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Clothed with Christ

A Homily from Romans 13:8-14

© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines

Virginia-Highland Church

September 4, 2004 (Baptism of John Francis Villines - 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time)

In the time of the Early Church, it was common practice to present a newly baptized Christian with a new, white robe when they exited the baptistery. Before entering the baptismal waters, the candidate would leave behind all vestiges of their old life – including their jewelry and all their clothes. The baptismal font was a place of new beginnings and resurrection. The candidate’s sins were washed away and, along with them, mortality – the curse of death. Rising from the water as Jesus rose from the tomb, the new Christian was clothed in a way that symbolized their new, transformed state.

Changes in cultural views about nudity have led contemporary Christians to put the white gown on the candidate prior to the rite, but we have preserved the meaning of the sacrament. In baptism, we enact our own future death and resurrection; we are symbolically cleansed of our sin as the merciful sacrifice of God actually washes them away, and we are born into a new life as a child of a God who loves us as father and mother.

In our epistle lesson today, we hear Paul’s advice to the church in Rome as he instructs them in what is expected of Christians and a Christian community. Paul uses a simple metaphor that would make sense to anyone who had put on one of those spotless robes. Paul says, “If you want to be a Christian, clothe yourself with Christ.”

Now this is a pretty style-conscious congregation, so I hope you’re not too disappointed to learn that the well-dressed Christian only where’s one thing: the person and nature of Jesus the Son of God. In fact, Paul makes it very clear that we should not be caught dead wearing anything else.

This seems like common-sense advice. If you want to be a Christian, you act like Christ. The problem is, fashions don’t just apply to the world of clothing. There are theological and philosophical fashions that are every bit as silly, seductive and costly as the kind that we actually wear on our bodies. In any given week, hundreds of magazine articles, T.V. infomercials, and self-help books will offer new ways to find health, wealth, and happiness. Then, the following week, we’ll get to find out why all of those ideas were actually wrong and a new plan/program/religion is the actual key to being all we can be.

We could all save ourselves a lot of my money by simply admitting that “all we can be” isn’t really very much in the first place. All Jesus can be, on the other hand, that’s something amazing. So Paul doesn’t tell us, “Put your best foot forward” or “Put on your game face” or “Give it your best.” He knows that none of that will work. He says, instead, “Put on Christ.”

“Don’t just follow Jesus, be him. Don’t just worship the Son of God, become him!” Please don’t mis-hear that. There’s plenty of bad theology around the idea of “becoming gods” or “finding the god within.” That is not Paul’s point here. Quite the opposite. Paul isn’t telling us to make more of ourselves, he is reminding us to get rid of everything that tempts us to make room for the power of Christ.

Before telling us to put on Christ, Paul tells us to take off all of the human temptations within us. Specifically, he names drunkenness, fighting, licentiousness, and jealousy; but I’m sure we could each come up with our personal list of the things that we do when left to our own devices that lead us away from the person and work of Jesus. Paul says, “Remember that as Christians we live for the dawn and we know it is coming. The sky is lightening to the east, and time is short. We need to stop all of the things that are distracting us, and focus our energy on what Jesus asks of us.”

As most of you know, I’ve gone back to school to work on my Ph.D. I’ve become intimately familiar with the fear and the adrenaline burst that comes with the dawn. Much to my chagrin, returning to school at a time when I have a family and a church has meant also meant returning occasionally to the all-nighters that I though I had left behind nearly 15 years ago.

There’s a pattern to the all-nighter. Early in the evening, you work at a fairly steady pace, sometimes taking a break to surf the web or check your e-mail. Then comes that moment when you look at the clock or look out the window and realize that time is not waiting for you and you must finish what you’re working on. When that realization hits, there are no study breaks and no distractions…you just get the job done.

Paul says that the time has come to get the job done. Christians do not have time to play around with the silly distractions that keep us from doing the important tasks that Jesus has set for us. That means taking off many of the things that mean so much to us. For some of that may mean taking off professional titles that we’ve worked hard to attain. For others, that may mean taking off the attitudes and prejudices we’ve picked up for the years. Others of us may need to shed ourselves of weaknesses, addictions, or dependencies that hold us back. We wear more than clothes – we wear the identities we have chosen and the ones others have given us (positive and negative) every day.

Paul says that the time has come to take them all of and wear only the person of Christ. But what does that look like? How can we recognize someone who is wearing Christ, especially if that person is us?

Well, we’re talking about Paul here, so he has an answer for that too. It’s an answer that come from both the Torah [Lev 19:18] and the teachings of Jesus [Matt 22:37-39]: love one another. Earlier in the chapter Paul talks about the importance of not having debts. “Pay off all of your debts except one. That debt,” he says, “ you will always owe. You owe it to each other and to everyone to love one another.”

