Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, July 31, 2016
Taken from Colossians 3:1-14
What if I were to look out over this congregation and say, “my, oh my, what a bunch of Re-GEN-erates you are!”, I’m pretty sure there’d be a sudden tension in the air. You might wonder, “What did that preacher just call me? A bunch of what?”
I would have to say very clearly and succinctly and slowly, “RE-Gen-erates”. And you still wouldn’t be certain that I hadn’t just insulted everybody in the room. The word, “regenerate”, just sounds bad, doesn’t it?
It sounds too much like that other word that, indeed, is an insult: DE-gen-e-rate.”
Colossians 3:5-9 offers us a fairly inclusive list of what it takes to be a degenerate: “fornication, impurity, lust, evil desire—I like the old King James Version word for ‘evil desire’, concupiscence—“fornication, impurity, lust, concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry…put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk…Do not lie to one another….” Yes, I do think that about covers what we would mean by the word, “DE-generate”.
You’ve to ask yourself, where were they finding these people? That must have been one tough crowd they were inviting to come to church with them on Sunday! At least, the Apostle Paul felt compelled to say, “quit doing all that stuff! Quit being a bunch of DE-generates!” Instead, what were they to be? They were to become a bunch of RE-generates.
Verses 12-14, Paul describes the qualities of the Regenerate, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, (these qualities of life): compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other as the Lord has forgiven you….And above all these put on love which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”
Love, that binds everything together in perfect harmony. If you are of a certain age, that last bit may call to mind the old Coca-Cola commercial? 1971. It was entitled, simply, “Hilltop”, but we know it better by the jingle title, “I’d Like To Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)”.
I’d like to buy the world a home
And furnish it with love
Grow apple trees and honey bees
And snow white turtle doves
I’d like to teach the world to sing
In perfect harmony
I’d like to buy the world a Coke
And keep it company
That’s the real thing…
It’s a sweet picture, but that’s not what the Apostle Paul meant when he wrote of a love which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
That would be great, wouldn’t it, if all it took was to put a drink of something in everybody’s hands that would put a smile on their lips and a joy in their hearts and all sing the same happy song together.
A few years ago, Karen and I traveled up to New York City to celebrate Thanksgiving with our daughter, Emily. We got there on Thanksgiving Eve. Of course, the big deal on Thanksgiving Day in New York City is the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
That Thanksgiving Eve, we took the subway from Brooklyn over to Manhattan, over to the stop beneath the west side of Central Park. That’s where the parade floats were being lined up and the big balloons were being inflated.
We come up the stairs to the street level, and it’s like popping up into the middle of a carnival. Lights everywhere, people shuffling along, rubbernecking at all these wondrous sights of the beautiful, elaborate floats, taking selfies with the partially inflated Snoopy and Charlie Brown and Buzz Lightyear and all the rest.
There were food vendors and souvenir vendors, and there was music. Golden oldies songs from across the decades were playing through loud speakers placed all along the street. Emily, Karen, and I are packed in, cheek to jowl, with strangers from all over the globe. When, suddenly, everyone stops. And, we hear, coming over the loudspeakers, The Beatles, singing “I Saw Her Standing There”.
Like one big international troupe of folk singers, this whole crowd of strangers stand there, on a street along Central Park, in the cold, singing, “I Saw Her Standing There”.
We weren’t all singing in the same key, that’s for sure. And we didn’t get all the words in just right. But, it was clearly the same song we all were singing together, grinning at each other in the silliness of it and the delight of it. And, then, the song was over, we dissolved back into our own little groups, and we continued shuffling along.
You see, that’s an analogy for what human morality is. There is a common connection among all people. There is a common, human morality. As a civilized people, we indeed must seek out our common values to organize ourselves around those common values.
All the world over, we are trying our best to sing a kind of golden oldie song God has implanted within every person, when God created the human family with that Divine Image within us.
What vestiges of that ancient song we can help each other sing, we should sing. However out of tune, with whatever lapses of lyrics, we as a larger society must help each other sing as clearly as possible out of shared humanity, our common core of morality. But, it’s not enough. It’s not enough.
It’s not enough because our morality is plagued by our own mortality. The wasteful flaws of our own weaknesses deteriorate our best intent. We struggle mightily to sustain what we can of human dignity.
We fight, over and over, to broaden the boundaries of whose humanity we will dignify, the fullness of whose humanity we will include.
Our common morality is a beautiful thing. But it is the beauty like that of a translucent chrysalis that takes shape, on the branches of our souls. Our common morality is a structure in which the spiritual butterfly might form and emerge. Yet, something stops that life within from forming. A moral death takes hold. There is left only the chrysalis, an amazing organic structure on its own, to be sure, yet empty of life.
Sadly, we in the church of Jesus Christ are too easily content only to hold up the beautiful but empty chrysalis of morality. We fill it up, hoping there might emerge one day, a butterfly. But, it is not enough. If it were enough, there would have been no need for the Incarnation of God in humanity. There was no need for just one more teacher to come among us, however excellent or insightful or wise that teacher’s lessons might be.
A few Sundays ago, we considered the time when the religious lawyer approached Jesus and asked Jesus, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus asked him right back, “what do you think? How do you read the Law?” (Luke 10:25-37)
The lawyer was able to tell Jesus exactly what the Law said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The lawyer already knew what to do; he didn’t need Jesus to teach him that.
Jesus told the lawyer, “you’re exactly right…go do what you already know to do!” But, the lawyer couldn’t. He knew the teaching, but he didn’t have within himself what was needed.
What was required was for an infusion of Divine Life within this human fabric. What was required was for a people to be called out of mortal darkness and into Eternal Light. We, in the church, we carry within us not merely the words of an ancient song. We carry within us the power of the Ancient Songwriter’s own Eternal Presence. We, in other words, are called and empowered to be the Regenerate of God. Why, then, do we in the church settle for being mere purveyors of morality?
Why do we settle into being houses organized to keep each other on the straight and narrow? That is not our calling. We are called instead to be houses of celebration of the One who never did nor does he now walk a straight and narrow path. Rather, our Lord travels broadly, our Lord goes fully among all the peoples of the world.
As verse 11 says, there is no longer to be “this people or that people”; there is no longer to be “this religion or that religion”; there is to be no longer “this lifestyle or that lifestyle”; there is to be no longer “this gender or that gender”. There is instead to be but one, single humanity among whom and for whom, as verse 11 proclaims, “Christ is all, and in all.” And that is all and more than enough!
But, we have not dared imagine it. No more than we can look upon the chrysalis and imagine the butterfly that might grow there, we cannot imagine even among ourselves such a life where “Christ is all, and in all”. Yet that is in fact the heart of our calling as a church of Jesus Christ. To dare believe the Gospel and to live that Gospel and to be content with nothing less.
In all the ways we fail to turn ourselves over to the regenerating and converting, and enabling power of the Spirit of the Risen Christ, we settle for a mere Christianized morality. Christianized morality is only a common morality dressed up in its Sunday best.
University Baptist Church, we are called to nothing less than to proclaim and to teach and to witness of the true Gospel which far too many congregations have abandoned. Yes, they pay homage to the name of Jesus but they embrace for themselves a deadly legalism, or a polite moralism or a cautious rationalism. They are cut off from the regenerative headwaters of Heaven that alone bear the Christ-life not sourced anywhere from this poor earth.
May we be that church, that receives that life from above. May we dare be the church in Charlottesville that knows itself as the Divine Chrysalis from which emerges the most glorious life of Christ’s own. May we be the place where all may come and know this truth, “Christ is all, Christ in all”.