This is the sermon I preached today (20 September, 2020) at Putney Methodist Church. It is the first one I have preached for several months, hence the lack of posts on this site. As I explain in my sermon, this is because I have taken four months of adoption leave to look after our new son. The text I chose to preach on was Colossians 3:1-15. You can watch a recorded version of this sermon here on YouTube.
Introduction: weaving a sermon
Crafting a sermon can often feel like weaving an intricate pattern because in both cases you are trying to bring together different elements to create a unified and harmonious final product. The most important strand is, of course, the Word of God. That may be the text that has been set for a particular day in the lectionary or, as today, a particular passage or verse that has occupied your mind that week. It is always ultimately, though, the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ. To begin to make a pattern, though, you need to bring yourself to that Word, otherwise it just exists in a vacuum. What does the Word mean to me, and how does it speak to the other concerns in my mind this day? Similarly, it must mean something to you, the hearers; and that is the essential third strand. How does this Word speak to your lives and experiences this week? Fourthly, and finally, how does it speak to our Church and our World this day, to the newspaper headlines we read and the streets through which we walk every day?
Inevitably, there are many other strands we could consider and might bring in to complete our pattern. The strands will also constantly weave in and out of one another: my worries are inevitably affected by the world in which we live, and so on. If we use too much of one strand, then the weaving does not work. If it’s all about me and my worries, then where is God? If it’s all about the woes of the world, then it becomes a news report. The challenge for all preachers is to weave harmony into this diversity and find the common thread that will allow us to hear God’s Word this day.
For me personally, this challenge is even greater than usual today because there are so many threads to join together. This is my first Sunday preaching since my partner and I embarked on the greatest adventure of our life and adopted a child. We have spent the last four months almost entirely occupied with him and his needs, helping him to begin the long process of recovery that all such children must face. This in itself would be enough of a challenge, but of course a great deal else has been happening in the last few months, which you may just have noticed! The world-changing experience of COVID 19, which silenced our streets and our churches for so long, and which has introduced a new reality into all our lives. Add to this everything else that has happened in the world, not least the Black Lives Matter movement, and it feels like I am trying to weave together an impossible number of different strands as I stand here today.
What then is the unifying thread that brings them all together? Well, there may be many answers to that question but one strand that seems unite them all is the question of identity. Who am I in a changing world? And how does Christ help us weave together that identity?
A question of identity
Becoming an adoptive parent, especially during lockdown, has been a very steep learning curve for my partner and me, as you might expect. We have had to learn a great deal in a very short space of time, including how to function with no sleep! We and our son have faced many challenges, and he will have to face many of them for the rest of his life. One of the greatest of these is that question of identity. In a very formal sense, we are having to tackle that now as we complete the formal application to the courts for an adoption order. Which of his names should he keep: which should he lose? He is becoming part of a new family, so he will take my family name but what will this mean to him later in life? In some cases, adopted children have to lose all their given names because to retain an unusual or unique name could pose a risk to their safety and that of their carers – especially in this social media age. We have to be very careful about concealing aspects of our child’s identity from the world to protect him from those who might harm him. The terrible recent case of the foster carers held at knife point in Sussex is a sad reminder of the dangers facing such children if their identities are not carefully protected.
Beyond the formal question of his name, our son will of course have to face much deeper questions about his identity as he grows up. What makes us who we are? Our genetics? Our family? Our place of birth? Our ethnicity? Our religious or cultural background? Is our identity written in stone the day we are born? These are questions we must all face, of course, but they are even more acute for him as he has had to be forcibly removed from his family home for his own safety, and is to be raised by people who are effectively strangers. How will he understand himself when seemingly even the womb in which he was knitted together, as the Psalmist writes (Ps. 139:13), has rejected him? How should we help him to understand himself now?
We too have faced something of an identity crisis since he came to live with us. Overnight, we have added another facet to our identities: that of ‘parent’. Suddenly, all the baggage of that term has been added to our own self-understanding, and for our son, naturally, that is the only aspect of our character that matters. Who I am, what I have done before in my life, what I have seen doesn’t matter to him: I am ‘just’ dad, my identity entirely based on my new function. During my adoption leave, I felt this identity challenge particularly acutely, like many new parents. My customary self-identification, as a minister, a professional person, someone with a role in community life was largely gone. My new functional identity was entirely wrapped up in my domestic role as chief cook and bottle washer. It made me really question my self-understanding of where my own sense of identity comes from.
