Sunday, May 15, 2011

Christ's Resurrection and You: Sunday Best, Every Day

Texts:  Colossians 3:1-17; Matthew 28:16-20

REMEMBER COMING TO CHURCH in your Sunday best?  Women and girls put on that suit or dress that rarely got worn any other day of the week.  Men and boys wore good slacks and jackets, white shirts, and ties.  Ladies, you'd never forget your hat, and everyone was clean and pressed with shoes shined and hair brushed, ready to come into the presence of the Lord.

    Maybe you still dress up to come to church.  But for the most part, the world has changed.  People wear whatever they feel like to church.  Some churches even advertise that with them, it's "casual dress" and people can "come as you are." And it's not just the lay people: in some denominations (and nondenominations), the pastors make a point of wearing T-shirts and jeans to preach in.  The idea is that casual dress sends the message that the love of God is open to all, whoever they are or whatever they've done.

    But it's one thing to reject "Sunday best" clothing from our bodies; it's quite another to exclude "Sunday best" from our hearts.  God probably doesn't care if we're casual in our clothing or if we dress up.  But He cares very much if we're casual about our obedience to Jesus Christ and our love for our neighbor in our daily lives.  When we are, it tells God and the world that we really haven't understood the power of Christ in His resurrection-- or that we don't really care.

    Up on that mountain in Galilee after He rose from the dead, Jesus commissioned His disciples to make disciples of all nations by baptising them and teaching them to obey everything that He had commanded them.  Because we have been saved by grace through faith in Christ's shed blood, we don't believe that we earn God's favor by our obedience.  But because we have been saved by grace through faith in Christ's shed blood, we strive to show our thanks and praise by doing what Jesus says.  We come as we are, but God doesn't leave us as we are.  Rather, we are to clothe ourselves with the Sunday best He Himself gives.

    One of my childhood pastors liked to say that the only command Jesus gave was for us to love God and one another.  I'd dispute him on that, now that I'm ordained myself and if he were still around.  But let's say he was right, that the only command of Christ is to love.  It's Scripture's job, not ours, to tell us what loving God and our neighbor means.  It includes holiness, righteousness, mutual consideration, self-denial, self-control, and a lot of other things that the unsaved world doesn't include in this word "love."  Jesus stated flatly that "all authority in heaven and on earth has been given" to Him.  That means He's Lord.  He and He alone has the right to set the dress code, so to speak, and define how we should look walking around clothed in His divine love.

    And if and since we have been raised with Christ, He wants to see our hearts and minds dressed in our Sunday best, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, all year round.  In Paul's Letter to the Colossians, the third chapter, he draws the design, you might say, of what our church clothes should look like and how they should be worn.

    Remember, you have been raised with Christ, so set your minds on things above.  Don't go on doing things the way the popular culture or the way your sinful nature wants to do them.  In Jesus' crucifixion, you died; in His resurrection, you were born anew; and now He keeps your real, eternal life safely hidden in the heart of God, in heaven where He reigns at the right hand of the Father in glory.

    So the first thing we have to do is take off the old, filthy, ugly clothing that belonged to our earthly natures.  Or as Paul puts it in verses 5 and following, "Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly."  First of all he mentions fornication, and the Greek word being translated means any kind of sexual immorality, inside or outside of marriage.  Take off, kill, reject any kind of impurity-- it's possible to have a dirty mind in a virgin body.  Reject passion or lust, which isn't just for things sexual; it also includes excessive desire for anything this world has to offer, such that we hurt our neighbor, corrupt ourselves, and dishonor God in the pursuit of it.  Cast off evil desires-- you know the ones you're tempted to, and I have mine-- and utterly stifle greed.  Because Paul is right: when we want some material object with that kind of passion, we're saying it's more important to us than God and it's the same thing as idolatry.  Now that we've been raised with Christ, the clothing of our minds should no longer be the casual, who-cares attire of this present world.  For God cares, and cares deeply, how we clothe ourselves in His presence, and those who insist on wrapping themselves in the rags of their sin will find themselves subject to the wrath of God, when Christ comes to judge the living and the dead.

    You used to be like that, before the Holy Spirit took hold of your life and caused you to be born again through the resurrection of Christ.  You used to do things like that.  And when now you still find yourself doing things like that, when you realize you're still thinking in these God-rejecting, deathly ways, call on the Spirit for help and get rid of that filthy attire right away.  It's the truth: you can be perfectly moral concerning what you do with your body, but if your mind is wearing attitudes like anger and malice, if you can't open your mouth without slandering someone or saying something abusive about them, you deny the resurrection of Christ and its power in you.

    Really, how can we church people, even pastors, elders, and deacons, be so cruel to one another as we often are?  What's our excuse?  Do we gossip about one another and distort the truth about one another because we think it's going to solve some problem?  Do we undermine one another's efforts with the excuse that we just want everything to be done right in the church?  Heaven forbid!  How can we be so foolish?

