According to my Facebook Timeline, I preached on this lectionary text from Colossians 3 exactly two years ago today.
Actually, my Facebook Timeline reminded me that Will Gerig and Becca McGraw, two youth who grew up here at Aldersgate, exchanged marriage vows here at Aldersgate two years ago today.
Will and Becca chose this passage from Paul about putting on Christ for their wedding service. Well, not the part about fornication.
And they didn’t just choose this text; they also chose a reading from the Song of Songs, an erotic love poem from the Old Testament that makes 50 Shades of Grey sound like a Cary Grant and Doris Day movie.
Since Dennis is on vacation- I mean sabbatical- it’s probably for the best that the lectionary today only gives us one of those passages I preached for Will and Becca.
I’d known them since Will was 8 and Becca was 7.
And so I wanted to do a good job with their wedding. I wanted to make sure I preached clearly this passage from Colossians 3 that they’d chosen and that through it I said something not only helpful but gospel true.
So I started by asking them a question, a Colossians 3 sort of question, the question begged by every bridal magazine, rom-com, and wedding ceremony.
I asked them this question:
If love is a feeling, how in the world can you promise to love someone forever?
If love is a feeling, how can two people promise that to each other forever?
Of all the things in our lives, our feelings are the part of us we have the least control over. You can’t promise to feel a certain feeling every day for the rest of your life.
If love is a feeling, then it’s no wonder the odds are better than even that it won’t last.
Two years ago today I’m not sure Will and Becca heard that as good news.
Then it got worse for me.
Because then I turned to the New Testament and reminded them that love in the New Testament isn’t just something you promise to another. It’s something you’re commanded to give another.
When a rich lawyer asks Jesus for the key to it all, Jesus says: ‘Love the Lord completely and love your neighbor as yourself.’
And when Jesus washes his friends’ feet, he tells them: ‘I give you a new commandment: love one another just as I have loved you.’
And when the Apostle Paul writes to the Colossians he commands them to ‘bear with each other, forgive one another, put on love.’
Those are all imperatives.
Jesus doesn’t say like your neighbor. Jesus doesn’t say you should love one another. Paul doesn’t tell us to try to love and forgive one another. They’re imperatives not aspirations. They’re commands not considerations. Here’s the thing. You can’t force a feeling. You can’t command an emotion. You can only command an action. You can only command a doing. A practice. A habit. I told them two years ago today.
In scripture, love is an action first and a feeling second.
Jesus and Paul take a word we use as a noun, and they make it a verb.
Which is the exact opposite of how the culture has taught us all to think about love.
We think of love as a noun, as a feeling, as something that happens to us, which means then we think we must feel love in order to give it.
But that’s a recipe for a broken relationship. Because when you think you must feel love first in order to give it, then when you don’t feel love towards the other you stop offering them loving acts.
And of course the fewer loving actions you show someone else, the fewer loving feelings there will be between you.
In scripture, love is an action first and a feeling second.
Love is something you do- even when you don’t feel like it; so that, you feel like it.
That’s how Jesus can command us to love our enemies. And just ask any married person- the ability to love your enemy is often the necessary condition to love your spouse.
Jesus can’t force us to feel a certain way about our enemies, but Jesus can command us to do concrete loving actions for our enemies knowing that those loving acts might eventually transform how we feel.
The key to having love as a noun in your life is making love a verb. Where you invest loving actions, loving feelings will follow.
You do it and then you feel it. Love is something you do and you promise to trust that the doing of love will transform your heart so that you do feel love.
Two years ago today, I led with that question: If love is a feeling, how can you promise to love someone always and forever?
Today, two years later, I have a different Colossians question:
If that’s how love works for a spouse
If that’s how love works in a relationship
Then why do we suppose it’s any different when it comes to our love for God?
If our heart works this way when it has a person as its object of desire, then why do we suppose that our heart works any differently when the object of its desire is three-personned, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
The Apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians roughly a generation after Jesus and 250 years before the Gospel about Jesus converted the Empire. When Paul wrote to the Colossians, Christians’ faith made them like unwelcome immigrants in a hostile land.
For the Christians in Colossae, you couldn’t accept Jesus as Lord without rejecting Caesar as Lord. To make a commitment to Christ was to make enemies. So you didn’t join a church without thinking about it. Seriously and hard.
In fact, the Church wouldn’t let you. The Church first required you to undergo rigorous catechesis, throughout the long season of Lent.
Then, and only then, you would be led outside the sanctuary on Easter Eve to a pool of water. There the Church would strip you naked. And facing the darkness you would renounce Caesar and Satan and all their works.
Then, like Pharoah’s soliders, you would be drown in the water three times and, rising up from the water as Jesus from the grave, you would turn the opposite direction to affirm his Lordship and every practical implication that now had for your life.
Maybe it’s TMI but I certainly wouldn’t want to strip naked, plunge down into night cold water (with its, you know, shrinkage factor) and then stand around with a crowd of church people looking at me and what God gave me.
