Holy Trinity Healing service 08/02/04
I wonder how you feel about this great long list of how we Christians ought to behave? Paul says that there is no place in the Christian life for imperfection; that we must strip off all the badness which clings to us and clothe ourselves completely with goodness.
It makes me feel like saying, thanks for nothing, St Paul: you set the standards so high here that none of us can achieve them. Which leaves us feeling terrible about ourselves, because we're obviously such bad Christians.
You probably know the one about the fellow whose wife shakes him awake on a Sunday morning and says, "Come on, you'll be late for church." He says, "I don't want to go to church. It's cold, the sermons are dull, the people are dull, the singing is dire, no-one there likes me: give me one good reason why I should go." To which she replies: "Well, you're the vicar."
I don't disagree with Paul's encouragement to strip down, clean ourselves off, put on fresh new clothes, make a new start. I just worry that the way he writes it makes it look like we can do that once and for all. It ignores that in life we have to keep on doing this because the truth is, however good our intentions are, we keep getting grubby, we have to keep returning to God for forgiveness and the chance of a new start.
But Paul does also say some profoundly helpful things here in Colossians chapter three. Especially this: Do not lie to each other, he says.
When people look at us, they usually don't see the real us. We are all secrets to ourselves. Mysteries to each other. The me who is standing here in this cassock is not the real me. The you who is sitting uncomfortably in those choir stalls is not the real you. We are all edited selves - Reader's Digest versions of our real selves.
The problem is, we don't really know each other; so we get ideas about each other which are always incomplete and always inaccurate. Ideas like, vicars always love coming to church, for instance. And rather than tell the truth about ourselves we have become experts in dodging, hiding, pretending, covering, running, protecting, eluding, evading the real us.
But Paul said Do not lie to each other.
One of the best sermons I ever heard was one where the preacher stood up, took his prepared notes in his hand and threw them away and said, "I'm sorry, everyone, I really don't think I can stand up here today and tell you how to live your lives. Truth is this morning just before Church my wife and I had a blazing row. I'm still angry with her about some of the things she said and I know she's so angry with me that she said she was staying out of the service. We're not feeling very Christian today, to be honest, we could do with your prayers."
Do you know the relief that brought to so many of us in the congregation; because so many of us for all sorts of reasons felt just like that preacher did. Prayers were better that day than it seemed they'd ever been. Do not lie to each other. There's a lot of good news in that.
Now we know it's not always easy, being honest about who we are. Even being honest with God. But Jesus wants us to be real. Because he knows that our real selves are not only full of sin, full of flaws and brokenness - they are also beautiful and full of hope.
He wants us to realise ourselves fully, to see who we are meant to be, who we are capable of being if we will stop running and start looking. That is what conversion is all about.
Do you see what the battle in the Church is today? It is not homosexuality. It is not power or authority. It is reality. It is honesty.
St Paul says, Do not lie to each other. Bear with each other, forgive each other.
Can we be ourselves? Can we let our true selves be known, to come out of hiding? What the world is longing to see in the Church is not moral purity as much as moral reality. The world wants to see a Church full of people who are not afraid of their blemishes, because their blemishes only point to the unblemished character of Jesus.
We must understand that when people look at the Church and see only impostors, they conclude that Jesus is an impostor. But when they see followers of Jesus who are real, they see a Jesus who is real. The Church doesn't need to fabricate holiness, it needs to seek holiness.
Holiness is not where we arrive, but where we are going. I wish St Paul had said that more clearly in Colossians; elsewhere we know he admitted his faults, said he was the least of God's people: he was being real then, and his words encourage the rest of us.
The power of the Church is not a parade of flawless people, but of a flawless Christ who embraces our flaws. The Church is not made up of whole people, rather of broken people who find wholeness in a Christ who was broken for us. The Church points to Christ - not to ourselves.
Do not lie to each other. Learn to love each other for who we are. People who keep needing to strip down, clean ourselves off, put on fresh new clothes, make a new start, with the help of Jesus.
Jesus, who knows us, and lovingly cares for us, just as we are.
Sermon adapted from Mike Yaconelli: Reader's Digest Selves.