Stanley Hauerwas is one of America’s most highly regarded theologians of recent years — longtime professor at Duke — which is where he met his friend, Sam Wells, priest in the Church of England, and one-time Dean of Duke Chapel. Because of their deep friendship, when Father Sam Wells and his wife, Bishop Bailey Wells, had a son, they asked Stanley Hauerwas to be the boy’s godfather. Hauerwas had never done this before. He was uncertain as to how he would be much of an influence on the boy, especially since he lived an ocean away. His friends assured him that he was their choice. But they did give the professor one assignment. Every year, on the anniversary of their son’s baptism, they asked him to write their son a letter, commending to him a Christian virtue appropriate for his life until he was old enough to read these letters for himself. And so, for 16 years, Stanley Hauerwas wrote to his godson, Laurence Wells, whom he addresses “Dear Laurie,” urging him towards kindness, humility, patience and the like — letters that were recently published as a book, The Character of Virtue: Letters to a Godson.
One letter is about “Character,” and in it Hauerwas says this:
Dear Laurie… Character is finally that determined orientation that gives us lives worth living in the face of death… which as Christians, we believe is found in God’s care and love of us through the calling of Israel and the life, death and resurrection of Christ. We know we’re going to die, which may seem to render pointless a life of virtue and character, but as Christians we can imagine no other alternative.
The letter to the Colossians offers a similar charge to followers of Christ who are growing in their lives of faith and maturing as a Christian community. The news about the Colossians church is mixed. On one hand, there is the exciting report that through the work of Paul’s companion, Epaphras, many have converted to faith in Christ and committed themselves to the gospel. But along with this comes the news that there are competing teachers and influencers leading people toward a different kind of religious experience.
In response, Colossians urges these early followers of Jesus to remember that Christ is the fullest and most compelling expression of God, and that through Christ, they share in a new life — a life marked by the virtues that the letter commends to the believers. These virtues are not foreign or distant to our lives, but intended for us through the power of Christ.
Clothe yourselves in compassion and kindness. Put on humility and patience. The charge is an encouragement for any of us who seek to grow as a follower of Jesus and focus on the clarity of Christ’s call amidst the competing visions and voices all about us. And so, this Lenten season we have been seeking to be “Clothed in Christ” — not only taking off those things that separate us from God, but putting on the virtues that characterize new life in Christ. Colossians calls it “a new humanity.” Through the power of Christ, we can be different people, and not just in a distant, idealized future, but now in the real places and spaces of our lives. We don’t have to wait. We can live out our hope for the future right now in the present. We can put on compassion now. We be clothed with kindness now. We can display humility and patience in ways that drape us like the stoles our children are wearing today. We can, as the letter says in v. 13, “Bear with one another.”
It’s a call to endurance. The Greek verb here means “to endure, to tolerate, to persist.” To put on this new humanity made possible by Christ means to be a person of faithful endurance.
It’s a message we hear throughout the writings of Paul, who knew so painfully well what it meant to endure. In chapter 4, Colossians describes that Paul is in prison for preaching the gospel, which is a familiar setting for this one who endured so much in following the call of Christ. Paul writes of this in another prison letter, to the Romans, where in chapter 5 we read, “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
Our capacity for endurance is linked to the measure of our hope.
In a beautiful book, Intensive Care,Mary Lou Weisman tells the moving and terribly sad story of the death of her son, Peter, from Muscular Dystrophy. She describes an astonishing moment towards the end of his life. His body was paralyzed in those final stages, and his speech was broken and distant. But, then, suddenly, in an utterly clear voice, Peter spoke directly to Larry, his father. “Daddy, what does impudent mean?”
Bewildered, Mary Lou and Larry looked at each other, as their son asked this strange question about this word that had come up in a book they had read some time before. Again he asked, “Daddy, what does impudent mean?” With the tears in his eyes, father answered son matter-of-factly. “Impudent, son. Impudent means bold. It means to be shamelessly bold.” Peter paused for a moment, and then he said, “Then put me in an impudent position.” And sure enough, in those last moments, Larry and Mary Lou positioned Peter’s arms and legs in a posture of bold defiance — and he passed from this world in an impudent position in the face of death. (1)
Christian hope is like that — it is a kind of impudent position over against the powers of death that are all about us. It is a bold, defiant posture against anything that would challenge the hope of Christ, and its reach to every single one. It’s a position we can assume because of what we read earlier in the letter to the Colossians: “When you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised Christ from the dead.” And in this hope we can position ourselves differently. We can put on a new humanity. We can be people who endure.
