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Easter's New Clothes

Sermon – 4/03/05
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Colossians 3:1-14

So here we are now, the Sunday after Easter, did it make any difference?  Now what?  The text from Colossians is a text that helps us reflect on the Easter difference, where we read: 

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, 3for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

5 Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). 6On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. 7These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life.

8 But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. 9Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices 10and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. 11In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

12 As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13Bear 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. 14Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.’

Yesterday at our tea honoring Frances Hyland [member since 1937], I told a story about Frances.  A corny one, actually several, truth be told, but one in particular about our spiritual formation group, our practice of lectio, and of course it was one I just made up (I rarely do that, but you understand the circumstances).  This story, however, is a true story from this past Thursday when we were reading this particular scripture in that study, and Frances replied after we had read this text "If the church would do that, there wouldn't be any fussing".  Amen.

Reminds me of the old story about the preacher who kept preaching the same sermon over and over and over again, and after this had gone on for awhile the elders got together and called him into account, and said 'Explain yourself young man'.  It was fine the first time, the second time wasn't too bad, the third time -- well, we could forgive you.  But enough his enough!  And the preacher said: "Well, as soon as you start doing the things I said in my first sermon, I'll move on to my next!".

This text is kind of like that, but there's one aspect of this text that has bothered me and I'd like to illustrate it with this question.  The letter to Colossians says "we are to put away our previous, earthly, fleshly ways of fornication, impurities, passion of the flesh, evil desire and greed, plus anger and wrath and malice, slander, abusive or filthy language, and lying".  Now I recognize that all of us may be guilty of one or two of these things from time to time, but does anyone here want to admit that this description of rather undesirable characteristics was you before you became a Christian?  Boy, not too many in this group J.  We had a few honest folk in the earlier service when it dawned on me and I said "Well how many of you would use these terms to still describe yourself?"  And the same hands went up!  Now that's honesty.

Praise God for those who through the grace of God have been so transformed, as the text says, that they have clothed themselves with a new self, according to the image of our creator.

The reality, however, I think is that most of us cannot identify with this rather stark portrayal of the pre-Christian life that is the opposite of everything we now believe and do.  And I wonder was the early church really all that different than us?  Would they have identified with such a negative portrayal of themselves before they found Christ?

There have been some recent studies on what we can know about the early church, based on a variety of sources -- anthropology, sociology, archeology, plus the written text including the New Testament as well as other ancient sources.  They paint a different picture than just the impression we get only from reading a text like this.  We know that the first Christians were almost all Jews -- the disciples of Jesus, the followers of Jesus.  But by the time we get to the death of Paul, some 30 years after the execution of Jesus, the majority of Christians in every single urban setting across the Roman Empire (within 30 years, they had communities) the majority of those communities by that time were Gentile.  How do we get to that point with such an incredible transformation so far across the Roman Empire in such a short period of time?

In the last few decades, we are coming to understand who these Gentile converts to the faith were.  The people who were largely the object of Paul's missionary journeys as an apostle to the Gentiles.  We properly call them God Worshippers or God Fearers.  Gentiles who admired the teachings of Judaism, but who could not take that final, fateful step into the faith.  Now, you have to realize for men it was one of those cutting experiences which separates not men from boys but Jews from Gentiles J.  Adult men were just a little reluctant to go through that experience.

When I was in Turkey in the Fall of 2003 we had an opportunity to see some of the archeological evidence of the God fearers, and we had a lot of discussion about them.  One of those places was outside Ephesus where there is a theater from 2,000 years ago, built by the Romans.  A massive theater that seated probably 40,000 people.

The Great Theater at Ephesus.  Photo courtesy of John Dominic Crossan, from his book In Search of Paul.

