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from the “Nurture in Time and Eternity” collection

Exodus 12:1-14
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

September 4, 2005
Marsh Chapel
Boston University

Sermon Hymn #632

Let me reiterate my welcome to you this morning, especially to the new students and their families who are here for the first time. Because we are in the middle of a worship ritual, it is fair to point out that going away to college is itself a ritual act of great importance. Of course, it is not only a ritual: it is a real life transformation. Yet it has a ritual quality to it, a culturally defined celebration of a life change. In American society, going away to college, or I should say from the university pulpit, coming to college, marks the passage from childhood in the care of family to adulthood in the care of one’s own responsibility. People who do not go to college, or leave home for the military or make some other such culturally defined break from childhood often do not realize when adult responsibilities are upon them. The ritual character of coming of age by coming to college is extremely important.

The ancient Romans also had an important coming of age ritual, at least for the young men. Among other things it involved putting on clothes that only adult males were allowed to wear. The ceremony involved a young man being given an adult toga by his father, or some father surrogate. The Latin word for clothes is the root of our word “vestments.” The liturgical vestments that Dean Olson, Dean Young-Scaggs, and I are wearing in fact are ancient Roman costumes worn by government officials. We today have radically different clothes for our government officials, except for judges, and the Roman vestments linger on in church life rather than government because they have taken up a liturgical role within Christian history. Worship leaders in some Christian churches wear no special liturgical vestments. When I grew up in Missouri, most of the Methodist ministers wore black doctoral gowns to lead worship; few of them had Ph.D. degrees, although liturgical custom said it was alright for ministers to dress like Ph.D.s when leading worship. Our own vestments at Marsh Chapel reflect an older kind of Methodism with roots in Anglicanism and before that in medieval Christianity. I doubt that the leaders of Christian worship in the first three centuries wore robes like ours, because few if any were Roman senators. Only after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century was it likely that worship leaders dressed like government officials.

I am not stressing the importance of liturgical vestments because I think there is one right way for liturgical leaders to dress, or even because I think liturgical vestments are important for anything except contributing to a consistent and symbolically rich, historically sensitive, service of worship. Rather, I stress the importance of vestments because of our text from St. Paul, where he says to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” What does he mean by “putting on the Lord Jesus Christ”? He means to vest oneself in the clothing of the Christian Way. Just as a Roman adolescent boy becomes a man by putting on the tunic signifying adulthood, Paul was saying, so would-be Christians should become Christians by putting on the Way of Jesus Christ.

One of the most famous conversions in Christian history was that of Saint Augustine in the fourth century, and I follow the interpretation of that conversion given by the theologian Carl Vaught. Augustine had been raised as a Christian by a pious mother, but had fallen away from her faith. As a young man he became a successful teacher of rhetoric and, hunting for a religion, tried out, first, the religion of the Manicheans and, then, the philosophical and religious practices of the Neo-Platonists. More than religious experimentation, however, he fell into a life of partying and sexual excess. (I am not suggesting that he was like anyone you will meet here at Boston University, you understand!) Augustine was tempted back toward Christianity, although he could not bring himself to affirm it. He prayed, “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet!” One day he was in a garden with a friend, in a terribly wrought-up state of mind about whether to convert to the Christian faith. He heard some children on the other side of the garden wall chanting a game-rhyme that meant “take up and read, take up and read.” So he took up a copy of the New Testament lying on the garden table and read our passage from Romans: “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” Suddenly he knew what he had to do. He decided then and there to put off his way of life, which St. Paul called the way of the flesh, and to put on the Christian life. He put off the licentious way of life in which he had vested himself and put on the vestments of Christ’s Way. He had not solved all of his theological problems. He did not know yet the full implications of giving up the life he had been leading to take on the Christian life. Nevertheless, he put on the Lord Jesus’ Christ’s Way of life from that day forward and became one of the most important Christian leaders and thinkers ever.

