Summary: It isn’t enough simply to believe. Our faith must be lived to be an effective witness.
TEXT: Colossians 3:1-17
Back in 2001, I had a conversation with a man named Tim, the bookkeeper at the place where I had rented a cabin, who told me about his past with the church. He grew up Irish Catholic, and as a child was very involved in the church. He was an altar boy, and he told me of his love for the church, his attraction to the things of faith, and his belief in the God that the rituals and symbols represented.
But then he came to adolescence, that time of life when you begin to see and notice things you hadn’t before...the time you come to question what you had previously taken for granted. And what Tim noticed in his adolescence was that the faith that was so ardently professed on Sunday did not make the slightest bit of difference in the lives of those people the rest of the week. From the priest on down to the folks in the pews, it was all a sham. Do what you please through the week, go to church and confession and you’re good to go.
And in the case of Tim’s parish it wasn’t even that he had some sort of high and mighty ideal…they weren’t even good by secular standards. Many were absolute scoundrels...they cheated and lied and were generally people that were unpleasant to be around. As he noticed all of that, something inside of Tim broke. He felt used somehow, deluded by these people into thinking faith was something when they knew all along that it was a grand and glorious fake. He left the church and never looked back, now professing only the words that he used at the beginning of my stay, when he first discovered I was a minister... "I’m not a very religious person." Can’t say that I blame him.
I am telling you this story because it is not unique. It is not unique to Tim or to Irish Catholics. I bet if I canvassed the congregation here this morning, many of you could tell me similar stories. The problem is everywhere and has been around for a very long time.
My response to Tim was that the state of the church that he described is largely the fault of the clergy. Somewhere along the line we got the notion that religion was about rules...do this, don’t do that. The Catholic tradition tended to focus those rules around the church so that what you had to do was show up, especially on certain holy days. Go to confession, pray the rosary, and I’m sure many of you can name the list better than I can. If you did those things, you were in, and things that weren’t mentioned on the list were up to you.
Now before we go looking down our noses at the Catholic Church, the Protestant churches have had their own version, only in our case the list tended to be largely negative. Don’t drink, don’t swear, don’t dance, don’t gamble, and of course we had all the "don’ts" of the Ten Commandments. For crying out loud, at least the Catholics got to DO something. For us, showing up on Sunday morning...or in some cases all day Sunday and Wednesday nights...was it. If we went home and sat like a bump on a log the rest of the week, we were all clear...we hadn’t sinned.
I think we find something different than those two extremes when we look at the passage from Colossians. What we see in this passage is that, while rules have their place, the defining mark of a Christian is not rules, but character. Yes, there are some specifics here that we are told to avoid. In verses 5-9 we hear that our lives as Christians should seek to eliminate things like sexual immorality, greed, wrath, malice, slander, abusive language, lying. The New Testament never eliminates the need to work with everything within us to avoid sin. On that count, the New Testament just gives us the hope that as we are in the process of trying, there is grace and forgiveness when we mess up. But the promise of forgiveness is for those who are seriously trying to be better, not an easy absolution for those who don’t care.
What I really want us to notice is the list of things Paul gives us after this...the list of things that we are to do. Lo and behold they are not a list of rules. They are not really a list of things we are to do. They are a list of things we are to be. They are about character, not rules: Compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. We are to be forgiving of one another, to love one another, to let peace rule in our hearts and to be thankful. While all of those things become evident in what we do, they do not represent the actions themselves....they represent the kind of heart from which good actions spring.