In the Name…
Two priests were on vacation at the beach, just strolling along the boardwalk dressed in usual beach attire – shorts, sandals, floppy hats - when a stunning young woman in a bikini passed by and said “Hello, Fathers.” Amazed, the priests stopped her and asked, “Excuse us, Miss. We are priests, but, dressed as we are, how did you know?” She replied, “Don’t you recognize me? I’m Sister Catherine from the school.”
“Clothed and in his right mind.” That is how the Gospel described the Gerasene demoniac after Jesus healed him and, certainly, based on how he was portrayed before – stark naked as well as stark raving mad - that would have been a significant improvement. But, I think there’s more being said here than just a report on physical appearance or even mental health.
There are a number of beautiful metaphors in the Old Testament which use the word “clothed.” One can be “clothed with righteousness” or “clothed with shame”; “clothed with salvation” and “clothed with strength.” In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul uses this same word and image when he urges his readers to “cast off the works of darkness and be clothed with the armour of light.” And, today, we heard him write to the Galatians that their baptism means they have “clothed yourselves with Christ.” They have immersed themselves in his character.
In the Early Church, baptism was an elaborate affair. Candidates would completely undress before getting in the water and not because they didn’t want their clothes to get wet. On the contrary, candidates would often wear to the ceremony, and then give away to the poor, the best clothes they owned as a symbol of what they were giving up – a way of life focused on the values of the world. They undressed because they were taking the whole “new birth” imagery literally. As Job said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb.” And, then, after baptism, the new Christians were dressed in white robes representing swaddling-clothes, a symbol of their spiritual new birth in Christ.
Now, in our time there has been a great usage of the term “born-again Christian.” And, that can be a dramatic description of a lukewarm Christian who has woken up to what being a Christian is all about and is now on fire with excitement. Someone who’s realized that there’s more to the faith than just being ethical or going to church every so often. But, at the same time, it’s also a redundant phrase because every Christian, whether active or not, is already “born-again” from the moment of his or her baptism.
Indeed, even the phrase “baptized Christian” is, technically, redundant because either one is or isn’t. I mean would we say that a Muslim or Hindu is an unbaptized Christian? I doubt it. No. To be a Christian is to have a new life that was not mine before. It is a work of grace which makes my soul immortal. And, it is not something I achieve by my own efforts. Indeed, my only role in being baptized is to say “Yes” – Yes to letting Christ in my life.
Of course, once I have it, there’s a lot that I have to do with my new life. I have to grow into it. I have to learn how to be clothed with Christ and in his same mind - a right mind, so to speak. I have to develop the patience, humility and love of Christ – his openness to people, his willingness to risk. But, perhaps, above all, I have to accept the fact that putting on Christ also means putting on a life of servanthood and reconciliation.
And, this is expressed by Paul when he says that among those who have been baptized there is “no Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female.” Now, why these particular distinctions? Well, there is a traditional Jewish prayer in which a Jewish male gives thanks each day that he is not a Gentile, slave or woman, and Paul, himself, would have recited this when he was a good Pharisee. But, lest we, with our modern social perspective, consider this merely an expression of outrageous racial, economic and sexist prejudice, in Paul’s time, the prayer was made because Gentiles, slaves and women were excluded from full participation in the religious life of the Jewish community. So, the prayer was actually meant to be a thanksgiving for the privilege of being close to God.
I know that doesn’t make it any better for us to accept, but, that’s the point. It grates on our ears and offends our sensibilities precisely because we are Christians and the veil of the temple has been torn in two. For us, there are no barriers to God – man-made or genetic – because, as St. Paul says in another place, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself and we have, in turn, been given this ministry of reconciliation.
The Letter to the Galatians itself, like all of Paul’s letters, is an occasional one. That is, Paul wrote it to address a particular concern in a particular place. In this case, the occasion was that some people were telling the Gentile Galatians that if they wanted to be Christians, they had to also practice the Jewish Law – including what to eat, what to wear, observing Sabbath and Passover, circumcision, etc. So, Paul wrote to assure the Galatians that it was their faith that mattered most. They didn’t have to become Jews any more than women had to become men or slaves had to become free. Whatever they were, they just had to become Christ’s.
To return, then, to the Gerasene demoniac – clothed and in his right mind – what he says to Jesus is amazing. He wants to go with Jesus. Yes, Jesus has healed him, but, Jesus and his group are Jews and they’re heading back to Jewish territory. How does he think he would be treated? He’s making an unrealistic request in his enthusiasm. And, Jesus sees the problem. He knows it wouldn’t work for this fellow. But, he also knows what will. "Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you." In other words, this Gentile has just become the first commissioned missionary of a Jewish denomination.
Crazy, wasn't it? After all, back home, people thought he was crazy. But, that is where Jesus sent him because that is where Jesus knew his story would have the greatest impact. Back home where people would understand how his life had been changed. And, we know he did spread the word because, later in the Gospel, we read that Jesus returned to that same area, and, this time, it says, he was welcomed with open arms.
All of us are similarly commissioned by virtue of our own baptisms. A great saint once wrote that "He who has found the Christ, must become a Christ to others" and that is our calling - to be ministers of reconciliation, clothed with Christ and sharing his mind.
May that always be how we are identified and recognized.
In the Name…