Monday, June 25, 2007

Clothed in Christ

Clothed in Christ
Galatians 3:23-29
June 24, 2007
12th Sunday in Ordinary Time

© 2007 by Christopher D. Drew

Sermon Focus: This is a text about Christian identity. If we are set free from the law in Christ, then what sort of people are we to be? What are the marks of our identity?

Sermon Function: To tell the story of our new identity in Christ using the example of a luche libre wrestler who was also a catholic monk and priest. The listener will learn that our identity in Christ is something wholly different from the normal classifications we try to attach to people.

[Click to Show/Hide Sermon Text]


Today, we’re going to continue our exploration into the book of Galatians. You will remember from last week that we spoke about freedom in Christ not being a cheap sort of grace, but a costly grace secured at the price of Jesus’ crucifixion. Our new lives in Christ aren’t meant to be a kind of “anything goes” sort of life. No. By taking on the crucifixion of Christ, we go through a transformation so complete that our entire worldview changes. In today’s text, Paul addresses the nature of our Christian identity, now that Christ has paid in full that penalty that ought to have fallen upon us. The question “who are we?” is the central question of identity, and it is one that Paul addresses in Galatians.

Opening Illustration

Years ago, when I was but a wee lad in grade school, I used to be a big fan of Hulk Hogan and what is now known as the WWE – World Wrestling Entertainment. Years later, I am afraid that I must confess that I remain an occasional fan, although my fanatic impulses are more tempered given that I’m a proper church man.

Now that I’m older, I realize what you all know – that wrestling is as real as the fans imagine it. What makes wrestling resonate with me is the sheer athleticism of successfully pulling off a fake body slam or German suplex. The ring comes alive because the characters make it live. Hulk Hogan, André the Giant, Sergeant Slaughter, Randy “Macho Man” Savage have retired and given way to characters like The Undertaker, Triple H, and Kane. I was disappointed, in fact, to learn that the big wrestling event coming up soon in Corpus Christi has already sold out.

I bring up wrestling because at the core of this drama are the characters that play on the stage, the wrestling ring. They are part of a fictional larger-than-life drama, and the stories are sketched with some fundamental themes in mind. One theme is fairness. If a wrestler is treated unfairly, you can bet that there will be retribution somewhere down the line. Sometimes, two wrestlers who are normally enemies are forced into tag-team matches together, forced to acknowledge some sort of brotherhood in the face of a common enemy. Vince McMahon, the “chairman of the board” – both in a dramatic and literal sense (because the WWE is publicly traded in the New York Stock Exchange), created quite a nationwide phenomena. He achieved his success by slowly buying up all of the old time region wrestling networks into this new megalithic venture which his wife, the CEO of the corporation, referred to on CNBC as the single most popular “soap opera for men.” When one of the WWE shows is on the air, it dominates viewership in what is considered the “key” advertising demographic of young men between the ages of 15-35. It’s a powerhouse brand, and it’s making waves internationally, too, in Australia, Japan, and Europe.

Why on earth am I speaking to you about wresting? Well, the fame or popularity of a given wrestler depends on his or her character development. Attention is paid to the smallest detail of a character’s storyline. Each wrestler, in fact, enters the ring with a distinctive entrance theme – music and video and pyrotechnics that give you some sense of the power, unique skills, and history of a particular wrestler. All of these visual and auditory technologies are designed to fully disclose the unique identity of the star wrestler. And, in fact, identity ends up being a key factor not only for the fan, but also for the wrestler. As I understand things, wrestlers are paid to the degree in which they attract television viewer ratings. Cultivating a distinctive identity, then, is very important.

And that is what Paul is starting to do here in this portion of his letter to the Galatians. This is a text about distinctive Christian identity.

Paul’s Concept of Christian Identity

As we discussed last week, Paul was very worried about some teaching that had been going on in his absence. Other preachers were coming onto the scene and proclaiming that, to be completely faithful to Christ, Gentile converts had to take on the obligations of Jewish law. Paul rejected this argument, proclaiming that the saving work of Jesus on the Cross made observance of the Jewish law unnecessary. Faith in Christ was the stuff of life. And having delivered this message to the people of Galatia, Paul moves on to tell us more about the distinctive identity of Christians.

One might argue, “Well, if we have Christ, why was the law even necessary to being with? What purpose did the law serve?”1 This is an excellent question, and a serious question. Paul responds by saying, “Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.” The word translated here as “imprisoned” by our NRSV translation team has a meaning that’s a bit deeper than a single English word can capture. The deeper meaning of the word might be “being kept in restraint while awaiting the faith that was to be revealed.”2 That is, we were under the supervision of the law, and kept within the bounds of the law due to our innate sinfulness, that sinfulness that can be traced all the way back to a certain garden paradise. The law, then, was our “disciplinarian.” This is another interesting translation choice. The original Greek uses a word that gives us the modern English word “pedagogue.” We understand a pedagogue to be someone who educates others. But the Greek understanding of the word is different. This person was a “custodian,” one who “guided and cared for” someone else. In the Greek Hellenistic world, it was common for this person to be a slave who was given charge of a small child, usually from ago six to sixteen. The pedagogue would ensure that the child would not stray. The pedagogue would accompany a child back and forth to school, and would ensure that no harm came to the child.3 So, there is a combined meaning here. The pedagogue was surely a disciplinarian, but he also guided and cared for the child in his care. In our spiritual infancy as sinners, we had the law to keep us within the bounds of what could be called holy behavior. That was before Christ, before faith. Before Christ, we were fettered and surrounded by the law.

