When you’re little, you don’t get to choose what you wear. There’s no debate. As long as somebody else is dressing you, you don’t have a say, typically. They wrap you in blanket like a light blue spring roll or gently fold your little limbs into a yellow onesie – it’s their call. You wear whatever they decide. You cooperate, until one day you figure out how to say “no” and that’s when a transition period of daily struggle begins. Eventually you agree to their terms: you choose from one of three outfits one of your adult clothing partners has laid out for you on top of your dresser, or you get to pick items yourself straight from the drawer, and said adults reserve the right to veto your choices when you walk into the kitchen. You want to wear what you want to wear, clothes are very personal, and it’s hard for you to see why wearing your superhero outfit for three weeks straight, day and night, could possibly be a problem or why you can’t wear your undies on top of your jeans so everybody can see the cool print on the front.
The clothes we wear are the result of complex negotiations between self-expression and the need to fit it, between taste and functionality, between following rules and pushing against them. For ages, clothes have provided warmth and protection, but they also reflected gender, age, cultural identity, and class differences, visually distinguishing the ruling, powerful, and wealthy from everyone else. We call people white-collar or blue-collar, we call them suits or smarty pants or stuffed shirts. We used to say, perhaps some of us still do, “She’s all fur coat and no knickers” or, “He’s all hat and no cattle.” Our clothes reflect who we are or aspire to be as well as where we belong, whether we like it or not. We use clothing to express ourselves, but we also wear layer upon layer of other people’s expectations and dreams or lack thereof. I have met men and women of all ages who feel like they’re living somebody else’s life. I’ll come back to that.
Our friend Jerry Seinfeld tells us,
I hate clothes, okay? I hate buying them. I hate picking them out of my closet. I can’t stand every day trying to come up with little outfits for myself. I think eventually fashion won’t even exist. It won’t. I think eventually we’ll all be wearing the same thing. ‘Cause anytime I see a movie or a TV show where there’s people from the future of another planet, they’re all wearing the same thing. Somehow they decided “This is going to be our outfit. One-piece silver jumpsuit, V-stripe, and boots. That’s it.” We should come up with an outfit for earth. An earth outfit. We should vote on it. Candidates propose different outfits, no speeches. They walk out, twirl, walk off. We just sit in the audience and go, “That was nice. I could wear that.”
We see Jerry at the clothing store, and he’s tired of looking; the salesman tells him, “Well, I might have something in the back.” He returns with a jacket. Elaine says, “Try it on.” She touches it. “Wow, this is soft suede.” He tries it on.
“This may be the most perfect jacket I have ever put on.” And he buys it.
Next we see him sitting on his couch wearing his pajamas and his new jacket. He gets up to look at himself in the mirror. Kramer enters.
“Hey. New jacket?”
“What do you think?”
“Is it me?”
And Kramer says, “That’s definitely you.”
“Really?” Jerry asks.
“That’s more you than you’ve ever been.”
Later Jerry proudly models his new jacket in front of George and says, “This jacket has completely changed my life. When I leave the house in this, it’s with a whole different confidence. Like tonight, I might’ve been a little nervous. But, inside this jacket, I am composed, grounded, secure that I can meet any social challenge.”
Jerry has found his superhero outfit. It’s completely changed his life. In Kramer’s words, “That’s more you than you’ve ever been.”
Every line of dialogue in those scenes, of course, oozes irony. But they still speak to a deep longing inside you and me and to a deep fear: we long to be seen by others for who we are and be loved for who we are. And at the same time we are afraid to be truly seen by others, because we can’t believe they could accept us if they truly saw us instead of the person we work so hard to project. I said earlier, I have met men and women of all ages who feel like they’re living somebody else’s life. They feel like they’ve been given a role in somebody else’s drama, and they’ve never tasted the freedom of adding their own words to the script. They’ve never known the freedom of wearing feathers of joy, ponchos of comfort, or long, light shirts of no worries, because they’ve been dressed from a very young age in layers of pain and shame and guilt. And those layers fit so tightly, we wear them like skin or have almost forgotten there’s actual skin underneath. And we add more layers, layers of armor and invisibility cloaks. We choose with great care what we wear, but often with little hope.
The question is, can we hear what Paul has to say? He tells us to set our minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. He’s not telling us to stick our heads in the clouds and block from view mountains and oceans, rivers, forests, fields and meadows, all things bright and beautiful, God’s creatures great and small – no, he’s telling us to set our minds on the reality of Christ’s resurrection, and he says “above” because our words fail us when we seek to speak about God’s reign that is in the world, but not part of the world. Christ is risen from the dead – he is beyond the reach of sin and death and any power that diminishes and distorts God’s gift of life. He is alive, fully alive, completely alive. But that is not the whole story. The resurrection is not just something fantastic that happened to Jesus, but the beginning of a whole new order of things, the beginning of a new creation. The resurrection is the beginning of life’s liberation from the house of bondage. The resurrection is the beginning of the end of sin’s oppressive rule and it is already the end of sin’s oppressive rule.
And because Christ has made us his own in love’s radical solidarity with us, we are not what the world has made of us or prevented us from becoming – no, we are who we were meant to be from the beginning, God’s beloved. Christ died in radical solidarity with us, but he is alive, completely alive in God, and this fullness of life is his gift to us. Because we belong to Christ, death is already a past reality for us, and our life is hidden with Christ in God. Hidden, but already present, waiting to be revealed. Hidden, but already transforming us. In Christ, we are becoming who we already are. The more fully we know ourselves and one another as God’s beloved, the less we will seek to serve the idols of money, sex, and control. We set our minds on Christ, we set our minds on things that are above, and when others go low in malice, slander, and abusive language, we go high.
The context of difficult transformation in our personal and communal life is being addressed in today’s reading with the language of stripping and clothing. The apostle writes,
You have stripped off the old humanity with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new humanity, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.
This refers to our embracing of Christ as our life, and so active verbs prevail: you have stripped off, you have clothed yourselves. But the other side of our embrace of Christ, and the initial movement, is Christ’s embrace of us. And in his embrace we are being gently undressed. He sees who we are underneath all those layers. He takes off our armor. He peels away the guilt and shame, every layer, and he touches the pain. He knows. He takes off the old humanity with its practices, and he clothes us with the new humanity, that is, humanity in the image of its Creator rather than its many idols.
In Christ’s embrace, all that keeps us from being one humanity is being erased, and not so we can all be dressed in one-piece silver jumpsuits that hide the rich diversity of our humanity. God has designed an earth outfit for humankind; it has the color, texture, and radiance of glory: All of us alive, fully alive, completely alive with Christ. Living with Christ, embracing Christ as our life, we’re not living somebody else’s life. We’re finally living the one life there is, and nothing else.