Sunday, October 14, 2012

Put on Christ (Galatians 3:26-28)

You are all God’s children through faith in Jesus Christ.  All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

I’d like to commend those of you who remembered to participate in today’s Team Colors Sunday by wearing the colors of your favorite team.  Which teams are represented today?

Growing up in Western New York, I have worn lots of blue and red to show my support for the Buffalo Bills.  There was a lot of red and gray from 1994 - 1998 to show my support for the Niagara Falls High School Powercats.  What is a Powercat, you ask?  To this day, I still don’t know; we think it was something like a tiger on Red Bull.  There was black and red to show my support for the Roberts Wesleyan College Raiders during undergrad days, and then blue and white for my beloved Duke Blue Devils while I was working on my master’s.  When I moved to Boone, I found lots of black and gold sneaking into my wardrobe as an honorary supporter of App State.

And that’s just the sports teams.  Think about all the things we put on that show our support, or allegiance, or our identity.  Things that tell people about our nationality, our political affiliation, our marital status, our fraternity or sorority, our job, our socio-economic status, the causes we believe in. We wear these identifying badges as jewelry or pins, we put them on our clothes, on our lawns, on our Facebook page, and we plaster them across the back of our cars so that everyone sitting behind us at the red light will know our favorite vacation spot, how many people and pets are in our stick-person family, the radio station we listen to, the candidate we’re voting for, and whether our kid is the honor student or the one beating up the honor students.

So many places where we declare our support, our allegiance, and our identity; so many ways that we put on our support for so many causes, which makes me wonder - have we put on Christ with the same visibility and enthusiasm?  Or, is that message somehow lost or covered up by all the other things we’ve put on?  May we pray.

Who are you wearing?
If you are watching an awards show, you know that there’s all that preliminary activity taking place on the red carpet as the celebrities arrive, greet each other, and are barraged by photographers and interviewers the entire length of the carpet.  One of the questions they will typically ask, particularly of the women, is “Who are you wearing?”  By this they mean, “Who made this dress, what designer, what label are you wearing?”  There will be follow up on television and in the magazines and around the blogosphere about who wore it best.

This morning, think about the label or labels you are wearing.  I really want you to think about the things that identify and define you.  What is your defining label?  If you were to say, “My name is so-and-so, and the most important thing you need to know about me is . . .,” what would that thing be?   One way to think about it is the thing about yourself which you are most proud, or perhaps the thing about which you are the most ashamed.

What labels got stuck on you that you never asked for?  What labels have defined your life?  Who are you wearing?

Our Scripture reading for today tells us that all who have been baptized into Christ have “put on Christ” or are “clothed with Christ” (v. 27).  This is an Old Testament expression for adopting a person’s character, values, or outlook, which is exactly what we do when we put on Christ.  We talk about the goal of the Christian life being Christlike character, such that our attitudes and behavior perfectly resemble those of Christ.  When people say, “Who are you wearing?  What label is on you?”  the response of the faithful should always be, “I am wearing Jesus.  I have put on Christ.”

In the early church and in many places still today, when a new believer was baptized, they were presented with a brand new, clean, gleaming white robe to symbolize that in baptism, they had put on Christ and were now a brand new person.  New life in Christ came with a new identity, and Jesus gives us a new label to define our identity – child of God.  The white garment was a way of saying, “This is who you are, now.”  In the kingdom of God, it’s the only label you need. 

The tension comes when we try to keep our old labels.  In fact, often trying to keep our old labels – our old loyalties and ways of defining ourselves, are in direct conflict with being a disciple of Jesus.  There’s something you should know about Jesus - when it comes to your heart, Jesus doesn’t share space.  He doesn’t want part of your heart, part of your loyalty, part of your life - he wants the whole thing.  You know how they say that when people have loved each other for a long time, they start to look like each other?  Jesus wants us to love him so much that we start to look like him.

It continues as a lifelong process
And as of yet, that process is incomplete.  We are beautiful works in progress, masterpieces in the making, and we usually look more the part of a holy mess than a finished product.  But I think it’s supposed to be like that.  Part of developing Christlike character is the honest recognition of how far we still have to go.  Maybe you’ve heard the law of spiritual relativity: “the closer you get to Christ, the more you realize just how far from him you truly are.”

The more we grow in our faith, the more we realize how much more growing we still have to do, and the more we know, the more we realize how much we have yet to know.  Becoming a Christlike person remains this idealized goal that always seems just beyond our reach.  The closer we get, the more we realize just big the label “Christlike” is.