Simultaneously, COVID and lockdown have forced millions of others into similar self-searching. If you define yourself by your job, what happens when you suddenly discover that that role is not actually needed in a crisis, or, far more worryingly, when that job suddenly disappears? Or what about those whose self-understanding was based upon their pastimes or hobbies? Or by their last exotic holiday? Or their exciting social life? Or their education? Or their volunteering roles? The list goes on and on. We know that many women, in particular, suddenly saw their self-understanding change, as overnight they took on an identity much closer to that of their mother’s or grandmother’s from the 1950s, with any professional role overwhelmed by the requirement to be a full-time carer.
If we had time, we could also talk about how COVID has knocked away at traditional props of identity for so many organisations too, not least the Church. When we cannot do what we have always done, who are we? If our doors are not open, are we still a church? In all these ways and more, I see that thread of identity running through so much of my own life and the life of the world in the last few weeks and months. Who am I now?
So, what do we do with all these questions? Well, we need to bring in the most important strand: the Word of God. So let us hear words from the letter to the Colossians, where the author speaks of the first Christians’ new identity in Christ, who abolishes all previous distinctions.
The New Life in Christ (NRSV)
So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.
Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!
As God’s chosen ones, holy and 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, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.
“Christ is all in all”
The challenge of understanding our identity is, of course, nothing new, as our scriptures constantly remind us. Repeatedly, we encounter people struggling with who they are meant to be, and how their identity as the people of God relates to their other identities. Identities that are still important today: ethnicity, nationality, family and many more. The challenge was particularly acute for members of the first churches, in places like Colossae: tiny groups of Christians trying to find their way in a sea of competing ideologies and beliefs. Was your identity as a Roman, or a Greek, or a soldier, or an imperial official, or an ordinary citizen compatible with your new identity as a baptised follower of Christ? For example, if you were a leading citizen of any Roman city, then you were expected to have a role in civic worship and festivals linked to your local temples and cults. No one really expected you to believe in these things, but if you had a particular status then you were required to show up, often pay up, and possibly take a public role in the rituals. Could you hold this identity simultaneously with your belief in the risen Christ?
More fundamentally, we see real challenges with the growing distinction between Jewish and Gentile Christians. If a key part of your identity was being circumcised or refusing to eat certain foods, could you identify yourself as a Christian, when others rejected those markers of identity? We also see clashes arising among those whose Christian identity depended upon loyalty to a particular leader; or whose Christian identity could be seen as secondary to other considerations, such as family or nationality.
The language of clothing and unclothing in this passage is interesting both in an ancient and modern discussion about identity too. Clothes signified much about who you were in the ancient world, your status and where you came from. Famously, only the most senior Roman magistrates could wear Tyrian, or imperial, purple. A colour choice inherited by Christian bishops!) In scriptures like the letter of James, we see how early Christian churches struggled as much as later ones to handle the challenge of worshippers treating one another differently because of the way people dressed, which so clearly displayed their status for all to see.
In our modern world, it is interesting briefly to reflect on how COVID is causing another identity challenge by changing the clothes we put on and off. Commentators suggest that this crisis might be the ultimate nail in the coffin of the tie, and possibly even the business suit, with so few people dressing up for work now. (Or at least, the part of their body that don’t show up on a Zoom screen!) Clothes are arguably such an important part of how we self-identify and regard others. What difference will this all make, I wonder?
Weaving it together
There is so much more we could reflect on as we read this passage and contemplate the strange times in which we live, but we need to respond to the vital question of what difference any of this makes. I would suggest three possible responses.
First, and crucially, there is a very clear challenge in this text. It makes it explicitly clear that our identity as followers of the risen Christ overrides all other identities. That we are first and foremost to set our “minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2). That all other markers of identity – wealth, ethnicity, gender, ideology and all the rest – are secondary to our identity as believers in the one who died for our sakes, Jesus Christ, our risen Lord and Saviour. And how will the world know that? Well, just as we can generally tell if someone is a police officer or a billionaire by the clothes they wear, so will they recognise us because we are clothed with the true markers of Christian identity: “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (3:12).
This is hard-hitting stuff that demands much of its readers, then and now. To say that your identity as a Jew or a Greek was secondary to a member of those first congregations would have been impossible to comprehend, and even harder to live out, when your entire life had been shaped by that distinction. For us today, it is no less challenging. Militant nationalism, theories of racial supremacy, or ideological fanaticism are all in direct conflict with what is being taught here. Our Christian identity trumps everything else, scripture says. To borrow the metaphor of clothes, there is a call here to go through our mental wardrobes and turn out all the clothes that are inconsistent with that truth.
