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Putting on Christ

6th Sunday of Easter, May 9, 2021, Acts 10:44-48, Galatian 3:27-29, John 15:9-17

The Reverend Dr. Arnold Isidore Thomas

What does it mean to put on Christ? Is putting on Christ like putting on clothes that reflect your mood or convey an impression that you hope will lead to positive results? A retired friend of mine invited me to a cook-out where he wore an old tattered sweatshirt that said, “I’m retired, what you see is what you get.”

You’ve heard the saying, “Clothes make the man,” to which noted entrepreneur and philanthropist Herbert Vreeland replied, “Clothes don’t make the man, but clothes have got many a man a good job.” I’m sure this applies to everyone else as well. If we want to make a positive impression on a prospective employer or our first date, we choose the attire that will win the rewards. For, in the words of Mark Twain replied, “Naked people have no influence on society.” 

However, spiritually speaking, maybe putting on Christ is like bearing our nakedness, especially the embarrassing and unsightly features only God can appreciate, since God, our Creator, knows how they got there.

As a child I was instructed that when you go to church, you dress your best for the Lord. But then I read the words of the Prophet Samuel that has long since informed my spiritual attire. He said, “Do not look on one’s appearance, or the height of one’s stature…for the Lord does not see as mortals see. They look on outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (1st Samuel 16:7)

Putting on Christ involves shedding yourself of every pretense by which you present yourself to the world. It means standing naked as you truly are before God, and allowing God to dress you in the clothing of humility and compassion, an attire that connects you in uniformity with those the world regards as the least among us.

As we gradually return to in-person gatherings and worship, I want to thank you, the members of Good Shepherd, for proving to our church family and the wider community that, though the doors of our church were closed, the doors of our hearts remained open allowing the expression of God’s compassion to continue through the ecumenical food shelf, immigration justice ministries, online programs, services, personal online networking, and social distancing activities, enabling people to realize that, regardless of who they were or where they were, Christ was there with them.

What do I mean by “Christ”? Christ is not just the individual who lived, died and rose from the dead over 2,000 years ago. Christ is embodied in the acts of those who love and serve God. When Jesus told his disciples that if they loved one another, as he loved them, they would no longer be seen as servants or slaves, but friends (John 15:15), he wasn’t referring to casual friendly acquaintances. The word for friends, in this context, means siblings or equals in the eyes of God. To love Christ, therefore, means to embody or incarnate Christ. And how is that love expressed? Jesus, again makes it clear: “As you did it to the least of these who are members of my family, or my siblings, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40)

As I mentioned last Sunday, the Apostle Peter had difficulty comprehending the full range of this commandment, for he felt that God’s love was meant for Jews alone until he was called to the house of Cornelius, a Roman centurion, the equivalent of an elite special forces soldier in the oppressive, occupying army of Rome. It was considered unclean for Jews to have any contact with foreigners, and they were obligated to undergo a ritual bathing to cleanse themselves after such contact. But Peter, seeing that God’s Holy Spirit was clearly alive in this foreigner, concluded that “God shows no partiality.” (Acts 10:34) Still, Peter would have difficulty adjusting to this truth, as do we to this day.

In his book, Black like Me, John Howard Griffin, a white journalist, had his skin chemically darkened in 1959 to experience first-hand what it was like to be a black person in the racially segregated South. Up until the publishing of his work, many white Americans suspected that African Americans were simply acting out of suspicion or paranoia when sharing their encounters of racism. It took the experience of one of their own, who clothed himself in blackness, to convince them otherwise.

Similarly, this is what it means to put on Christ. You must shed yourself of all the comforts, accoutrements, privileges and trappings that distinguish and protect you, and bear yourself naked before God, allowing God alone to dress you in the clothing of humility and compassion. As for “you who have clothed yourself in Christ,” says the Apostle Paul, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  (Galatians 3:27-28) Amen.