We simply ask for God’s help filling out that label.  Every day we should be on our knees saying, “God, help me be the person you want me to be.  Fill me with your Holy Spirit, and help me look a little more like Jesus today than I did yesterday.” It’s an ideal that will be reached by very few of us on this side of eternity, but it’s a God-given goal nonetheless; and we keep reaching, we keep striving, we keep growing - beautiful works in progress, a holy mess, masterpieces in the making.

There’s a song we used to sing growing up in church - “Let the Beauty of Jesus Be Seen in Me:”
Let the beauty of Jesus be seen in me
all his wonderful passion and purity
O, Thou Spirit Divine,
all my nature refine,
‘til the beauty of Jesus is seen in me.

Friends, that’s what it’s all about.  That’s what the Christian life is supposed to look like.  That’s what we should be spending our time and effort and energy on.  Rather than glorifying ourselves, rather than glorifying our old labels, we are called to follow Jesus so closely that people don’t see us.  They shouldn’t have to say, “Who are you wearing?” because it will be evident that we’re wearing Christ.

One way or another, who we truly are has a way of making itself known.  If Christ is living within us, it’ll show.

We do this because it’s not about us; it’s about Jesus.  The goal is that when people look at us, they don’t see us but see Jesus living in and through us.  As the apostle Paul said earlier in this very same letter: “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:21).  When people look at us, we should disappear and they should only see Jesus - his compassion, his priorities, his mission in the world, his heart, his love, his mercy, his grace shining out of you and radiating in every possible direction and nothing else -  and so I want you to ask yourself, when people look at you, is that what they see?

If you answered yes, then pray the image is even clearer tomorrow than it was today.

If you answered no, start by putting on Christ today, and again tomorrow.  Repeat as necessary.

Paradise Glimpsed
Paul goes on in our text to say that when we are clothed with Christ, a beautiful label-free vision of the kingdom of God emerges in our midst: “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (v. 28).  You can think of these as two separate lists, a ranking of those things which were preferable back in the day, and those things which were less-than-desirable.  These lists outlined a social system where there was a certain hierarchy, ranking, pecking order that was neatly and clearly defined.  Good news for you if happened to be on the preferable side; too bad, so sad if you ended up on the wrong side.

No doubt, we could construct similar lists in our time, and come up with ways to label people into categories of greater than/less than, in/out, better/worse.  No doubt, we could come up with our own lists, and truth be told, we probably carry such lists in our heads all the time - lists that focus on rank, hierarchy, tenure, or status that tell us where we are on the social ladder, and even more importantly, where others are in relation to us.

And then, this beautiful vision of the kingdom of God, where people are neither in nor out, neither greater than nor less than, neither better nor worse, for in Christ, all are one.  Compared to new life in Christ and being active participants in the kingdom of God as members of the body of Christ, the labels just don’t matter.

Even the earliest disciples of Jesus got caught up in this game.  Having spent three years in close fellowship with Jesus, listening to his teaching, following him whole-heartedly, we find them bickering with each other the very night Jesus would give himself for us, about who among them was the greatest, and who would the best seat, the best view, the best title, the most honor, the best parking spot in God’s kingdom, to which Jesus responded, “Guys, why are you so caught up in this jockeying for position and labeling yourselves and others?  You just don’t get it!”

Jesus rips off the labels that separate us.  Honestly, what’s the point spending our lives climbing the social ladder when Jesus turns the ladder on its side and announces that no one is any better than anyone else in God’s eyes?  Sure, there will still be people who want to play by those old, worldly, godless rules, but honestly, why get so worked up over a whole lot of things that just don’t matter in the kingdom of God?

Friends, we live in a world that wants us to get all worked up over those things, that wants those divisions to remain and is working very hard to keep them in place.  And you know what?  Let the world have them.  They just have no place here.  Any continued attempts to label one another in the church, or put down one another based on those labels just means that someone missed the point.  You can’t live by those old broken labels if you’ve truly put on Christ and caught a glimpse of life in God’s kingdom.

Jesus not only rips off the labels, he breaks the label-maker.

Those labels simply divide.  That’s all they’re good for.  And they don’t belong in the church.  Leave them out there in the world where they belong, because we are called to something more than that.  We’re called to put on Christ.

We’re called to put on Christ in a world with too many labels.  We’re called to put on Christ, the one who rips off our carefully-worded labels so this beautiful vision of the kingdom of God is realized in our midst: “where there is neither Jew nor Greek; where there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, where we are all one in Christ Jesus.”

We’re not there yet, but by the grace of God, we can be.  Don’t put on labels.  Put on Christ.

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