Sunday, September 10, 2017
When I was in Atlanta for the Rostered Ministers Gathering, at one of the workshops we were asked to answer this question: Imagine you are on an airplane and the person next to you strikes up a conversation. The conversation turns to talking about faith, where you share that you are a Lutheran. Your seatmate asks, “What’s a Lutheran?” How do you respond?
As we shared our responses in the workshop, we discovered that there’s a whole lot you could say about what it means to be a Lutheran, mainly that we believe we are saved by grace apart from works, and that we were founded by the German monk and priest, Martin Luther about 500 years ago, not to be confused by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Depending on the person’s familiarity with Christianity, you might have to first talk about what it means to be a Christian, or explain how we’re different or similar to Baptists or Catholics. When it comes down to it, it’s hard to put into a short “elevator speech” what it means to be a Lutheran or a Christian for that matter. Where do you start and end? How can you help people understand or make sense of what you believe?
These are good questions to think about as you encounter people on planes or at sporting events or the grocery store or wherever you hang out on how to talk to people about your faith. But my friend and Lutheran professor Rob Saler likes to say that the Christian faith is really more like shopping for a new pair of pants. What he means is, Christianity is best understood as an experience. Rather than thinking about a set of prescribed beliefs that you agree to in your head, you need to try Christianity on and walk around as a Christian for awhile.
Paul backs up this idea of “wearing” our Christian faith in our reading from Romans for today. “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light, he says. And he goes on to say, “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” It’s as if Paul’s saying, “Try walking around as if Jesus is with you, as if Christ is as close to you as the clothes you are wearing, and see how that feels.” If you go back and read that passage from Romans 13, to live as Christ lives by putting on Christ means primarily then to love your neighbor as yourself. It means putting aside what I want, what my fleshly desires are, the “works of darkness” I may be participating in, and instead living for God and for my neighbors.
As Christians, we are clothed with Christ, the armor of light, given to us at our baptism. There are many ways in worship that we remind each other to “put on Christ” so that we walk around being little Christs to the world the rest of the week. Pastors and lay worship assistants wear a white robe which symbolizes the purity and new birth of baptism. When someone is baptized, we give them a white baptismal cloth, and they might wear white themselves. When we celebrate communion, we cover the elements with a white cloth symbolizing that we are “putting on Christ” as we eat the bread and take the wine. Perhaps most powerfully for me, at a funeral we cover the urn or casket with a pall, a beautiful white cloth. We say these words, “All who are baptized into Christ have put on Christ. In his or her baptism, the deceased was clothed with Christ. In the day of Christ’s coming, she or he shall be clothed with glory.” From our living to our dying, we are clothed with Christ, a garment of light that cannot be taken away from us.
There are plenty of ways, of course, that we walk around day to day as if we forgot to put those Christian pants on. All three of our readings point this out this morning. We sin against God and against one another. We fail to keep the commandments, we fail to love God and we fail to love our neighbor as ourselves. We participate in works of darkness rather than living with the light of Christ’s armor. The gospel in particular this morning calls us to acknowledge our faults and to address conflict we have with one another in the church directly, rather than covering up sins or brushing them off with a false security blanket of “God’s love.” If we go back to the image of putting on the armor of light as the light of Christ, light exposes things that we try to keep hidden in the dark. Even though it is difficult, confessing our sins to God and directly to one another, confronting one another directly when we feel we have been wronged, is what God asks us to do because we are clothed with Christ – not as a cover up, but as a robe of righteousness that moves us to do the hard work of reconciliation so that we can love our neighbor as ourselves. So perhaps the question is not how we can “put on Christ” as we have already been clothed with Christ at our baptism. Instead, it might be what do we have to take off to uncover the light of Christ shining within us, as we strive to be Christ to one another and to our neighbors?
To that end, appropriately today is God’s Work, Our Hands, Sunday. This has been the ELCA’s tagline for a number of years now. To go back to that airplane conversation, this is how marketing minds in the ELCA have chosen to explain what it means to be Lutherans in an elevator speech. We know that on our own, by our own works, we mess things up, but that doesn’t mean that as Lutherans we sit on our hands and do nothing. Instead, clothed with Christ we go out to do God’s work with our hands. Today we are intentionally engaging in acts of service to be signs of God’s love to our neighbors. I hope you already know this: today isn’t the only “God’s Work, Our Hands,” day. In fact, as we have been clothed in Christ at our baptism, every day is a God’s Work, Our Hands day! Through our words and our deeds, others can know the love of Christ and may even be tempted to try on Christianity and walk around in it for awhile, too! God promises to use our hands, our eyes, our mouths, our feet, to do God’s work. As we engage in loving service to our neighbors, our hands, feet, mouths, and whole bodies become Christ’s body, Jesus in jeans showing up, giving light and life for a world in need. We have an awesome God who clothes us in Christ’s own light! We have the right outfit to wear. Now let’s go out to do God’s work with our hands. Amen.