School clothes and license plate holders
Passage: Romans 13:8-14
Date: September 08, 2002
Preacher: Dr Jim Moiso
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Breakfast and the Oregonian comics go together at our house. "Stone Soup" is one of my regulars. Recently, mom and daughter have been shopping for school clothes, for days. It has been fun watching junior high daughter and obviously out of touch mom clash over appropriate style and price. Good humor has some truth in it, and this obviously does.
In most societies, clothing helps define a person. Visible boxer shorts and from-my-perspective precariously low slung pants define some of our male groups. Colored hair might OK in the west, but would not be seen in Washington, DC. Very short skirts and exposed belly buttons are part of some groups. Dark pants and white shirts say Madeline Roman Catholic grade school. Black leather is entrance to another. A classic Nordstrom suit, shirt, and tie to still another. Not many members of Congress show up in their legislative chambers in casual clothes. Few male school teachers wear a tie and jacket. Clothes help to make us who we are or want to be. What we wear and how we wear it communicates a lot about what and how we feel about ourselves. Often these are public signals of belonging, individual and group identity.
Yesterday, I had the privilege of conducting a wedding for a wonderful couple and their families and friends. The people gathered, vows were said, the covenant made. Then, Steve and Lezli exchanged symbols of their commitment, symbols they promised to wear publically. Rings in our society are marriage clothing. To all who see them, wedding rings, these metallic clothings say "taken," "promised for life," "not available," "committed through thick and thin, till death." More than that, they remind the wearers of who they are and of the promises they have made. Yesterday, Lezli and Steve put on the rings for the first time. Now they will spend the rest of their lives living into this new precious clothing, this married wardrobe, so to speak. And everybody knows.
Recently on my way back from California, I was driving my usual 4-5 miles over the speed limit on I-5 just south of Roseburg. I saw him coming in my mirror, and then watched him speed by me, at least 10 mph faster than I was going. That would make it close to 80. The back of his trunk was wearing a symbol I knew, the simple clean outline of a fish. I wondered if the car belonged to the driver, if the driver had intentionally put that ancient Christian symbol on his car, that symbol that stands for "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior."
To the tiny congregation in the vast non-Christian metropolis of Rome, Paul instructs, "Put on the Lord Jesus Christ. Wear the Lord Jesus Christ." Far more is going on here than instructing Christians to wear a sweatshirt emblazoned with "Jesus loves you," although that is profoundly true. Paul is not asking the Roman faithful to become "holier than thous," looking down long judgmental noses at the decadence of Rome, as if they were somehow now a cut above non-Christians. Surely Jesus never modeled that behavior. In fact, he was often accused of the opposite. Paul is not telling Christ's followers that they must become a sort of "goody two shoes," with a placid positive disposition always doing nice little things, and not ruffling anything. That wasn't Jesus either.
"Put on the Lord Jesus Christ." The image means to get dressed, like an astronaut donning a space suit before entering the launch area. Earlier in our reading, Paul tells us what he means: "Owe no one anything except to love one another." Yea, right. Have you listened to what that great word, love, means in our society? "I love your hair cut." "Don't you just love the way he talks?" "Mmmm. Pizzicato Pizza, I love it." "I love you." "You really love football, don't you?" "I love to travel." "NBA Basketball, you gotta love it." "God bless America, land that I love." "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your strength, and with all your mind." "I love it when they get down to two people on 'Survivor.'" "I love Mission Trip." "I love chocolate. Good thing it's one of the basic food groups." "I promise to be your loving and faithful husband." We use the same word in English to describe all of this and more. Paul uses a very specific Greek word, which has little or nothing to do with all of those things I just said. The word he uses, agape, describes decisions of will, not feelings of heart. This kind of love seeks the well-being of others, regardless of one's feelings toward them. This love is not earned and does not have to be reciprocated. What it knows is that God in Christ values every person, and desires each one's good. That does not mean that God has nice warm feelings for all of us. This love is not driven by emotions, but by decisions. It is how Jesus could command us to love our enemies--to will their highest good and work for it--which may be to stop them from perpetrating evil. Nowhere are we commanded to like everyone. Instead, we are commanded to wear this kind of deliberate love.
Note: Paul does not say, put on this list of moral things to do, and keep track of this list of moral things not to do. Yes, he mentions a few indicators. But, he is not calling us to live moral lives. Christians are not called to live moral lives. Yes, I said that. Instead, we are called to live christological lives. That is, we live out Christ's love, not some moral rule book. We are called to grow into Christ, not into a set of dos and don'ts. It is Christ who invites us into relationship, not into a moral code. It is Christ who directs and energizes our living and loving, not some new and improved check list. So, as we wear Christ, as we bear Christ, as we live into our identity as Christ's ones, in a very real sense we are not a rule book to others. We are Christ to them. We wear, we embody, we act out, we live Christ as best we can before them, our neighbors, all those we rub elbows with day in and day out. As we wrap ourselves in him, Jesus Christ takes more and more charge of our lives for his good purposes. Think about the wonder of that. "Put on the Lord Jesus Christ," Paul says. "Love your neighbor."
"Love your neighbor as yourself," he commands Sometime I want to do a whole sermon on those five words of Jesus, those five words Paul quotes, but does not attribute to Jesus. "Be committed to the welfare of your neighbor as to your own welfare." Healthy people, people becoming whole are able to love others generously. Love of neighbor does not require that we not care deeply about ourselves. In fact, it means the opposite. Jesus loves you as much as he loves your neighbor. Both are deeply true, and profoundly important. To love another with God's love, we must have received it into ourselves. To love oneself is to celebrate the fact that one is wholly received, truly valued by God. Your worth is in God's love, not in your efforts, even your best ones. You matter to God, and so does every one else. "Put on the Lord Jesus Christ," says Paul. "Love your neighbor as yourself." The loving becomes our Christian clothing, the only identifying mark of whose we are, of the group, of the One to whom we belong.
Several years ago, our Presbytery made available license plate holders, you know, like those that advertise auto dealers or some university. The holders said, "Presbyterians" on the top; and, "people who care," on the bottom. I thought for some time about whether to get one for my car. I like the idea that we are caring. I'd like other people to know that we do what we do because of our faith, and not just because we think it is nice. But. I was not sure that I wanted to be that visible, that I wanted to be "on call" every time I was in the car. What would it say to others about Jesus Christ if I did not give anything to the woman at the top of the freeway off ramp with the sign? What would that kind of clothing on my car communicate about God's love to the person I did not let in ahead of me because I was too tired and cranky and ungenerous feeling that day? What would it tell people of God's love if I did not pick up the hitch hiker or stop to help change a flat tire. They would not know it was because I didn't think I could not take the risk, or because I had to get to a church meeting and I was late. So, I did not get one. I guess I figured that no witness was better than a negative one. I rationalized my way out of a kind of faith-clothing.
As Christians, we wear no public symbol of our commitment to Christ, like a wedding ring. Our clothing, our hair styles do not set us apart, like some Orthodox Jewish men are, or some Mennonite people are. Our faith clothing is invisible to our neighbors. They will only know what we let them know: by how we live and what we say.
Yet, yet, at its best, what we do, how we wrap ourselves in Christ is not only our doing. Jesus Christ is working in us and through us. There is a mystical dimension of Christian faith, thank God. Jesus helps us get clothed in him. We spend our whole lives living into this precious new clothing. "Put on the Lord Jesus Christ," writes Paul. May it be so for us. Amen.