Sunday, May 10, 2015

Clothed with Christ - Sermon #4 in Salvation Series

Galatians 3:23-29

Famed fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld allegedly declared (I say allegedly since I found the quote on the internet): “Fashion is a language that creates itself in clothes to interpret reality.”  Our clothing choices say a lot about who we are, or at least how we want to present ourselves to others.  Some of us like to dress up, and some of us want to go casual. Our clothing speaks to the culture in which we live and often our station in life. Sometimes our clothing projects an image of who we wish to become. Our clothing choices are ultimately statements of our identity. We may decide to be bold in our choices or try to blend in. Sometimes those choices are made for us.  

Many people wear a distinctive uniform. Police, military personnel, fire-fighters all have distinctive uniforms.  Go to a hospital and you will see a variety of uniforms that help identify a person’s job. A physician wears a longish white coat. A surgeon wears blue scrubs. Nurses and nurses’ aids each wear different colors of uniforms. If you’re like me and count yourself among the uninitiated, you might not be able to tell the difference, but those working in the hospital do know the difference. I expect that patients also figure it out.    

Some of my clergy colleagues like to wear a clergy collar. When they wear that collar with its distinctive white band, everyone seems to know what their job is. Since I don’t wear one, I have to identify myself as a pastor, which might make me a “plain-clothes” pastor. 

If you go to the mall and do some people watching you will see a great diversity of styles. You might see a man wearing a turban, while a woman might wear a scarf over her head. It might be a hijab which marks her as a Muslim, but a different scarf might reflect a Hindu or Sikh background. Yes, our clothing choices say a lot about who we are.

This morning we’re returning to our conversation about the meaning of salvation, and in our reading from Paul’s letter to the Galatians we hear a word about clothing.  Paul tells the Galatians that “you have clothed yourselves with Christ.”  You did this when you were baptized into Christ. So, if clothing speaks to our human identity, then being baptized into Christ speaks to our spiritual identity.  

It’s important that we understand the context of these words from Paul. He was writing to a church faced with the question of whether Gentiles had to be circumcised before they could be considered fully Christian. Paul told this church that if they were baptized they were now God’s children. Their baptism served the same purpose as circumcision had among the Jewish people. As it was written in Deuteronomy, the children of God “are a people holy to the Lord your God; it is you the Lord has chosen out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession” (Deut. 14:1-2). In baptism Gentile Christians are like branches grafted onto a vine. Therefore, in baptism they have been clothed with Christ and become the heirs of Abraham and Sarah. That means the promises made to them and their descendants have been passed on to us.

When we declare that Jesus is our savior, we’re not just talking about getting into heaven. We’re talking about taking on a new identity. Or, as Paul told the Corinthians, in baptism we become a new creation, where “everything old has become new!” (2 Cor. 5:17). 

When Paul talks about being clothed with Christ, he’s talking about something similar to what Jesus tells the disciples in John 15. Jesus tells them that he is the vine and they are the branches. He tells them and us that even as we abide in him, he abides in us. That is, we draw our sustenance from Christ. He is the source of our identity and our purpose, and as branches that draw life from the vine, we’re tasked with bearing fruit. That fruit is this: it is love (John 15:1-17).

But getting back to clothing, when Paul connects it with baptism, he’s reflecting on ancient Christian baptismal practice. Early Christians would have candidates for baptism strip off their clothes and enter the baptismal waters naked. They would usually be immersed three times in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Then, after they exited the waters of baptism they were given a new white garment to signify their new life in Christ. I probably should point out that women and men were baptized separately from each other, and that a woman deacon baptized the women. Obviously, we don’t follow this practice anymore, but the symbolism of receiving a new set of clothes is quite clear. First, when the candidates take off their old clothing, they are letting go of the old life. When they enter the waters of baptism, they experience the washing away of their sins. When they leave the waters and receive the new set of clothes they take on a new identity as one of God’s children. 

To be clothed with Christ is to be in union with Christ, and according to biblical scholar Richard Hays, “those who are ‘in Christ’ share in his divine sonship and take on his character. The baptismal imagery here then, points to the transformation of identity that the Galatians have undergone.” [NIB, XI:272].  When we’re baptized and clothed with Christ, were doing something more than simply joining an organization that meets weekly to share in certain rites and ceremonies. To be clothed with Christ is to take on a new way of life.  

Back in the 1980s the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) was asked to vote on how Jesus is our savior. That question got referred to the “Commission on Theology,” which wrote up a lengthy report for the next General Assembly. I wasn’t at either of these General Assemblies, but I have a copy of the report. In that report we’re told that to say “‘yes’ to the Gospel is also to enter a life of obedience, striving – with the aid of God’s grace – to speak and act in accord with God’s loving purpose for the world” [“Salvation in Jesus Christ,” Consultation on Christian Unity, 1989, p. 8].     

That is, I think, the point Paul makes in Galatians 3:28, where he tells us that because we have been baptized and are now clothed with Christ, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  The church in every era has struggled to make sense of the social distinctions present in society. Unfortunately, we tend to bring these distinctions into the church, which is why James tells the members of his church not to show favoritism:
Imagine two people coming into your meeting. One has a gold ring and fine clothes, while the other is poor, dressed in filthy rags. Then suppose that you were to take special notice of the one wearing fine clothes, saying, “Here’s an excellent place. Sit here.” But to the poor person you say, “Stand over there”; or, “Here, sit at my feet.”(James 2:2-3 CEB). 
Even though our culture makes distinctions between people, in Christ we are all one. We all wear the same uniform, the garment given to us in our baptism. It isn’t that there aren’t differences present in society or even the church. We are black and white, male and female, Jew and Gentile, gay and straight, rich and poor, but ultimately we are also one in Christ. 

Michael Kinnamon and Jan Linn put it this way: 
The way we live as church, recognizing an essential oneness with people who are "different," is to be a model for the way people treat each other in society -- starting with us. Racism, sexism, and classism in church and society are an abomination to Christ that we oppose, not because we are good people, but because our very identity is at stake. That's what it means to be baptized.  [Kinnamon and Linn, Disciples: Reclaiming Our Identity, Reforming Our Practice, pp. 59-60]
The question that was posed to the Galatian church had to do with whether social distinctions influenced a person’s place in God’s realm. Paul said no, you don’t have to become a Jew to be clothed with Christ. You don’t have to be free to be clothed with Christ. You don’t have to become male to be clothed with Christ. All of these distinctions have no place in the church and have nothing to do with our salvation. We are, Paul writes, Abraham’s offspring, and therefore we are heirs of the promises made to Abraham and to Sarah. That means that having been clothed with Christ in baptism, we are called to be a blessing to the nations (Genesis 12:1-3).

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan 
May 10, 2015
Easter 6B

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