But notice, there’s another word that modifies the verb, endure. The charge in verse 13 is not simply to bear the struggles of this life, to endure the challenges that come to us, to tolerate the full range of human experience — but to do so “with one another.” Endure with one another. This is a charge to be in Christian community, or as we would say here today, to be a church.
Some of might have had those experiences in church that make us want to leave out the preposition “with,” and just translate this as “bear one another” or “tolerate one another” or “endure one another.”
Will Willimon was for twenty years the Chaplain at Duke, until he became the Methodist Bishop of North Alabama. Whenever he was asked about this change and what he missed about Duke or academia, his answer was, “I miss the Admissions Office. I miss the Admissions Office because, through their efforts, it was guaranteed that on every day of my time at Duke and at every hour of each day, I would be able to interact with and be in conversation with people who thought just like me.” Willimon said, “In North Alabama, churches are not permitted to have an admissions office, and we have to work,” he said, “with whomever Jesus drags to church.” (2)
Of course, I think Colossians is urging us toward something more than mere endurance of one another. It’s endurance withone another, which is the recognition that my hope is stronger when it is connected to yours; that there are times when I need you to put me in a position of boldness; that my capacity to live faithfully amidst the challenges of this world increases immeasurably when it is tied together with yours.
Maybe this is why as he turned toward Jerusalem, and his life began to pivot toward its ultimate end, Jesus urged faithful endurance saying, “take up your cross. But he didn’t say it to isolated individuals, but to that community of disciples gathered with him — those he knew could follow him forward, could take up their own crosses, could endure the struggle and bear the weight not off on their own, but with one another. So Luke describes that “He said to them all, ‘Take up your cross daily and follow me.’”
Take up your cross and remember that it is God who holds your life, who calls you forward, who directs your steps. It is God who will help you to find new life and God alone to whom you belong. So take up your cross daily, and see how it changes you, how it might help you to release the notion that you’re at the center of things. Maybe as you take up a cross you’ll let go of a status quo life in Galilee, where you live as though life is a possession to be protected, and instead follow to Jerusalem and discover what it means to be fully alive. Maybe taking up a cross will leave you less preoccupied with what’s secure — the short-cut or the smoothest road — and instead enable you to follow this path to abundant living. Maybe instead of remaining where you are and how you are and who you are, by taking up a cross you’ll follow to places you’ve not been, in ways you didn’t know were possible, to become more than you knew you could be. And if you’re going to do this — if you’re going to take up a cross — you’ll do so with one another.
Our congregation is uniquely graced with a model of this sort of faithfulness — the endurance with one another, that follows in the way of Christ. It began generations ago, as a young man named Junnie Parrish – a young man with mental disabilities – approached then pastor Dr. J. Clyde Turner and asked where he should sit in worship. Dr. Turner told him, “Junnie, sit on the front row.” And so he did. And then once that row was needed by Deacons, Dr. Turner said, “Junnie, sit on the second row.” And all these Sundays since, on the second row and behind, has sat the members of our Happy Hearts Class, whose leadership and faith we celebrate especially today. You teach us so much about faith, and about these virtues we are called to put on. You remind us that they need not be far from us, but in face we were created for this that we were created to model humility, compassion, kindness, patience, and faithful endurance with one another.
I learned this my very first Sunday at this church, nearly 6 years ago when I was the 32 yr old pastoral candidate, about to preach my “trial sermon” and let the church vote on me. I was on my way in the sanctuary, and Wendy Stafford was at her post, where she has faithfully passed out bulletins so many Sundays. And with the bulletin, Wendy gave me a hug, pulling me down and squeezing tightly. And with the hug came a promise that she was praying for me that day. And with the hugh and the prayers, she gave me this: a heart, woven together by her hands — a reminder of the hope that is ours, and the love at the center of it that makes possible this new life in Jesus Christ.
“So clothe yourselves in compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience… bear with one another and forgive one another… and above all else, put on love, which binds it all together in perfect unity.”
- “A Living Hope” (February 1, 2009)
- Currie Lecture on Salvation, Austin Seminary (2008)