There is something very fun about dressing up in costumes. You’ll see it tonight on Hallowe’en, with little kids full of giggles as they come to the door all dressed up…they’re a princess, they’re a ghost, they’re a firefighter or a lion. I am not sure what it is about dressing up that is so terribly exciting. Maybe it’s the idea of trying on a different character for size, the shyest little boy wearing a batman suit, or a quiet little girl wearing a lion costume; they’re trying out what it’s like to be a superhero or a queen of the forest. There is something mysterious about dressing up, something about shaping our identity, or bending our identity.
Today’s scripture passage is all about identity. Paul uses an interesting metaphor for the Christian life, he talks about it as putting on clothes. He talks about the old life, with all its negativities such as fornication, impurity, greed, idolatry…he says you need to strip that off. Just take it off, strip it off like you would dirty old clothes, full of mud and dirt. Then he talks about clothing yourself with something new, with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, with forgiveness and above all with love.
It’s an interesting metaphor or word picture to use, one that challenges us to think about how God is changing us. Is it from the inside out, or from the outside in?
Certainly we all want to believe that God can change us from the inside out, and there are metaphors or word pictures in the Bible that support this. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. God changes our heart or our Spirit. God wants us to be inwardly loving, forgiving, kind and patient. And I think we would all want to be like that on the inside.
I remember being baptized when I was 18…I wanted God to change my heart. But then in the months after I was baptized I still found myself being filled with anger towards my step-mother, who I was living with at the time. What’s the deal with that? If God had changed my heart from the inside out, why were these incredibly strong feelings of rage still right there. Did my baptism not take? Was I resisting God, was I not wanting to be changed from the inside?
Maybe you can relate to these feelings. You are a Christian, you’ve made a decision to follow Jesus, but you still find yourself with the same old, same old. The same temptations, the same sins, the same difficult relationship problems. Where is the new you? Where is God’s power coming through?
I think this metaphor that Paul uses in Colossians is helpful in understanding the mystery of Christian life. Here he talks about the old life as something that needs to be stripped off. Notice that he doesn’t say, just pray and God will miraculously strip the old life off of you. Just blink your eyes and God will wave a magic wand and you will be instantly changed. No, Paul is telling the people in the church at Colossae that they have stripped the old clothes of their former way of life off of themselves. They have done that hard work. And now they have to clothe themselves. They must do the work of putting on the clothes of love that God provides.
Maybe it means that every day when you get out of bed, you have to decide what clothes you will wear today. Will I put on cynical, despairing, critical, fault-finding clothes? Psalm 109 talks about that, you can clothe yourself with cursing… “Oh curse it’s another day. Oh curse this has happened, oh curse that has happened.” Cursing can be the garment that you wrap yourself in, the belt that you wear every day. (Psalm 109:18-19) Or will I clothe myself with compassion, kindness, humility and patience? Or as Job wonders, will I put on justice like a robe and turban, will my clothes be righteousness? (Job 29:14)
It’s interesting to be talking about this passage on Hallowe’en, the day we celebrate dress up. I think part of us would resist thinking about these qualities of Christian life like clothing. Because if they are something we put on, then perhaps we are hiding something. Maybe our Christianity is a mask we are wearing, something that is just on the outside.
But maybe clothing ourselves is a way to change who we are inside. Psalm 109 suggests that if you clothe yourselves with curses, it can soak into your body like water, like oil it will seep into your bones. We tend to think about words as something outside of us, something we send out. But maybe they cling to us, maybe the words we speak change us.
As Christians we have to be very careful about what kind of clothes we put on. For example, if we put on the clothes of a soldier…how will that change us on the inside? If we are continually having to act like people are the enemy, to think of the human body as a target, and where to aim to kill, to think of human beings as collateral damage…. Or if we put on the clothing of a prison guard; we live each day with that role, of having to be suspicious of the people you are guarding, not trusting them, expecting them to try to kill you or hurt you or escape. In both of these cases you may be very determined to be a kind, loving person on the inside, and you won’t let the clothes you wear on the outside change you. But the Mennonite tradition is very careful about this sort of thing, believing that the uniform you wear can change you. A uniform is more than just a piece of cloth, it’s something that can seep into you, it can seep into your bones like oil.
On the other hand, what we wear on the outside can change us in a good way. What about if we start to wear kindness, if we start to put on the clothing of patience and goodness? What happens then?
When I was studying counselling, one of my professors told about a counselling technique he used. He was counselling a couple who was having marriage problems. He said to them, “If I could wave a magic wand right here today, and fix your marriage miraculously, and you went home and woke up tomorrow and had a great marriage, what would be different? What would you see happening that would make you know that my magic wand worked?” The woman answered, “Well I would be treated like someone loved me, I would be special. I would know it worked because my husband would bring me a present or flowers, or open the door for me. Like he used to treat me when we first fell in love.” And the man said “I would know the magic wand had worked if she said things about me that she admired, there wouldn’t be criticisms all day long about what I’m not, but an appreciation of who I am. She would smile when I walked in the door.” And then my professor told them, “Unfortunately I don’t have a magic wand, and I can’t miraculously fix your marriage. But what I’m going to ask you to do is to try this. For one week, try to act as if your marriage is fixed. Do those things that you would if you your marriage was fixed. You don’t have to feel like it’s fixed. You just have to act like it’s fixed. And come back and tell me how that went.”
What my professor reported is that when this couple came back the following week, they had a different attitude. In fact this was a turnaround point for the couple who had been in counselling for some time. They had other problems they were working on, and they had lots to work through, but this technique made a huge emotional difference in their marriage. Even though they didn’t feel loving inside, just by acting as if they were in love, it changed them. It helped them remember who they had been, the couple in love. It gave them hope that maybe they could again be people who were in love.