Putting on Christ means wearing love, means choosing to love. Has someone ticked you off by being rude or selfish or stupid? Take off your righteous anger and put on love. Have you succeeded where others have failed? Take off your pride and put on love so that you can lend a hand to those who didn’t make the cut. Are you envious because someone else has something that you don’t expect to have? Take off your jealousy and put on love so that you can celebrate with them.

I have to pause for a brief editorial comment. I was talking with a colleague this morning and she asked how my sermon was coming. I told her that it was tough to preach this text without sounding like some cliché-spouting Polyanna. At it’s most superficial, “put on Christ” or “love someone” sounds about as helpful in a time of crisis or stress as screen doors on a submarine.

Paul isn’t offering superficial advice here, and Jesus was much more than a dispenser of platitudes. Both of them, and countless other Christians, were beaten, whipped, and brutally executed for this simple message. And they willingly faced pain and death because love wasn’t a cliché for them, love was an action; and they knew that acting in love could change the world.

That’s the difference between Christians like Paul and the rest of us much more casual Christians. It’s so easy for us, and particularly for academic types like me, to fall into the trap of believing that being a Christian means thinking the right things and worshipping the right way and speaking with theological precision. Paul certainly argued for all of those things, but, ultimately, he understood that being a Christian meant doing the hard things.
Make no mistake, loving others is hard – especially if we take it as seriously as Jesus did. It means giving up so many comfortable things, not just our material possessions but also the judgments and attitudes that make us feel good about ourselves by letting us think less of other people. When you love someone, you say and do the things that build them up, even as you tear down the walls between you.

That comes naturally to us when it’s our close family and our close friends, but Paul reminds us that putting on Christ means considering everyone close family. There’s a reason that Christians call each other brother and sister.

This past week, we’ve seen the best and worst of how humans treat their brothers and sisters. The Gulf Coast of our nation has experienced the worst natural disaster to occur in any of our lifetimes, and some people responded with heroic compassion and others with deplorable greed.

I was reading an Internet news story about the devastation in New Orleans, particularly the loss of life and the looting and violence. There was room at the end of the article for people to post their comments. One person wrote simply, “See, your God is a fantasy.”

Unfortunately, someone somewhere had convinced him that believing in God somehow means believing that bad things don’t happen or terrible things don’t happen. The clear message of the cross, however, is that terrible things do happen; even to God. Believing in God doesn’t mean believing that God steps in and makes everything OK.

It means believing that there is a best way to handle the terrible things that do happen. It means choosing to wear a plain white robe instead of armor – even, or especially – when you are going into battle. It means choosing to love, even when you expect to get nothing, not even love or gratitude, in return. It means believing that the love we hold for each other is an echo of the love that God, our Creator, has for us. It means trusting that God does indeed love us even when we cannot understand why our world and our lives can be so broken and painful.

No one said being a Christian would be easy, and any time we think that it is we are deceiving ourselves. The commitment of our baptisms is to put off the easy things, the tempting things, the familiar things, the deadly things, and put on only the person of Christ. We affirmed those promised today, even as John Francis made them for the first time.
Any time a child is baptized, even when he is my own son, I can’t help but wonder if he understands what he’s getting into. Then I remember the casual comment of my friend Paul Duke. He said, “I had to rethink my position on infant baptism when I realized how little I understood about my own salvation.” The truth is none of us knows what we’ve gotten into in following Jesus.

We are all small children standing in a big pool, trusting in each other to keep us from drowning and show us the way. That’s perhaps the scariest part of it all. If we have any sense at all, we’re overwhelmed by what Christ expects of us. Add to that, however, the fact that others are counting on us to lead them on the path of Christ; and the call of the Christian is terrifying indeed.

It’s humbling too, to realize that the reason we may not see Christ in others is because they may have never seen Christ in us.

And so, in what is very likely my last sermon from this pulpit, I ask you to do the impossible because Christ asks it of us. I couldn’t ask you alone because I don’t have that kind of credibility. Anyone who has overheard me working on our most recent home improvement projects knows that I have a thing or two to learn about putting on love.

Jesus, however, was so intent on showing us how to love that he was willing to die in the process. Having walked among us, suffered as we suffer, and been tempted as we are tempted, Jesus does have the right to ask us to shed everything else and enter the world wearing only our love for one another.

Sometimes we will get that right, and sometimes we will fail in spectacular ways. What do we do when we get it wrong? We keep trying. John Francis asked me if, after he was baptized, he would sin less. I told him that there was no guarantee, and I was glad my parents weren’t in the room to mention how much sinning I did after I was baptized. Baptism doesn’t mean that we’re made perfect, it just means that we’ve chosen to try even if those around us don’t see any point.

Having put on Christ in the waters of baptism, the day will come for each of us when we will again enter into those waters of death. Just as John Francis was raised from those waters today, so also will the scarred hand of Jesus reach down and pull each of us out into everlasting life. Thankfully, that miracle does not depend on how well we have loved each other. It depends only on how much God loves us. Amen.