Commentary on Colossians 3:12-17
On the first Sunday after Christmas, it’s hard for any passage to compete with Luke’s story of the boy Jesus in the Temple.
However, the Colossians passage provides excellent commentary in relation to Luke 21:49, fleshing out the implications of the boy’s statement that he “must be about the things of his father” [literal Greek translation]. We are called to be, as he was, people who embody compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, love, peace, and thanksgiving.
Those qualities find little positive airplay in the US media, entertainment, advertising, and political campaign industries. Those entities — recently described by David Fouche as society’s “multi-billion-dollar formation machine” — attempt to form us as people who most desire power, possessions, and “winning.” The qualities in this passage often receive a disparaging cast in mainstream culture, best suited for children or naïve people who have so far escaped life’s hardships and tragedies. They’re okay for baby Jesus meek and mild, but they will hardly do for anyone who wants to live in the real world.
However, in Colossians, these same qualities are given an adult cast, stated as emblems of wise, mature people who know what life is actually about and seek to live into what it means to be “God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved” (3:12). For anyone who might wish to depart from the lectionary during the nine Sundays of the upcoming Epiphany season, preaching on one of those qualities each week would offer a helpful, countercultural sermon series. Or Bible study series leading up to Lent.
Another approach to this passage, applicable to the Christmas season, would be to explore the incarnational aspects of Christ’s birth and ministry as the “enfleshment” of those nine qualities. This passage extends the image of “clothing ourselves” that begins in Colossians 3:10 — clothe yourselves with the new, renewed self — continues with clothing ourselves with compassion, kindness, etc. (3:12-13), and concludes with, “above all,” clothing ourselves with love (3:14). When people embody those qualities, they make possible a community that lives in harmony. Such communities demonstrate an openness to the word of Christ that binds them together “completely,” “perfectly” (3:14).
Such communities are governed by the peace of Christ (Colossians 3:15). In this case, the word translated by the NRSV as “rule” has a connotation not of simple power and authority, but more of wise discernment, possessing an unruffled, non-anxious center that engenders good choices for all. The fact that that quality is itself engendered by the peace of Christ means that a community will not be driven by fear. (One could say that the opposite of peace is not conflict, but fear.)
Many congregations, whether they admit it or not, are significantly driven by fear — fear of changing, fear of not changing; fear of not having any new members, fear of having new members; fear of death and fear of the life “to which you were indeed called in the one body” (Colossians 3:15). It might be fruitful to ponder aloud what it means to let the peace of Christ rule in the heart of a community.
In significant ways, a deep fear for individuals and communities — whether thriving or withering on the vine — lies in the implications of the image of “clothing yourselves” with new life, and especially with love. On the one hand, we are called to wear those things every day like a shirt, a jacket, a favorite sweater. On the other hand, the image is not just of specific articles of clothing but of being clothed. Just as we don’t walk out of our homes without clothes, we are called never to leave home without putting on our love for each other, our love for our neighbor, without wrapping ourselves in the new life that embodies the life and ministry of Christ.
Moving through every day clothed in our new life in Christ calls for ongoing awareness of new claims on our lives that can over time become routine patterns, one more set of things to do. Like exercise, healthy eating, and attention to our spiritual wellbeing — one more thing to set aside in light of the urgencies of work, family, and other responsibilities or other more alluring prospects for how we might spend our days. On December 30, it might be helpful for those who engage in forming New Year’s resolutions to consider forming them along the lines of this passage.
In addition, the admonitions of this passage do not convey the competing realities of how one’s new life in Christ can play out over time. Often the new life in Christ and the love it generates will feel like “LIFE!” and “LOVE!,” like something that is only good, great, life-giving, and joyful. On the other hand, a constantly renewed life and enduring love often require not a happy set of feelings, but an act of will. At times, compassion, kindness, and forgiveness seem more like burdens than life-altering possibilities. Sometimes we do a loving thing not because it feels good but only because love calls on us to do it.
If one follows that line of thinking, however, best not to end on that note, as if we’re called to be sour-faced, begrudging drones for Jesus. When new life and love take hold at our center, when the word of Christ dwells richly in us and our community (Colossians 3:16), our life together, at its best, is marked by enriching and wise conversation, by grateful hearts, and by singing.
Every now and then I walk through the seminary where I work and notice that it’s the one place on this college campus — outside of the music department — where one regularly hears singing. Singing comes out of classrooms, out of chapel services, and sometimes randomly in the hallways. It comes forth from people whose histories include some hard stories, some bleak days and nights, and who also know in their minds, hearts, and souls how to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.
Like John 3:16, Colossians 3:16 does not speak only to what we do in worship and in church. It speaks to how we clothe ourselves with new life and let the word and peace of Christ dwell richly in ourselves and our actions every day.