Even if a church is not a building, but the people gathered, it seems to be part of our humanity that we become deeply connected with spaces and places. We can see that connection all the time. You know if you have been away from home for a while and you walk through the door and put the kettle on for a much needed cuppa? That moment when you sit down with a cuppa and you know you are home? I’ve been living away from my hometown of Bradford for 15 years; but coming back now it feels like coming home. There is that saying isn’t there…“You can take a man out of Yorkshire but you cannot take Yorkshire out of a man.”
When buildings are constructed there is often a ceremony that involves the laying of a symbolic foundation stone. Somebody will quite likely be invited to give a speech, and then lay the commemorative brick or stone. I think such ceremonies are important; they capture something of the hope for what the new building will be, and celebrate all the hard work of people that had made it possible.
Because these ceremonies generally take place on part of a building site, it’s important that people wear appropriate safety equipment. Visitors are issued with hi-visibility smocks and hard hats, often with the logo of the construction company involved. That in itself is not unusual – here is the hi-visibility jacket that belongs to me featuring the name of my former employee in secular employment.
Corporate identity and brand are big things. Think how much companies pay to advertise their company logos on sports gear and at sporting events, whether it is Formula 1, tennis, cricket, football – the list goes on. The thing is, when an employee takes off that hi-visibility smock or jacket – which is something that is visible and on the surface, it is hard to know that they work for that particular company. When a Formula 1 sporting personality gets out of their racing car, and is wearing normal clothes it is hard to recognise what they do. When I took off my hi-visibility jacket, you would not know that at that time I worked for that company.
But what about Christians? Christians may wear a cross or a bracelet – but it isn’t as if they are generally clearly visible or on display. They are often very private expressions of faith that point to something much deeper, something within. Our reading from the letter to the Colossians uses a language of stripping off our old self and clothing ourselves with our new self in Christ. Imagine if you will that our old self is like a hi-visibility jacket labelled ‘Sin’. Before we give our lives to Christ, ‘Sin’ is our corporate identity. And the reading makes it perfectly clear what being in such a company involves.
When we make a commitment to Christ and invite him to be Lord of our lives, a deeply profound change takes place:
a) We begin to seek the things above
b) We set our minds on the things above
c) We die to self
d) We are raised with Christ
e) Our life is now hidden with Christ in God. We have a new hope
f) We take off our old self and we put on a new self
g) We put God first
We set out hearts (or minds) on the things above, we seek to put to death the practices that belong to our earthly nature, and we seek to rid ourselves of those practices that characterised our fallen state. We have consciously left that company called ‘Sin’. That deeper inner change that comes from a new life in Christ may result in an outer-working in our lives. There are former terrorists who have come to Christ and are now ordained priests in the Church of England, there are former drug addicts who could give a similar testimony. These are people who when Christ came into their life were able to take off that mantle or garment of sin and put on that new garment of Christ’s righteousness.
Building sites often feature a sign which reads “Under Construction.” If we were to wear any outward sign, I think that might be quite appropriate for us too – “Under Construction” or “Work in Progress.” Another sign we can wear is the cross of Christ, reminding us of how we too are invited to die to self and take up that new life in Christ. In giving our lives to Christ, we begin those steps on that journey – it’s like we invite the builders in to make a new building and Christ is like the management consultant who changes the very corporate identity that defines who and what we are. That journey involves work and effort – continually dying to self, continually taking off our old self and putting on our new self – a new self that is “being renewed in knowledge of the image of its Creator.” We always live in the tension between the now and the not yet – what is and what will be. God is the master architect; we can trust him to make sure our walls are straight and true….if we put him first.
Through Christ’s death, resurrection and exaltation, we aren’t what we used to be, and because we aren’t what we used to be, we may experience success in becoming all that we can be – all that we were created to be – to reach out and claim that truth for our own. I give thanks to God for that, and that I am a work in progress. And we may do that safe in the deep security of God’s love and grace – God tells us that “When Christ, who is our life, appears, then we also will appear with him in glory.” It is like the grand unveiling. Christ has done everything necessary; we just need to accept the invitation.
Some people of course find it hard to take off that old garment. The rich fool in our Gospel reading had not had that life changing experience. He was preoccupied with possessions and material things. He was building up idols in his life, he was consumed by greed. He was trying to get God to submit to him rather than accepting that he needed to submit to God. It is a dreadful thing to be greedy – if you study economics, one of the biggest criticisms of capitalism is that it always wants MORE. You can never be satisfied and you lose the ability to truly value anything. The rich young fool wanted everything and gained nothing. God said to him “‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
If you close your eyes for a moment and think about the things in your life that are like that old garment, an old garment that perhaps you struggle to take off. You are not alone in that – we all struggle to take off that old garment sometimes. I would like to invite you to consider what spiritual garments you wear and think about whether you need to have a change in your wardrobe. As your eyes are closed, just imagine taking that coat or jumper off and throwing it away. Imagine Christ stood beside you with a beautiful shining garment. It is yours. Carefully reach out and take it and put it on. See how easily it goes on? It is made for you. Know that Christ has created in you a clean heart, he has renewed your spirit. Hold on to that truth that you have been raised with Christ. Take his hand and walk with him. He is the author and perfecter, the pioneer and completer of our faith.