This morning we are picking up at the place in Colossians where Paul has turned his attention to us — those who read and hear this letter. He has sketched for us a vision of Jesus Christ, the image of God and the Lord of all creation. Today, we will see that the Lord of all creation is also the Lord of your heart, and he seeks to guide your desires, your intentions, and your actions.
For the last few weeks, we have been watching the Olympics. Athletes, mostly in their twenties, who have spent their lives training their minds and bodies to be the world’s best, competing for a gold medal. An elite athlete spends years living a by a tightly-disciplined schedule, morning, afternoon, and evening, bound by specific regimens that equip them for ultimate performance.
For those of us who struggle to make it to the gym three times a week, this is foreign world altogether. But that disciplined schedule and regimen becomes like an old shoe — it fits them perfectly. Because they are elite athlete. It is not what they do. It is who they are. It becomes their identity.
But what happens after the Olympics? For most of them — except the Michael Phelps of the world — they return home to an ordinary existence. The person who won the gold medal in shot-put, or in archery, or played on the water polo team, is eventually going to end up behind a desk, living in a neighborhood, just like the rest of the world? What’s it like to be an Olympian after the Olympics are over?
Elise Laverick Sherwell was an elite rower. She competed in three successive Olympics, Sydney, Athens, and Beijing. She won two bronze medals. In between the Olympics, she studied to earn her law-degree so that she would have a life to go to when she was no longer an elite athlete.
But making the transition was difficult. She said she had to remind herself that she was never just “the rower,” and that she could eventually find something else that filled the tremendous hole she now felt. You see, it was not just the practical challenges of transitioning to a new life, it was the deeper question of “who am I now?” Here is what she says:
“Your life was so regimented before. It was a four-year goal. Every month, you knew what you had to achieve and perform at. Suddenly, you don’t have that same structure. You can choose your own life, and that’s so frightening when you come straight from sports because you had this full-on lifestyle right from university that was tightly scheduled, and suddenly, you’re faced with this unknown where you plan your own path.”
The story of Elise Laverick Sherwell points us to the challenge of claiming an identity that is deep enough to hold the fullness of our lives. Even those who are skeptical of religion, or claim no religion, have a sense that there is a fullness to human life. Through all the changing stages and phases of life, we need an identity that is wide enough to contain the fullness of being a created person.
Our reading today from Colossians begins with a clause: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved…” It is easy to pass over those words and rush on to the end of the sentence. But the rest of what Paul would say to us is dependent on this small phrase. God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved. That is a claim to identity. Paul is telling us who he believes we are: he is naming us with an identity that is as wide as history, and deep as God’s eternal love.
Last week, I mentioned how challenging it can be to know who you are. There are times in our lives when we have the nagging suspicion that we’re not sure who you are. People tell you to be yourself and it causes more anxiety than relief.
Speakers at college commencement often encourage students to “follow your bliss.” I remember sitting at college commencement, and I had no idea what my bliss was or how to follow it if I did! I didn’t know who I was.
In many ways, the times and culture we live in are more challenging than ever for the task of forming an personal identity. In another day and time, your identity was more or less given to you. Parents, teachers, bosses, pastors — a figure with some authority — had no qualms about telling young people, “This is who you are.”
You are a farmer. You are a country boy. You are upper class. Or you are middle class. You’re a factory worker. You are college educated. You’re Presbyterian. Or, you’re Baptist. Or, you’re Catholic. You are white. You are black. You are a boy. You are a girl.
You are an American. You’re a Republican. You’re a Democrat. (In my grandmother’s house, it was you’re democrat if you want to sleep here tonight.) You’re an immigrant. You are a Southerner. You are a North Carolinian. You’re a Blue Devil. You’re a Tar Heel.
Boy. Girl. White. Black. Southerner. North Carolinian. These were labels were given to us to tell us who we are. Often those labels did not fit. Often those labels were an excuse for prejudice and mistreatment. Often those labels were designed to keep people in their place, rather than allow them to flourish. Often those labels were not large enough or deep enough to contain the fullness of our created identity.
