Reflection preached for called meeting of the Presbytery of Cincinnati.
Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.
But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.
As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves 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.
And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.
A few weeks ago, the Union Presbyterian Seminary class of 2016 gathered in the fellowship hall of the neighborhood church before our commencement service. We showed up in suits and dresses, blouses and skirts, bowties and high heels, flats and oxfords, subtle neutrals and bold colors and at least one African tribal print. And then, one by one, each of us disappeared into our black academic robes, with the bat-wing sleeves that come down nearly to the floor. There was a brief moment of confusion about which was the front end of the caps, with their iconic flat tops, but eventually we all got them fastened on, and with hoods over our arms, we trooped outside for the class photo. It’s a great picture, all of us lined up in our identical caps and gowns, ready to celebrate the finale of our seminary journey together.
There’s nothing like a uniform to pull together a community, to give it an identity. Like it or not, until the human race develops ESP, our first tool for figuring out who a person is is the way they look. One of my favorite professors calls it “reading the body.” And a uniform gives clear, unmistakable clues—that we are graduates; that we are members of the same dance team, soccer team, sports fandom; that we go to the same high school, work for the same company; that we are nurses, police officers, soldiers.
Uniforms, clothing, don’t just express a community’s identity and purpose; they help create it. When we know that people can identify us, who we are and the communities we belong to, we work a little harder to live up to the person we’re advertising ourselves to be. Uniforms keep us honest.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul talks about the Christian uniform given to all the baptized: that we are clothed with Christ. Just as all the different shapes and sizes and colors and styles and nationalities of people in my seminary graduating class disappeared into those black robes, so, in Paul’s eyes, do the women and men, Jews and Greeks, free people and enslaved people—and all combinations and permutations thereof—become unified through the Christ-clothing given to them, a new uniform for a new identity. They are Christians now, working for a common purpose. They are on the same team, no matter how the world might want to set them against each other.
We are one in Christ Jesus, and that identity is marked by our Christ-clothes.
The trouble with this metaphor, however, is the trouble with all metaphors—they have a limited shelf-life off the written page. In the physical world, it’s actually quite hard to distinguish a Christian from anybody else at the mall, or in the office, or at the beach. Very few Christian traditions in America still mandate distinctive clothing or hairstyles. It’s not that we don’t try. We make church t-shirts by the boatload. We buy a lot of cross-themed jewelry, although so do people who don’t claim our faith. You can always look for tattoos of bible verses. But for the most part, you can’t pick a Christian out of a photograph. At first glance, you never know who’s got on the same Christ-clothes as you.
Trying to clarify matters, Paul, or one of his followers, returned to this image in almost midrashic passage in the letter to the Colossians. It elaborates on what it might mean to be clothed in Christ, what those Christ-clothes might look like. Hear this fashion advice from scripture:
“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.” (Col 3:12-15)
Easier said than done, I know. Even though I am the kind of person who hates shopping for clothes, most days it is still easier to go out to the mall and stock up than it is to deck myself out in clothing like Colossians talks about—compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, peace, gratitude, love. Perhaps I could manage an accessory-sized amount of patience. Like a scarf’s worth, or a baseball cap. But a whole outfit? Despite my best efforts, I find myself wearing threadbare love around more often than not, with tears in my compassion and patches over where my ability to forgive has come apart at the seams. I find myself glad these Christ-clothes are invisible. Most days, I would look pretty ratty.
I am wondering, however, if that is not part of the point of this clothing metaphor; that clothing wears thin and must be repaired. Many of us nowadays send our clothes to Goodwill or the dump when they start to look shabby, but disposable clothing is a relatively new idea. In Paul’s time—heck, in my grandmother’s time—you mended clothing when it got worn. You put on patches, you reinforced seams, you hemmed up skirts and sleeves, darned socks, redyed fabrics, and rewove holes. You did not toss clothes aside at the first sign of shabbiness. You mended them.
It is part of our work as Christians to mend the Christ clothes we have been given. To sew up the seams in our humility and patch over the holes in our compassion. To hem up where kindness has been dragged along the ground too long and to reinforce the stitching on our gratitude. There is no shame if our Christ-clothes become ratty: it means they are being worn. It means we are serving, forgiving, loving to the edge of our limits. It means we are being Christ to the world as much—and sometimes more—than we think we can manage.
And eventually, when there is a rip or tear or stain, we take time for mending. When we find ourselves too tired to care anymore, too bitter too forgive, to proud to consider ourselves part of the same body as those people, we take time for mending.
When I was young, my mother taught me to sew. Just the basics—straight lines mostly, and some whipstitch. She did all the complicated work, setting out the patterns and cutting out the shapes and pinning things wrong sides together, and of course, ironing, which to this day I’m pretty bad at. But I helped, and learned to sew enough that nowadays I can make my own stoles (which, blessedly, are mostly straight lines anyway.)
God is like that. God has done the hard work for us. God has set out the pattern in Christ Jesus. God has given us the fabric with which to work—compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, peace, gratitude, love. God has given us mending techniques—worship and prayer and meditation and service and time spent with our Christian community.
So the next time you find your Christ clothes wearing thin, the next time you start to feel your faith fray and your love shrink in the wash, sit down with the master tailor, the skilled seamstress, who stitched the stars into the sky and knit our bodies together in our mother’s wombs, and get mending.
The world may not see our Christ-clothes, but it was never about how we looked. Uniforms are about our identity, about who we are.
And friends, we are Christ’s, children of God’s and heirs to the covenant of faithfulness.
Let us wear our patches proudly, as reminders that we follow a Christ whose very body, flesh and bone, was ripped and worn and torn open on the cross, so that love might spill out into this world.
You are clothed in Christ. Wear it well.