In one section on one bench there was an inscription carved there that could still be read that said something to the effect of 'for the God Fearers'.  Meaning that this place was reserved for those who worshipped in the synagogue but who were not Jewish.  Now the significant thing about that inscription is that it's in the 9th row.  Now if you know anything about the hierarchy of the Roman culture, the front seats -- the very first row -- were reserved for the highest status.  The Senators, or local council members, and then their family, and then anyone that was in their patronage that they wanted to bestow a favor upon in the rows behind them.  And on up the ladder.  To be in the 9th row in what must have been 40 or 50 rows or more, you see, is an indication of being in a fairly high social status, these God Fearers.

Then there was in the community of Aphrodisias, that has just been excavated in the last century, a column that was part of a Jewish building (we're not sure what the building was) and all those who paid for the building had their names inscribed in this column.  They did it just like we do today -- buy a brick, get your name there for someone to uncover 2,000 years later, you're preserved for all posterity.

Column from Jewish Building in Aphrodisias.  Photos (above and below) courtesy of John Dominic Crossan, from his book In Search of Paul.

 

And here are these names, and of course a lot of Jewish names, but what's striking in this list is the number of Gentile names.  And when we compare that list to lists that we have of city council members in the community of Aphrodisias there are some of the same names.  So once again, an indication of people of significant social status who are part of this group worshipping in the synagogues or in the outer courts of the synagogue but who are not Jewish.

Now undoubtedly people like this were attracted to Judaism for a variety of reasons, ranging from its monotheism to its high ethical standards.  And perhaps most significantly its complete and total independence from the official religion of the Roman Empire which was a highly developed system by which the Roman government was guaranteed the blessings of the Gods and in return the support of the people.  

Judaism, as the one legalized, recognized alternative to the worship of Caesar as an equal among the Gods, provided the one and only means to which a person of faith could legally worship without wrapping their faith in the flag of the Roman Empire.  Not that that would have any modern significance for today, but be that as it may J.

Now as a result, the synagogues throughout the Roman Empire were literally surrounded by those who sought an alternative to the faith served up to them by their public officials.  These were people who had not lower ethical standards than their other Gentile counterparts, but higher ethical standards.  These are the people to whom Paul appealed, and who find Paul most appealing.  

In essence, Paul offered them a way to become Jewish, albeit by a different name, without having to convert to the Jewish faith.  They were welcomed, you see, into this new Christian off-shoot.  So the speed by which the gospel traveled across the Empire is quite understandable when you take these into account--folks naturally inclined to the message of the God of Israel, who includes them now and welcomes them into the community of God's people.

Now here then is my point:  the church, then as now, was not primarily filled with folk who used to be fornicating, foul-mouthed, lying, greedy, slanderers.  We call them politicians for short J.  [I say that in jest].  But rather, most early converts to the faith were already devout worshippers of God.  In other words, they did not become good as a result of becoming Christian, they became Christian as a result of their goodness.  Thus it is to that goodness in each of us that the author of Colossians appeals -- to overcome the ungodly temptations that we all have, throughout all our lives.  Keeping our minds on those things set above.  

We've been talking in the last few weeks about the 'new paradigm' for the church, a new way of understanding our faith and applying that to the world as followers of Jesus.  Here's another key to this new paradigm:  that our focus is not on the sins and failures of those we seek to reach.  You know, we need to convince them how sinful they are, what a worm as the old gospel hymn says, or what a wretch I was as sung in Amazing Grace.  Rather than convincing them of that so that they need the message that we have to offer, our message is to focus on the goodness in each of us.  Holy and beloved, the new self renewed in the image of its creator.  

To put it differently:  our emphasis is not on getting the devil out so much as it is on getting Christ in.  It's a positive flip of the coin.  Not on ridding ourselves of anger but on filling ourselves with love.  Not on being overcome by guilt but by being overwhelmed by forgiveness.  Our invitation is to help people discover that spark of the divine, the image of God in which they were created.  To nurture it in the family of faith where it can grow until it crowds out all those other negative things that interfere in our relationship with God.

