Meanderings

Practice Makes Perfect — Colossians 3:12-17

Have you ever been tossed into a pool while fully
clothed? Have you tried to help a child
wiggle free from a wet t-shirt that just clings to his body? Removing those clammy and clingy clothes is
hard work. Paul reminds us that a life
transformed by the love of God made known through Jesus demands that we throw
off our old clothes and the sin that clings so closely and put on some new
clothes.

In Colossians 3:12-17, Paul gives his readers a list of fourteen
qualities that epitomize the Christians life. They include: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience,
forbearance, forgiveness, love, harmony, peace, unity, thankfulness, wisdom,
and praise.

Earlier Paul listed ten vices in groups of five (see Colossians
3:5-11):

  • … fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed
    (which is idolatry) (verse5).
  • … anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from
    your mouth (verse 8).

First Paul offers a list of five virtues, compassion, kindness,
humility, meekness, and patience, that are characteristics that show the world how
Jesus is now alive within the Christian(v. 12).

Forbearance comes next – the ability to "bear with one
another" (v. 13), which is known when we show tolerance and restraint in
the face of provocation.  Next in lines
is forgiveness, a discipline that is divine in origin, not human. Forgiveness always begins with the awareness
that our merciful Lord first forgave us.

Virtues eight and nine are love and harmony, clear and
crucial requirements for the repair of a fractured and hate-filled world.  The "peace of Christ" comes next, a
power that is to rule in our hearts and connect with the eleventh virtue — unity
in the one Body of Christ (vv. 14-15).

Paul continues his list with a call to be thankful. Then he
rounds out the list with wisdom-teaching and praise-singing, with a reminder to
sing "psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God" with gratitude in
our hearts (v. 16).

These virtues often are in short supply in our world today. 

We find ourselves overwhelmed by the pressures of life and
often unwittingly adapting the callousness of the culture we live in.  Perhaps we lost touch with the One who can
supply our spiritual needs, or we have been battered by a brutal week and feel
mentally, emotionally and spiritually spent. At these moments we need to heed Paul’s call to live out our forgiveness
by living out of our vices and into the virtues.

Yet, too often, we practice our vices more than our virtues.
The medieval poet, Dante Alighieri, dealt with this curiosity in The Divine
Comedy
where he juxtaposes the Seven Deadly Sins with their virtuous
counterparts. For example:

  • Pride is a vice that sins against the virtue of humility.
  • Greed battles generosity.
  • Envy fights love.
  • Anger crashes into kindness.
  • Lust lashes out at self-control.
  • Gluttony wrestles with faith and temperance.
  • Sloth struggles with Christian zeal.

This pairing of vices and virtues suggests that the way to
battle the Seven Deadly Sins is through strengthening the theological and
cardinal virtues.  This list is a nice
summary of Paul’s longer list of fourteen virtues listed for the Christian in

Colossae

.

But just how do we activate these qualities and put them to
work in the world?  The answer is practice. In virtue practice makes
perfect.

To learn to live virtuously is not unlike habits learned by
athletes in rigorous training. Both virtuous
living and athletic prowess require repetition and hard work, and both are best
learned by following examples.  While
books and classes and sermons can be helpful, virtue is still best learned by
practice, not through abstract thought — if you want to learn to shoot hoops,
playing basketball beats reading a book about basketball.

Virtuous living might be better understood as a team sport,
not an individual activity. By this I mean that virtue requires a community of
accountability and support, a healthy and unified body like the church.  When our children go to

Vacation

Bible

School

this week,
we pray that they will absorb from their teachers virtues of compassion, kindness, humility,
meekness, patience, forbearance, forgiveness, love, harmony, peace, unity, thankfulness,
wisdom and praise.

It is helpful to remember that such qualities are not so
much taught as they are "caught," in settings with families and
churches — small communities that contain both teachers and learners who help
each other strive for excellence.  We
are in the best possible position — right here in this community of faith —
to be an incubator for the lifesaving virtues that our Lord wants to give
us.

John Wesley understood this when he placed his “General
Rules” within a larger context of the Methodist class system. The rules are long and some may not make
sense to our modern ears, but the simplicity of the rules is this (my
paraphrase):

  • Avoid Evil … by avoiding harm to self and others.
  • Do Good … by doing well for yourself and treating others in
    the same manner (remember the Golden Rule – do unto others as you would have
    them do to you).
  • Pay Attention to God … by worshipping with the body of Christ,
    reading God’s word, praying, feasting at the Lord’s Table, and fasting in order
    to cling more closely to God.

Wesley knew that this was hard work taken on alone. It was impossible without God’s grace and he
placed each class under a leader who asked probing questions each week like
“How is it with your soul?” This
accountability enabled the people called Methodist to live in a disciplined
fashion. This discipline was not for
legalism’s sake; rather, Wesley said, “the love of God contains the whole of
Christian perfection, and connects all the parts of it together.”

  • Christian perfection is more than spiritual disciplines
    faithfully practiced.
  • Christian perfection is more than living a moral life.
  • Christian perfection is lived out in the Great Commandment.

“And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the
name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him”
(Colossians 3:17, NRSV).

Pay attention to Jesus’ life.  In his early years Luke tells us that Jesus grew in "wisdom and stature."  How did he do this?  By living in community and paying attention to God, at one point this even looked like rebellion as he lingered at the temple in Jerusalem while his family was heading home to Nazareth (see Luke 2:41-52).