To do something like that- you’d really have to feel and believe that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Those same Christians who faced down Caesar and spit in Sin’s face and renounced the world and took the plunge into a new one, naked and unashamed, still had trouble forsaking their former ways of life.
Just before today’s text, Paul chastises them for worrying about pagan food regulations, lunar festivals, idolatrous mysticism and ascetic practices.
And again here in chapter 3 Paul scolds them that though they’d died with Christ they still haven’t put to death their prior way of life: their malice, their deception, their fornication.
How does that happen?
They’d risked too much when they’d become Christian not to have felt its truth down deep inside them. But, it didn’t stick.
They knew that Jesus is Lord; too much was at stake for them not to have taken their faith with life and death seriousness. Still, it didn’t take.
They believed that they’d been set free to live as in a New Creation. Yet, they fell back to doing what they’d done in the Old Creation.
They had stripped naked for Christ- shrinkage factor and all- but they still hadn’t stripped off their old selves.
They had stripped naked for Christ, but they still hadn’t put him on. Why not? Or, how not?
In chapter two Paul admonishes the Colossians against false philosophy, wrong thinking, and deceitful beliefs. In other words, Paul scolds them to get their heads straight, but then his prescription for false thinking and wrong belief is through their hands. Through their habits. And then here in chapter three it’s the very same dynamic. Paul tells them in verse two to “set your minds on things that are above.” But then, further down in verse 12, what Paul commends to them is not beliefs but practices, not ideas but doings. Paul uses a clothing metaphor:
“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.”
Any one who’s been around little kids knows- putting on clothes takes practice. Compassion, humility, patience- these aren’t attitudes in our heads. They’re not affections in our hearts. They’re virtues. They’re moral attributes that you can only acquire over time through habits. Though hands-on practice.
We assume our feelings of love for God produce works of love, that faith leads to action. I mean, we make habit a dirty word and suppose that we’re saved by the sincerity of our feelings for God or the strength of our belief in God.
But for Paul it’s our habits that shape our feelings and beliefs. For Paul, the way to our hearts, the way into our heads, is through our hands. Through practices and actions and habits and every day doings.
Before you can invite Jesus in to your heart, before you can conform your mind to Christ, you’ve got to put him on and practice.
You’ve got to practice serving the poor so that it becomes a habit until that habit becomes compassion.
You’ve got to practice praising God, week in and week out, until it becomes such a habit that you know without thinking about it that you are creature of God- which makes you NOT God- which becomes humility.
You’ve got to practice confessing your sins and bringing another’s sins to them without malice and passing the peace of Christ until those practices become habits because eventually those habits will make you forgiving.
You’ve got to practice praying “Thy Kingdom come…” and working towards that Kingdom in places like Guatemala and Route 1 and DC.
You’ve got to practice the Kingdom until it becomes a habit so that it becomes, in you, patience and hope.
You’ve got to practice receiving with outstretched hands the body and blood of Christ so that the habit of the sacrament makes you hunger and thirst for God’s justice.
You’ve got to put on Christ in order to calibrate your head and your heart to him.
Your love for God can never be just a feeling that you feel. It can never be just a belief that you believe.
If that’s all it is, then your love for God will never last because- here’s the rub- it’s not just the practices of Christ that become habits that then shape your head and your heart. It’s every kind of practice. It’s all your habits and every day doings.
So it’s not that your heart can either belong to God or to nothing at all; it’s that your heart will belong to God or to another god. The gods of capitalism or consumerism or partisan politics. The gods of nationalism or individualism.
If the way to our heads and our hearts is through our hands- through our habits- then our heads and our hearts will belong to something if they do not belong to God.
As James KA Smith says, Victoria’s secret is that she’s after your head and your heart not just your wallet. And so is Hollywood. And so is the Republican Party and so is the Democratic Party and so is Amazon and Apple and Wall Street and the NFL and all the stuff and noise that make up our everyday habits.
You see if you do not put on Christ, if you do not practice the habits of Jesus following, then all your other habits will shape you.
That’s why it’s not a bad idea, for example, to give God one day of your week.
Because your heart will have a lover. And your habits determine who.
When Will and Becca got married two years ago today, I told me them how lifelong monogamous love, for better and for worse, was an enormous, outrageous promise to make and even more impossible promise to keep.
That is, without a community to hold them accountable to it.
“That’s why, for Christians, there’s no such thing as a private wedding,” I told them.
Of course, the same goes for our lifelong, monogamous love for God.
It’s why there can be no such thing as a person who is a Christian in private.
It’s why there can be no such thing as a Christian who is not a practicing part of the Christian community.
It’s why there’s no salvation outside of the Church.
Because without the practices that become habits of the Christian community- without putting on Christ: in prayer and praise and passing peace and serving the poor- your mouth might confess that Jesus is Lord but your heart will eventually hunger for another lover and soon you’ll be worshipping idols unawares.