09/22/19 “Clothed by Grace”

Galatians 3:23-29

If you are a “Downton Abbey” fan, this was the weekend you’ve been waiting for since 2016:  the “Downton Abbey” movie opened to much anticipation.  Even if you’re not a fan, you can hardly have missed all the publicity around it.  I came late to the “Downton Abbey” party. I just recently started watching it online. If you’re not familiar with this TV phenomenon, “Downton Abbey” is the fictional story of the noble Crawley family and their servants as they all navigate the social and political changes of the early 1900s from their vantage point of the family’s sprawling estate in England.

The series ran on PBS from 2010 to 2016, and it was the most-watched PBS series ever. At its peak, it had a weekly average of more than 13 million viewers in this country alone.  For four years in a row, it was the ratings runner-up to the Super Bowl on Super Bowl Sundays.

As I became a “Downton Abbey” fan myself, one of the things that intrigued me was the costumes.  The family’s period clothing is beautiful—gorgeous fabrics, beading, and colors.  But what is more interesting is how the clothing of every character, whether family or servant, tells you something about their status, especially for the servants.

You could tell the footmen by their gloves and livery—special uniforms that could cost as much as a year of their wages. The Housekeeper wore dark dresses with a little trim, an emblem of her higher status in the household staff and the authority she had.  The Lady’s Maid wore dresses of all black, because she had to fade into the background. She often was given her employer’s hand-me-downs, although she could never wear them on the job, of course; no lade wanted to see her servants parading around in her old dresses.

The ladies of the family typically changed their clothes five times a day, but a chamber maid owned only three changes of clothing in all: a set of street clothes, a black dress with white apron for serving meals, and a print dress and apron for doing the dirty work of emptying fireplaces, scrubbing floors, and doing mountains of dishes.  These clothes didn’t show the dirt and made it easier to do the tasks at hand, without fear of being unpresentable.

The world of Downton Abbey is pretty foreign to us. But the idea that clothing conveys a message about who we are is not.  Yesterday, we dedicated the new Veterans’ Memorial Park.  You could identify which branch of the military the veterans had served in by their uniforms.  The police officers and fire fighters could be identified by their uniforms.  Same with the Boy Scouts, and the band, and the choir. Anyone who’s had a teenager in their house knows that clothing is an important marker of who fits in and who doesn’t.  That’s why many schools require a uniform; it’s an attempt to break down the division between who’s in and who’s out and build a sense of community.

When we’re all wearing the same thing, what divides us isn’t as easy to see as what unites us.  When we’re all wearing the same thing, it’s easier to identify what community we’re part of.  This is what Paul suggests in Chapter 3 of his letter to the Galatians. His fashion advice doesn’t come until the very end of the chapter, though. Before that, he begins his effort to re-convince the Gentile Galatians that God as always intended to included Gentiles in God’s covenant.

You’ll recall that Paul’s letter was prompted by the arrival of some teachers who were peddling a version of the gospel that was different from the gospel of grace revealed to Paul. They taught that Gentiles couldn’t become Christians if they didn’t become Jews first. These teachers insisted that God’s grace, conveyed through the faithfulness of Jesus, wasn’t enough to include the Gentiles in God’s covenant.  That was reserved for Jews who followed the Law, including its rituals and traditions.

This wasn’t the first time Paul had fought against this idea.  In Chapters 1 and 2, he explains to the Galatians how he had had this same argument before and successfully convinced the leaders of the Church in Jerusalem that conversion to Judaism was not a condition for receiving God’s grace-filled blessing.

But, humanity being what it is, here he is again, making the same argument.  He begins Chapter 3 by speaking to the Galatians in a take-no-prisoners style: “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Are you so foolish that, in spite of receiving the Holy Spirit by believing in the crucified and risen Christ, you’re now back to relying on works of the law?  Does God supply you with miracles because of what you do or because of the grace you believe in? Did you experience so much for nothing?”  Ouch.

But, maybe Paul gets it. Maybe Paul understands how hard it is to accept how much God loves us.  Maybe Paul understands that human beings just don’t get the idea of unearned goodness very well.  We live in an eye-for-an-eye, tit-for-tat world, in good things and bad. Maybe Paul understands that, after the excitement of the mountain-top experience of receiving the Holy Spirit has faded into the background of everyday life, the Galatian Gentiles are starting to wonder if they really heard this right: that they are included in the covenant that Israel and Israel’s Law had previously excluded them from.  Maybe they do have to take on that Jewish identity and follow the Jewish Law so they can be included.  Maybe they’re not included just as God found them when they received the transforming gift of the Holy Spirit.

After venting in the first few verses, Paul gets down to the business of explaining how the Gentiles came to be included in God’s covenant. Paul explains: God had called Abraham righteous long before the Law existed.  And, God had made a promise to Abraham: that all the Gentiles would be blessed in him.  The promise to Abraham is enough to secure a place for the Gentiles as part of God’s covenant community. That’s Paul’s explanation in a nut shell.

Of course, Paul knows what arguments his opponents will counter with.  If the promise to Abraham is enough, why have the Law at all?  If being made right with God comes by grace alone, then wouldn’t the Law be in opposition to God’s plan?

Paul’s ready for them.  He explains to the Galatians that the Law was a stop gap measure that had its benefits, although being the means of salvation wasn’t one of them.  The Law did have the effect of showing the people of Israel just how far from being righteous they were—how far they had strayed from the path marked out for them as the first participants in God’s covenant.  And, the Law also helped to rein in human sinfulness until such a time when the promise to Abraham would be fulfilled.  So, the Law was a good and useful part of God’s plan—it just wasn’t the whole plan.

