5-12- 19 “Grace That Clothes Us”
I hate shopping for clothes. Or, I should clarify, I hate trying on clothes. I shop for new clothes only as I need to - when I wear something out, when I out grow something, or when I need something new for an event or activity - but I hate the process of going into a dressing room, undressing, trying something on, taking it off, putting my clothes back on, finding something else if I didn’t have the right size first time, and then starting the entire process all over again. I deplore the entire experience.
And in part it’s because it’s not easy. I’m not a straightforward size in anything I wear. Shirts are not consistently sized that a size 17 1/2” neck is the same across shirts, it’s the same with sleeve length, all of which becomes a bigger problem when a shirt is sized by M, L, XL, etc rather than by numbers. I don’t wear all my pants the same way, some I wear more on my waist and others more towards my hips, and some, start at one place and end up at the other - so it’s like I need a self-retracting inseam that will adjust the length of the pants as they slide up or down my frame.
And shoes? Don’t get me started. Suffice it to say, when I am in need of new clothes, and my mood isn’t TOO hostile to the idea of trying things on, then I buy a lot of things at once so I don’t have to repeat the process again. There are some brands that I trust to fit without having to try them on every time I make a purchase, but for most, I’ll take a leap of faith and buy it without trying on and then return it later if it doesn’t fit. I know it’s not logical, but that’s how I roll.
On the other hand, there are some clothing purchases that are easy for me. I only wear black or white socks. I don’t buy socks of different colors because when I get dressed I can’t usually tell the difference between black and blue, or green and gray, so I have black socks that I wear for dress and casual, and white socks that I wear with sneakers, when golfing or doing yard work, or just wearing socks around the house. It’s just easier that way. I rarely wear neckties so the ones I own I’ve had for years. As the amount of ground a tie has to cover (motion over stomach) has increased over the years, the amount of leftover tie that gets tucked in behind has progressively shrunk. I hate wearing ties and only wear them when I absolutely have to.
So I have a love/hate relationship with clothes, clothes shopping, and fashion. I keep it simple - khaki pants or Dockers with some coordinated button down shirt or mock neck - as often as I can so that I don’t have to think too much about it. And I also prefer to be as casual as I can get away with, so I only own one suit, but have about 6 sport coats that I can mix and match with Dockers or dress slacks, button down or polo shirts, and loafers or tie shoes. And lastly, nearly all of my dress shirts have button down collars, or least the shirts I wear. I have others with spread collars of various types, but I rarely wear them. The consistent look of a button down collar is one I adopted in college and have preferred ever since.
The clothes we wear can say a lot about who we are. We see a uniformed Police Officer, Fire Fighter, or Military person and know immediately what they do for a living. We see a person in scrubs or a lab coat and know immediately that they likely work in the medical field. You see a clerical collar on a person and know at a glance that they are a pastor or priest - or that it’s Halloween! What we wear, whether a uniform or not, can say a good deal about who we are, what we do, or more.
Jesus talked about how some of the priests and Pharisees liked to be seen in public in their long flowing robes because it made them seem important.
Part of the Mosaic Law, the law of Moses, even dictated how Jewish men and women were to dress, the tassels that were to be on their shawls, how they were to wear their hair, and so on. That was, in part, to define who they were in comparison to those of the other nations who lived around them. It wasn’t to set them above others, but to set them apart.
In chapter 3 of Galatians, Paul talks about the role of the Law in the life of the Jewish people and in Christian converts. And he does this by also giving his readers a history lesson about how the Law is to be understood on this side of the Christ event. In fact, he makes a very detailed argument about how God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis takes priority over the Law, and how that promise is finally fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Our reading from verses 23-28 brings his argument to a close, so it’s helpful to us to understand the context of the point he makes in the early parts of the chapter.
As you hopefully remember, Paul is upset about, and writes a letter to the Galatian church because, people whom he calls “false teachers” have come into the city after he established a church there and moved on. And those false teachers are saying that the men there must be circumcised as the Law dictates that Jewish must be in order to be considered Children of God. And Paul uses the same word in Greek, nomos, to mean both Mosaic Law and the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah. He is speaking of the whole of the Law. And we see from his argument here that Paul reads the whole of the Law as a narrative, leading up to its fulfillment, its culmination in Jesus Christ.
And in doing so, he turns to the Torah to make his case.
In Genesis 12:3 and again in 22:18, God promised Abraham descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky, and that “all of the Gentiles” would be blessed through Abraham. And because Abraham trusted God’s promise, he was considered to be righteous, or in right relationship with God. Now remember, the term “Gentile” is an expansive and inclusive term that means everyone who is not Jewish. So all people, from all nations, pagan or not, middle-eastern or not, all people who are not Jewish, are Gentile. So when God’s promise in the opening book of the Law says that “all of the Gentiles would be blessed through Abraham,” well, all means all. And Paul takes this to mean that it was God’s intent, God’s plan, from the very beginning to bless all people, to justify all people, by the faith of Abraham, and as he says in other places, through the faith of Jesus Christ. And he goes on in Galatians chapter 3 to make several points to show that the Law is only provisional and temporary in its nature and function:
First, he says, the Law itself cannot justify us or bring blessing to us, because it declares as cursed everyone who does not observe all that is written in it, which we know that we cannot do. As we’ve share before, being in compliance with some parts of the law puts us out of compliance with others. So, Paul says, Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by taking its curse upon himself, by bearing the burden of the Law, in his death on the cross because of the Law.
