What immediately makes you angry?
Like all of us, I have a few things that push my buttons in a hurry. One of those is useless complaining. This is different from feedback that seeks a change. For me, any criticism should lead to action out of a desire to help make things better. And if there’s no way to act to make things better, then the criticism should simply be forgotten rather than discussed at length. When such happens in my presence, I feel that button pushed and usually walk away.
What pushes your buttons?
I’m sure we can all answer that question pretty readily. And when those buttons get pushed, we feel that impulse to react. We want to do something to address the anger we feel on the inside. And if we suppress that impulse to act, to address the anger, then the anger seems to grow on the inside. That growth eventually leads us to act out of that anger, with harmful consequences.
As we have studied Colossians, we have found Paul highly concerned about not only what we believe but also what we do. Like James and like Jesus, Paul wants Christians to be as concerned with their behavior as they are with their beliefs. After making his case for what Christians should believe about the risen Christ, and about how to follow that risen savior, as we have explored in previous weeks, Paul now moves on to behavior. He makes clear how Christians should act by first listing how Christians should not act.
Those lists come to us in sets of five but a dominant theme runs through both sets. Listen for those sets and consider what themes Paul addresses as we read Colossians 3:1-14:
Water plays a staring role in this scripture.
In some churches, as you enter from the back, there’s a baptismal font right as you enter the sanctuary, in the very back of the church, before reaching any pews. This is the traditional location for the baptismal font, present there and open, with water in it. As parishioners file in, they dip their fingers in the water and make the sign of the cross, sometimes on their foreheads.
This ancient practice reminds all, as they enter the church, of their new identity; the one they took on at baptism, no matter how long ago and no matter at what age they were baptized.
Through Christ, we take on a new identity that should change us from the inside out. At baptism, that identity is grounded, confirmed, and revealed, regardless of the age of our baptism. God’s grace so comes to dwell within us through that act that we experience a rebirth; the very idea of baptism itself.
This new identity should come to define all that we are and all that we do, so says Paul in the first four verses. That water used in baptism, symbolic of the water of a womb, and symbolic of the power of water throughout scripture such as in the flood, in the parting of the Red Sea, and in Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan, brings the power of God into our lives such that we are changed forever.
And that change, brought about by the water, comes from the inside out. Our souls are changed, which changes our hearts and minds, and with that comes behavior change.
The members of the church in Colossae have been baptized but Paul doesn’t see enough behavior change to satisfy him. And so he issues lists of things he condemns, telling the Colossians church to put them to death; literally die to them. Paul says, “stop satisfying the urges, the impulses, that come from within and lead to illicit behavior.”
As I was wrestling with this text, I found the lists confusing. Why these particular actions? I struggled to see the relationship between fornication and greed, for example. But, as I researched, I discovered that the words in Greek demonstrate the relationship. In the original language, the first list contains words that all refer to sex in some way; especially the illicit kind. The second list contains words that are all related to anger, especially bad actions done in anger.
Paul is very concerned about the sexual activity and anger of the Colossian church.
Such activity was common. Brothels and the like were easily located, offering everything any appetite would desire. In polite circles, such activity was frowned upon but not condemned. As long as you kept such activity to yourself, you were fine, regardless of what you desired or how often you engaged services.
If that world feels remote, it’s not unlike what can be had via the internet today. Twenty-five percent of all internet traffic relates to those urges and impulses. Twenty-five percent of searches, clicks, streaming video, and the like. That’s a huge percentage of all the things we use the internet for. This illicit content on the internet is so prevalent that the age of first exposure is now nine years old, for both girls and boys. And it’s estimated that around ninety percent of males and around two-thirds of females have engaged such internet traffic in the last month.
There, in that type of internet traffic, any desire, any impulse, can be pursued, seeking its satisfaction. Just like in ancient Roman society, but now through a computer or phone screen.
The same is true of anger. In Roman society, anger and its byproducts of slander, wrath, rage, and abuse were just as common as they are today. Violence born of anger tended to be more acceptable than it is today. Spousal abuse, violent fights and murders, born of anger, were more common for the ancient Roman than they are today.