A New Identity in Christ

What, then, are the distinguishing identifying marks of the Christian? What does it mean to be clothed in Christ? Paul’s answer to this question is interesting. Having been given the gift of faith in Christ, we are set free from the confines of our former disciplinarian, the Law. For “in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith” (v. 26). Later in verse 29, Paul adds, “And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” Yes, the promises God made to Abraham are fulfilled in Christ. In Genesis chapter 12, Abram hears the following words from God: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:2-3 NRSV). Abram was called into service and elected by God to lead a priestly nation, not just on behalf of that nation, but on behalf of all nations. In Christ, this promise of God is fully realized. The first mark of our new, Christian identity is therefore is our unity in baptism in the blood of Christ. And this is the very way Paul puts it in verse 27 of our text, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” The Message paraphrase of the Bible puts a unique spin on this passage. Here, the text reads, “Your baptism in Christ was not just washing you up for a fresh start. It also involved dressing you in an adult faith wardrobe – Christ’s life, the fulfillment of God’s original promise” (Gal 3:25-27 MSG). Our ability to put our faith in Christ is a mark of spiritual maturity as Christians. Baptism is, in a way, the commencement exercise that sets us free from the confines of grade school and graduates us into the full life of Christian fellowship. “Now that Christ has come,” writes one New Testament scholar, “these children have been set free. The doors are open; the final bell of the school year has rung. Why would a child want to spend summer vacations sitting in study hall? Why would a Christian want to go back to confinement under the law?”4

What is the second mark of our Christian identity? Just as Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, speaks about love by telling us what love is not, Paul here describes a new category of life by telling us that the old categories are no longer applicable. Paul writes, “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” (v. 28). The labels and categories of common human language no longer apply because of this new “oneness” in Jesus. To be fully Christian, to be fully part of Christ’s body, means that the way we think about things will be and is completely and radically turned upside down. Paul does not say that we become both Jew and Gentile, but neither Jew nor Gentile. The old categories are useless. The new category is Christ. And we achieve this unity in Christ when we place Christ ahead of all our other earthly concerns, worries, and categories.

I wonder if this new image of humanity is what Paul was striving to describe in 1 Corinthians 15:50 when he writes, “What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed” (1Corinthians 15:50-51 NRSV). We will be changed, and we will be changed into something we cannot fully imagine right now.

Closing Illustration – Fray Tormenta

If we cannot apply our typical human categories and labels onto other people with our mature faith lived in the unity of Christ, are there other ways that we can perhaps detect a glimpse of how this new life in Christ might manifest itself?

Well, I’ll offer one possible look into this new, transformed life.

Sergio Gutierrez Benitez5 was born one of 18 children in Mexico. In his poverty, he turned to a life filled with criminal activity and drug abuse. Having seemingly come to the end of the road, he happened to meet a Roman Catholic priest who gave him encouragement to continue on in life. He did, and he later became Father Sergio Gutierrez Benitez. He dedicated his life to helping orphaned children. In an interview with writer Michael Paszt, the over-60 Fr. Benitez said, “I have so much to be thankful for … three doctors, 16 teachers, one public accountant, one private accountant, one priest, 20 computer technicians, five lawyers … have all come out of the orphanage.” In over 35 years of service, over 2,000 children have been the recipients of Fr. Benitez’s dedicated Christian life.

Providing for orphaned children is, however, a very expensive endeavor. Money was extremely hard to come by. Funding dried up. Desperate action was required.

Luche Libre is Mexico’s version of World Wrestling Entertainment. It is extremely popular. One of the ways luchedors distinguish themselves is through the wearing of masks to conceal their identities. One day, a new, Golden Masked character named Fray Tormenta entered the ring. Early on, no one knew who he really was. All they knew was that he was a good wrestler. For years Tormenta was able to keep his true identity a secret. But one day a Bishop became wise, confronted Fr. Benitez, and asked him if he knew the name of the luchedor who was wrestling as a priest.

“Yes, I know him,” said Fr. Benitez, “it’s me.”

The Bishop was upset. But after Fr. Benitez told him that all of the wrestling proceeds were for the benefit of the orphanage, the Bishop acquiesced.

Fr. Benitez’s orphanage has since helped thousands of young people get started in life against the odds of poverty, crime, and drug abuse. As Fray Tormenta, Fr. Benitez became the confessor for his fellow luchedors. He would even be asked baptize their children. Fr. Benitez’s story would later become familiar to American audiences, because it was the inspiration of the popular movie Nacho Libre starring Jack Black.

This is, admittedly, an unorthodox story of transformation in Christ. But it is a powerful example of a life that has undergone multiple transformations, first from young criminal drug user, then to priest, then to luchedor. All for the glory of God and for the young orphans served by Fr. Benitez.

How do we exhibit our own lives in Christ? Are we like the WWE wrestler, a slick presentation with a distinctive identity rooted in pyrotechnics and applause, striving to achieve high ratings? Or are we more like the Fr. Benitez, taking on the challenges of life not just for our own sake, but also for the sake of those less fortunate than we are?

How might our own transformations in Christ become more evident to those around us? Can we better wear the clothes of Christ? I know that we can, with each other in worship, in earnest prayer, so that our steps may be ordered in our lives, that we might see where God is leading First Presbyterian Church, Portland, Texas.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Given at First Presbyterian Church, Portland, Texas.

1Koester, Craig. “The Opportunity to Do Good: The Letter to the Galatians.” Word & World. Sept. 2. St. Paul: Luther Seminary, 1989, p. 187.

2Stamm, Raymond T. “Galatians.” The Interpreter’s Bible. Vol. X. New York: Abingdon Press, 1953, p. 517.


4Koester, p. 188.

5This story is taken substantially from Michael Paszt’s article “Fray Tormenta: The Real Nacho Libre” which appeared in SLAM! Wrestling on June 20, 2006. See