Mysterious Love – Colossians 3:12-17
December 27, 2015 – Sunday after Christmas
I want to see the “thinking-man’s action thriller.” It should have car chases, explosions and clever one-liners uttered by tough-guys facing danger with a sense of humor. But it should also provide something for the mind. I like the plot to be complicated, without being incomprehensible, with unexpected twists that keep me guessing, and maybe a little philosophy. That’s my kind of movie story, one with a bit of deep mystery.
For the four weeks of Advent and on Christmas Eve, we explored the mystery of the gift of Christmas, what Christians call the Incarnation of the Son of God. The majestic, eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, infinite second person of the Trinity became a humble, finite, vulnerable human being.
That mystery is expressed in the Nicene Creed when we recite,
I believe… in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man.
But having said the Creed, we are not done with the mystery. Christians do not make statements of doctrine in order to shut off the workings of our minds. Instead, the doctrine we accept and believe is the starting point for the fullest and deepest use of intelligence. The mysteries of our faith are not closed doors. They are vaulted openings into beautiful spaces and territories we will never finish exploring.
Flannery O’Connor said her stories were always nourished by dogma, by Christian doctrine. Such doctrine, she said, “is about the only thing left in the world that surely guards and respects mystery.” Mystery is not the end of thought. It’s the beginning. A biblical scholar whom O’Connor admired said that, to the apostle Paul and other early Christians, mystery “is something so rich in intelligible content, so inexhaustibly full of delectation for the mind that no contemplation [of it] can ever reach its end.” As
C. S. Lewis wrote in his Narnian Chronicles, we will only keep going “further up and further in” to the mysteries of God.
With all that in mind, we turn on this Sunday after Christmas to the mystery behind the mystery of Christmas. If the supreme truth of this holy season is the Incarnation, then an even greater truth lies behind it, the mystery of love. An advent hymn puts it well: “Love caused thine incarnation, love brought thee down to me.” God’s love is the highest and holiest mystery our minds will ever confront.
In this passage from Colossians 3 we encounter God’s love as it is meant to work out in our lives as Christians. Though the focus is on our love, Paul begins with God’s love for us. Before exhorting us to love each other, he begins in verse 12 with the more basic fact that we are loved. We are addressed as those who are “God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved.” The love we have received is the basis for any love we may give.
I John 4:19 says “We love because he first loved us.” Part of the mystery of God’s love is how He gives it to us when we are completely unworthy of it. When we are completely unlovable, God loves us.
Paul’s image here is that love is a Christian’s main clothing. These words were part of baptism. Early Christians removed their old clothes and received a clean white robe when baptized. They began a new life and Paul described their new clothing. The virtues of verse 12, compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience are undergarments. In verse 14, love goes over and around them all, the completion of the outfit. Love takes all the things we are and do as Christians and “binds everything together in perfect harmony.”
Before God’s love we are dressed in filthy old clothes, rags. We are not covered with virtues but with vices. As Jesus said to the church in Laodicea, in our sin we are wretched, poor, blind and naked. Yet God loves us. His mysterious love comes tenderly to us in Jesus Christ and covers all our wretchedness.
It is only in the mystery of God’s love that we are able to have the sort of love Paul asks for here. He calls for bearing with each other and forgiving grievances. The only honest response is that it is difficult. It is terribly hard to accept the command of Christ to love our neighbors.
The fact is that your neighbor, your literal neighbor, is frequently obnoxious. The person next door has a loud stereo, misbehaving children, or a dog that poops on your lawn. That is why G. K. Chesterton said, “The one who told us to love our neighbor also told us to love our enemy—probably because they are frequently the same person.” And Thomas Aquinas, who is not usually thought of as a real funny guy, dryly remarked that “There is nothing unlovable about God. The same cannot be said for one’s neighbor.”
One mystery of love is that we cannot just make it happen. You cannot just set yourself the goal of loving other people and expect much success. Real love for others is only possible when you receive the love of God and consider how He loves you, regardless of all your own faults. That is exactly why Paul begins his exhortation to love others with the reminder that we are dearly loved by God.
Love is a gift from God. God loved us first. He sent His Son to die on the Cross for you in love. He raised His Son from the dead because He loved you and wanted to give you eternal life. We learn to love by seeking first to return God’s love for us. Then we can learn to love those whom God loves. By knowing His love, we learn to love our neighbors.
God created the church to be the training ground for love. He knew that loving everyone, loving our enemies, would be too hard for us. So His design was to place Christian people in a community where love could be practiced, where we could begin by learning to care for each other in a place where love would be returned.
We can fail to show love in the church. Let’s admit it. Way too many people can walk in and out of services like this and never know what it feels like to have someone love them. We have problems loving each other, much less to people outside the fellowship. But when love clothes us, the results can be spectacular. As verse 15 says, the peace of Christ begins to rule in our hearts.
Robert Neff visited a church service once when a soloist was having a really bad day. This tenor was barely hanging onto the melody and it sounded like he would lose it all together at any moment. You could imagine people wincing and shaking their heads with every wrong note. But Neff wrote, “I looked around. People were pulling out hymnals to locate the hymn being sung… By the second verse, the congregation had joined the soloist… And by the third verse the tenor was beginning to find the range. And by the fourth verse, it was beautiful. And on the fifth verse, the congregation was absolutely silent, and the tenor sang the most beautiful solo of his life.”
