by David Baer, May 28, 2017
Text: Galatians 3:1-9,23-29
Before we open our mouths, our clothing speaks for us.
Looking at how someone is dressed can often tell you something about who they are: the man wearing coveralls with his name stitched onto the breast, the woman with the Prada bag and the Gucci boots, a group of two or three young adults in military uniform at the mall. The school-aged boys who insist on wearing shorts in the dead of winter. Look at their clothes, and you’ve learned something about them: what they do, how they carry themselves, how they want to be seen.
Or think about Jimmy Stewart’s character in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, wearing a black arm band after the death of his father. It’s a tradition that’s largely lapsed, but it used to be a common way to signal to the people around you, even people who didn’t know you, that you had experienced a loss, and to communicate that you continued to feel that loss for some time.
Last summer my wife’s aunt and uncle celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary, and on the big day everybody got blue t-shirts that said, “Cheers to Fifty Years!” If you saw us gathered in a group, it would have been unmistakable that we were a family celebrating an anniversary.
Clothes help us communicate to others who we are, what we’re about, what we’re feeling, what has happened to us, and where we’re going. In other words, clothes communicate an identity.
In the lesson we heard today, the apostle Paul writes, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” What does it mean to be clothed with Christ?
Today is the last Sunday in the Easter season, and the scriptures we’ve been reading during Eastertide have to do with questions of identity and belonging. In Jesus God came to earth and changed everything… but for whom? When we speak about this “kingdom of God” that Jesus taught about, that his incarnation, death, and resurrection give birth to, who belongs to this kingdom? Who is in, and who is out? Three weeks ago we heard about a eunuch from Ethiopia, someone who had every reason to think he was out. But this man says, after hearing the story of Jesus, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” We heard Peter and Paul make the case for sharing the message with those outside of the Jewish covenant family, arguing that the message about Jesus was good news for all people.
That may be obvious to us, since today the vast majority of Christians don’t have a Jewish background. But it was a radical leap for the early church, since Jesus was a Jew who prayed in the synagogues, who made offerings in the Temple, and who observed the commandments of the Torah. And all of his disciples were Jews as well. The church began as a movement within the Jewish faith, and it was a phenomenal break with the past to imagine a single community that encompassed both Jews and Gentiles.
The letter to the Galatians was written to a community experiencing distress and conflict over not just who is in and who is out, but how you come to be in. In the beginning, Paul’s vivid preaching had helped to gather this church together. He reminds his friends that “[i]t was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified” (3:1). Although they weren’t literally present in Jerusalem for the crucifixion, Paul shared the story of Jesus with them in a way that was so real that they could count themselves witnesses to God’s saving work in Jesus’s death and resurrection. As a result of the faith that sprang from hearing the good news, they received the Holy Spirit, an active, powerful presence that flowed out of them visibly in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. It was the story of Jesus and their embrace of that story through faith that transformed them to the core.
But then Paul moved on, and in his absence some other Christian teachers came to town. Like Paul, they had been raised in Judaism. But when they saw a community of people worshiping the God of Israel, whose faith in the crucified and risen Jesus had produced the fruits of the Spirit, who experienced miracles, who were passionate in every way for the good news, these teachers said, “Oh dear. We’ve got to fix this.” Because for them being part of the family of God meant keeping kosher, celebrating Jewish festivals, and circumcising all the men and boys. These distinctive practices, they said, have set apart the people of God from time immemorial, all the way back to Abraham. It wasn’t enough to believe in Jesus, they said. If you’re going to be part of the family, you’ve got to put on the family t-shirt, as it were. If you want to party, you’ve got to dress the part. And the Galatians must have bought it, because Paul responds with this forceful letter, full of emotion.