    These sins existed in the Colossian church, just as they do in our congregations today.  Let's stop going around with our hearts and minds and tongues dressed in such loathsome garments!  After all, we have taken off our old sinful self with its conniving and scheming and backstabbing and distortions.   Jesus' blood has taken that nasty outfit off of us and thrown it away; it's not even fit for the ragbag!  Jesus is risen, we are risen with Him and now we've put on our new selves.  It's our every day Sunday best, and it's a garment that Jesus renews in us day after day.  Our spiritual clothing is now cut in the image of God the creator Himself.  No longer do we dress to express ourselves: the clothing of our minds should now express the glory of Jesus Christ, who is all in all.

    But we have a problem in the church today.  Let's be frank about it: we have a big problem in our denomination. As you may have heard, a majority of our presbyteries has now approved a change to the ordination standards in our Book of Order.  The clause used to read

    Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life of obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the history confessional standards of the church.  Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman (W-4.9001), or chastity in singleness.  Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and Sacrament.

From now it will say,

    Standards for ordained service reflect the church's desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life (G-1.0000).  The governing body responsible for ordination and/or installation (G-14.0240; G-14.0450) shall examine each candidate's calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office.  The examination shall include, but not be limited to, a determination of the candidate's ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003).  Governing bodies shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates.

This wouldn't be so bad-- if the Presbyterian Church (USA) didn't have a long record of being extremely casual about Scripture and what it means by "the Lordship of Christ."  Colossians is clear: submitting to Jesus' authority means getting rid of sexual immorality of every kind.  But the majority of our presbyteries seem to think we could put on the new life in Christ right over the rags of the old life of this world.  Or worse than that, that the new life in Christ is all about celebrating and expressing what belongs to our old sinful style.

    The primary impact of this new Book of Order wording will be to allow the ordination of people who are indulging in extra-marital and non-marital sexual relations, whether homo- or heterosexual.  But our sexual lives aren't the only area where sinners deceive themselves about what Jesus' lordship requires.  How often have we known vengefulness redefined as justice, or cruel speech called honesty?  We all struggle with evil habits and ways that fit us like a second skin, and in every case   Jesus demands that we stop submitting ourselves to them.  Whatever your besetting sin was or is, you'll get nowhere in the eyes of God by arguing that you were "born this way."  He knows you were born that way.  You were born in sin and death, and so was I.  But now in Christ we have taken off the old self with its practices, and clothed ourselves with Christ and His perfect purity and righteousness.

    So how do we look in our ever-new Sunday best?  We look like Jesus Himself.  We look like the holy people God has chosen us to be.  We're compassionate to one another.  We're kind.  We're humble, gentle, and patient.  We bear with one another and we forgive the grievances we have against one another.  We forgive as the Lord forgave us-- for that is another way of expressing Jesus' great commandment, to love one another, as He has loved us.   It's true: every virtue that we're clothed in as Christians is an expression of Jesus' love, and His love perfectly harmonizes them all.

    There are difficult days ahead for our denomination.  We might be tempted to say that our Colossians passage just gives us a beautiful ideal of the Christian life, that can have no effect on the gritty realities we're facing.

    But this passage finds its true meaning as we live in it, walk in it, and wear it every day of the week.  Don't confuse casual dress for the body with carelessness for the heart and mind.  The resurrection life in Christ is not all about what's comfortable for me and you, and let the rest of the church look to itself.  No, we are members of one body.  God gives us our beautiful new selves to put on so we can live Jesus' resurrection life together, for the good of all.

    So as you put on your every day Sunday best, let the peace of Christ rule in your heart, the deep peace with God Jesus won for us on the cross.  Let that peace rule and regulate your spirit, so you can trust Him to bring good out of every situation and not lash out in anger and disappointment at what our denomination has done, even as you're called narrowminded or self-righteous for standing up for the truth of Scripture.  Be thankful, especially as you think how Jesus has saved you, even though you did not deserve it.  And minister to each other. Know the word of Christ and be ready to speak it to build one another up in comfort and hope.  Be filled with the wisdom of Christ so you know how to minister His love in the time of need. Be ready to admonish those who are falling into error, even as you maintain a spirit of patience and humility.  Fill your mind and your mouth with hymns and songs and spiritual songs that faithfully express what God has done for us-- you'll be amazed at how much sound teaching you can memorize that way.  And be grateful, for God Himself has laid out your suit, pressed your shirt, and shined your shoes.  All you have to do is put it all on and reflect the image of your creator.

    What should you look like in your spiritual Sunday best?  You should look like your risen Saviour, Jesus Christ.  So take off your old self and be clothed with His virtue, His wisdom, His peace.  "And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him."  Amen.

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