There was a young man that came to my office a couple of weeks ago in need of some assistance and he honestly confessed mistakes of his past were now catching up with him.  He had hepatitis C, as many of you know hepatitis C is a blood-borne disease much like AIDS/HIV and most often is fatal, it destroys the liver.  He said that he couldn't hold a job anymore, lost his coverage in the Oregon Health Plan, could no longer afford the medications that basically were keeping him alive, was homeless, and on and on and on.  And he said to me:  "You Christians (because he was not one, and was quite open about that) are all such good people.  You seem to have it all together".  

And I thought, 'boy is he in the wrong church'!  And my second reaction was if that is true then the rest of the world is a whole lot more messed up than I thought.  Through our connections with Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon we were able to find him some modest help in Portland that could attend to his healthcare needs and a place to take him and got him a bus ticket to get up there.  But the more I thought about that, of what he said, because it's actually the opposite of what we usually hear (I mean usually it's blaming us Christians because we're not caring enough) it was startling to hear what he had to say.  

The more I thought about it the more I realized for all of our shortcomings and failures we do have it together in many ways.  Why?  Because I think this is a place that recognizes that the people around us (not just here in church but the people all around us in our community and in our lives) that all people are to one degree or another God's holy ones.  Sacred because each was created in the image of God.  And even if they do not see that in themselves, we see it in them.  And even when we do not see it in our self, then others around us here see it in us.  

And thus our task is to help all of us to find that goodness, that divine spark of compassion and kindness and patience and love that is in each of us.  And we don't have to work hard at doing that.  Because when you are in Christ it comes naturally from that place inside all of us where we have been touched by God.  And this is the difference that Easter makes -- the new Easter clothes we are invited to wear that binds us in harmony as a community of Christ.

And I see that love here.  Not just in a few of our saints like Frances, but I see it in everyone here in whom Christ is all and in all, as this letter says.  I see it in the patient and persistent work of our Helping Hand volunteers, sometimes faced with very challenging clientele who show little appreciation for the services we provide in times of need and yet they continue to give of themselves with love and compassion.  I see it in our office volunteers, faced with the ever growing needs of people who come in off the street needing things we can't begin to provide and yet our office volunteers respond with such compassion and respect, honoring the dignity of the person over and over again.  I see it in our Sunday School teachers, week after week, giving of their time to prepare that our children and our youth and even our adults may have educational opportunities that nurture their faith in God.  I see it in our devoted staff who manage to do some amazing things with sometimes the meager resources that we provide.  I see it in the faithful stewards of this congregation, who give so generously time and time again often sacrificially of their finances to the many ministries of the church.  

Yesterday we saw it in the incredible work of Faye and Mildred -- I'm surprised they're here this morning they worked so hard yesterday with the tea we had for Frances that was a true act of love [applause from the congregation].  

And I've seen it in what Jim Korth is doing on behalf of Jesse Bork -- Jesse has no family and now is in her last days and the time Jim is giving Jesse to support her so that she has all of her needs in every way met.  She knows that she is not alone in this difficult time.

Well, on and on I could go of the folk of this church who have done so many things.  Colossians says to us "as God's chosen ones, holy 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.  Above all else, clothe yourself with love which binds everything in perfect harmony.  Let the peace of Christ rule in your heart to which indeed you were called into the one body."

And as Frances said:  "If the church would do that, there would be no fussin'".  And I say -- it must be why there is so little fussin' here in this place.  And I think that says it all.

 

On this day, the congregation of First Christian Church bid farewell to Frances Hyland, who has been a member here since 1937.  Frances (who is moving to Portland to be closer to family), pictured above with Senior Minister Dan Bryant, was honored with a lifetime chalice award, and a new handbell being donated to the Bell Choir in her name (something a little more impressive than what's pictured above!).  The Hyland Music Fund has also been established in her name for youth music programs at First Christian.

On behalf of everyone associated with First Christian Church, thank you Frances for your years of devotion and service to our church.

 


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