Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Sermon for fourth mid-week Lent service - Gal 3:26-29

                                                                                    Mid-Lent 4
                                                                                    Gal 3:26-29

            In the Church of the fourth century A.D. the candidates for baptism received catechesis during the weeks of Lent.  If they were from outside the city where the cathedral was located – the church of the bishop – they would go to that city and remained there during the season of Lent.
            Baptism itself at the Vigil of Easter took place in the baptistery – often a separate building adjacent to the cathedral.  The individual descended into the font which held water that came up to about the waist.  They entered wearing only their undergarment, and in some places wearing nothing at all. Then the bishop poured watered over their head as they were baptized. After baptism, as they emerged from the font, they were dressed in a white garment.
            Those who had been baptized were then led into the cathedral in a procession wearing their white garments. There, the other Christians were waiting for them.  When they arrived, the Service of the Sacrament took place as the newly baptized received the Sacrament of the Altar for the first time along with the other Christians.
            The baptized came to church on Easter Sunday wearing their white baptismal garments.  However, they weren’t done with church services when Sunday was over.  Instead, they attended services each day during the week of Easter and also received further catechesis that unpacked what they had experienced.  During the services of that week, they wore their white baptismal garment each day and sat together as a group at the front of the church where they could be seen by all.  Their presence provided a name for this time that was used in some parts of the Church: they called it “white week.”
            The use of baptismal gowns in the Church has a very long history. And it has been prompted by Paul’s words in our text tonight where he tells the Galatians, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” 
            The apostle’s words provide yet another way that the Scriptures describe the Sacrament of Holy Baptism.  I like to compare this sacrament to a diamond.  When you look at the diamond from different angles it provides a different appearance as the facets reflect the light. And yet of course each view is showing you the same diamond.
            During our mid-week Lent homilies we are considering the different ways that the gift of baptism is a blessing to us. We have seen that in baptism we receive the forgiveness of sins, we are buried with Christ and we receive rebirth.  Tonight we learn that in baptism we have been clothed with Christ.  And we find that when Paul says this he is using it to prove deep and central truths about the Christian faith and life.
            Paul says that in baptism we are clothed with Christ.  The background for understanding this is a verse like in Isaiah 61 where we hear: “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.”
            In baptism, through water and the Word the Spirit applies the benefits of Jesus’ death and resurrection to us. To be clothed with Christ in baptism is to be covered by his holy sacrifice for us.  It is to be covered by his righteousness.  And so when God looks at us, he does not see our sin.  Instead he sees Christ and what he has done for us. Because of Jesus, we become in God’s view something that we are not! And because this is so we are saints – we are the forgiven people of God.
            There is no time when we want to remember this more than at the death of a Christian.  We need to be reminded of the assurance we have that because of baptism this person is a forgiven child of God.  And that is the role of the funeral pall that is placed over the casket at the beginning of the funeral service.  Like the garment at baptism, it is there to serve as a visual reminder that this individual was clothed with Christ and his righteousness in Holy Baptism.
            Paul says in our text, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”  The word “for” here is important because it tells us Paul is using this statement about baptism to establish or prove a point.  And his point is stated in the previous verse: “For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.”
            Jewish Christians had come to the Gentile Galatians and told them that if they really wanted to be part of God’s people and be saved, they needed to do the works of the Law of Moses.  They needed to be circumcised, follow the food laws, and observe the Jewish religious days.
            Paul is telling the Galatians, that this is all wrong.  What we do is not involved in any way in our salvation. Instead we are justified by God’s grace through faith in Christ.  Paul has said in the previous chapter, “we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.”
            The Galatians believe in Jesus and his death and resurrection.  And because they do, they are already the sons and daughters of God.  They may not descend from Israel, but because of Jesus they are the sons of Abraham.  Earlier in this chapter Paul told them, “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed.’  So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.”
            God had made the promise that in Abraham’s seed – his offspring - all nations would be blessed. And then Paul identifies this offspring as being Jesus Christ.  He writes, “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ.”
            Jesus Christ is the offspring of Abraham promised by Scripture.  The Galatians have faith in Jesus.  They are in Christ – they are joined to him and receive the blessing of his saving work. They are sons and daughters of God.  How can Paul say this for sure? They’ve been baptized!  That’s why Paul says, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”
            As those who have faith they have been baptized into Christ.  They have been clothed with Christ.  They are therefore justified by faith. They are therefore in Christ. And if they are in Christ the offspring of Abraham, then they too are the offspring of Abraham.  Paul concludes in our text by saying, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise.”
            We find it easy to forget that this is who we are – that we are in Christ; that we are sons and daughters of God; that we are heirs according to promise. We are prone to suffer from a spiritual amnesia.  Instead, we live like we belong to ourselves.  We live like we belong to the world as we take up its ways of thinking and acting.
            And that is why we must always be returning to our baptism; why we must always be holding up baptism before us.  We do so because when we look to our baptism we are reminded that we have been baptized into Christ. We have been clothed with Christ. And because this is so we are people who are in Christ.  We are sons and daughters of God.
            This status is ours and it means that we are forgiven for all of the times and ways we forget.  It also means that the Spirit who was at work in baptism to make us people who are clothed with Christ is still at work in us so that we can live like people who belong to Christ.  Reminded that we are sons and daughters of God through baptism and faith, the Spirit prompts and leads us to live like people who are.
            You have been baptized.  That means you have been clothed with Christ.  His saving death and resurrection covers your every sin and allows you to stand before God as a saint – a holy one in Christ – a forgiven sinner. That is true now.  It is true on the Last Day.  And so you can live confidently in the knowledge that in Christ and through faith you are the sons and daughters of God.   


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