A Sermon on Colossians 3:12-17
Rev. Kenneth E. Kovacs, Ph.D.

Preached at the Covenant Network Regional Conference,
University Presbyterian Church, Baton Rouge, LA
24th January 2015

After the thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians, the so-called “Love Chapter,” the third chapter of Colossians is probably the next most popular text read at weddings.  I’ve been ordained now for almost twenty-five years and I’ve done my share of weddings over this time.  Most couples choose 1 Corinthians 13 to be read at their weddings.  “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. …It bears all things, hopes all things, believes all things, endures all things.  Love never ends” (1 Cor. 13:4-5a, 7-8).  It’s such a great text, isn’t it?  Beautiful.  Poetic.  The perfect sentiment for a wedding card.  It’s very…Hallmarkian.  What couple wouldn’t want to aspire to these things, whether Christian or not.

Taken on its own, it’s not especially churchy or even Christian. There’s no reference to God or Christ or the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 13; there’s one reference to faith. One doesn’t have to be Christian to agree with these words. On its own it might not sound exclusively Christian. The text can sound ordinary. Years ago, one of my friends, a Presbyterian minister serving in New Jersey at the time, told me that he read 1 Corinthians 13 at a wedding and one of the guests came up to him afterward and said, “That was really beautiful.  Did you write that yourself?”

Of course, we know behind every use of the word love in 1 Corinthians 13 is the Greek word agape, meaning selfless or sacrificial love, or, perhaps better, other-directed love.  It’s what Paul and others in the early Church witnessed in Christ.  And we know that 1 Corinthians 13 really wasn’t meant to stand on its own, but flows out of chapter twelve, in Paul’s discussion of spiritual gifts.  Chapters twelve and thirteen go together, they’re seamless—and yet I’ve never been asked to read chapter twelve at a wedding.  And we know, if we’re honest, 1 Corinthians 13 is not a text about marriage, that’s not what Paul had in mind.  I can’t believe Paul ever imagined that his words to the Corinthians would be read at weddings or imprinted on Hallmark cards.

And we also know—if we’re honest—that neither is Colossians 3 a text about marriage.  It wasn’t written for a wedding ceremony.  I’m saying Colossians 3 for short, but actually, most couples choose just these verses, verses 12-17.  I’ve never been asked to read the beginning of the chapter where Paul says, “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).  On account of these the wrath of God is coming” (Col. 3:5-6).  I’ve never seen these verses read as a wedding.  Have you?  And I’ve never seen this vice list on a Hallmark wedding card, have you?

I think 1 Corinthians 13 can be used for nominally Christian couples, folks who aren’t all that committed to the Church, but want to have their wedding in one, you know the type. (The church I served in Mendham, NJ, is a beautiful setting for a wedding, but it doesn’t have a center aisle.  We used to get phone calls asking, “Do you have a center aisle?”  That’s all they would ask, it’s all they wanted to know.  And when we said, no, they just hung up the phone.)  While 1 Corinthians 13 could be used at interfaith services or even secular wedding ceremonies, there’s something very different about Colossians 3, all of 3, but especially 12-17.  Because, you see, Paul isn’t talking about marriage here.  Neither is it a poetic ode to love.  Instead, this is a text about baptism—baptism into Christ (not into the Church, but into Christ)—which makes Colossians 3 a rich, Christological text that can’t be used by just anyone.  Apart from this baptismal framework, the text loses its power.  However, with this baptismal framework the text surges forth with power and intensity and has the capacity, I think, to say something profound and unique about the nature of love and the way love is at work in all relationships.

How do we know this is a baptism text?  It’s not explicit.  It’s easy to miss.  A clue is found in verse 12, “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.”  Clothe yourselves.  Put on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience.  Cover yourselves with these new garments.

Paul’s fashion advice to the Colossians is this: get rid of your old threads, remove the garments that once defined your former life.  Take them off.  Strip them off.  And don’t give them away to Goodwill.  Burn them.  Destroy them. Or, in Paul’s language, “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).  …These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living apart from Christ” (Col 3:5, 7).  Get rid of them, along with anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language.  “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices,” Paul writes, “and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of the creator” (Col 3:9-10).

In the early Church people were baptized naked.  Initiates removed their garments, went down naked into the water, down into the depths, all the way down, and then came up out of the water as new creations, as new people, with new identities.  It was, thus, a movement of death and resurrection.  Then you were given a new garment, something new to wear, something that symbolized the inner transformation that has occurred in your life, your life now hidden, covered by, clothed with Christ in God.  The outer garments Paul invites us to put on reflect a transformed inner life.  Compassion.  Kindness.  Humility.  Meekness.  Patience.  Wrap these around you.  May they remind you who you really are, may they help you claim your baptismal identity, affirm the life that is now welling up within you and being poured out through you by virtue of the life of Christ now at work in you.

Compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience.  We might hear these as virtues, behaviors we wish to embody in our lives.  But for Paul they’re not exactly virtues, that is, habits for us to strive toward.  Instead, each word here describes some aspect of the life of God, characteristics of God’s way, God’s style, God’s lifestyle, if you will, the way God is known and active in the world.  These attributes are now flowing in us and through us because our lives are now hidden with Christ in God—therefore, we get to share the life of God!  And, so, Paul says, “Bear with one another, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other” (Col. 3:13). Why?  How?  Not through virtue, but by virtue of the fact that we know Christ has forgiven us, so we must forgive, which means that we can forgive.

And then, Paul says, “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col 3:14).  It’s a striking image that we have here.  Paul appears to be saying: dress in layers—compassion, kindness, humility, etc.—but let your outer garment, the one you present to the world, the one that most truly represents the internal change that has occurred and is occurring in you, be love.  Let love be that outer garment.  Let it dress you up.  Let Christ’s love dress you up.  It’s as if Paul wants the Colossians to imagine Christ saying to them: “I’m gonna dress you up in my love.” Christ is saying to you and to me: “I’m gonna dress you up in my love.” All over, …all over…from your head down to your toe(-woes).[1]

Thank you, Madonna.  With apologies to Paul—and to Jesus.

The kind of love Madonna is singing about is not the kind Paul is writing about, but the image works (Maybe.  I hope.).  It’s an image for the kind of love Paul is evoking and calling the Church to embody and to fashion “all over, all over.” This isn’t romantic love or love as eros or love as philia (friendship), or storge (affection).  All of these have a place in every relationship, of course.  But they’re sanctified, as it were, by the kind of love that Paul is getting at here, which Christ embodied with his own life, which was and is agape.  Therefore, we have to be careful that we don’t sentimentalize what we mean by love.  We mustn’t tame it or domesticate it.  It’s easy to do, especially when we’re talking about weddings and marriage.  And the English language doesn’t help matters, with one word to characterize everything from the love of chocolate to the love of God.

As Paul knew from his own experience of the Risen Christ, love, foremost, is not a feeling, but a force.  Love is active.  Love is moving. Moving out toward an other, love is other-directed. And then the movement of love gathers in, it pulls back, returns, binds, holds, forming and sustaining a relationship, a covenant—not a violent, forced uniformity, but a perfectly blessed harmony.

Last Sunday morning I was listening to Krista Tippet’s radio show On Being, as I do most Sundays before heading to church.  Krista was interviewing U. S. Representative John Lewis and I was struck by something he said.  A devout Christian, the son of a preacher, friend of Martin Luther King, Jr., now a senior member of Congress from Georgia, Lewis talked about what it was like to be part of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.  Krista quoted from his memoir, Across That Bridge, in which Lewis writes, “The Civil Rights Movement, above all, was a work of love. Yet even 50 years later, it is rare to find anyone who would use the word love to describe what we did.” She then said to Lewis, “I think part of the explanation of that is the way you are using the word love is very rich and multilayered and also challenging, challenging for the person who loves.”  Lewis replied, “Well, I think in our culture, I think sometimes people are afraid to say I love you. But we’re afraid to say, especially in public life, many elected officials or worldly elected officials, are afraid to talk about love…. Maybe it’s a sign of weakness. And we’re not supposed to cry. We’re supposed to be strong, but love is strong. Love is powerful.”  Lewis said, “The movement created what I like to call a nonviolent revolution. It was love at its best. It’s one of the highest forms of love. That you beat me, you arrest me, you take me to jail, you almost kill me, but in spite of that, I’m going to still love you. I know Dr. King used to joke sometime and say things like, “Just love the hell outta everybody. Just love ’em.”[2]

Love is strong.  Love is powerful.  As the Mexican priest in Graham Greene’s (1904-1991) wonderful novel, The Power and the Glory, says—a priest under arrest and being interrogated by his atheist captors curious about God’s love—God’s love is often unrecognizable, “it might even look like hate, it would be enough to scare us—God’s love.  It set fire to a bush in the desert, didn’t it, and smashed open graves and set the dead walking in the dark.”[3]  It’s unsettling.  It’s disturbing.  It’s not what we expect.  It’s strong and powerful.  It gives us the capacity to suffer with those who suffer and weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice (Romans 12:15).  It “bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”  It calls people to life and speaks into death itself and forces death to yield new life, to yield resurrection.

It was James Loder (1931-2001), one of my professors at Princeton Theological Seminary, who helped me to see what love does.  Loder was one of the wisest persons I’ve ever known.  Mentor.  Friend.  Like a father to me.  He gave the charge to me at my ordination.  Love, he said, is “the non-possessive delight in the particularity of the other.”[4] It sounds very academic, I know.  Yet with an economy of words he captures the essence of agape.

