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The Big Aristotle
December 24, 2000
By Tony Grant
I invite you now to turn with me in your Bibles to Colossians chapter 3 and follow along as I read vs 12-17. Hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
12 Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering;
13 Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye.
14 And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness.
15 And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to the which also ye are called in one body; and be ye thankful.
16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.
17 And whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him.
Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God
Shaquille O'Neal is the given name of the most dominating player in the National Basketball Association right now. The Shaq likes to give himself nicknames. The NBA giant has referred to himself in the past as the Big Continuity, and the Big Legendary. Sometimes it's Shaq-speare because the Bard of Bel Air enjoys quoting the Bard of Stratford. After making a steal and breakaway dunk with 15 seconds left to force overtime of what would become a Los Angeles Lakers victory, he called himself "The big felon." O'Neal was repeatedly dominant during the 1999-2000 season, to the point where it was clear months before the end of the season that he would be chosen the MVP. On the night when he accepted the Most Valuable Player award, the center for the Lakers said, "From this day on, I want to be known as 'The Big Aristotle' because Aristotle once said that excellence is not a singular act, it's a habit - you are what you repeatedly do."
Aristotle and the Shaq are on to something. Virtue is a state of character gained by repeatedly performing good actions. Thomas Hibbs, a contemporary philosopher who teaches at Boston College, calls virtue "an acquired excellence of character that renders a person capable over the long haul of behaving in certain reliable ways."
The Apostle Paul, perhaps we should call him the Big Apostle, said the same thing in a better way. In today's passage from Colossians, Paul crams together a list of 14 qualities and behaviors that Christians need
On Thursday, May 27, 1999, Darrell Scott, the father of Rachel Scott, a victim of the Columbine High School Shootings in Littleton, Colorado, was invited to address the House Judiciary Committee's sub-committee. What he said outraged the gun control lobby, but it seems to me to be a very thoughtful statement, and I would like to quote it.
"Since the dawn of creation there have been both good and evil in the hearts of men and women. We all contain the seeds of kindness or the seeds of violence. The death of my wonderful daughter, Rachel Joy Scott, and the deaths of that heroic teacher, and the other 11 children who died must not be in vain. Their blood cries out for answers.
"The first recorded act of violence was when Cain slew his brother Abel out in the field. The villain was not the club he used. Neither was it the NCA, the National Club Association. The true killer was Cain, and the reason for the murder could only be found in Cain's heart.
"I am here today to declare that Columbine was not just a tragedy, it was a spiritual event that should be forcing us to look at where the real blame lies! ...
"Men and women are three-part beings. We all consist of body, soul, and spirit. When we refuse to acknowledge a third part of our makeup, we create a void that allows evil, prejudice and hatred to rush in and wreak havoc.
"The young people of our nation hold the key. There is a spiritual awakening taking place that will not be squelched! We do not need more religion. We do not need more gaudy television evangelists spewing out verbal religious garbage. We do not need more million-dollar church buildings built while people with basic needs are being ignored. We do need a change of heart and a humble acknowledgment that this nation was founded on the principle of simple trust in God!"
[Cited on Beliefnet.com, taken from posting at surfccc.com, a service of Christ Community Church, Sheridan, Indiana.]
We need a change of heart. That is what Darrell Scott said. In Colossians 3, the apostle Paul is talking about the kind of behavior a changed heart produces.
Let us talk about Colossians for as few moments. Located not far from Ephesus, Colossae was a town of Phrygia in Asia Minor. Paul seems to have high regard for this church. The address of the letter, as given in 1:2 is "To the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae." Even so, however, this congregation is not one that Paul personally founded. Rather, it was probably established by Epaphras, described by Paul as "our beloved fellow servant" (1:7) and one "who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus " (4:12). Apparently Epaphras was in Paul's company as the letter was being written, for in the letter to Philemon, he is described as "Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus" (v. 23).
Although the letter is confident that the Colossians are basically faithful to Paul's message, the apostle writes in response to some doctrinal and behavioral errors that were beginning to plague that community. He addresses these errors particularly in ch2 and then in ch3 he offers the Christian alternative that awaits those who have genuinely been "raised with Christ." Perhaps the heading of chapter 2 should be, "New Life in Christ," for the chapter demonstrates how all facets of human behaviors and attitudes have been transformed through the Christian's "death" and subsequent "rebirth" in Christ. For Paul, we are genuinely changed, truly transformed creatures through virtue of participating in Christ's death and being raised into this now "new" life as Christians. The fact that baptized members of the Colossians' community, like all Christian communities, still needed to be guided back on to the track of right doctrine and behavior demonstrates the constant tension in which the baptized/reborn Christian lives. While Paul asserts that the Colossian Christians are completely "new" once they are "with Christ," they are also still under construction. You might say that we live in an in-between age, in a "not yet" age, in which we are not completed projects.
Earlier in ch3, in vs5 and 8, Paul provides two lists of five items each, which are wrong attitudes or behaviors. These are the human tendencies that must "die" with Christ. In v12, the first verse of today's epistle text, Paul lists five qualities that should be raised with the Christian who is reborn in Christ.
Paul designates the Colossian Christians with Old Testament terms that emphasize their unique relationship with God through their rebirth in Christ. V12 says that they are "chosen ones, holy and beloved" (v. 12), even as the nation of Israel was Gods chosen. The church is the new Israel. He begins v12 by speaking in terms of clothing. We are to "put on" these virtues. This is baptismal language. The Christian ritual of baptism included ceremonially "stripping off" the old self and the old clothing and "putting on" a new fresh garment after being immersed in the baptismal waters. It is as reborn men and women, "raised" in Christ, that Paul urges the Colossians to "clothe" themselves with the virtues of "compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience" (v. 12).
