The Well-Dressed Christian

One of the interesting things about serving this church is who recognizes me out on the street in Bethlehem. People at the contemporary worship service don’t have any trouble, because what I wear in that service is, more or less, what I wear in “normal life.” But people from the traditional service sometimes have a harder time, because they’re used to seeing me in black robe and a stole around my neck, which (believe it or not) is not what I wear around town! So they’ll see me in Wegman’s or down on Main Street or something and will be surprised when I say hi until everything clicks and they laugh in recognition. And they almost always say the same thing in response: “I didn’t recognize you out of uniform.”

It’s true, though:  what I wear in the traditional service is, of course, a uniform.  It represents the office that I hold, and it specifically symbolizes the two main functions I have as a pastor. The robe actually does not come from the church, but the university or the seminary: it’s an academic gown that shows I have a theological education, which is one of the hallmarks of being a Presbyterian pastor and preacher. For Presbyterians, it’s not enough to have a sense of call to preach and a spiritual gift to do so; you must have studied the Scriptures deeply, in the original languages of Greek and Hebrew, along with the history and theological heritage of the church, so that you preach God’s Word and not just whatever words you want to say or that people like to hear (at least most of the time).

And the stole around the neck is the ancient Christian sign of ordination to pastoral ministry, particularly in officiating the sacraments. It symbolizes the yoke of Christ laid upon the minister, being both guided and harnessed for work by Christ through the church. Put them together and you get the central purpose of what a pastor is: a Minister of Word and Sacrament. And when we’re not performing at least one of those tasks, we don’t wear that uniform, which is why when you see a Presbyterian pastor in their study, we’ll just be following the local dress code for work.

A uniform and a dress code, obviously, have different functions. The point of a uniform is to make clear that each individual wearing it functions in a specifically defined way as part of a greater whole.  A dress code, on the other hand, creates commonality without uniformity; it is more flexible, allowing more options and expressions of individuality while still maintaining a set of identifiable, common standards that reflect well upon the organization.

As we have become a less and less formal society, though, those codes have gotten broader and broader, and that sometimes creates problems. A while back, I remember hearing a man in his 60s who had worked for IBM for decades say that when he joined the company, if you wanted to express your individuality, you would wear a navy suit instead of a gray one with your white shirt and red tie. “Now,” he said, “They’re telling us we should wear ‘business casual’. What’s that supposed to mean? Either you’re dressed casually or you’re dressed for business. How can you be both?”

Paul, essentially, is trying to answer that question.[1]  He is telling the Colossians that, in living out their faith, Christians follow a distinctive dress code, not a uniform, and that code is “business casual.”  What does that mean?  Now, there is nothing casual about the Christian life for Paul, at least in the sense of being relaxed or low-key.  However, it is casual in the sense of being informal. Christianity does not have a formal uniform for its adherents to wear like Jewish kippahs, the Muslim headscarves, or Sikh turbans.  We do not have a standard, well-structured, methodical set of practices that distinguish us from others. We have no set of dietary regulations; no universal standards for prayer or worship; no required statement of faith; there are no pilgrimages expected, no festival observances necessary.

So what, then, does make a Christian “Christian”?  What identifies us, makes us distinct?  Well, baptism, to be sure; from the very beginnings of the church, Baptism is what makes a Christian into a Christian. In fact, just before our passage today when Paul talks to the Colossians about baptism as stripping off the old self and putting on the new self, he is echoing the ancient language and practice of baptism. In the apostolic church, the baptismal candidate would approach the baptismal waters dressed in rough clothing.[2]  The candidate would then undress, literally laying aside the veil of the old self, and enter the water from the west, the direction of the setting sun, to be baptized. Yes, naked; the early church was not for the faint of heart!

They would be immersed briefly under the water, symbolizing burial; then they would be raised back up out of the water, symbolizing resurrection and new life.  The candidate would then exit the pool to the east, the direction of the rising sun, and put on new white robes, symbolically putting on the new self.  Later this morning, we will baptize a child of this congregation, and while we do it differently these days (thank God for that!), the essential symbolism and meaning is the same: A new Christian is born.

But baptism is a beginning, not an end.  Baptism is not about getting our names onto a VIP list that ensures we’ll be allowed past security and into heaven. Rather, baptism is the first step in an ongoing process of spiritual regeneration that God accomplishes in us, a process that we will sometimes embrace, sometimes resist, but which is never truly dependent upon us alone for its completion. So what do we do after baptism?  If Christian life is truly “casual” in the way we have defined it, then there’s no uniform to put on, no clear-cut set of regulations and practices to wrap around us for protection and identification.

Instead, according to Paul, the answer is simply to get dressed for business:  “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.”  At first, this just sounds like abstract moralizing, the kind of thing you nod at, half-listening, knowing that it’s well-intentioned and worthy of emulation but nobody really pays attention to it.

But Paul pays attention to it, and calls us to do so, as well, because the business of being Christian is not simply “being good” and it’s certainly not “being nice.” It is nothing less than becoming visibly Christ-like, not through formal rites or practices but simply through how we treat each another. To do that, we must not only follow the dress code that Christ established for us, but also dress ourselves in the attire he provides. Compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forbearance, forgiveness, and above all love; these are the distinctive garments that Christ wore in his ministry amongst us. Note that Paul is focusing specifically here on how Christians should treat one another.[3]  It’s not because he only cares about life inside the church; rather, he recognizes that if the members of Christ’s church are not visibly Christ-like to one another; if we prefer to put on self-righteousness, division, and exclusion, then all of our outward ministry seems draped in cheap, knock-off religion that nobody wants and will end up in the trash.

There’s an old Christian song that expresses this truth more positively:  “They will know we are Christians by our love,” the refrain says simply.  It is our love that enables people to recognize us as Christians; that is the heart of the dress code we are called to wear. And it’s important to hear how good that news really is. It is not a question of our resolving to put on such a love by creating it for ourselves, stitching it together from whatever scraps and old clothes we are able to find in our own closets. The love of Christ is a gift that we can only share by receiving it first, like a special outfit given especially to us to wear. And then the only question is not whether it fits us; because Christ’s love is always too big to fit. The question is whether we will allow ourselves to be fitted to it: to allow ourselves to be stretched, transformed, and tailored to it until we are able to fill out the garment of Christ’s love so that others can see it and know its beauty.  May it be so for each and all of us.

[1] Most Biblical scholars believe that Paul himself did not write Colossians, but one of his followers wrote it using his name.  I, too, think this is likely; I am using the name “Paul” here to personify the author and the school of thought rather than to oppose this scholarly consensus.

[2] See Laurence Stookey, Baptism: Christ’s Act in the Church (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1982) 103-04. 

[3] Noted in Texts for Preaching, Year C, Charles B. Cousar, et. al (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994) 128.

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