“Let us lay aside the works of darkness and put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”
When I was growing up, it was a tradition in our family that on the anniversary of our baptisms, we got to choose what we would have for dinner, and afterward there would be a special dessert and family devotions at which we lit the candle we received at our baptisms. My dad would choose a Bible passage to read for the person we were honoring that night. One year, when it was my special day, my dad chose this passage from Romans for me. He asked if I knew why. I knew instantly: because I never forget what I put on. I could tell you the exact outfit I wore for the first day of school, or the first day on the job, or the first big date…pretty much as far back as you might care to hear about, I could tell you what I put on.
Last week we had a baptism during worship, and as part of that service, we put a little white robe on the newly baptized and talked about anyone who is baptized into Christ has PUT ON Christ. Symbolically, we put a similar white garment over the casket or urn when we do a burial. We are clothed in Christ from beginning to end. But what does it mean to “put on” Christ? I mean, it’s not like Jesus is a white shawl. We say that at Christmas, God “put on” human flesh and blood and in the person of Jesus became one of us, but how do we “put on” God’s skin?
Earlier in his letter to the Romans Paul reminded his readers that their bodies are sanctuaries, containers of the holy, and that they are to offer themselves as “a living sacrifice.” The good news for us is that God does all the work of transforming us inwardly and outwardly. God’s Spirit comes to us, fills us up, and wraps us tightly in God’s own self. Sometimes we use the name “Emmanuel” for Jesus, which means, “God-with-us.” And much of Paul’s letter is about how we experience God with us, and how we share that with others.
One way is through Holy Communion, in which we say God’s real presence is in, with, and under the bread and wine. God is genuinely among us in a tangible way in this sacrament. But it’s not just in the elements we consume and absorb into our bodies that God is really present. Communion is not just uniting us with God, but also with the people who are beside and in front of or in back of us. God shows up wherever two or three meet in Jesus name. We can only truly experience and practice love in community. In a HOLY Communion, we are invited to touch and taste, to hear and see, God with us by seeing God among us.
And Paul says that we are never to stop remembering what we have “put on.” We are to continue to pay the debt of love to God and to our neighbors. And sometimes that is going to be hard. That is what Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel lesson. He’s telling his followers how to love our neighbors when we don’t like them much at all. He presents an all-too-likely situation: “IF your brother sins against you…” and a second hypothetical: “IF you brother refuses to listen….” Anyone who has a sister and/or brother knows that these two things are not IF’s but WHEN’s, and that applies to all our other relationships too. In fact, the closer the relationship is, the more frequently such moments are likely to occur.
How do people who have “put on” Christ resist woks of darkness and live honorably when these conflicts arise? The first step is to remember that in our baptisms we have been made in God’s image and clothed with Christ. We are worthy of respect. That identity empowers us to approach the person who hurt us with our concern. This is sometimes very hard to do. It is easier to talk to someone ELSE about how we have been offended than to actually speak to the offender, isn’t it? Easier, however, does not mean acceptable. As we heard last week, being a follower of Jesus means taking up our cross and following him. And sometimes the weight of that cross is talking directly, face-to-face, to a person we are least inclined to talk to.
IF that person doesn’t listen (as we all know is sometimes the case), there is a procedure to follow. It isn’t to sit and pout, nor to complain to someone else. No, the next step is bringing in someone else to help facilitate the conversation. And if that fails, the problem has to be taken to the whole community of the faithful. No relationship—in its beauty or its dysfunction—is just about the people in it. This is one of the reasons we do weddings and baptisms in a communal setting. Because relationships have a ripple effect—tensions or joys in one part of the community affect the whole community.
When we fail to love God, ourselves, and our neighbors, we call that SIN. Sin separates us from God, from each other, and from our own true selves. In his letter to the Romans, Paul points out that some of our sins include jealousy, sexual sins, and living debauched lives. We are frail human beings, and we are not able to consistently fulfill the law of owing nothing to one another but love. And that is why we have this passage from Matthew in our church Constitutions. And that is why we have the Sacrament of Holy Communion. We will never be able to navigate our relationships without struggle, but by God’s grace, our Lord Jesus is with us even in the most challenging times. Where two or three gather, God is truly present. The real presence of Jesus’ body and in blood, is given for us, offered to us, whether we feel loving or not. The real presence of God is in our midst when we are charitable and open, and when we need to repent. The real presence of God is not withheld from people who are sinners, but is extended to all in order to create healing where now there is only hurt. We may not be perfect, but we are accepted.
Our God, who cannot exist except in community—the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is always striving to reestablish community, to close the gaps that separate us from God, from ourselves, and from each other. That’s why the ELCA’s tag line, “God’s work; our hands,” is a practical way for us to “put on” Christ. Because it invites us—individually and communally—into the never-ending joy of participating in God’s love for the sake of the world.
Thanks be to God.