What you need to know, before I unpack what he means here, is that Loder did not support the ordination of gays and lesbians in the PC(USA). And, I will acknowledge, there was a time when I agreed with him, which caused considerable turmoil in my life. How could he be wrong?  He was the smartest person I ever encountered.  But it was his definition of love and all that it means that helped me to reform my own understanding of this issue, as well as my self-understanding of what it means to be Christian.  In the end, I told Jim, face-to-face, several weeks before he died in 2001, that I disagreed with him and that some of the things he wrote and said were, and still are, just wrong.  He didn’t agree with me completely.  But he listened to me.  He heard me and tried to love me.

The non-possessive delight in the particularity of the other.  Love sees the other and does not confuse the other with oneself.  Love allows the other to exist in freedom and creates a space for the other to be.  Love creates a space to be—it always creates a space.  Love does not possess the other, or control, define, delimit, or diminish the other.  Love transforms the other from an it (an object to be controlled) into a Thou (a subject worthy of respect and honor).  Love allows the other to be, to thrive, to grow, to exist apart from oneself, to have a life apart from oneself, and then takes immense delight and joy in the particularity, the uniqueness, the incomparability of the other.[5]  When we love this way the other comes into focus before our eyes and we are allowed to see, really see the other for whom s/he really is. The non-possessive delight in the particularity of the other.

When we are loved this way, when we’re on the receiving end of this kind of love, when you’re someone else’s other—as another’s Thou—we are then brought to life, we become real, individual, particular, and in our particularity, invited to thrive, to be who we truly are.  We are seen.  We are known.  Several years ago I was introduced to the poetry of Kathleen Raine (1908-2003).  A child of the manse in Scotland, she lived most of her life in Northumbria, where England melds into Scotland. She wrote, “Unless you see a thing in the light of love, you do not see a thing at all.”[6]

Now imagine this is the way God loves you and me, sees you and me.  You are the thou of God, the object of God’s delight, whose Voice thundered from the heavens at your baptism, “You are my daughter, you are my son, my beloved, with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11).  When we are fiercely loved this way we are brought to life and allowed to thrive.  Love, Loder said, “earnestly desires the fulfillment of the unique particularity of the other one.”[7]  This is what we experience when we’re clothed in love.  And from our baptismal identity, with this awareness, within the the vitality of this relationship in God we then turn out toward the people we meet: our enemies, our friends, strangers, whoever stands before us, especially the particular person whose particularities you especially love—and maybe called to marry.

And so if the light of that love is shining in you,
if this is the kind of love that is fashioning your life,
if this is the kind of love at work in the life of someone you love, and
if Christ’s love is pulling you toward another,
pulling and binding you to another—for that’s what agape does—
then who can stand in the way of this?

What God has joined together let no one separate! (Mark 10:9)

If this is the kind of love that’s unfolding in the lives of God’s children—
we who are now hid in Christ by virtue of our baptism—
drawing two together into a perfect harmony,
binding them together,
creating a space for mutual flourishing and upbuilding,
a relationship,
a covenant that embodies this kind of holy love,
that suffers with and for the other,
that yields life, abundant life, growth, health, creativity, generosity,
that embodies resurrection,
a love that’s strong and fierce and powerful and redemptive—
if all of this is at work in two people—
then who are we to stand in the way of God’s movement in their lives?

The Church must not stand in the way.

Instead, we as the Church, as the people of God,
must not be afraid to recognize that love when we see,
and name and claim it for what it is—agape, love
and then bring it out from out under a bushel for all the world to see!
To acknowledge it, honor it, even more—bless it!
Bless it and then celebrate it—really celebrate it—
with a banquet, a feast, a party!

Right?  Right? Yes?


[1]The pop-culture allusion here (in case you’ve missed it) is to Madonna’s song “Dress You Up,” from her Like A Virgin album, released by Sire Records, 1985. “Gonna dress you up in my love, in my love/ All over your body, all over your body/ In my love/ All over, all over/ From your head down to your toes.”

[2] The full transcript of the interview may be found here: John Lewis—The Art and Discipline of Non-Violence.

[3] Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory (New York:  Penguin Books, 1990 [1940]), 199-200.

[4] James E. Loder, The Logic of the Spirit:  Human Development in Theological Perspective (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 266-267.

[5] On “particularity” in Loder and the “heightening of particularity” in love, see James E. Loder, The Transforming Moment, 2nd edition (Colorado Springs:  Helmers & Howard, 1989), 198.

[6] Cited in John O’Donohue’s (1956-2008), Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom (HarperCollins, 1989), 65.

[7] Logic of the Spirit, 267. See also, Kenneth E. Kovacs, The Relational Theology of James E. Loder: Encounter and Conviction (New York: Peter Lang, 2011).

The Rev. Dr. Kenneth E. Kovacs, a member of the Board of Directors of the Covenant Network, is the Pastor of Catonsville (Maryland) Presbyterian Church. Ken is also on the Board of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary.  His book The Relational Theology of James E. Loder: Encounter & Conviction was published by Peter Lang in 2011.  He earned his M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. from the University of St. Andrews (Scotland).