“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Gal. 3:27).
Martin Luther is supposed to have said that when Christians get up in the morning, they should wash their faces… and remember they’re baptized! Not too big a leap, I think, from the morning ablution to the memory of baptism. Whatever the link, Luther’s advice is all about the importance of recalling who we are, and who we belong to. Our fundamental identity is as disciples, followers of Jesus Christ, and we don’t want to lose sight of that fact. So we get in touch with ourselves at the start of the day, wash our faces, and remember that we are Christians.
Yet there’s even more here, and that has to do with how we acquired this identity. St. Paul provides the foundation for Luther’s morning prescription when he writes, in our second reading today, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Gal. 3:27). In other words, we become Christians through baptism. By water and the word, as the hymn says, we take on a new baptismal character, the character of Christ himself. We have a new identity through sacramental grace, which is the power and presence of God in our lives. We recall this fundamental identity given in baptism each time we come to the altar rail to receive the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood, his life given for us so that it can be new life within us. The gift given in communion depends on our prior identity with him given in baptism.
St. Paul’s words about being “clothed” recall the commonsense reality of baptism: after the candidates went into the water, they needed new clothes when they got out! The experience of baptism leads to a new identity, and the identity is with Christ. The change of clothes is an “outward and visible sign” that it’s a new person who stands before the congregation. It’s this idea that’s behind the old custom of the christening gown, or the new suit of clothes at Easter.
If baptism is the “how” of new life, Paul also gives us some clues as to the nature of the new identity, the “what” of baptism. In the letter to the Romans, St. Paul talks about baptism as a life and death experience: dying to an old life, and being raised to new life with Christ. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Rom. 6:3). The death of the old self brings about a new birth, a new person, in Christ. “But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him” (Rom. 6:8). Baptism into Jesus Christ is the beginning of a new life, marked by the pattern of Christ’s own death and resurrection.
That’s good news for us, because it means that this life, marked by dead ends of different sorts, is not the final word. “Good news” because it is “gospel,” the proclamation of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Through him, there’s something more for the People of God. Just when we come to the end of our rope, God cuts us some slack. He gives us a wide margin for rest and recovery and renewal of life. There are new paths forward that the dead-end approach does not take into account. Jesus shows us the way ahead, and even makes the path possible for us. His death and resurrection have paved the way, blazed a trail, for a people who put their faith in him.
Our reading from Galatians reminds us that this way forward is not a solitary path. New life is shared by the Body of Christ, a new community that shares Christ’s own identity. This sharing, what St. Paul elsewhere calls “fellowship” with Christ (1 Cor. 1:9), make us, together with him, “heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:29). The community of the church is marked by mutual reciprocity, and equal status, among the members. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). We’re not scrambling in isolation, but we move forward together in mission and ministry.
Those being baptized and confirmed today are inheriting the life that Jesus has won for us: entering into baptism and new life, or re-affirming their baptismal vows. We celebrate this new chapter together, as fellow members of the Body of Christ. We too have our own opportunity to recall who we are, and who we belong to. Remember that you’re baptized! We’re touching base as a church together, here at St. Paul’s today. People all over the Diocese of Tennessee are praying for us as we gather and celebrate. New life in Christ is real, perhaps the fundamental reality, and we are seeing it in action today.