“Oh, you foolish Galatians!” Paul exclaims. “Who has bewitched you?” He appeals to their experience, reminding them that it was the faith that hearing the gospel produced in them that worked such wonders. “Having started with the Spirit,” Paul says—that is, having first experienced God’s Holy Spirit renewing them from the inside out—“are you now ending with the flesh?” In other words, how petty and beside the point it is for you who have felt God’s power to make it all about tinkering with the flesh—altering your body and the things you eat.
But Paul appeals to scripture as well. If these new teachers want to talk about Abraham, he says, let’s talk about Abraham. The book of Genesis says that God promised Abraham, an old man, countless descendants. And Abraham responded with faith: “he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (15:6). Abraham held fast to God’s promise. He trusted in it. And that was what changed him from the inside out. Circumcision comes two chapters later. Faith comes first—hearing God’s promise and trusting it, staking your life on it. These teachers say that keeping Jewish practices is what makes children of Abraham, but Paul says no, it’s following Abraham’s example of faith. The promise of the gospel is that Jesus Christ is risen, and you are too—you have new life, a new beginning, and the hope of resurrection. It’s laying hold of this promise, gripping it for all you’re worth, that makes you a child of Abraham.
If you’ve been baptized, Paul says, if you’ve publicly professed your faith in Jesus and gone into the water and come up again, then you are clothed with Christ. That’s your family t-shirt.
Being clothed with Christ affects the way we move through the world. When Paul says that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, he doesn’t mean that Jewish Christians stop being Jews, or that Greek Christians stop being Greeks. He means that their essential identity isn’t in their Jewishness or Greekness, but in their common trust in God’s promises in Jesus. That affects the way we relate to other Christians—there was a story this week about a group of Coptic Christians in Egypt attacked on a bus carrying them to a monastery.1 Although these brothers and sisters speak a different language, are of a different nationality, and worship differently from me, I can identify with them just because we live with the same hope. I can be heartbroken at the loss of life, and the fear they feel. I can pray for them as I would for members of my own family.
But being clothed with Christ also affects the way we see people outside the church. Putting on Christ gives me an identity where differences of nationality, language, and even sex cease to be the most important thing about me. Military personnel or police officers or paramedics come to their service as men and women, from different nationalities and ethnicities, speaking different languages in the home. But when they wear the uniform they become bound by the same duties and standards. While they wear their uniforms, the most important thing about them is that they serve the public good. In the same way, putting on Christ means that the most important thing about me is that God loves me, saves me, and shapes me through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
There’s been a lot of talk about nationalism as a force that’s rising in this country and around the world. I don’t dispute that all governments need to promote the interests of their own citizens. But I’m not worried about nationalism in politics so much as I am in our culture, in the way we treat other people. When nationalism means speaking about people who are different from us with resentment and hostility, when we look at people who speak a different language or come from a different place as threats or adversaries instead of neighbors, we are not being true to our identity as a people clothed with Christ. In Christ there is Jew nor Greek, black nor white, undocumented nor legal resident, and the way we relate to people both inside and outside the church needs to honor this basic fact about who we are as those who have put on Christ. We pray for and care about someone like José Benitez Reyes, the gentleman that Barkley Calkins has visited in immigration detention, because of our identity in Christ. We speak out against incidents of harassment and abuse of those of different nationalities, ethnicities, and faiths, because of our identity in Christ.
Our citizenship, our ethnicity, our cultural practices, our being on the right side of the law… None of these things can save us. None of these things give us new life as God’s children. God has already done that for us in Jesus Christ. God has given us the Spirit to renew us from the inside out. Having begun with the Spirit, having found a new and lifegiving identity as God’s children, we’re freed from wrangling and captivity to the marks of identity that only scratch the surface. We’re freed for lives of grace and generosity as those who have put on Christ in our baptism. It’s a new outfit, a new self we’ve been given where God delights in us, makes us children and heirs of the kingdom, and only asks of us that we wear it well. Amen.
“Egypt Coptic Christians killed in bus attack.” 26 May 2017. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-40059307. Accessed 5/27/2017.