Second, he says, the promise to Abraham has chronological priority, having been given 430 years before the giving of the Law to Moses. Simply said, the Promise came first. The Law cannot and does not alter or annul the original promise, received in faith in Genesis 3.
And third, the Law was given through angels by a mediator (Moses), making it a third-hand revelation from God, while the original promise was first-hand, spoken directly by God to Abraham (3:19-20).
So the Law, Paul says, was provisional and temporary. The Law served only as a custodian or disciplinarian for us, as a restraint because of our sins and transgressions, until the descendant of God came - and Paul uses the singular descendant to indicate Jesus - and liberated us from sin. The Law attempted to define sin for us, but it is by the faith of Jesus Christ that we are freed from sin.
The word translated “custodian” or “disciplinarian" is paidagōgos. In wealthy Greek and Roman families, a paidagōgos was a slave entrusted with the care and discipline of a child when the child was not in school, until the child reached the age of adulthood. The metaphor suggests that the authority of the law is temporary, lasting only until the fruition of the promise -- "until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.” But now that faith as trust has come in Jesus Christ, we are no longer subject to the disciplinary or custodial role of the Law. In the promise as fulfilled in Christ Jesus we are all Children of God.
And Paul continues this line of argument saying that now that Christ has come, the symbolic rite of entry as a Christ follower is no longer circumcision (available only to males) but baptism, which is available to all.
"As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ" (3:27).
Here Paul uses language from early baptismal liturgy, in which the newly baptized were clothed in a white garment, symbolic of the righteousness of Christ.
All who have been baptized into Christ are clothed with him, wrapped up in him, and incorporated into him so that Christ becomes the primary identity marker of who we are. All other identifiers fall away, for "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" (3:28). Like a uniform we put on that identifies what we do, putting on Christ, being clothed in Christ, identifies who, and whose, we are.
Theologian Elisabeth Johnson points out that in
“The Babylonian Talmud [the Tradition of the Jewish people as practiced while in Exile] includes a morning blessing to be recited by every Jewish man, thanking God for not creating him a gentile, a slave, or a woman (Menahoth 43b)…This prayer…demonstrates the power these three categories held in the ancient world. Paul's declaration that in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female, is a radical dismantling of these primary identity and boundary markers. Differences in ethnicity, gender, and socio-economic status do not magically disappear, of course, but Paul declares them to be irrelevant…”
The categories that divide us today may be different than those three that Paul describes, but divisions persist in congregations, in the church at large, and in the world -- divisions that run along lines of race and ethnicity, socio-economic status, gender, sexual orientation, ideology, political affiliation, and any number of other factors.
Paul reminds us that whatever human categories may describe us, they do not define us, "for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." All human categories are subordinate and ultimately irrelevant to our primary identity as Beloved Children of God. Our attempts to categorize and label one another in the church and in the world and to diminish one another on the basis of those labels are signs of our spiritual immaturity. Paul reminds us that since Christ has come, we are no longer enslaved to those old divisions, we are no longer accountable to the discipline of the Law. All are justified solely by the Grace of God we see in the Promise given to Abraham and modeled for us in Jesus Christ.
Paul instructs us that the law is only provisional and temporary and can never justify or save us. In fact, it can only imprison us. It is Christ who frees us from the curse of the law and sin. Now, this doesn’t mean that "anything goes" in terms of how we live. Paul has plenty to say about how we are to live out our freedom in Christ, as we will see in Galatians 5 and 6. And it doesn’t mean that the Ten Commandments no longer apply. It means that we understand them properly as Jesus taught us. All of the Law, he said, comes down to this: Love God and love your neighbor. The first four of the Ten Commandments are about how we love God, the final six are about how we love our neighbor.
Paul's message to the Galatians cautions us against allowing or using the law to annul the Promise and destroy the freedom, unity, and mission to which God has called us in Christ. God's mission to bless "all the families of the earth," begun with the promise to Abraham and bequeathed to us as children and heirs, takes priority over all human agendas. When we as individuals, or when factions within Christ’s body the church - the United Methodist Church or any church - try to reimpose aspects of the Law that no longer apply on those whom they have labeled as sinners, or as “incompatible with Christian teaching,” then they have, in fact, rejected the Grace of God given to us in the opening book of Scripture and in the promise given to us in Jesus Christ. Rather than being clothed in Christ, these “false teachers” are clothed in the ill-fitting clothes of judgement. And that, I would offer, is what is truly incompatible with Christian teaching, and with the gift of grace which we have been given. Amen.