As for being in opposition to God’s grace, that’s a non-issue, too, as far as Paul is concerned.  It could only be in opposition to God’s work in Jesus if it had been designed to be the source of life in the first place. That was never God’s intention, Paul says.  The promise of blessing for all people came long before the law, and it would be fulfilled apart from the law.

Paul explains, it’s like when someone makes a will.  After the will is signed, no one comes along and adds conditions to it. The inheritance was promised by God to Abraham, and because of Abraham’s trust in that promise, the inheritance was passed along through his offspring, Jesus.  And, just as Abraham’s faithfulness made him the recipient of the promise, Jesus’ faithfulness, even to the point of death on a cross, is what made it possible for the Galatians—and us—to be the beneficiaries of that promise—being justified and made righteous before God by grace.

What’s the evidence of that?  It’s what we’re wearing.  No, it’s not what you pulled out of your closet when you got up this morning. It’s the fact that we have clothed ourselves with Christ.  When we “put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” as Paul puts it in Romans, we put on a uniform of sorts.  And, this uniform functions a lot like earthly uniforms.

First of all, it shows who we are.  When the ancient Christians were baptized, they removed all their old clothes before they were submerged in the baptismal water.  When they came out, they were given new clothes—white clothes—to symbolize that they had died to their old lives and become something new—a new creation in Christ. When the Galatians read this part of Paul’s letter, they would have pictured that moment, when their new clothes dramatically represented that they had become a part of the Body of Christ, united with Jesus and every other believer.

When we put on Christ, we show that we, too, are a new creation.  We may not have new earthly clothes that show it, but the way we live should make it obvious.  We’ll talk more about that in the coming weeks, but suffice it to say that when we are baptized, we discard the old, tired, too-small or too-big lives that we once wore and we show ourselves to the world in the new clothing of freedom, peace, and joy.

When we clothe ourselves in Christ, it is easier to see what unites us than what divides us.  The distinctions that are so important to the rest of the world are made unimportant.  Paul mentions ethnicity, gender, and social status—the distinctions that would have mattered most to the Galatians. But there are lots more where those came from.  All you have to do is turn on the news to see what walls are being built to divide people from one another, even to divide Christians from one another.

Distinctions still exist in the world, of course, but when it comes to relating to each other as the Body of Christ, they are irrelevant. All are equal members of the community of believers.  When we clothe ourselves with Christ, that is the first things we should see when we look at each other, and it’s the first thing others should see when they look at us.

When we are “wearing Christ,” other people should be able to tell whose servants we are, just as the Downton Abbey footmen would have been readily identifiable by the color and style of their livery. People should be able to tell what Body we are part of, just as the veterans’ uniforms identified what branch of the military they were in.  We are clothed with Christ at our baptism, but we need to remind ourselves every day of what we’re wearing, so that when others see us, they’ll be able to tell just who we belong to.

Clothing ourselves with Christ equips us for the work we are to do in the world, just as the maids of Downton Abbey wore dresses and aprons that equipped them to do their appointed tasks.  Sometimes the work of making disciples is hard. It means that our spiritual clothes need to allow us to get close to people, to get down on our knees, to get our hands dirty. Clothing ourselves with Christ communicates to people that we’re approachable, that we’re willing to put their interests before our own, that we’re willing to get down on the floor to get closer to God.  Clothing ourselves with Christ makes this possible—and maybe even comfortable, as we get used to our new uniforms.

The clothing the world wants us to wear does the opposite.  It constricts our movement.  It limits our ability to be effective in the world.  It keeps us from connecting with others. It keeps us from trusting God. It keeps us from being comfortable in our own skin. It keeps us from being and doing all that we could be and do.

When Elizabeth McGovern, who’s one of the stars of “Downton Abbey,” was asked about what she liked about the show, she said she loved the costumes. “But,” she said, “if you said that I could burn my corsets, I would say, ‘Great!’”  The world wants to lace us into tight corsets of self-interest and fear and separation, but clothing ourselves in Christ frees us.  Clothing ourselves with Christ—wrapping him around us like the white garments of the newly baptized—frees us from living in fear of a set of rules we can’t ever live out perfectly.  It frees us from the false divisions the world wants us to observe.  It frees us to live as people who have been made righteous before God by the faithful work of Jesus on the cross—the work in which we put our trust. It frees us to live as the heirs of the promise God made to Abraham and fulfilled in Jesus.

After all his bluster, after all his carefully constructed arguments, after all his insightful metaphors, Paul ends this part of his letter with a simple statement. “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to his promise.”  That’s it.  That’s what the grace of God offers us.  No test to ace before we are accepted. No showing that we can perfectly follow a set of rules before we’re allowed to join the club. Just the act of trusting in the faithfulness of Jesus, who secured the promise of inclusion for us. Just placing ourselves in his hands and allowing him to clothe us in the righteousness which he has purchased for us, by through God’s grace.

This week, if you’re looking for some entertainment, watch an episode or two of “Downton Abbey,” online or on DVD. Go see the movie. Pay attention to what the characters’ clothing tells you about them—who they are, what work they do, what unites and what separates them. Then take a look at yourself and see what your clothing says about you—not what you’ve pulled out of your closet, but the clothing that was given to you when you said, “I belong to Christ.” Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young