a sermon for the second Sunday after Pentecost [Lectionary 12B]
Later this afternoon nineteen of our rising 9th-12th graders will depart Richmond and head to Roanoke College in Salem, VA, where they will take part in a week-long youth event that our Synod runs. Known as Kairos, which is a Greek word meaning “God’s time,” this youth event brings together about one hundred youth from congregations all over the state for a week of worship and prayer and in-depth faith reflections and growth as the body of Christ.
Several years ago I was asked to serve as the chaplain for the Kairos event, and I know that Pastor Joseph also served in that capacity just a few years ago, too. As chaplain for Kairos you help serve as a spiritual guide and kind of pastor for the planning team, which is the group of rising seniors who decide the theme of the event and how they will present it. This year one of our youth, Matt Boyle, is on the planning group.
One of the things I discovered when I served as the planning group chaplain is that the planning group gets to help design the Kairos t-shirt that everyone receives when they get up there today, and there is some unofficial planning group pressure to have the t-shirt look cooler than any other year. If it’s a really cool and memorable t-shirt design and color, people will often refer to a particular Kairos by its t-shirt in the years to come. People will say, “Oh, yeah, that was the year with cool camouflage pattern t-shirt.” Or “That was the year with the glow-in-the-dark design on the front.” And, by the same token, if it’s a lousy design, people remember that too. You don’t want to make that mistake. You don’t want to be the planning team that asks everyone to wear a bad color. The point is, of course, that the t-shirt has the ability to set the theme for the event, and ideally you want people to honor your t-shirt by wearing it that week and for many weeks afterward.
Rewind that scenario about 2000 years and that is essentially the issue that the apostle Paul confronts in his congregation in Galatia. His beloved Galatian congregation has forgotten how cool it is to wear Christ, or at least they’ve forgotten what it means. Paul is so irritated by the fact that they are dismissing the design of the greatest t-shirt of all time—that is, their own baptisms—that he shoots off a six chapter letter to them to whip them back into shape.
The letter to the Galatians contains some of the most visceral writing in the whole Bible. You can tell Paul is really worked up. In at least two places he calls them foolish. In the first couple of chapters of the letter he painstakingly goes through his credentials mostly so that they trust he is an authority on matters of faith and the way of Jesus and they should continue to listen to him. Paul is worked up because they are not realizing they wear the holy and righteous and completely awesome garment they have received by virtue of their baptism, and he knows it will be their doom. Or at least it will doom the message of hope and salvation in Christ he brought them.
Now, we may not typically think of Christ as something we wear. To our modern ears that may sound a bit strange. I would guess most of us probably think of Jesus primarily as a person we have a relationship with, not a fashion statement, and Paul certainly has that understanding too. In fact, for Paul Jesus is a real, risen, living man who suffered and died and rose to bring about God’s new creation and who now lives with us through the presence of his Spirit. But Paul also talks about being “clothed with Christ,” which is something that had definite meaning within the early Church and even within the spirituality of Judaism.
In the early church, when people were baptized they immediately white robe which they then wore for at least a week afterwards. This was a practice that intended to drive home the transformation that had taken place in their life as a result of their baptism. It drove it home for the person who had been baptized as well as for those who would come into contact with them. It drove home that they had been changed somehow. No matter what kind of person they were, they were now a visible part of the community of the church, the body of Christ on earth. It was like they received a Kairos t-shirt—something that indicated they were now people of God’s time in Jesus. It was a sign that their faith in what Jesus had done for them, their faith in God’s self-giving love for them, no matter who they were, was now their way of life. Jesus’ grace covered them and their sins completely. It was their identity, their community, their hope and joy.
But in Galatia, for whatever reason, rivals to Paul had begun to convince many of them that their faith in Christ was not enough, that there were other t-shirts that were better. These people were claiming there were parts of the old Jewish law that they still needed to satisfy in order to be right with God. And for new Christians who were Gentile in origin, who had never followed Jewish law, this involved some pretty strict sacrifices. That’s when Paul steps in to say to them once again the only sacrifice required for our new life is the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. The law was fine for a time, Paul says, but once Jesus came, then he is all we need. And that gift cuts across all lines of social class, race, gender, and, we may assume, any other dividing line we tend to set up between people.