That exercise the counsellor did, was sort of like putting on a costume, like clothing yourself with kindness, with patience, with love. Underneath, this couple was not filled with all of these good things towards each other, but even making the effort to show something outwardly made a huge difference. It’s like the clothing of kindness that they wore that week soaked into their body like water, into their bones like oil.
I think we know that this works. For any of you who have taken care of babies perhaps you have experienced this. When you are tired past being tired, when you haven’t had sleep, when you are beyond all caring and all your body aches for is peace and quiet….that’s when the baby starts crying. And you go to the baby, and you feel…maybe nothing…”What is this thing crying for?” Or maybe you feel anger…”How can you do this to me…I just fed you/burped you/changed you!” Or maybe you feel despair…”There is nothing inside me to give.” You know this deep inside yourself, that you are empty.
What do you do? You act as if you care. You act is if you felt like you wanted to do this. You put on the clothing of kindness even though in your heart you feel like throwing the baby out the window or at least just putting in earplugs and leaving it to cry. You pick up the baby. And it can change you…putting on the clothes of kindness changes you. As your baby relaxes against your chest and stops crying you feel kindness and love soaking into your body like water, into your bones like oil. You are changing from the outside in.
Last year I read a novel about someone who dressed up like Jesus. Christ Recrucified by Nikos Kazantzakis. The story is set in Greece in the 1800s, in a small village that is going to put on a passion play, a play about Jesus. So the village leaders get together and decide who will play the parts. A simple shepherd named Manolios is chosen to play Jesus. Manolios doesn’t feel that he is up to the job, but he accepts the role. The play is still months away, but he keeps thinking about the fact that he is going to play the role of Jesus. Everything he does, he wonders, “Is this something that someone who plays the part of Jesus should do?” He doesn’t feel any different on the inside, but he feels that he should at least appear to be taking his role seriously. So he starts making little changes, saying little things, things that he thinks someone who is playing the role of Jesus should say. It so happens that some refugees arrive in that town that is preparing to put on the play, and they need shelter. They are sick, and some fear that it is cholera. The leaders of the town do not shelter these people, and are about to send them away. But Manolios is troubled, he thinks “What should someone who is playing the role of Jesus do in this situation?” So he speaks up, he reminds the people that these are their brothers and sisters, he urges them to open their hearts. The book follows Manolios as the role he is taking on starts to change him from the outside in. And it leads him down a very difficult path indeed, the path that Jesus walked.
We are called to be Christians, which means literally “little Christs”. We take on this role, we put on the clothes of righteousness. Inside, what’s there? Maybe the same old, same old. The temptations, the hard feelings, the difficult emotions. But we are doing what we can. We change our behaviour, because that is in our control. Sometimes it’s the easiest thing to change because our emotions, our inner feelings, have a hard way of sticking around.
Now some people would look at this and say, “You’re just a bunch of phonies. You aren’t being honest, you say one thing on the outside, but on the inside you are something different.” Perhaps that is one of the big critiques of churches, that people pretend too much, they pretend to be good, they pretend to have things together.
I think this is where we have to walk a fine line. The passage from Colossians says clearly, “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.” We don’t have to pretend that we are perfect, that we have this role down pat. We don’t even have to pretend that these clothes fit us all that well. What we can say is that this is what God created us for, the image of the creator. It’s the direction we are going. These are the clothes we are determined to wear, and we hope that we grow into them. We are just starting out practicing the role, we want to be like Christ, but we aren’t that good at it yet.
I think sometimes here at First Mennonite we are waiting. We are waiting for God to change us from the inside. “Well when God makes me devout and holy, then I will want to read my Bible, that’s when I’ll start doing that.” “When I start feeling the desire to be really generous, that’s when I’ll start to give more money to people who are suffering.” “When I start feeling loving, that’s when I’ll start working on those relationships that are stuck, that need work.”
And so we wait and wait, we wait for God to wave God’s magic wand over us and change us from the inside out. Are you waiting for that? And we think, “Wouldn’t that be great, if I felt closer to God. I guess I just have to wait and let God change me so that I feel closer.”
Today is Hallowe’en, it’s a day for dress up, for imagination, for trying on a costume. And so I’m going to challenge you this week. Imagine I could wave my magic wand over you, and you turned into the most Christian congregation you could be. You are just magically, miraculously truly deeply completely following Jesus. Tomorrow morning when you woke up, what would be different? How would you know that the magic wand had worked? What would be different about your day? How would you be different about how you talked to God? What would be different about the way you treat people? What would be different about how you spend your money? How would church be different next week when you came to a church filled with people who are truly deeply completely following Jesus?
I don’t have a magic wand. But I challenge you this week to just act as if I did. I want you to put on this costume, to just start living that way, as if something really miraculous had happened. I’m not sure what it’s going to look like. Maybe you’re going to be praying as if you believed that God wanted to hear you. Maybe you’re going to be reading your Bible, as if you really were interested in it. Maybe you are going to be doing something that you haven’t felt like doing, but because you are acting like a truly devout Christian would act.
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, put on these clothes. You will need to get in touch with the person inside you that can do this, the little kid inside you that likes to dress up, that can suspend all disbelief, that can believe even in a part of yourself that you are that truly deeply completely following Jesus person. Go for it. Something mysterious, something fun that I can’t really explain to you is going to happen. This Hallowe’en, it’s your turn to try on some different clothes. For a change.
A sermon preached at The First Mennonite Church, Vineland, ON
by Carol Penner
on October 31, 2010