“Can you wash my jeans?”
My daughter was asking a normal question, except that it was 9pm, and she needed the jeans first thing the next morning for her work as a dishwasher at a local cafe. I responded, “Can’t you just wear them again? They’re going to get dirty anyway.”
Think about how much time you spend doing laundry. In my house it can be five or six loads per week, and that is after our two adult sons have moved out. All that sorting, putting items in the washer, then the dryer, then folding, then putting away. Over and over and over, week after week. Hours upon hours of our lives spent working to clean our clothing. Thank goodness we don’t have to do it by hand. If you think getting clean clothing is a lot of work now, imagine how much work it could be without washers and driers. Clean clothing is worth the work, though! As much as we can grumble and complain about it, and as much as we might be tempted to just keep wearing dirty clothes, most of us would agree that putting on clean clothing is great. They feel great. They look great. They smell great. I don’t blame my daughter for wanting clean jeans.
In our continuing series through Colossians, Paul is talking about laundry, but not undergarments or pants and shirts. There is another kind of clean living that is vital for us, Paul says. Turn to Colossians 3:12-17.
Paul starts this passage with the word, “Therefore,” meaning that something he said before is the rationale for what he is about to say now. What did he say before? In chapter 3:1-4 (see the blog series on that section starting here), he taught that we Christians identify ourselves as people who are raised with Christ. Our old life is dead, and we have new life in Christ. So we actively focus our hearts and minds on things above, which means we live the new life of Christ here and now, and we have the hope of eternal life with him. How do we live that new life? In verses 5-11 (see that series starting here), he began to talk about laundry as a metaphor to help us think about how to live that new life. Last week was part one, take off the dirty clothes, which means that followers of Jesus remove from their lives the actions and attitudes of the sinful nature.
This week is part two, put on the new clean clothes, which Paul first hinted at in verse 10. “You have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its creator.” What Paul meant is that a renovation is taking place. Our lives are being renewed in knowledge. We are learning a new way to live, and it is a very specific way of life. We don’t get to decide what the new way of life will look like. Paul says that we are learning the way of life that is in the image of our Creator. Our new life will look increasingly more like the way the Jesus lived. And furthermore, look at verse 11, where he describes how, through Christ, a new community is formed. No longer do ethnicities or nationalities or skin color divide us. But in Christ we are a new community that is living the new way, taking off the old dirty clothes and putting on the new clothes. Let’s read what he has to say about this. Read Colossians 3:12-17.
In verse 12 Paul describes the people who are a part of this new community. They are God’s chosen, holy and dearly loved. Clearly, God has done the work of making this new community possible because he loves us and wants us to be holy. That is a call back to what Paul said in chapter 1, where he called Christians holy, saints. That might be confusing, because you and I well know that we don’t act holy all the time.
You can see the connection, then, with what Paul is talking about in chapter 3. We are to pursue holiness, because we died to the old way of life, and we are alive in Christ to his new way. Therefore, we not only take off the dirty old clothes of the sinful nature, but we also put on the new clothes. Now Paul is going to talk about what it means to put on the clean clothes.
What we find in verse 12 is another imperative, a command, “Put on clothing.” What clothing? Paul writes a list of the clothing we are to wear. On the blog this week, we’ll look at each word he uses to describe it:
First, he says, “Clothe yourselves with…intestines.” Intestines? What??? Don’t see that on the list, do you? It’s there…kind of. You know how we use the word “heart” to refer to emotion, especially to the feeling of love? When we say, “I love them with all my heart,” we are not referring to the actual blood-pumping organ in our chest. In the Greco-Roman era during which Paul wrote this letter almost 2000 years ago, the intestines were used figuratively as a place where you would feel things deeply.
That word, the place of inner feelings, is connected to the next word, compassion. In the New International Version, you don’t really see the emphasis Paul is making. The New American Standard is closer, “clothe yourselves with a heart of compassion.” But as I said, Paul doesn’t use the word for heart. He uses the word for intestines. Literally Paul writes, “clothe yourselves with the intestines of compassion,” or “bowels of mercy” (King James Version). Paul is saying, “Clothe yourself with an ability to feel deep compassion.” We Christians are to be compassionate.
It seems to me that some people are more naturally compassionate than others. For some of you, compassion and mercy just flow out. For others of you, your personality has a harder time with that. Think about teachers you’ve had over the years. Some were hard core, you get what you get and you don’t get upset. You failed the test. That’s it. Done. Then there were the ones who were ready and willing to give second chances. Grade on the curve.
Christians are to clothe themselves with compassion and mercy, keeping in mind the astounding compassion and mercy that God showed to us!
But what if you are thinking, “Yeah, but when you have compassion and give people mercy, they don’t learn from their mistakes.” Really? Is that true in every instance? “Show no mercy” is always best? No. Thank God that he is a God of mercy, and we, too, are to be people clothed with mercy and compassion.
I will admit, though, that sometimes it is hard to have compassion on people. In my volunteer role in the denomination, I direct the EC Church’s Institute for Christian Leadership, a program of 12 courses, a person can finish in three years. Anyone can take the classes. It’s kind of like a community college for studying the Bible and ministry. We also ask pastors who do not want to get ordained to complete that program. This past week, I was involved in a conversation about one of our pastors who wrote a paper for a class, and the paper criticized the denomination’s approach to the spiritual gifts Paul writes about in Ephesians 4. While I disagreed with his interpretation of Scripture, I support his right to have an opinion that is different from mine. What I take issue with is his tone and attitude. In my opinion, this wasn’t the first time this pastor has expressed himself in a condescending, arrogant, or pompous manner. Maybe you know a person like that. It is super-hard to have compassion, to have deep mercy on that kind of person. But we are called to clothe ourselves with compassion and mercy, even to people who are difficult for us.
That doesn’t mean that we let them get away with sin. Compassion is not excusing sin, as if our actions have no consequences. That is not what God did when he showed us compassion and mercy. In fact, Jesus himself took consequences upon himself, didn’t he? God also allows us to face the natural consequences of our choices.
That is where we can get confused in thinking about compassion. Compassion is having an attitude of graciousness and mercy to a person. Too often when people are difficult or frustrating, we write them off. We get sick of them. We use the phrase, “I’m done with them.” Compassion fights against those attitudes, but it does not preclude setting boundaries, or speaking the truth in love. Deep compassion is a tricky balance. But it is a must for Christians.