This was true for the people of Galatia and is true for us today. It dooms the message of Christ’s love if we start making any kind of distinctions about it. Jesus clothes us in the same love and mercy and forgiveness, no matter who we are, no matter what we’ve done, no matter what language we speak, no matter what country we come from, no matter who our parents are or were, no matter what political party we vote with, no matter how old we are, no matter how long we’ve been a churchgoer…you get the point. Our faith in what Jesus has done transforms the way we look at ourselves and each other. We’ve all got the same cool t-shirt. When we realize we’re wearing it, it makes us view one another as someone for whom Christ died and rose.
There is movie from the mid-1980s starring Molly Ringwald and Judd Nelson and Emilio Estevez called The Breakfast Club that was so beloved and so relevant that it crops up in pops up in popular culture from time to time. It tells the story of five high school kids who are all sentenced to a Saturday morning of in-school suspension for different trouble they’ve gotten into. As it happens, they each embody a different high school stereotype. One of them is a jock, one is a preppy snob, one of them is an academic nerd, one is a rebel, and one is a bit of a social misfit. They all are thrown together for this four-hour segment of time to complete an assignment the stern principal has given them as punishment: to compose a 1000-word essay on the topic, “who you think you are.”
They start as rivals to each other, making fun of one another, but they end as friends. Something about being in the “Breakfast Club” transforms them and they way they view one another. Their old identities don’t completely melt away, but they become transcended. Those distinctions become secondary to their friendships. In the movie’s final scene, one of the characters reads the essay they jointly compose, claiming they each came to see part of themselves in each other.
We, might I suggest, are the supper club…the Lord’s Supper Club. As we come together here each week and break his body and share his blood, we come to see in each other not just a part of ourselves, which is important, but mainly a reflection of Christ, the one who has claimed us all. We realize we’re all wearing that same garment of Jesus’ grace and that there is nothing we can ever do to cause us to lose it. We don’t ignore or downplay critical differences of privilege and power that creep in to our common life, but we do understand that all of us in Christ are one. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female.
So, for example, when we reflect on the massacre at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, when a white supremacist shot and killed nine African-Americans which has its fourth anniversary this month, we don’t think of that event as primarily something that happened to people of color. We realize it was an attack on our brothers and sisters. When we hear about the struggles of fellow Christians in the Holy Land and Iraq we don’t dismiss it as an Arab problem. We hear their cries for justice as coming from our own.
And this all matters because the world is watching. The world is shattered by all these differences and if there is a community that by God’s grace has learned to overcome them with mercy—or at least frame them in a constructive manner—Paul knows they will want to join us. They will feel the pull of Jesus’ love.
Melinda and I spent last week as Bible study leaders at one of our Lutheran camps in the mountains of North Carolina. We knew going in that we had been assigned to work with thirty 6th-8th graders in a camp known as “Fire and Water,” but what we didn’t know or even anticipate was that about a third of those campers were from Vietnam. I’m not entirely sure how they came to be registered for that week at Lutheridge, but they were actually visiting from Vietnam to learn about America and Christianity.
Although these young teenagers were well-behaved and very sweet, to be honest—utterly fascinated by lightning bugs and making lanyards—there was a cultural barrier and a language barrier that was difficult to overcome. As we all struggled to learn their names and pronounce them correctly, I watched with awe as their counselors, all college-aged young adults, worked extra hard to form one community all week long, to forge cross-cultural friendships, to bridge differences. And I watched the middle school campers not ostracize their cabinmates from Asia but find ways to incorporate them into what they were doing.
It was a tall order and it didn’t always go perfectly. But one day one of the Vietnamese campers shared with his counselor, “I have never thought about this religion thing before, but I like it.” And on our last day of Bible study together, we sat in a circle and tossed a ball of yarn around to form a web and gave each camper a chance to share something they had learned during the week. The American campers called them by their correct names, which was good to see. As it happened, the very last person to receive the ball of yarn was Quang, one of the Vietnamese boys. And as he held his section of yarn he said, “I learned this week about the love of God and the love of people who love God.”
So as the ball of yarn is thrown to you around this supper, in this place today, may you know the love of God for you and for the person on your left, and the person on your right. May the Spirit so move in us that we see we are all clothed and in our right mind in God’s timeless Kairos shirt.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.