What is the Christian Way summed up in the phrase, the Lord Jesus Christ? We know from the gospels that it does not necessarily have to do with giving up partying, sex, or riches, since Jesus was positive about all those things. Augustine had to give up those things because they were holding him in bondage so that, because of them, he could not put on the Lord Jesus Christ. In our text from Paul, the Christian way is beautifully described:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

That was Paul writing to the Romans. But possibly you noticed that he was quoting and glossing sayings of Jesus.

The big question for us is, how do we learn to love like that? It is one thing to say that we belong to a religion of love, and there are several such religions. It is quite another thing to put on the vestments of that religion so that we become lovers, as God is a lover. Of course, I don’t mean that you have to put on religious clothing, dressing like a Roman senator or a person with a Ph.D. Some Christians, like some Buddhists, do wear special clothes to indicate their invested religious identity. The true vestments of Christianity, however, have a lot to do with whom you associate with in your work and leisure. Augustine immediately told his friend, Alypius, who was in the garden with him, about his conversion and Alypius too converted and they began to help one another. So it will help you to cultivate Christian friends. It will help to join Christian groups. You are welcome in any of the groups we have at Marsh Chapel. It will help to read the Bible and theology, and to talk with serious friends about the meaning of the Christian life. It will help to develop habits of prayer and meditation. It will help to come to regular worship and meet people who are at very different stages in their practice of the Christian Way of love. For many people here, the true Christian vestments are brand new; for others they are nicely worn and comfortable. The Christian life is not basically about beliefs or even virtues. The Christian life is about putting on a pattern of behavior associated with Jesus Christ that leads to the cultivation of the way of love as Jesus taught and practiced.

So I invite you to invest yourselves this morning in the Way of the Lord Jesus Christ. Even the financial meaning of the word “investment” derives from “putting on” the fortunes of the company in which you invest: the future of that company is your financial future when you give it your money. For you to invest yourselves in the Way of Jesus Christ, however, is not to have a balanced portfolio. I presume all of you students will try on the vestments of different religions. Everyone who reads the Daodejing becomes a Daoist for at least as long as it takes to clean their room and drink some tea. You will make friends with people who are deeply invested in different religious traditions from your own, and you might for a while invest with them for the sake of friendship. All that is to the good! But sometime you will need to invest all your heart, soul, mind, and strength in some particular Way, such as the Way of the Lord Jesus Christ. That Way has many forms, and it might take years to find those forms that suit your own life, that lead you to greater love. I admit that some forms of Christianity for some people lead them to lives of resentment, small-mindedness, and hate. But I urge you to invest in that Christian Way that leads to life and love.

The central ritual of the Way of the Lord Jesus Christ is the communion or Eucharist that we are about to celebrate. I invite you to put on the Lord Jesus Christ by coming to his table. No membership requirements exist for you to put on Jesus Christ at this table, for Jesus did not eat only with his disciples. No virtue requirements exist for you to put on Jesus Christ at this table, for Jesus ate with sinners as well as saints. No constancy or commitment requirements exist for you to put on Christ at this table, for Jesus never insisted that people come back. If you are here just because of custom, not commitment, come put on Jesus Christ and see whether things get serious. If you are curious about Christianity and its theology, come to this table to put on its intellectual Way for a while. If you are filled with doubts and rebellion, come put on Jesus Christ and see how doubts are contained within the Christian Way. If you already have put on Jesus Christ, come to his table to celebrate with his people. If you want to become better at the Christian Way, come to his table and put on Christ’s nourishment. If you are an outsider, come to the table and put on the fellowship of Jesus Christ. If you feel unworthy and ashamed, guilty and filled with self-condemnation, come to this table and put on the Lord Jesus Christ in whom there is no condemnation, for this table has the food of life. If you do not know how to love as God loves, put on Jesus Christ at this table and you will begin to learn. At this time of ritual transformation, where going to college means putting on adult responsibility, I invite you to do this by investing in the Lord Jesus Christ, our Way, Truth, and Life.


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