Monday, December 31, 2018

First Sunday after Christmas

Colossians 3
12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
It’s an odd Sunday.

First up, I’m not sure why you’re here. Of course, I understand you’re here to worship the Most High, but aren’t you a little tired? Shouldn’t you be dozing somewhere in a turkey induced-slumber, and planning New Year’s resolutions related to that turkey-induced slumber?

Second, it’s an odd Sunday. Scraps of unsung carols get sung today, and the minister picks the obscure French carols that no one else really likes, because no one is supposed to be here. Controversial things may be said from the pulpit, based on the assumption that some things demand to be said, and are often better said when no one is supposed to be here.

Or perhaps all these things are precisely why you’re here: to worship the Most High, to avoid making New Year’s resolutions, to sing obscure French carols that you secretly love, and to hear something controversial because you know that’s how ministers roll. So thank you for coming, and let’s ignore the fact that we’re really here for the Christmas goodies that usually show up at coffee the Sunday after Christmas.

Before we head to Colossae (COLL-aw-see) and talk about virtue, I want to head to the coast, about 200 kilometres away, and meet one of the most famous sons of Ephesus, Heraclitus (Hera-CLE-tus) the Obscure. If you’re wondering why you don’t know Heraclitus, it seems the answer is in the name. But actually it’s not, because his epithet means “hard to understand” rather than unknown.

Heraclitus lived about 500 years before St. Paul, but his reputation among Greek philosophers is solid, owing to a handful of ideas and some really great quotes beginning with “no one steps in the same river twice.” He meant that the river, like everything else around us, is constantly changing, and therefore you never step in the same river twice. And like most philosophers, he had an rival, maybe a frenemy, by the name of Parmenides. And Parmenides, being a rival, took the opposite view, summing up his view with the profoundly concise “what-is, is.” So either everything changes or what is, is. You have to take sides, and you can do it over coffee, because either ontology matters, or you just like saying “what is, is.”

The other famous saying by our friend Heraclitus is another simple-yet-profound one, one that will take us back to the Colossians. Heraclitus said ​ethos anthropoi daimon​, usually translated as “man’s character is his fate” or simply “character is destiny.” It has elements of Paul’s later expression, “you reap what you sow,” (Gal 6.7) but it’s less behavioural and more about the essence of who we are and how that tends to determine what becomes of us.

So I won’t read the passage again, but I will turn it into a list of all the virtues that Paul commends to the church in Colossae: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance, forgiveness, love, unity, peace, thankfulness, and gratitude. It’s a good list, and before we dig in, I wonder about the ordering. Paul does say “over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together,” so he does give priority to one over all. But what do you think? How would you order them? I’ll leave it with you, but we’ll give Paul is due and put love at the top.

It’s also important to understand that this list is aspirational in nature. Paul understood as well as anyone that congregations like the one at Colossae were filled with broken people, but he saw his task as setting out expectations—meaning this is what Christian community should look like. And he was also drawing a contrast with the way of the world, defining the nature of Christian community in opposition to the “nasty, brutish and short” life that most experienced.

While we’re doing quotes, the full quote is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” and the seventeenth-century cleric that made the quote (I bet his sermons were fun) was trying to be candid about human nature, the very nature that Paul wanted his people to overcome. A recent scholar gave this summary of Hobbes’ view:

We are all basically selfish, driven by fear of death and the hope of personal gain, [Hobbes] believed. All of us seek power over others, whether we realize this or not. If you don’t accept Hobbes’ picture of humanity, why do you lock the door when you leave your house?*

So I’m going to do a little thought experiment, based on the ‘year in review,’ and see who pops into your mind as I make another list. Paul looked around and saw troubled people in a troubled time: lacking compassion, cruel, vain, rough, impatient, unforgiving, hateful, disunifying, warlike, unthankful, ungrateful, and intolerant— assuming that’s the opposite of showing forbearance.

Got a mental picture of anyone? I’m just going to leave that with you while I talk about another important part of the passage we’re looking at, and that’s admonishment. You might remember earlier in the year we looked at rebuking— back on “Get Behind Me, Satan” Sunday— also known as the Second Sunday of Lent. I was telling you about the various penalties we face for our ecclesiastical misdeeds, beginning with admonishing, then rebuking and eventually all the way to losing your spot on the roll. Serious stuff, and it all begins with the very advice Paul gives to the Colossians:

Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.

And just to be clear, I’m going to share from the other “good book,” the Oxford English Dictionary, the definition of admonish: “To advise or warn (a person), esp. by way of correction.” I think it’s safe to say that few of us like to be admonished, we don’t seek correction, and we would rather people ignored our faults or misdeeds than pointing them out as a matter of Christian duty.

But Paul wasn’t kidding. One of the marks of Christian community is mutual accountability, opening ourselves to the occasional admonishment as we move toward the goal of Christian perfection. And of course it never fully works, because only God is perfect, and because we remain, well, human. Nevertheless, Paul insists that we have a duty to “to advise or warn (one another), esp. by way of correction.” They will know we are Christians by our love and our willingness to admonish and be admonished. It’s who we are.

So I want to play the same game, called “who am I talking about, really,” as I read Psychology Today’s definition of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.**

The hallmarks of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) are grandiosity, a lack of empathy for other people, and a need for admiration. People with this condition are frequently described as arrogant, self-centered, manipulative, and demanding. Individuals with narcissistic personality disorder have difficulty tolerating criticism or defeat, and may be left feeling humiliated or empty when they experience an "injury" in the form of criticism or rejection.

In other words, you’re desire to admonish this person will not work. They are not wired for admonishment, and it will leave them feeling injured or diminished or rejected. And they need our love and support, but they shouldn’t be put in charge of any large institutions, or even small ones for that matter. They can exist in the church, because our doors remain open to all of God’s broken people, but it’s going to be tough for them.

It’s going to be tough for them because with love comes mutual accountability, and a willingness to “speak the truth in love,” another gem from St. Paul. I think Heraclitus was right—character is destiny—and that’s why Paul just couldn’t stop talking about virtue. He set out every specific expectations about belief, behaviour, and the way in which we remain our ‘brothers and sisters’ keepers.

There are people in power who seek to destroy Christian community, not by condemning it, but by co-opting it and using it to further their twisted aims. They exploit Christian virtue—patience, forbearance, and forgiveness—and convince them that this Faustian deal is worth it, trading common decency for the belief that the end justifies the means. Obviously Christians who support corrupt politicians are not blameless, but they need to understand how this ends, and the extent to which their choices hurt all people of faith.

Most importantly, we need to remember who we are: God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothed with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. And willing to help each other remain these things, always, in a spirit of love. Amen.

* y-poor-nasty-brutish-and-short/ ** personality-disorder


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