Dressed to Impress or Clothed with Christ?

Reflections on Galatians 3:23-29
Pentecost 4 C

 “Are you going out looking like that?” 

That’s what my mom used to holler at me as I was going out the door dressed in my normal hodgepodge way.

Our family didn’t believe in putting on airs, but even we had our standards, and I often pushed the edges of those.

Our lives are replete with the ways we use dress to impress. We can’t choose the skins we have to live in (without spending a bundle on botox and liposuction), but we can easily choose what to wear.

Yesterday’s second reading in church was Galatians 3:23-29. Paul contrasts the life under the tutelage of the law to life in the freedom of faith in the gospel. The law works as a disciplinarian. Scholars point out that this is like the old guardians in Greco-Roman culture who would watch over youngsters on the way from home to lessons at the school or gymnasium.

Paul says that, for Christians, now that faith has come, we are children of God by virtue of a baptism in which we clothe ourselves with Christ. Because of that 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” and belong to Christ and are heirs of the Abrahamic promise.

To understand the profundity of what Paul is saying we must appreciate how serious a matter it is to get dressed. I hear my mom yelling, “Are you crazy? You are not going out looking like that!” She didn’t want me to have an accident and be found, on the way to the hospital or the morgue, to have dirty underwear, and have people think I had a mother who didn’t give a damn.

Throughout history dress has been the major indication of station of life. Exhibit “A” here can be a sample “sumptuary law” from 16th century England. It drove the authorities crazy to see people dressing up. That is, dressing not as people of their class were expected, but in fabrics or colors indicative of a station above their own. A whole series of laws were passed by Parliament in those days, which stipulated that if certain colors, such as gold or purple, or finer fabrics such as silk, were worn by people below certain ranks, the offending clothes would be confiscated and a hefty fine levied—a fine equal or greater than a year’s wages in many cases.

Here is a sample: “…no man under the degree of a knight or the Garter wear in his gown or coat or any other his apparel any velvet of the color of crimson or blue upon pain to forfeit the same gown or coat or other apparel and for using of the same to forfeit 40 shillings…” (“An Act Against Wearing Costly Apparel” – 1 Hen. VIII, c. 14, 1510)

The specious stated motive for these laws was to prevent people from wasting their money, going into debt, and then entering into criminal activity to support the habit of buying lavish habit. And it is clear that more and more laws had to be passed because people weren’t abiding by the laws.

Interesting to note also that our impulse to “conspicuous consumption” is stronger than our fear of punishment. While my mother was most worried about my “dressing down,” we also have a strong desire to “dress up.” We try to look better than we are.

So, dressing down or up is disconcerting. Down through history, people have tended to “judge books by their covers.” We do like a world where you can tell a guy from a gal, blue collar from white collar, easterner from westerner, slacker from a slick businessman. (Do a Google search, as I did, for “dress in the New Testament” and you will find all sorts of essays on biblical guidance for the proper dress in church and in a so-called “Christian’s” life.)

The main thing we want in all of this is to tell “us” from “them.” The painfully disconcerting thing for me when I visited Jerusalem, the holiest place on earth for Jews and Christians and the second holiest for Muslims, was that there was a uniform for every faith-flavor. People stirve hard to be able to tell “us” from “them.” And by extension, to tell the good from the bad.

Then you hear Paul – “put on Christ and you can no longer tell.” Put on Christ and you cover yourself. Your reputation—your accumulation of youness—your well cultivated identity dissolves as you accept the identity of Christ. You have admitted that not only who you are, but who you strive to be is wrong. The lies you have told so that you can look like who you aspire to be are no better than your true reflection in the mirror. They are all forfeit in faith. Instead, you put your trust in the identity God has wished into being for you in Jesus.

This is faith–the freedom of the gospel.

About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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