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Clothed in Christ
In my church in Texas, there was a woman named Marilyn whose husband had written a book. He’d grown up as a cowboy, and the book was mainly stories and sayings that described what life was like for him on the ranch 50 or 60 years ago. And one of the things he talked about in his book was whether or not you should tuck your pants into your boots or leave them out. He said it didn’t really have any particular significance one way or the other, it was just a way that the real cowboys distinguished themselves from the city folk that wanted to look like cowboys. If the cowboys noticed that the city folks had started tucking their jeans into their boots, they’d all wear their jeans over their boots. And if the city folks started to wear their jeans over their boots, the cowboys would all tuck them in. In other words there wasn’t any practical application to whether your jeans were tucked into your boots, it was all about whether or not you belonged.
Clothing is one of the ways that we try to demonstrate where we belong. What you wear is in some way a proclamation about who you are or at least want to be affiliated with. At work, you might wear a uniform with your business’s name on it, or you might simply be expected to wear something that signifies professionalism and competence. When you play a sport you wear the uniform. When you watch a sport, you wear team colors. This week anyone can become an Eagles fan – all you have to do is buy the shirt, and you are a part of the victory. And any other time, you might wear a shirt showing off a band you like, or a charity you support, or just dress like the kind of person you want to be seen as.
One of the things that is great about this congregation is that we come here wearing so many different uniforms, whether its jeans and a sweatshirt, a suit, a jersey, or a hat and gloves. Because when we come to church in so many different outfits, with so many different affiliations and belonging to so many different groups, we are proclaiming that amidst all this distinction we share a unity: our ultimate allegiance is to Christ.
In our passage for today, Paul is writing to the Colossians as some of them are struggling with that allegiance. When I first went to college, sometime in the first week, they had this activity fair. Every student organization on campus had set up a table in the student center, with a poster and clipboard with a sign-up sheet. And as you walked through the maze of tables, each club’s representatives would say, “Hey, come check us out!” They had everything, from capoeira to swing dancing. You could do anything, and I wanted to do everything. I think I signed up for 25 different clubs in about an hour. The thing is though; I couldn’t do all of those things. I didn’t have the time or the energy. And so I had to choose. To which of these groups would I belong?
The city of Colossae was a little bit like the student activities fair. Because of Colossae’s unique immigration history, there were a number of different active religious and philosophical communities to choose from. And the temptation, of course, was to dabble. To try this, to try that, to sign up for 25 different organizations at the activity fair. And in our passage from Colossians, Paul is urging the Colossians to hold fast to their primary allegiance: Jesus Christ. He says, “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving” (Colossians 2:6-7). All of the various philosophies and astrologies that the Colossians were exposed to had their lists of dos and don’ts through which you would maintain harmony or holiness or prosperity or whatever those things offered.
Do you remember the Pythagorean Theorem, about right triangles? I learned recently this week that Pythagoras did a whole lot more than math. He was a philosopher, and had some followers, and had big opinions on government. But the strangest thing I learned about Pythagoras was that beans were anathema to him. Wouldn’t eat them, wouldn’t touch them, wouldn’t go near them. The legend has it that Pythagoras died because the Pythagoreans were being attacked and they fled, but Pythagoras got to the edge of a beanfield and just stopped. He’d rather die than walk through a field of beans. I don’t think there were actually any Pythagoreans in Colossae, it had pretty much died as a philosophy by that point. But you can guarantee that there were equally bizarre rules and commitments among the philosophies competing for attention in Colossae.
And what Paul is saying to the Colossians, is don’t get caught up in these lists of dos and don’ts about what to touch and what not to touch, in ascetic practices of self-denial and self-abasement. It’s not about the hoops you jump through. It’s not about whether your boots are tucked into your jeans or the other way around. You’re never going to work out your salvation that way. Your salvation has already been worked out for you, and it was done on the cross. Instead, Paul wants us to actively root our identities in Jesus Christ.
As we approach Lent I think this is particularly important for us to recognize. Because we’re tempted. I’m tempted, I don’t really know if you’re tempted or not, to turn Lent into an excuse to diet. I think about what I might want to give up for Lent, and I think, “Hmmm….maybe trans fats, maybe soda.” Instead of taking the time to ensure that I am rooted in Christ, I’m using God as an incentive to help me accomplish my goals, to make myself look better and thus feel better about myself. The question that we should be asking for Lent is not what can I deny myself, but what can I do to help myself stay rooted in Christ, and more deeply connect myself with Christ and Christ’s ministry.
For Christians, baptism is the shape of our identity. We don’t have a distinctive uniform or appearance, we don’t all speak the same language, eat the same food, or share the same culture. Baptism is what marks Christians as belonging to God. It’s God’s invitation into Christ. When we receive baptism, we are joined with Christ, and with the promises of God fulfilled in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Belonging to God is not about a list of dos and don’ts, or hoops to jump through, or knowing all the right answers. Instead, belonging to God is about recognizing that none of these things are what bring us close to God. All the dos that we didn’t, and all the don’ts that we did, all the hoops we couldn’t fit through, and the things we can’t understand or get ourselves to believe. All of these things that would separate us from the holiness of God, from the love of God, and from the blessing of God, are erased. They are nailed to the cross. When we are baptized, we die to this way of being, in which our holiness is something that we can earn or not earn, and instead becomes something that is given to us. And we rise to a life in which we are loved, for who we are and for what we are, not because of what we have done or left undone, but because God is the one who loves us so much that God endured the cross to get to us.
When we realize that our belonging is not about whether our jeans are tucked into our boots or out, or that we wear the right jersey or read the right newspaper, we are free. We are free to live fully and authentically as ourselves, unafraid to love and be loved, and to be confident in our belonging.
When Jane was born, they wrapped her in this cute little blanket. White with two sets of teal and pale red stripes, I just thought they were delightful. When we left the hospital I took home every single one in the room.
And every once in a while I’d see a picture of someone’s new baby. Maybe on facebook, or an athlete’s twitter feed, or someone showed me a picture on their phone. And I’d get so excited, because they had the exact same baby blanket that Jane did. I thought this was amazing. “Hey check it out,” I’d say, “Duncan’s new baby has exactly the same blanket that Jane did! How cool is that?!?!“ Because we had this thing in common, we belonged to a group together. We were part of this in-group with the special teal and pink striped blankets, and that made us special.
And I don’t know if Hannah is just more patient than the average partner, or maybe I never actually said it in front of her before, but at some point, many months down the road, Hannah said, “Drew, every hospital in the country uses those blankets. It’s not special that you have the same blanket they do. Every baby gets that blanket”
And for a while I was disappointed. When I thought we were part of an exclusive club, it made me feel special. But slowly it dawned on me that being like some people and not others is not what gives us value. What gives us value is that we are loved. And each blanket, for each baby, is a sign of that love.
Baptism is our sign that we are loved by God. We belong to God, not because we are doing the right things, but because God’s love overcomes all things, to claim us and unite us together. And if we want to live free lives, away from the insecurity about whether or not we belong, and living up to the potential that we have to love and be loved, then we will maintain our identity in Christ above all others. Before anyone else, hold fast to Christ. “continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.