To be clothed in Christ

a sermon for the second Sunday after Pentecost [Lectionary 12B]

Galatians 3:23-29

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.

Youth in matching t-shirts (but not Kairos t-shirts)

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.

“St Paul Writing his Epistles” (Valentin de Boulogne, 16th cent)

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.

a baptismal font from ruins of an early church. Note the cross shape.

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.”

breakfast club

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. 


How to say “Cappadocia”

a sermon for the Day of Pentecost [Year C]

Acts 2:1-21 and John 14:8-17

There was a lot of talk in the church office this week about the Parthians, the Medes, and the Elamites. There was also a lot of talk about the residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia…or is it Cappado-sha? Or Cappado-kia? And don’t get us started on those Phrygians and Pamphylians! We were talking about them because, you see, Hanne Hamlin, our Office Administrator, knew she had drawn the lay reader “short straw” and was scheduled to read the Acts lesson this morning that tells the story of Pentecost. And Turner Barger, the son of one of our office staff members and who serves as the president of the Synod’s Lutheran Youth Organization had also been assigned to read this Acts lesson at the big worship service at Synod Assembly Friday night in front of a group of 300 people which contained at least two bishops and dozens of pastors…as if we know how to say these words. I don’t really know how to say these words. I’ve always just made a guess on all those Cretans and Arabs and proselytes from Rome, which is what we all told Hanne and Turner to do. We told them just to launch forth with confidence no matter how they say it. No hesitation. Power through. Everybody will think they’ve done it correctly. And, to be honest, Turner and Hanne and Pamela all rocked it. Take that, Cappadocians!


If you like a good case of irony, this Pentecost reading is a perfect example of it. It is ironic that the Scripture lesson that tells us about how clearly understood the first disciples were on Pentecost contains itself so many words that are impossible to say! It is ironic that the Bible reading that is meant to show us how easy it was for those disciples to proclaim the gospel is one of the toughest for people to get through. For you see, the main message conveyed by this reading, once you get passed all the strange names, is that the gospel is no longer a mystery, no longer a complicated, hard-to-put-together message that only a handful of small-town disciples were entrusted with. The main message of Pentecost, the giving of God’s Holy Spirit, is that the love of Christ and his death and resurrection is now something everyone can grasp and not just grasp, but share!

And that message is for all people, no matter how hard it is to pronounce the country they come from, or how uncomfortable the color of their skin may make us, or how easy it is to drive around their impoverished neighborhood, or how tough it is to sit at their table in the lunchroom at school. The message of the gospel—that Jesus loves us and that the Spirit draws us into one body for God the Father—has been given to us to share and celebrate with all people. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved! And we are the ones to let that good news be known.


The congregation I served during my seminary internship  felt like a mini-Pentecost just about every Sunday in that several languages and ethnic groups were always present in the congregation. St. Andrew’s United Church of Cairo is an international, interdenominational congregation supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America that sits in the heart of Egypt’s capital city of about 16 million people. It has long been one of the few Protestant churches that offers English-language worship services in a liturgical format. As a result, the congregation is made up not just of American and British and Canadian expats, but also a large number of folks from other countries who happen to speak English. There were Dutch families, German families, as well as several families from various African countries. The congregation also hosted two Sudanese refugee congregations, each of which spoke a different native tongue.

On Christmas our worship tried to gather all of those different peoples together for one service, so we had to make sure the bulletin contained a print version of a lesson in the languages that were being spoken. If the Old Testament lesson, for example, was read aloud by one of the Sudanese worshipers in Dinka, then we’d print the lesson in English, Arabic, and Nuer. If we sang the first hymn in English, then the second one would be offered by one of the refugee choirs. It was a challenge to pull off, but the end result was that each received the message of Jesus’ love in their own tongue.

the beautiful St. Andrew’s United Church of Cairo, Egypt

I was glad for that experience, but I’ve since learned that congregations that speak one language have to be no less intentional about communicating the message of Christ. We may all speak English here, but none of us is exactly the same. We’re all walking the journey a bit differently with our own scars and wounds. We end up hearing things and experiencing matters of faith a bit differently. The Holy Spirit helps bring us overcome those barriers and brings us together in a way that makes us one. The Holy Spirit is that person of God that binds us in mission, so that when we perform an act of mercy or compassion, when we share a word of kindness, we will see the face of God revealed and the world will come to see the face of God in us. Jesus says to his disciples, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” As we, in spite of our differences, live out Christ’s command to love one another, we become the way the world sees God.