That is the mystery of the love and the peace of Christ ruling in the church. Failure is not condemned and penalized. It is surrounded with love and lifted into beauty. That is what Paul means in verse 16 by the word of Christ dwelling in us richly as we teach and admonish each other with wisdom, singing together the song of love and peace which God has given us. To teach us to love in the deepest way, God gave us each other.
The love which God gives to us and expects from us is deep and complex, mysterious. It is not trivial or simple. It cannot be expressed on a bumper sticker or in a Facebook post. You and I will spend eternity exploring the depths of love.
So that list of virtues which love brings together is rich, complex. You could work hard at any one of them and still have a long way to go. Put on some compassion and you may still have very little humility or patience. You might be the gentlest person on earth, but find it hard to forgive. Love is a mystery meant to call out of us our greatest strength and intelligence. It takes everything you’ve got to love well, to love others like God has loved you. To put on the garment of love completely will take forever. It’s meant to.
The full expression of love requires a community. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are sharing the love they enjoy together and it takes people coming together to reflect and experience that love. All these directions to love and peace and thankfulness are in the plural, meant for the gathered church, not just for individuals.
Marva Dawn explains it this way. If you take the command to love perfectly to be addressed to you as an individual, you are doomed to failure. There is more there than any one person, no matter how good you are, can do. Your individual patience is going to give out. You are going to come to the limits of your ability to be kind. There will be people you find it nearly impossible to forgive. Love is hopeless if it is all up to you.
That’s why we get together. You will have some patience left when I’m at the end of my rope with a difficult person. I can exercise some kindness towards someone when you are finding it difficult even to be civil. What is lacking in our love individually will be made up corporately by those around us in the church. It is together that we are able to have that love which creates peace and unity.
It is not just the command to love which is plural. Many commands which seem impossible for an individual become doable as a community. The call in verse 16 to be thankful and to sing with gratitude in your heart to God is a prime example. Every day there will be some us who have no songs to sing and little power to be grateful. That is when the rest of us can help.
Music was key for Marva Dawn. She directed her church choir and sang all the time. Yet, she said, when she had cancer she was so sick she couldn’t sing. She writes, “I needed someone beside me to sing for me.” That love at work in the church. We do for each other what we cannot do alone. Whether to sing or to be thankful or to rejoice always or to pray without ceasing, the direction is plural, to all of us together, not to any of us alone.
Love shows up here when one of us or someone we love is sick. And in that love, I often hear, “What can we do?” What can we do for the person with cancer or the family that just lost someone or the homeless folks around us? We often say—I might say—“Just pray.” But that’s not quite right. The word “just” does not belong in front of the verb “pray.” Praying is not the least thing we can do. It’s the greatest act of love we have.
And you can do what those you want to help may not be able to do. You can fulfill God’s love for the person who can’t be here by being here, coming to worship. Pray, sing, rejoice, be thankful, listen to the Word, share in the Lord’s Table. In the perfect unity of Christ, be the church, and in the mystery of love the one you love will be included. She will pray in your prayers, he will sing in your songs, they will rejoice in your rejoicing.
Of course we want to be helpful in direct ways, to clean house or cook or comfort, using capabilities God has given us to care for one another. Yet the mystery of Christian love allows us all to share in these gifts and acts of kindness. We do as Paul says in verse 17. Whatever we do is done “in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Then love is at work and we are all part of it.
There is one more mystery. Love is inexhaustible. Caring for each other never diminishes the supply of love God gives us. Showing love only increases it until it overflows to the world around us. In fact, as Thomas Merton says, love can only be kept by giving it away. As we give love to each other we will also find ourselves giving it to the world.
Robert Roberts tells the story of a church that loved and changed a whole country. In September through November of 1989, East Germany experienced the October Revolution. The 40-year old Communist government fell with remarkably little violence. The St. Nikolai Church of Leipzig played an important role in keeping the revolution nonviolent. Every Monday evening the church met to pray for peace. It became a rallying point. Large demonstrations in the street followed those services.
By October 9th it appeared things might get very bloody. People bolder in the wake of Mikhail Gorbachev’s recent visit. East German leader Erich Honecker gave written orders for what he called a “Chinese solution”—following the example of Tiananmen Square—shoot up the crowd. The Lutheran bishop warned of a bloodbath. Doctors cleared hospital rooms to accommodate the wounded.
Yet leaders at St. Nikolai decided not to cancel prayers that Monday. After the service the demonstrators numbered 50,000; by the end of the evening there were three times that many in the crowd. But in answer to prayer, certain members of the Politburo, in a courageous act of insubordination, countermanded Honecker’s orders. No shots were fired. The demonstration remained peaceful and became a turning point in the October Revolution. Some weeks later, demonstrators hung a banner across a Leipzig street: WIR DANKEN DIR, KIRCHE (We thank you, church).
When we pray and live in the love and peace of Christ it benefits not only us. God uses our love for each other to bless and change the world. The act of loving worship, doing everything in the name the Lord Jesus, is revolutionary. How is a mystery. Why God who commands all the forces of the universe chooses to use humble, gentle, patient love as His method is a profound mystery. Yet that is how Jesus came. And His love changes us and transforms our world.
Today we celebrate the love of God in Christ. Our minds contemplate once again the birth of God’s Son and His love among us. We pray, rejoice and give thanks for the mystery at work here, all in the name of the Lord Jesus, to whom be praise and honor forever.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2015 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj