The Grand Put-On

There's a scene in the movie "Wedding Crashers" (not that I ever watched it... ;-) that has Owen Wilson's character and Vince Vaughn's character debate the Scripture to be read at a wedding they've just crashed: "Twenty bucks says it's 1Corinthians 13." To which, the other replies: "Naah, Colossians 3."

I had to laugh. When my wife and I selected Colossians 3:12-17 for our wedding lo these many years ago, we felt we were doing something novel and deeply personal. We had no idea that we were selecting one of the most common texts read in weddings. Now, as a pastor, I just chuckle to myself when I recommend it to young couples (and base my homily to them on it). The text is a good one: basically, Paul commends the Christians to whom he writes to put on, as if articles of clothing, the virtues and character of Christ. Many believe Paul is crafting a homily of his own, a baptismal sermon meant to remind Christians of their baptisms, in which they commemorated their dying and rising with Christ (spiritually) with their emulation of his behavior (actually).

History tells us that early Christians stripped off their old clothing before entering the baptismal pool and were clothed with a pure white garment, symbolizing their new life in Christ, upon their emergence from the water. Paul wants his flock to recall this act (and the faith which inspired it) as an inspiration for them to renounce their old way of life and identify with Christ's new way of living. They are to "put on" or clothe themselves with virtues of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, in addition to other behaviors (see verses 12-17).

The issue I've wrestled with over the years has to do with the "put-on" nature of this teaching: is Paul guilty of encouraging spiritual pretense or religious hypocrisy? Is this a glorified "fake it 'til you make it" coaching? Are Jesus' followers supposed to act in ways that are not true to their usual behavior (assuming they struggled with the same bad habits, temptations, self-centeredness, addictions, etc, that we do?)?!

No. Not if we accept Paul's radical premise: believers in Christ, through a decisive act of faith, imaged in baptism, have lived into the Bible's story: they've acknowledged their utter helplessness under the rule of sin. They've accepted the verdict of God's just judgment; they've embraced God's gracious, surprise provision of his only Son as a substitute to take our punishment on the cross. And they've trusted in Christ's resurrection from the dead as a sign of reconciliation to God and an assurance of the reality of their new (and eventually eternal) life. When this occurs for human beings, they are made new at their core. God implants in their hearts a fresh, new humanity that must begin to express itself actually in changed behavior.

So, is this instruction in Colossians 3 a grand put on? Not at all. It's personal trainer Paul's prescribed workout for expressing a health on the outside which has already been implanted by God's grace on the inside. What Paul (and more importantly, God) seeks is an increasing congruence between the heart and the epidermis: that the new life of Christ made real on the inside by faith, conversion, and baptism is increasingly lived out on the outside--in changed behavior. At issue is our ongoing faith: do we genuinely believe we're new--and will we choose to live like it?


John said...

first of all, great to hear you're a closet owen wilson fan. i highly recommend you go back to his first movie, Bottle Rocket. if you check out the imdb entry, you'll see he was one of the writers. critics raved about it.

anyway, this isn't the only place paul uses clothing metaphors. i decided to google first century roman clothing and i found this page on roman clothing, which states that clothing communicated status. and this page on romand dress describes the ingenuity of roman clothing.

roman clothing was an expression of who you were as a person, and also a reflection on the skills of the maker.

think about the thought process you make when you get dressed. if you're going to a wedding, you want to look "nice.". if you're giving a talk, you want to look "respectable." if you're going to a concert you want to look "cool." we "put on" demeanors all the time.

i think paul wanted the reader to carefully consider their status, and the qualities of the garment maker when he used thes analogies.

Carl Hofmann said...

You're a gentleman and a scholar! Good thoughts and I'll look into those links with interest. Thought of you and all things high tech yesterday as I saw the IPhone for the first time--amazing!

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