These qualities are expanded and put into practice in Paul's directive in verse 13. Practicing forbearance and forgiveness with each other tests the Colossians' ability to truly live anew in Christ - for the forgiveness they are called to offer others is made possible only because of their experience of the Lord's (Christ's) forgiveness.
In verse 14, Paul singles out one quality that stands "above all" the rest - love . The Greek word of cours is "agape." Agape/love literally means "a bond of completeness." The function of "agape" and its binding relationship to the earlier listed virtues is not made entirely clear by this text. The text could be identifying love as that which binds together those virtues or declaring that love produces unity or harmony in the people who experience it. However, it is clear that this love is a crucial component to one who is raised in Christ.
That Christian love is of a gentle nature is further implied by the admonition in verse 15. Although the translation of this verse calls for Christ's peace to "rule" a believer's heart, the actual Greek verb is less autocratic. The Greek would best be interpreted as "umpire" or "settle disputes" - suggesting that Christ's guidance is an internalized voice that Christians listen to and allow to direct their behavior. Because Christians have the gentle voice of Christ, they also have the "peace of Christ." It is not necessarily outward peace. It is an inward peace, a peace of the spirit that pervades our lives and connects with the 11th virtue--unity in the one Body of Christ. The "peace of Christ" creates "one body" - a unified Christian community.
Verse 15 concludes by urging the Colossians to "be thankful." This thankful attitude continues to pervade the advice Paul gives in the final two verses of today's epistle reading, vs 16 and 17. Our thankfulness should cause us to sing "psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to God." Or to say the same thing in other words, experiencing the richness of Christ will result in two behaviors that sort of bubble up from our relationship with Christ. First, the heart's thankfulness should be expressed in "psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs" (v. 16). Second, that every "word or deed" of these Christians can be expressed "in the name of the Lord Jesus" and, once again, with "thanks" (v. 17). When everything is done in the name of the Lord Jesus, it is as though Christ himself is doing it - an understanding that certainly fits with Paul's sense that Christians are now reborn and clothed with a new self, one in which "Christ is all and in all! (v. 11).
As we meditate upon these Christian virtues, we conclude that they are in short supply today. We may conclude that they are even in short supply in our own lives. This is especially true when we find ourselves overwhelmed by the competing pressures of life, or when we unwittingly adapt to the cold and callous culture we live in. Perhaps we simply lose touch with the One who can supply our spiritual needs, or we have been battered by a brutal week and feel mentally, emotionally and spiritually spent. But this is not the time to give up. This is not the time to play to our vices. Rather we should work on our virtues.
Yet too often we do the opposite. We practice our vices more than our virtues. The medieval poet, Dante Alighieri, cleverly dealt with this curiosity in The Divine Comedy where he juxtaposes the so-called Seven Deadly Sins with their virtuous counterparts. For example, pride is a vice that sins against the virtue of humility. Greed battles generosity, envy fights love, anger crashes into kindness, lust lashes out at self-control, gluttony wrestles with faith and temperance, and sloth struggles with Christian zeal.
This pairing of vices and virtues suggests that the best way to battle the Seven Deadly Sins is through strengthening at least seven life-giving characteristics. And fortunately, for us, in today's passage from Colossians, Paul crams together a list of 14 qualities and behaviors that Christians cannot get enough of, 14 virtues that are able to overpower Seven Deadly Sins.
But just how do we activate these qualities and put them to work in the world? How do we get the seven deadly sins out of our live and the 14 virtues into our life? We are back to Shaq, the Big Aristotle. The answer is practice. In virtue - as in most things - practice makes perfect.
I mentioned the philosopher Thomas Hibbs earlier. Hibbs likens the acquisition of virtue to athletic training: Both require repetition and hard work, and both are most easily learned by following examples. While books and classes and sermons can be helpful, virtue is still best learned by practice, not through abstract thought - if you want to learn to shoot hoops, you play basketball, you do not read a book about basketball. If you want to learn virtue, you do not talk about virtue, you do virtue.
Also, Virtuous living is a team sport, not an individual activity. We practice virtue with and among other people. This means that virtue requires a community of accountability and support, a healthy and unified body like the church. When we and our children go to Sabbath School, we absorb from our teachers virtues of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forbearance, forgiveness, love, harmony, peace, unity, thankfulness, wisdom and praise. We absorb these verses not because of what they say but because of what they are.
In a little over a week, 8 days, we will be entering a new year, 2001. We will be talking about New Years resolutions. That is part of the problem, we will be talking about resolutions, when we need to be doing those resolutions. As we peer into a new year, it is helpful to remember that the qualities the apostle Paul talked about are not so much taught as "caught." They are caught by living with families and churches - small communities that contain both teachers and learners who help each other to strive for excellence. We are in the best possible position - right here in this community of faith - to be an incubator for the lifesaving virtues that our Lord wants to give us.
As Jesus was the light, we strive to be little lights that reflect his glory. We do this by developing the virtues of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forbearance, forgiveness, love, harmony, peace, unity, thankfulness, wisdom and praise. On this earth, we will never have the perfection that we find in Christ. We will never be what Shaq might call Big Jesus. But we certainly should strive to be Little Jesus. That is to say, we should imitate Christ in all things. We should be his man, his woman, in all things. Amen.
Farley, Christopher John, and David Thigpen. "Shaq opens up," Time, June 19, 2000, 118-122.
Gomes, Lee. "How the Fixers Fended Off Big Disasters." The Wall Street Journal, December 23, 1999, B1-B4.
"Lessons in Virtue That Books Can't Teach." The Washington Post, January 18, 1998, C3.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified, 12/22/00