Two sermons for the price of one this week, as both of us were preaching for Bible Sunday. I was preaching at home, while Mother Anne-Marie was preaching at a neighbouring church. Here’s what I said.
I still remember Mr Jones clearly. Mr Jones was my English master at Secondary School. He introduced me to great works of English Literature that have remained favourites ever since.
And I still remember how, in the very first term in the first form, he decided to put our brains to work by introducing us to famous but somewhat obscure – to an eleven year old at least – sayings of famous writers.
He started us off with: The child is father to the man and asked us what we thought it meant. It sounded profound but we had no idea what it meant, so we struggled with that one at first though after a great deal of discussion and explanation I think we finally got to grips with it at a somewhat basic level. It is from William Wordsworth’s poem My heart leaps up. Don’t ask me to explain what Wordsworth meant in his poem, but I seem to remember it had something to do with looking at rainbows!
And then Mr Jones moved on to: The apparel oft proclaims the man. That’s from Shakespeare, one of the many sayings from Hamlet that have entered the language. We managed to get to grips with that one somewhat more easily, though we know it better today as: Clothes make the man. Basically Polonius is giving his son Laertes some good advice on how to win friends and influence people, so along with such bits of good advice as Neither a borrower nor a lender be and To thine own self be true he tells him to make sure he dresses the part because that will get him noticed!
Shakespeare, of course, is not always that clear to the modern reader, so a popular study guide on Hamlet, in the Sparknotes series, translates the relevant passage into more understandable modern English like this: Spend all you can afford on clothes, but make sure they’re quality, not flashy, since clothes make the man.
I think Mark Twain, the American humourist, perhaps summed it up best. He said: Clothes make the man – naked people have little or no influence on society! So true, and I’m sure we’ve all heard the advice at some point – that when we’re dealing with someone important and intimidating, at a job interview perhaps, or a meeting with the bank manager – that the way to make people feel less intimidating is to imagine them naked! Mark Twain got it right much clearer than Shakespeare did – clothes are key!
For the clothes we wear make a statement about the kind of person we are, or the kind of person we think we are, or the kind of person that we want other people to think we are. And other people will – like it or not – make a judgement based upon our appearance and in particular based upon what we wear.
For what you are wearing at any particular time says a lot about you. What you put on each day gives a great deal of information about you to other people – and probably also says a great deal about how you want to appear to other people. Or perhaps you don’t even think about what to wear when you get dressed and just throw on what is to hand – which in itself also gives an impression.
And now that you’ve all started looking around to see what everyone else is wearing this morning – let’s move on to think about what we, ourselves, are wearing today. Because one of our readings this morning is about what you wear and how other people see you. But it’s not about our physical clothes.
You will see that our second reading this morning starts with Saint Paul talking about clothing. It’s from a letter that Paul wrote to a church community in Colossae, a small town in Asia Minor – what is roughly modern day Turkey – and it was about a hundred miles from Ephesus.
Let’s give this morning’s extract from the letter some context.
One of the reasons that Paul sent the letter was that he was wanting to address the problem of false teachers who had been spreading error within the congregation. In the first part of the letter he addresses matters of doctrine. He explains how Christ is the firstborn of all creation. Everything has been created through him and for him, God has chosen for his complete being to dwell in Christ, and Christ is the head of the Church.
And what is important for us this morning is that he explains that the Father has rescued us from the power of darkness and has transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son (1.13). And that has consequences. It had consequences for the Christians at Colossae for it meant that there were standards of behavior that as followers of Jesus they were now expected to uphold. And so in the second part of the letter he talks at length about how Christians should behave.
At the beginning of the chapter from which our second reading comes he begins by addressing the sins that were a part of their former lives – anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive language (3.8) – these must now be got rid of, he says, because you have clothed yourselves with the new self.
And then he goes on to tell the Colossian Christians what that means, what they must be clothed with – what their spiritual clothing must be.
So this morning, what clothes are you actually wearing – what spiritual clothes? The Christians at Colossae were no different to Christians in any other time or place in that each of them would have been – in their own minds – quite suitably dressed.
But Paul is saying that they need to choose their clothes carefully, for only certain clothes will do. And those clothes must be – compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and above all, love. And the challenge that Paul gives us is to take a step back and think about how we appear to others. When they look at us as Christians what do they see? Do they see people clothed in the way that Paul says Christians should be clothed?
What do people see? Do they see, to pick up on the explanation of Shakespeare from the study guide: People who have spent all they can on their clothing and made sure that they’re quality? Do we clothe ourselves as Paul tells us to? Or do people see something more akin to Mark Twain – unclothed and therefore of little of no influence as Christians.
Once in a while it’s a good thing to have a think about how we appear. To recognise that how we think we appear isn’t perhaps how other people think we look. For we can be very good at looking at other people and thinking to ourselves, or even saying, “Well, they don’t seem to be clothed with much compassion or kindness or patience,” and so on! Instead of criticising what everyone else is wearing – in the spiritual sense that Paul is talking about – we regularly need to have a look in the mirror and ask ourselves, “How do my clothes look? Am I clothed with love?” Once in a while we need a good look in the mirror!
A good way, of course, of reminding ourselves of how we should be spiritually clothed is by regular reading of the Bible – God’s Word to us. All we do – the way we behave, the way we treat others, the way we try to conform to the will of God – should be guided by God’s Word.
Paul says we need to be properly clothed as Christians – above all, he says, clothe yourself with love. And he concludes the section of his letter we heard today: Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to the Father through him. We do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus by being faithful to Scripture, to God’s Word.
We are God’s chosen ones. May we wear the clothes that befit our calling as those who have chosen to follow Jesus, and those whom Jesus has chosen to be in his kingdom.