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Reclothed in a Rightful Mind

June 24, 2019

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Preached by Canon Dr Roland Riem, using Gal 3.23-end, Lk 8.26-39, at Eucharist on Sunday 23 June, First Sunday after Trinity

I’m not the best person to be giving this sermon, as for me clothes aren’t a big deal.

I have black clothes for work days, white clothes for tennis and clothes of various hues, standard issue M&S, for the times in-between. I only throw out clothes when they wear out after 25 years or so, or when my wife has told me for the nth time that I look like a sack of potatoes. (Evidently, that’s a bad thing.)

But as it’s clothes that link our two readings today, we’ll run with the theme.

Any theology of clothing from a Judeo-Christian perspective has to start in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve were naked, but as soon as their innocence was shattered by disobedience they hid themselves from God and each other, sewing fig leaves together to make loincloths for themselves. The first ever manufactured item was clothing.

The story accepts our need for clothing. Once we experience ourselves as naked, once our eyes are opened to the human condition, we reach out to protect ourselves, most basically with clothing. If we don’t feel the need to be clothed in public, it’s either because we’re innocent of our nakedness or because we’re disturbed.

Today’s Gospel reading is about nakedness, but it begins with Jesus stepping onto land. He’s just quelled the unruly forces nature threatening his disciples as they crossed the lake by boat. He’s rebuked the wind and the waves – a sign that these forces weren’t simply natural but were an expression of evil powers at work in the world. Jesus confronts and overpowers the hostile powers manifest in the storm and raging waves.

But the powers confronted on the lake become even more obvious on land, as Jesus meets a man of the city who had demons. One commentator calls the details of this story ‘flamboyant and grotesque’, especially the mass slaughter of the pigs, but the detail that is neither flamboyant nor grotesque is that the man with demons had long forsaken his clothes.

His nakedness, along with the fact that he lived among the tombs rather than in a house, emphasises that this man had lost his stake in society. He was no longer protected by his clothing, as every other citizen would have been, but instead he had to be guarded and physically restrained by chains and shackles to protect him from himself and others.

Leaving all ‘flamboyant and grotesque’ details aside, we find, after Jesus has finished with him, that the man is restored both to himself and society, ‘sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind’. It’s an image taken up in the hymn, Dear Lord and Father, in which we ask God to forgive our foolish ways and reclothe us in our rightful mind.

The transformation is so severe and complete that the crowd take fright at Jesus’ power over evil and ask him to leave the region.

Now the power to rightfully reclothe may well be shocking, but it lies at the heart of the Christian Gospel. The Epistle to the Galatians is one of the earliest pieces of Christian literature, and in the passage we heard from it earlier it says, ‘As many of you as have been baptised into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ’.

A metaphor has many meanings, but one of the meanings of clothing here is the one I have been stressing all along: clothing protects us, now that we live East of Eden; and not just material clothing, but other human devices and conventions: before faith came we were imprisoned and guarded under the Law. The Law regulated us and provided safety. Like the man in the story, bound by chains and fetters to protect him from himself and others, before faith came the Law did the work of guarding us; but, St Paul says, it also imprisoned us. The Law was a disciplinarian, like a straight-jacket. We were trapped in a regime that promised much but which did not protect us.

This is the human predicament described in Jewish terms; but we recognise the predicament in all the arrangements we manufacture to protect ourselves, whether they be the political arrangements so much in dispute today, or in the social, commercial, or personal realms. We stitch these arrangements together so that we can interact with others while defending our nakedness; but with each arrangement come a sense of being trapped and of provisionality.

Faith in Christ is a different sort of clothing, because it works by justifying us, setting us in right relationship with God and one another. Back in Eden, you’ll remember that the clothing was needed because the relationships went wrong – primarily the relationship with God, who told Adam and Eve how to avoid tasting death. If the relationship with God can be restored, then we are in effect reclothed, so that we can come alive to each other.

So we come to the incredible claim Paul makes that, ‘In Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female’ – basic lines of division or distinction in nature or society overturned.

It’s like this: two strangers lived next door to each other. Each guarded the fence in their garden that separated them from each other and guarded their private space. Until the day their children married and they became true neighbours and family. They built a gate in the fence and it became for them a well-trodden way into each other’s homes.

When relationships change, so does our need for protection. To be clothed with Christ is to be in a new relationship with God and with each other. I don’t think Paul is advocating gender fluidity when he says there’s no longer male nor female; he’s saying that there is something that transcends even a seemingly immutable division, an identity that transcends any obvious distinction we might care to notice, which makes us irrevocably one.

And this new clothing is more than an external identity; it’s an interior power which sets us free. We all dream of clothing which both fits us and expresses our self perfectly. When we’re clothed with Christ, what He is and what we are in Him become inextricably one. We share one divine life and one humanity. Clothed with Him, we are joined with Him in one body. And as we live out this truth we come to understand how rich a mystery is contained in this one metaphor of clothing.

In our world we set about to protect ourselves, by asserting our power by stealth or violence, trying to avoid failure and minimising the damage of conflict. All this is played out in the story of the demoniac but also, just this week, in the story of a US drone shot down over Iran. We have our clothing but it stinks, and we need to take it off to be reclothed with Christ.

And paradoxically, the freedom we have in Christ is a freedom to grow into nakedness.  When Christ needed the most protection, when he had most cause to hide himself from God, he faced his enemies and those who taunted him, stripped bare.

The journey before us is one where being clothed in Christ becomes more and more sufficient for us. Being protected by the garment of baptism and faith we find less and less need for the clothing that sets us apart from each other, which reinforces supposedly necessary social or national divisions, but which actually traps us and offers a false security which does not belong to God’s kingdom.

To be clothed with Christ, then, is all our righteousness.

To be clothed with Christ is our life, health and salvation.