A sermon by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, N.C.
August 4, 2013
When God created Adam and Eve, he created them naked (or “nekkid”), and I might add, unashamed. But as we all know, that state of blissful innocence didn’t last long. After Adam and Eve sinned, triggering the fall of creation, they blushed with profound embarrassment, prompting God to slay an animal so they might cover their nakedness with animal skins. And most of humanity has been wearing clothes ever since.
Mark Twain once quipped, “Naked people have little or no influence on society,” and judging by the way the seven plus billion people on this earth buy clothes, he was right on target!
In 2010, the world textile and clothing industry reached combined sales of $2,560 trillion! In that same year, the average American household spent $1700 on apparel and footwear. Residents of Manhattan spent the most per month, or $362. And when New York City hosts its semi-annual Fashion Week, 232,000 people typically attend the various shows, pumping $20 million dollars into the local economy.
But obsession with clothing is not limited to the USA. In the first nine months of 2012, the immensely popular Katherine, Duchess of Cambridge, spent $54,000 on clothes. Not to be outdone, we commoners are also spending money on apparel like there’s no tomorrow. In 2014, the world childrenswear market is expected to exceed $186 billion; the world menswear market should exceed $402 billion; and the world womenswear market will exceed $621 billion. In 2015, the bridalwear market alone is expected to exceed $57 billion.
Now we have no idea what kind of fashion sense the Apostle Paul had. More than likely, as he penned his letter to the Christians in Colossae from a prison cell, he was anything but a fashion plate. He was probably wearing a ragged Roman toga on his body and worn, tattered sandals on his feet.
But when it came to the clothes that count—the clothing of his soul—Paul could have strutted down the runway of the New York Fashion Show as the best-dressed man in Palestine. Paul was all about the condition of our wardrobes. But he wasn’t terribly concerned about being overdressed or underdressed for social occasions. He could have cared less if someone showed up at a party wearing the same outfit he did.
In fact, his goal was that every follower of Jesus would be transformed into a new, true self, fully clothed in Christ. And he would think it’s downright odd to spend so much time and money adorning a false, old self that is gradually aging and ultimately headed for a grave where no one will really care how nice your clothes look. What interested Paul far more was the clothing that adorns our inner selves, clothing that speaks volumes about our maturity in Christ, or lack thereof.
Today’s sermon is the last in a series based on Paul’s letter to the Colossians. Paul does his level best in this letter to set the record straight on what it means to be a Christ-follower. It doesn’t mean obeying lots of laws, or acquiring secret wisdom, or treating your own flesh as though it is evil. It means being in Christ, intimate with Christ, being filled with the fullness of God in Christ. It means nothing less than allowing God to transform you into the image of Christ so that you begin to look and live like Christ.
One way to picture this transformation is as a change of clothes. And the setting Paul may have had in mind as he speaks of our wardrobe change is baptism. Paul speaks often of baptism in Colossians and elsewhere as a clarifying image for how we are crucified, buried, and raised with Christ. But he never explains the manner in which early New Testament Christians were baptized.
Hippolytus of Rome, a theologian of the early church born roughly a century after the death of Paul, fills in some gaps about baptism in his book, Apostolic Tradition. Hippolytus explains that when the water was ready for a candidate of baptism, he or she would remove all their clothing, be anointed with oil, and then enter into the water naked. After being baptized three times in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, he or she would arise and be anointed again. Then, after drying off, the candidate would put on brand new clothes before reentering the community. To put on the old clothing again would have been unthinkable.
By the way, as I reviewed the oldest church traditions of baptism this week I couldn’t help but smile as I remembered at what someone here said years ago when we at First Baptist were passionately debating our ironclad requirement to baptize new members from other Christian traditions by immersion. During the argument one woman said she hoped we would never get so caught up in modern trends that we would depart from the old-timey way of baptizing people under the water. And I wondered then if she meant what she said enough to be baptized—nekkid!
Never in my life have I heard a sermon in a Baptist church on our need to strip! Usually, we Baptists are on the side of people keeping their clothes on. But listen again to the startling way Paul describes the process of our transformation in Christ—
Put to death…whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry)….Now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge, according to the image of its creator.
Imagine how odd it would be if you wore your favorite, oversized grunge outfit of clothes into an upscale Manhattan clothing store. You spend your monthly Manhattan allotment of $362 on beautifully stylish clothes. But you refuse to take off the old clothes because they feel so good, and you insist on putting on the new clothes over top of the old.
Paul, fashion designer of the soul extraordinaire, says that’s exactly what we do when it comes to the apparel of the spirit. We accept Christ as our personal Savior, and claim him to be our Lord. But we hold on for dear life to our comfortable habits of lust and greed. We can’t imagine doing without the accessories of a terrible temper, profuse profanity, and a nice juicy lie every now and then just to protect ourselves. And we insist on putting on our nice, clean baptism robes overtop of our very dirty but very comfortable old clothes.
And Paul says it will not work! You can’t do the Christian life partially clothed with the old self, and partially clothed with the new. To follow Christ means to be fully clothed in Christ. And the first thing you’ve got to do is strip down to your naked selves! Naked before God.
Now stripping is rarely easy for most of us. Perhaps that’s a carry-over from Adam and Eve’s embarrassment! We are uncomfortable doing it with our doctors, or even our spouses. So it should come as no shock that stripping spiritually before the very God who made us and knows every nook and cranny of our body, mind, and soul is no small thing.
It’s interesting to me that the two words in Hebrew for garment (literally “covering your body”) and acting deceitfully (literally “covering up your sin”) come from the same root word (thanks to my assistant and Hebrew scholar, Shay, for this information!). Most Christians don’t know Hebrew, but we know all about cloaking and disguising our sins before God.
Paul says you can’t do that and follow Christ. Before we can put on the new accessories of Christ—compassion, kindness, humility and the like—we’ve got to strip the old self away like a set of soiled clothes. We’ve got to come clean with God, admitting our issues. Some of us have issues that don’t appear on the lists in Colossians 3. But you know what they are. And you know God knows, too.
If we practice the Christian discipline of confession, also called the examen, we will daily identify the old clothes that cling to our bodies, trusting that God loves us no matter our issues. In fact, we will even invite God into our broken places—into our lust, into our greed, into our anger—and trust him to help us little by little, day by day put these old stinky clothes aside. Then and only then can we be fully clothed in Christ. Some of you came dressed to work in Missions Connections today—good for you! Others of us will be changing into our work clothes after the worship service. And that change of clothes will speak volumes.
But don’t assume you can put on work clothes for Missions Connections and be well- dressed before the Lord. Sooner or later, you’ve got to strip and get rid of the old before you can put on the new.
Personally, I’d recommend sooner rather than later!