Diversity seems to be a big topic church these days, and for good reason. Even in 2019 we are still trying to overcome the divisions of race and gender and economics that have kept our unity less than what it could be. We celebrate that now there are more women and more people of color serving as bishops in our Lutheran denomination than ever before. Three congregations in the Virginia Synod (out of about six) are led by senior pastors who are women, which is sign that the stained glass ceiling is breaking. One day we won’t even count or take note of those kinds of things. They will just be the way the church in America is.Church-Diversity-640

And yet one thing I struggle with my tendency to make the concept of diversity into an idol, as if that idea of many differences is what I worship, not the God behind it. The people on Pentecost were surprised at their diversity and glad for it. Their diversity language and culture is a sign of the Holy Spirit’s activity. And yet the diversity never becomes the focus of their message. It just happens.

We would do well to remember, then, that the only thing that keeps the church true and interesting and powerful is the presence of Christ abiding through the Holy Spirit. Jesus tells his disciples on the eve of his death to keep his commandment of love. Diversity alone does not alone make the church rich. God’s love in Christ does. When it is proclaiming Jesus, crucified and risen, a small congregation of farmers on the plains of North Dakota is just as true a church as the congregation I served in Cairo with its many languages and ethnic groups. A new group of Christians worshipping in a grass hut in Papua New Guinea is just as valid in their discipleship and as a sign of God’s kingdom as we are here with our Brighten Our Light campaign and groundbreaking.

group photo 2

It is important that we not get too taken away with ourselves, too fixated on our tapestries of diversity—or apparent lack of it—for our task as church is never to proclaim ourselves. It not to point ultimately to how special we are, even though true diversity is very special. Our task is always and only to do the works that Jesus’ love produces in us, which are the works of God the Father. Our task is to point the world to the One who has claimed us and made us his own. It is to lift up the love of the God who has adopted us and made us children, and if children, heirs.

And yet…that is never an excuse just to be content with whoever is here at Epiphany at the moment, as if we’re complete. The Spirit always bringing new people to each church event, to each Sunday worship service. The Spirit is always placing new people in your path out their in your daily lives, people who long to know the love and forgiveness of Jesus. And the Spirit always calls us to be aware of how unintentionally unwelcoming we may be to newcomers, or how confusing our ways may be to those trying to find their way in.

That’s one reason why all the images for the Spirit in the Bible have to do with air. A dove, fire, rushing wind—God can’t be controlled, and be prepared for what can happen when you open up a window and let the air in. The Venerable Bede, an English saint of the 8th century who the church commemorates today, once said, “Unfurl the sails, and let God steer us where he will!”


The groundbreaking last Sunday was an exciting day in the life of this congregation. We’re getting ready to open a lot of windows. And walls. Literally. They’ll be knocked down and rebuilt. Last week during one of the children’s sermons, as I was showing the architects’ drawings to make a point, one young child spoke up and said, “But I don’t want our change our church.” That wasn’t exactly the direction I wanted to go with the children’s sermon, but, then again, you never know how the Spirit is going to move. In that moment I gave God thanks that the Spirit has developed this congregation in such a way that young children are welcome in worship and are nurtured in their faith in such a way that they can use their voice and respond openly and honestly to what they hear.

And I also gave thanks for that particular boy’s prophecy, because, if I’m honest, a part of me fears what these changes will bring to Epiphany, too. A part of me always fears change a bit, fears the air that blows in the window. I suppose the church is always being changed in some way, not just here at Epiphany, but the world over. If you like a good case of irony, there you have it. The church can always depend on the fact that things are changing. In our sin we consider them too young to do so, but the young men and women are prophesying. And in our sin we often paint them as stuck in their ways, but old men and women do have visions and dream dreams for what the people of God can be doing.

We can fear it, have our misgivings, and yet God still pours himself out for us. God still entrusts to us this powerful message of Christ for the sake of the world. So even when we’re not quite sure how we’re supposed to say it…or share it…how to pronounce it…how to be it…at some point God’s Spirit moves us to launch forward with confidence. No hesitation! Power through! People will see us and see the Father.

Thanks be to God!

Feast of Pentecost Clipart

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.