Monday, June 24, 2013

Clothed with Christ

This morning I want to preach on a text we heard read moments ago from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Galatia: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”

But first I have to tell you about the priest who was invited to a parishioner’s home for dinner. Because it was work related he elected to wear his clergy collar. The family welcomed him graciously, but their six-year-old little boy kept starring at him. Finally it occurred to the priest that the boy was transfixed on his collar. “Do you know what this is,” he asked the boy? The boy shook his head no. The priest explained, “It is a clergy collar. It tells people that I am a priest and that I do God’s work.” This seemed to help a little. Reaching around to undo the fastener, the priest said, “Let me show you how I take it off and put it on.” Taking off the collar, he asked if the boy would like to hold it. The boy nodded yes. Handing it over, the priest asked if he could read what the writing on the inside of the collar said. For the first time the entire evening the boy spoke up (and with confidence). “Oh, I think I know what it says.” “And what is that,” the priest inquired? The boy replied, “Kills fleas and ticks for up to three months.”

Beyond the obvious functions of covering our body and keeping us warm, clothes serve two important social functions. They tell us something about ourselves and they tell others a great deal about us.

What we wear tells us who we are and how we fit in to a given social setting. I am sure each one of us has an experience either of being overdressed or underdressed at one time or another. Those moments are unnerving because they suggest to us that we don’t belong, that there is something not right with us. It is an experience that burrows deep into our psyche. I read of a priest who accepted a call to a new parish in an affluent community. He himself did not come from money and worried that his is upbringing would hinder his ministry. His anxiety found expression in his dream life where he often found himself invited to a formal party. The men were dressed in tuxedos but he showed up always in jeans and a t-shirt.

And while what we wear says something to us, it can speak volumes to others. I read an interesting blog the other day written by a young female priest who asked the question must she wear her clergy collar when she shops at Target. She wondered if she should go into the store as a priest or as a person. Believe me, her shopping experience will be radically different based on what she decides. Clergy are not the only people whose clothing says something about them. I wonder if nurses doing grocery shopping after coming off a shift are ever asked for medical advice. I image uniformed military personnel get a much different response in public today than in the years after the Vietnam war.

All of this is to say that the notion of clothing is a rich image with many broad and diverse facets. Did you catch the reference to clothing in the gospel reading? The crazed man Jesus encounters lives in a cemetary, is covered in filth, out of his mind, and completely naked. After his encounter with Jesus, the villagers – who condemned him to this lifestyle – find him sitting (as opposed to running around), carrying on a conversation with Jesus (as opposed to screaming at everyone), and clothed. The clothing has a sacramental function in the story: it is an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace.

The demonic man is a vivid image of Paul’s teaching: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” Baptism does two things: it reforms our core identity and it tells the world something important about us. The other day I saw a photograph of man wearing a bright orange jumpsuit. I did not need to see the word “Inmate” on the back in order to make certain assumptions about him. He was a person who had been convicted of a crime and was now in prison. Being baptized into Christ is like taking off an orange jumpsuit and putting on regular clothes. The change suggests that something important about you has changed. You have been restored to your intended, natural status.

Early Christians literally acted this out in their baptismal liturgy. Candidates gathered near a lake or river where they took off everything they were wearing before entering the water. This was intended to symbolize leaving behind everything from their old life. The candidate was held under water three times, first in the Name of the Father, then of the Son, and then of the Holy Spirit. It was intended to be a near death experience – a symbolic drowning if you will – in order to act out dying with Christ in the waters of baptism. Coming out of the water the newly baptized person was clothed in a white rob as a way to demonstrate new life clothed in Christ. As you may suspect, the modern day chrism dress has its roots in this ancient ritual.

This putting on Christ has never been understood as an end, but rather has always been seen as a beginning. It is the start of a new life, or perhaps it might better be expressed as a restart. In the book of Genesis we learn of God’s intention when creating humanity: “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness… So God created them, male and female.” Early church theologians thought much about these two terms, image and likeness. Image, they concluded, has to do with our potential for communion with God whereas likeness is the communion we actually have. Think of it this way: most experts agree that right now LeBron James is the best basketball player in the world. That is his image. The likeness is how he actually played in seventh and deciding game of the finals.

From a theological perspective human sin affects both image and likeness. Obviously when we sin we are not living as we ought. Our likeness is not like that of a holy, loving, generous God. But sin also separates us from God; breaking communion, leaving us estranged and alienated from the One in whose image we are created. A popular Eastern Orthodox icon for Easter depicts Jesus descending to the dead on Holy Saturday, taking Adam by the hand, lifting him up, and restoring the image of God in him. The icon speaks of Christ’s work to restore our potential for full communion with God. What we do with that potential is up to us. It is up to us what we will do with the likeness. Through baptism each one of us is made a champion. The question is will you play like a champion today? Tomorrow? For the rest of your life?

As far as we know the Christians in Galatia did not wear special “Jesus” clothes in public. There didn’t have “Property of the King of kings” t-shirts or even cross-shaped necklaces. Nothing about their appearance made them stand out as people of faith. Being clothed in Christ had a symbolic meaning. What set apart those early believers from everyone else in their godless community was their behavior: how they lived, how they demonstrated compassion, how they forgave, their sense hospitality, their commitment to one another. Likeness was not something they wore, it was something they did.

This morning we baptize three people and in so doing we will restore image and encourage likeness. Their journey through the baptismal water reminds all of us to give thanks for the potential communion we have with God that comes to us through the merit and work of Jesus Christ. It also encourages us to ponder what we are doing with this gift? Is our likeness anything like the image? It encourages us to recommit ourselves to live as people clothed in Christ.