To continue that metaphor, though, and make my second point, the call here is not that we should all be wearing identical outfits. One of the mistakes that Christian missionaries, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries, made was to confuse Christian identity with an European / Western one. The logic roughly went: We are Christians, this is how we dress, this is how we worship, these are the songs we sing, this is how we behave. Therefore, if you wish to be Christians, you must look like us and behave like us. That approach had very unfortunate effects when, for example, Christianity became synonymous with imperial oppression and foreign rule, and some of that unfortunate legacy remains with global Christianity today.
When the author of Colossians wrote those famous words, “there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free,” (3:11), he is not insisting on an absolute uniformity in all matters. I do not believe he envisages creating groups of identikit Christians across the Mediterranean, all looking, dressing and behaving in exactly the same way. One of the first truths we learn in our Bibles is that God made each of us in his own image. If that is true of me, then it is true of you, and of every other person on this planet. Therefore, if God had to complete one of those ethnic diversity questionnaires that we are all occasionally asked to fill out, God could tick ‘White British’. But he could also tick all the other boxes as well! As we read hear, “Christ,” whom we believe to be God, “is all and in all!” (3:11).
As I look out of my study window, writing this, I see the rainbow that our son painted when he first arrived with us, to match the many others in windows across the nation. During its painting, there was a fair bit of mess, and the paints in the palette tray all got mixed together in that grey-brown sludge colour which is familiar to anyone who works with children! It reminds me that God did not give us that one, rather ugly, uniform colour to paint his creation; instead, God gave us a rainbow of infinite hues and tones to reflect the divine nature and glory.
As I have said, our Christian identity should deny all that rejects God and God’s commandments, as Colossians teaches: greed, anger, malice, slander, foul language, deceit, to cite Colossians (3:5-9). We are also united by so much – hope, faith, joy and most of all love, of course. But we are called to express that through the other God-given aspects of our identities, to become the person that God truly wants us to be. Then others, shall truly see that Christ is indeed “all and in all!”.
So, in our search for a true Christian identity there is challenge and diversity but, finally, there is perhaps most importantly hope. I return here, unashamedly, to my own adopted son, and the thousands of other children like him across the world today. In his struggles to work out his own identity – both now and in the future – I see so much darkness and confusion. Who are you, if you have no family? If you have lost your name and come with nothing you can call your own – even the clothes in which you stand up? Can you ever truly free yourself from the fear, the violence and the deprivation in which you grew up? Is your identity, and ultimately your destiny, already written in the stars for all time?
The Good News of Christ – as true for the ancient Colossians as it is for us today – is, “No, it isn’t.” Christ’s is, above all else, a gospel of hope. A gospel of transformation and renewal. The author of Colossians is saying to his first readers and hearers that because of what God has done for us all in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have the power to reject all that denies God and our true selves. All the labels that they clung to and which others were so keen to stick on them – Greek / Jew, barbarian / civilised, slave / free – were nothing beside their true identity as beloved citizens of the Kingdom of God. The revolutionary nature of what is being said here cannot be over-stated in the ancient world, where your status as slave or free, to take but one example, meant the greatest possible difference in identity imaginable. And it is no less radical today, in a world that still loves nothing more than stick a label on people and say, “This is who you are; now and forever.”
For our son, this good news means that, by God’s grace and with a great deal of help and support, he has the possibility truly to know life, and life in all its fullness. To form an identity not based just on his past or on the labels of others, but built upon the firm foundations of the knowledge that he is a beloved child of God, reflecting the richness and diversity of his Creator.
For our world, this good news means that the tragedy of COVID may be an opportunity to rebuild our identities. To reject that which we know to be wrong and harmful to ourselves and others. To build a new identity based, again, not just on where we have come from, but on who we truly wish to be, living in harmony with God and with one another.
For each one of us, all in our different ways, this good news means that there is always and everywhere, hope for the future. Hope that through the power and love of our Lord Jesus Christ, we may always be transformed. That, though it may be hard and costly, there is always the chance for a fresh start, a new set of clothes, an identity built not on the labels of others but on the love of God made flesh in Jesus Christ. Let us live out that hope in our lives and our witness to the world, brothers and sisters. Let us cast aside all that denies Christ and his love, and let us clothe ourselves afresh as children of God – forgiven, loved and free, this day and always. Amen.