Thankfully, we live in a world where we are more and more able to take off those labels and choose new ones. This is the dominant feature of young adulthood for emerging generations, the process of taking labels off that don’t seem to fit, and putting new labels on of their own choosing. Confuses parents and grandparents to no end: who is this person? They are pursuing the freedom of choosing their identity.
And that makes these words of Paul even more important for us to hear. You are God’s chosen ones. God gives us the freedom to choose our identity because from the beginning God has given us free will. Yet from the beginning God has also made a choice. God’s choice is to choose you. Through all choices that you make, through the many labels that you put on or pull off in your life, as your forge your identity as a human person through one stage after another,
God makes one consistent choice. That choice is you.
The story of the Bible is that the eternal God made a choice to bless a man called Abraham. Then later he made a choice to rescue a small group of people from Egypt, and travel with them through time and tragedy. God’s choice to be with Israel came to fulfillment in the Jewish man, Jesus. In Jesus, God chose to be with all people. In Jesus, God chose to be with you.
You will hear me remind you of that often from this pulpit. You may even grow tired of hearing it. You are God’s chosen ones. In a time and culture where we have the awesome freedom to choose our own identity, where we are raising children with freedom to choose their own identity, those words are a compass. They are a true north as you navigate new stages of life, face new decisions, face losses to numerous to count, and change you never thought would come. You’re God’s chosen one.
This eternal truth is large enough to contain the fullness of your life: you are God’s chosen one.
Now, the identity we take on determines the shape of our lives. Elise Laverick Sherwell wanted to be a world-class, Olympic rower. But getting there meant that her life had to have a particular shape. It needed a daily discipline, that day in and day out over time would make her an Olympic rower.
Living as God’s chosen one, also comes with a daily discipline that shapes and molds us into the image of Christ.
Because you are God’s chosen one, Paul says, let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts. When I first read these lines and was making my own notes on the scripture, I interpreted them to mean “personal peace.” I understood that this meant the contentment comes by faith in Christ. There is a peace that comes from knowing that you are God’s chosen one, that nothing can separate you from the love of God.
When I read those words, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts,” I thought that is what it meant.” But that’s only a small piece of what it means. The peace that Paul is describing is not just peace within me, it is the peace between us. It is the peace that happens in community with others.
This peace of Christ is the daily discipline of being God’s chosen and beloved one. Let the “peace” of Christ rule in your hearts.
When one person listens empathetically to another person’s pain, and feels that pain as their own. Peace rules.
When one person cares for another, even in a small way, that makes the other person’s life just a little bit easier. Opening a door for a person with their hands full; allowing someone to turn left in Asheville! Peace rules.
You’ve seen the bumper sticker about practicing random acts of kindness. Those are nice. But my encouragement would be practice intentional acts of kindness, as an intentional discipline of letting the peace of Christ rule your heart.
When two people are willing to be vulnerable and open with one another, to take off their masks, stop pretending they’ve got it all together, when they stop hiding behind a false image of themselves. Peace rules.
When two people are willing to be patient with one another and wait for each other, to grow, or to change, or to heal, or to be ready. Peace rules.
When people who have hurt each other choose to be honest about that hurt and then forgive. You have to be honest about it, but then forgive. The peace of Christ rules.
Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts. Guide your life. Shape your desires and hopes. Mold your intentions and plans. Guide your actions, and your interactions with those who cross your path. Let the peace of Christ rule.
Another Olympic rower, Anne Martin, describes the life of an Olympian in training this way: “Day to day, somehow, you have to translate your dreams to the single day. You have to think, I have to make this stroke and this practice the best I can.” Becoming an Olympic athlete is about translating a big dream to the single day.
It is the same with living as God’s chosen one. Translating the peace of Jesus Christ that claims you as God’s own to the desires, intentions, and actions of a single day and the people and opportunities that cross your path in a single day.
It is, I believe, more prayer than effort. It is more being open to God’s Spirit within us than it is trying to do it ourselves. It a constant prayer, a lived prayer, in every situation, with every person, before every challenge, with each decision,
“Lord open my heart and let your peace rule my life, that I may become what you have made me to be: your chosen and beloved child.” Amen.