Except that our violence has moved online. What people say about each other and to each other on social media platforms is abominable. Therapists are seeing links between the growing rate of depression and suicide and the filth to be found on social media platforms. When someone makes us angry, it’s easier than ever before to take to the virtual town hall of facebook or twitter, telling the world what a worthless piece of crap that person is, or even attacking them directly.
There, on social media, any impulse born of anger can be pursued, seeking its satisfaction.
And this has Paul very worried. So worried, he speaks to them first of what they should not do before he moves on to speak of what they should do, based on their new identity in Christ, taken on at baptism. Specifically, their sexual and anger impulses are very worrisome to him.
But why those two in particular?
Consider the last time you bought a piece of fruit, cut into it, and found the inside rotten.
Outside, everything looked fine. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have purchased it! But on the inside, everything was wrong. Many fruits tend to rot from the inside out; keeping their rotting a secret until you cut into it.
But left long enough, the fruit will eventually show its rotted nature on the outside, too. These are the fruits pulled off the store shelves before they can be sold.
And that’s just Paul’s point. Why bring up sex and anger of all the things he could have pointed to?
Because these tend to rot us from the inside out.
When we feel the impulse of either, such impulses are strong and demand that we try and satisfy them. There are few other impulses quite as strong as the desire for pleasure and the desire to release our anger.
And quite often, seeking the satisfaction of those impulses leads us to do things we later regret.
Consider the growing problem of addiction to that illicit content that forms twenty-five percent of traffic on the internet. The last sexual ethics workshop that I attended, a mandatory requirement every three years for clergy, reviewed the signs of addiction to this illicit material. It leads to withdraw from life, withdraw from family relationships, loss of satisfaction in one’s spouse, depression, missing work and other obligations because of use of this content, and biological problems.
Many of those problems look like the person has a severe case of depression or has simply suddenly lost interest in people and things that used to be of interest. The sin of the illicit content, rotting the person from the inside out, remains somewhat invisible, expressing itself through that withdrawal from what used to be important.
In other words, we think we’re seeking the satisfaction of these deep and powerful urges and impluses through use of this content. But, instead, we only crave more of it. There can never be enough to satisfy. And the more we use it, the more we rot ourselves from the inside out.
Consider the growing problem of bullying online. When we act in anger, saying things there that we might never have said in person, we think we’re satisfying our anger. Instead, we only feed it, making us crave more opportunity to express our anger, more opportunity to slander, more opportunity to use abusive language or even simply be abusive.
I saw a post recently that advertised Trump 2020 Yeti cups for sale. The very first comment was someone saying they would have preferred if the cup said Dump Trump 2020. The seller responded saying that she wasn’t making a political post. The commenter responded saying that she should accept pushback if she’s going to post political content. By the end, they were calling each other names and saying deplorable things, both trying to bully the other. Such is life on social media; such is the way seeking the satisfaction of our anger only ends up feeding our anger, making us desire more.
Or consider that I have, at times, received comments online or emails that will condemn me for what I believe and who I am. But in person, when I encounter those who have sent such abusive language, they act as if nothing was said; as if all was well. My guess is that’s true for you, too. We seek the satisfaction of our anger in cowardly ways and social media or email provides an outlet for our cowardice.
We think we’re seeking the satisfaction of these deep and powerful urges and impulses through expressing our anger in the easiest ways possible, but instead, acting impulsively on makes us crave more opportunity to express our anger. There can never be enough commenting on social media, enough bullying online, enough hateful emails, enough attempts to publicly embarrass someone who believes differently from us, to satisfy.
We only become more angry, and thus more likely to slander or be abusive.
It’s thus we can say following our impulses and urges on the inside eventually rots us from the inside out.
That’s Paul’s very point. He says, with strong language in verse six, that “on account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient.” If we have been changed on the inside, if we have as Paul says, “stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed [our]selves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of it’s creator,” if we have done that, and then continue to follow these powerful impulses, then we are spitting in the face of God. We are saying that God’s renewal of our insides, born of the sacrifice of his son, is meaningless to us.
That’s a hard hitting point, I know. This isn’t a fun sermon to preach! But Paul is hard-hitting and sometimes we need that to remind us just how valuable, and vital, our baptismal identity, our renewal, is.
