”
“That was Off the Rack Spiritual Clothing,” Paul groans, covering his eyes.
Oh well, it seemed like a good idea at the time. It seems that Paul’s capacity for clothing design was limited to a metaphor. But you’ve got to admit, it’s a really good metaphor. Paul’s image of clothing might not help me in the Mall while I fight Wardrobe Wars with my daughter, but it certainly does give me some really good ideas about what makes Christian community work well. “Clothe yourselves with compassion,” Paul says. “Wear an outfit made out of kindness, humility, and meekness. When you’re going out on the town, dress up in patience.”
We don’t know a lot about what was going on in the church in Colossae to whom Paul wrote this letter. We do know that Colossae was an ancient city located in what is now Turkey. It was a cosmopolitan city on a major trade route, with a diverse mixture of people living there.
We’re not even sure if Paul ever visited the church in Colossae himself. But he knew enough about them to write to them from his prison cell in Rome and to address some internal church matters Paul had heard about. Paul’s dream for this church is that their incredible diversity and differences will not alienate them from each other. Paul’s hope was that the love of Christ would draw them together in a love that transcends all differences: racial, ethnic, social status, theological perspective or otherwise.
Paul uses the image of clothing to talk about the distinctive behaviors that should characterize their life together. In the previous passage he asks them to take off their old clothing, if you will. “Strip off the old self,” Paul urges, “and put on the new self.” Take off the layers of anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language. Obviously, some conflict was stirred up in the young church for Paul to speak so directly to them about their conduct.
Next, Paul goes on in detail to tell them about the new clothing they are to put in instead of the old clothing, or actions, that divide them from one another. “In that renewal,” Paul insists, “there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” In order to achieve that kind of unity across differences, Paul says, you have to put on new clothes: completely new ways of being with each other.
Paul is very specific: “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other… and above all else, love one another.” You might say that in giving them a “spiritual dress code” Paul is outlining a “behavioral covenant” for this growing, developing church in Colossae. He’s holding up ideal behaviors, “holy manners,” for building the beloved community, spelling them out as he invites the congregation to be intentional about their life together.
In being transformed in every way by Christ, the community of followers of Jesus at Colossae is being changed. Paul is hearing about the pushback against the changes the church leaders are getting from the congregation. He probably imagines the church members sitting around the table saying to the leaders: “We’re hoping you’ll lead us on a journey of transformation without requiring any real change.” (Reference to a cartoon.)
Paul is wise enough to understand that a church whose identity is growing and changing so quickly will have some challenging moments in the process. He also seems to take in stride that the creation of a vital, alive church will evoke conflicting values among its members that will require difficult, necessary conversations to resolve. Paul is asking the community of Christians, then and now, to be intentional about creating guidelines for building up the body of Christ in a healthy way.
In his book Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, Eugene Peterson describes the kind of conversations that the church needs in order to be vital, healthy, and transformative communities. He writes: “Conversation implies back-and-forthness, several voices engaged in considering, exploring, discussing, and enjoying not only the subject matter, but also one another’s company.”
Over the past two years, OCBC has been engaged in a thoughtful and prayerful process of looking at itself, celebrating its strengths, exploring its growing edges, and examining best practices for a healthy congregational life. Out of this work some specific things have been developed which we believe will help the church be intentional about its health. For example: the Safe Church Policy, a Personnel Committee, and the re-constitution of the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee.
Following the service today, we will review and vote on a Behavioral Covenant which the Transition Team created in consultation with the congregation. Many of you attended one of three meetings where friends and members of OCBC had meaningful conversations about the Covenant. The Deacons approved the Covenant and bring it to you for your approval today. Paul’s letter to the Colossians suggests that Behavioral Covenants aren’t new. They are a part of the DNA of Christ’s church.
A Behavioral Covenant is not something we make you sign, or a document that curbs our “soul freedom.” It is not going to be used by a Spiritual Hall Monitor to beat people over the head. It is not written in stone like the 10 commandments, but is a living document. A Behavioral covenant it is a stimulus to conversation and thinking about how we can bring our best selves to our life together. It is a call to live into a vision of a diverse, vital, healthy congregation whose purpose it to be Christ’s body in the world.
In his book Behavioral Covenants in Congregations, Gil Rendle writes: “A behavioral covenant is a written document developed by leaders, agreed to and owned by its creators and practiced on a daily basis as a spiritual discipline. The Covenant answers the question, “How will we behave (how will we live together?) when we don’t understand each other and when we don’t agree?”
Paul’s vision may not be of us at the Mall when buying clothes for a teenager, but it helps us in so many other ways. A Behavioral Covenant assumes that God calls us to dress for church in a particular way. Not that we wear our Sunday-go-to-meetings clothes, but that we attire ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, and most of all, love. Dressing in the way is an intentional, daily, ongoing, spiritual practice.
God knows the world needs this kind of intentional community: healthy loving, able to integrate and embrace differences. Our modeling God’s vision of community is a healing gift to the world. The news out of Iraq this week is one more in a long line of reminders of the destruction that grows out of anger, malice, and hatred in a country torn by Civil War.
And thinking of Civil War, let us remind ourselves that before our own country was divided North and South into a war, the churches divided. How different might the narrative have been if the churches had not split, but had modeled how to behave in a way that moved their country toward unity? What difference might they have made if the churches had worked together to abolish slavery and transform their society? What kind of difference will we make in the world?
May God continue to teach us Holy Manners, so that together we may grow in love for the purpose of being Christ’s body in the world! Amen.