“Beloved…we are philosophers not in words but in deeds; we exhibit our wisdom not by our dress, but by truth; we know virtues by their practice rather than through boasting of them; we do not speak great things but we live them.” Cyprian, 256 AD
Every Christmas, I am reminded of our penchant as Christians to rush past the significance of incarnation. What matters about “God with Us,” we assume, is that Jesus died for us. I’ve heard many Christmas Eve Sermons that oddly turned into altar calls. Incarnation reminds us of the early church mantra: “God became human in order to make humans divine.” In the Incarnation we find the binding of heaven and earth and the purpose of true union with God. And, the mechanism God uses to affect such transformation is enacted through the story of Jesus and belongs to the work of the Spirit through the community called Church. In reading through Colossians 3 during the season of Christmas, I can’t help but ask: What does Incarnation mean for Christian living? What does it matter that the Word became flesh? We have here, on the first Sunday of Christmas, a passage about what it means to live like Christ – to be clothed in Christ – to embody Christ for the world to see.
In other words, this scripture puts flesh on the community called church. And while theologically rich, Colossians 3 works it out in very practical admonitions. I’d like to just name three things that can be said about this passage.
1). Christian virtues are practiced.
If, Paul says, you have been raised to life in Christ (v. 1) then one must put away the dark things of this world, and put on the garments of heaven – compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and – above all – love. Out of these virtues flow practices of forgiveness, worship, discernment, bearing with one another’s struggles, gratitude, and accountability. These virtues, and subsequent practices, describe the character of the Christian Community. Practicing these virtues is essential as ones who are raised to life in Christ; because when the community sees the practices of the church, they see the practices of Christ.
When I lead groups through processes to resolve conflict, I always start with a discussion of our values. I typically ask what two values do you want to be known for when you are at your best. An array answers are usually given: empathetic, honest, compassionate, respect, justice, kindness. When humans find themselves in conflict, we adopt hurtful strategies because we experience intense emotions and hurtful behaviors. We “let go” of these expressed values, and we choose to adopt other counter-measures: we judge, we blame, we accuse. We do this because we want to protect ourselves, to make it through, or to win. But the very values we want to be known for, are the exact values that we need to practice in order to navigate conflict in healthy ways. And, if we don’t practice them in everyday relationships, then it becomes harder to practice them when we need them most.
2). The virtuous life is practiced in community.
Or, to put it another way — the community is the locus that shapes Christian virtues. In this particular chapter, an emphasis is placed not on individuals, but on the community. The Greek carries connotations of the plurality of people in Colossae. That is, the “you,” “yourselves,” and “ones” of the text are all in the plural tense. The Being in Christ of it all — as chosen ones, who have the peace of Christ, who are holy and beloved, and who do it all in the name of Jesus — does not refer to an individual relationship. Rather, it connotes that the people now belong to a new community, the very Body of Christ in the world, that is marked by certain Christian virtues and practices. The Church, then, strengthens Christ’s witness in the world because it is a place differentiated by nonviolent love, forgiveness, compassion, humility, and patience. When these virtues are practiced, our perspective of the world changes – as do our actions. What does humility mean when engaged in arguments over vaccine mandates? What does patience mean when enraged by our stagnation to address the serious issues of climate change? What does compassion mean when our cities host refugees? What does nonviolent love mean within a context of school shootings? What does the process of forgiveness take in a congregation torn apart by politics?
3). The practice of these virtues in community create the conditions of growth.
Alan Kreider, in his wonderful book “The Patient Ferment,” explores how a small obscure religious sect (Christianity) would grow so rapidly over the course of just three hundred years. He shares that there were no programs, no specific texts, and no schools on evangelism. In many ways, the true nature of Christian belief was kept hidden from pagans. How, then, did the Church grow? Kreider talks of the cultivation of Christian habits that were solidified in bodily action (burying the dead, compassion to the poor, Christian discernment and a commitment to nonviolence) and verbal poetics (worship). He writes, “It was not primarily what Christians said that carried weight with outsiders; it was what they did and embodied that was both disconcerting and converting. It was their habitus — their reflexes and ways of life that suggested that there was another way to perceive reality — that made the Christians interesting, challenging, and worth investigating” (Kreider, 51). Irenaeus would write that the primary goal of the Church was not conversion or sound doctrine, but rather, the transformation of old habits that are renewed into the newness of Christ. This sounds a bit like Colossians 3. The early church was concerned with what it meant to live as if Christ was living through us — they were concerned with Christian character and virtue.