Identity and Uniforms

A Homily for ADOTS Morning Prayer:  28 August 2020

(Colossians 3:12-25)

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

You’ve seen the commercials on television, haven’t you?  An earnest looking actor in a white lab coat half leans, half sits on the corner of a desk in an office filled with shelves of medical books and journals.  Perhaps there is a stethoscope around his neck.  He looks meaningfully at the camera and says, “I’m not really a doctor.  I just play one on TV.”  Then he proceeds to give you medical advice anyway, to explain why you should try a particular medication that some pharmaceutical manufacturer has paid him big bucks to shill.

Of course, this same actor might also have played a cowboy or a soldier in another program.  But, the producers didn’t dress him in chaps or camo fatigues for this commercial.  They needed him to look like a doctor for his pitch to be believable.  I am amazed that ad men think such silly stunts work; I am even more amazed that such silly stunts actually do work.  Viewers seem only too willing to suspend disbelief and take medical advice from a soap star.  Once during her annual physical my wife said to her doctor, “I’ve been meaning to ask you about this drug” — and here fill in any drug name that you see on television; I can’t remember the one she said — “you know the one for” — and here fill in any illness that you see on television; again, I can’t remember the exact one.  “But you don’t have that condition,” her doctor said, a bit puzzled.  “Oh, I know, but the “doctor” on television told me to ask you about it.”  Then she laughed.  I don’t think her doctor did.

So, what’s the point to this?  Putting on a white lab coat doesn’t make you a doctor.  You first become a doctor; then you put on the “uniform”:  identity first, then the uniform.

Ordination to the priesthood is another good example of this order of events, and one I am familiar with.  First the Bishop issues The Exhortation in which he details the responsibilities, challenges, and general gravitas of the priesthood; it is a sobering moment.  This is followed by The Examination:  pointed questions as the Bishop probes the ordinand’s commitment to the doctrine and discipline of the Church and to the unique duties of the priesthood.  Here the priest-to-be makes binding vows.  Lastly, there is The Consecration Of The Priest in which, by prayer and laying on of hands by the Bishop and the other priests gathered, the ordinand “receives the Holy Spirit for the office and work of a Priest in the Church of God” (BCP 493).  He is thereby admitted to the Order of Priests; he is, from that moment ever onward, a priest.

But one thing remains, another essential part of the rite.  The new priest is then vested — dressed in vestments — according to the Order of Priests.  The Bishop or a significant person in the priest’s life — in my case it was my wife — places the stole around the neck and across the shoulders of the new priest.  It is the outward, visible symbol of the priesthood, the yoke of the Lord.  The priest may also be vested in a chasuble, the poncho-like garment the Celebrant wears at the altar, a symbol of charity and a perfect work.  Identity first, then the uniform.

Now understand, anyone can go to C. M. Almy’s website and order a stole and chasuble.  You don’t need an ordination certificate, just a credit card.  Anyone can put on the priest’s uniform.  But, like the TV doctor, the uniform doesn’t make the priest.  The uniform doesn’t change one’s identity.  The order is important:  identity first, then the uniform.

This brings us round to the second lesson for the morning, the reading from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians.  Paul writes, in part, to make sure there are no play-actors in the church, to make sure that no one can say, “I’m not really a Christian; I just play one in the gathering” — or in the market or anywhere else:  no fake white linen robes — the baptismal garment of the saints — masking the identify of a pagan.  Remember the essential order:  identity first, then uniform.

That’s where Paul starts in our lesson from Colossians — with identity.  He writes to those who are “God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved” (Col 3:12a).  That’s their identity — chosen, holy, and beloved — and that identity is essential.  If we are not God’s chosen ones, if we are not the ones whom he has declared holy in Christ and whom he is sanctifying in the Spirit, if we are not his beloved ones, then nothing that follows makes any sense, nothing that follows is even possible.  Strip away for a moment all the characteristics you typically use to identify yourself:  your family relationships, your work, your hobbies and interests, your political affiliation, your church denomination, your cultural heritage, your place of residence, all of it.  When it is all stripped away, what is left of your identity?  What is most fundamental to it?  Who are you?  You are God’s chosen one, holy and beloved.  This is your true identity in Christ.  This is who you are and who you were made to be.  This is the identity — and the only identity — out of which you may truly live.  If this is not true of you, if you are not yet in Christ, not yet God’s chosen one, holy and beloved, then start there; seek the Lord, for he wills to be found.  Call upon him, for he is near.  Find a church; find a priest.  Turn to the Lord Jesus.

If this is your identity, then you may put on the uniform.  In fact, you must put on the uniform; it’s not optional.  The uniform of the saints is not made with fabric woven by men; it is made of Christ-like character imparted by the Holy Spirit.  Paul writes:

Colossians 3:12–13 (ESV): Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 

This is the uniform of the saints, at least part of it; Paul has more to say.  But notice, even now, that when we are putting on this uniform, we are really putting on Christ.  Our hearts suffer with those who suffer, just as Christ suffered with us and for us.  We seek the lowly place, the place of kindness, humility, meekness and patience, just as Christ emptied himself in his incarnation — God in human flesh, the Uncreated Creator born of woman, the King of kings in a stable, the Lord of all a refugee, the one who spoke worlds into being making doors and tables in a carpenter’s shop.  We forgive one another just as Christ lived and died to forgive us.  Putting on the uniform is putting on Christ.

What is it that really makes a uniform, that really sets it off?  There’s always something, that one thing.  For soldiers it might be the medals or the insignia of rank.  For a police officer, perhaps the badge.  For the Secret Service agents who guard the President, it’s the black sunglasses.  For the saints, it’s love.

Colossians 3:14 (ESV): And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

Why is love so important?  Because you can buy and wear knock-off uniforms.  Want a Louis Vuitton or a Coach purse on the cheap?  Go to Chinatown in Manhattan.  If you’re not afraid to follow a stranger down an alley, you can get a great deal.  Unless you are truly gullible, you know it’s not the real thing, of course:  a good fake, but not genuine.  You have to look closely to tell, though; it may be in the stitching or in the quality of the leather, but there are subtle, telltale signs that the product is not authentic.  The same is true with the saint’s uniform; there are knock-offs out there:  people who seem so compassionate, so kind, so humble, so forgiving.  But stay around them long enough and you get the sense that something’s off.  You get the sense of play-acting.  Something’s missing, and that something is love.  Love is the mark of authenticity.  Love is the one thing that can’t be imitated.  If you question this, read 1 Corinthians 13 again and see if you can really fake that for the long term.  We must put on love because God is love, perfect love hung high on the cross for all to see.  You can’t fake that.  Putting on love is putting on Christ and taking up your cross daily to follow him.

There is much more in this passage that I’d like to pull out, but this homily is already growing a bit long and you may need to get about your day.  But I must mention just one more item in the uniform because Paul mentions it three times in quick succession:  thankfulness.  Listen:

Colossians 3:15–17 (ESV): And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. 

If the self-emptying virtues are the fabric of the uniform, if love is the one thing that sets off the uniform and proves its authenticity, then maybe thankfulness is the proper fit of the whole uniform.  Because, given who God is, given what he has done for us, what is more fitting for the saints than a thankful heart and spirit?  Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift to us and to all who put on Christ, the uniform of the saints.  Amen.

About johnaroop

I am a husband, father, retired teacher, lover of books and music and coffee and, as of 17 May 2015, by the grace of God and the will of his Church, an Anglican priest in the Anglican Church in North America, Anglican Diocese of the South. I serve as assisting priest at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, TN, and as Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of the South.
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