God has come to live within us. We are the new temple. Each of us is. That’s what Paul means when he tells the church in Corinth that their bodies are temples. That’s a literal reality. Before Jesus, the place God dwelled, and the only place indeed, was the temple in Jerusalem. Now, God dwells within us, just as God dwelled in the temple.
So if we take inside our temples things that are rotten, like illicit use of the internet and anger that we feed, we are pushing God out of our temples and saying that the renewal, the renovation, the baptismal identity, the souls God sacrificed to make whole, don’t matter.
Eventually, that decision finds us and reveals our rotten core. Very often, anger is a sin that we end up committing somewhat publicly because, no matter how much we try to hide it, we end up acting upon it toward someone else, often in a way that hurts them.
But illicit use of the internet is a sin we commit privately. No one has to know, we think. And yet, it eventually exposes us on the outside. Like the rotten fruit, we eventually show the rotten state of our souls on our skin; through our behavior.
What, then, are we to do so that we do not rot from the inside out?
Paul’s prescription isn’t a belief but a practice. If he’s very concerned about what Christians should not do, he’s equally concerned about what Christians should do. And what they should do is this, verse 14, “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”
Sometimes, it can be tough to tell if something we want to do, born of a powerful impulse like sex or anger, is the right thing to do or not. After all, our anger, for example, does need an outlet. Anger we ignore or try to push aside will eventually consume us. We need something to do with that anger. We need something to do with all the impulses that we feel.
And Paul gives us a way to understand if the action we want to take, based on our impulses, is a good one or not. Ask yourself, “is this action done in love?”
When angry and wanting to lash out at some one or engage in abusive language, ask yourself, “is this done in love?”
When wanting to act on a sexual impulse, ask yourself, “is this done in love?”
If the answer is no, then we should not engage in whatever action we want.
And, instead, ask God prayerfully to satisfy our deepest longings and urges. God will. We must confess that we have the impulses and urges prayerfully, trusting that God will bring them to satisfaction.
This requires what Paul lists in verse 12: “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” If we are to expect satisfaction in our souls for these tremendously powerful impulses, we must be willing to wait, patience; we must be willing to admit we have need, humility and meekness; and we must not beat ourselves up for having these impulses, compassion and kindness.
For we all experience everything I have mentioned in this sermon. We all experience powerful impulses, especially related to the topics Paul has chosen here in this scripture. And so we can also have compassion and demonstrate kindness toward each other. And encourage one another, “bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive one another,” as Paul says in verse 13.
This requires, above all, prayer. Giving God our impulses and urges, telling God about them, asking God to satisfy them, and especially asking God, “is this thing I want to do done in love?”
What’s at stake is nothing less than keeping our insides healthy. We will rot from the inside out otherwise. Let me be clear: illicit use of the internet, participating with that twenty-five percent of traffic, can only rot us from the inside out. Taking to social media to vent our anger, whether about someone or about politics or about our community or anything else, can only rot us from the inside out. These are never appropriate for there is no way to do them in love.
Which means, these practices will eventually impact our souls such that the rot will show up on our skin; in our behavior. What’s at stake is nothing less than our baptismal identity.
What’s at stake, too, is nothing less than the coming Kingdom of Christ. We reveal our souls to the world, whether we realize it or not. What we reveal is based on the quality of our soul on the inside. If your soul is healthy, dwelling with Christ or, as Paul puts it, “hidden with Christ,” then we will reveal Christ to the world.
What’s at stake, then, is also our witness of Christ. For we, as temples, should reveal Christ to the world.
This morning take stock of yourself. Honest stock. That’s hard, I know. I felt convicted myself as I was writing this sermon. What’s the state of your soul? How often do you give into impulses related to anger and sex?
If you feel conviction about that, tell God about it. And then begin to act differently, asking that powerful question for self reflection: Is what I want to do done in love?
If not, ask God to satisfy your impulse and then be patient. Tell someone else about it so that, together, we can bear each other’s burdens.
Paul has some hard truths to convey here. But if we’re willing to take him seriously, confess our sins, and bear each other’s burdens, we will discover our insides renewed, our souls revived, and our deepest impulses satisfied.
In other words, we will rediscover our baptismal identity and find, there, our souls renewed.
Take the challenge. Is this done in love?
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.