Mark Twain famously said that “Clothes make the man,” and we’re often told to dress for success. In fact there is much truth to this adage, which is why there is a nonprofit called “Dress for Success” that provides appropriate clothing for job seekers. Even in this much more casual era, we seem to understand that clothes stand for something, and by changing our clothes we can change our identity.
Although it’s probably not polite to talk about movies that feature a prostitute as the main character, I couldn’t come up with a better example of the way clothes can transform a person’s identity than the Julia Roberts film Pretty Woman. I even searched the internet to see if I could find a “better” example, but nothing spoke so clearly to this issue of the way clothes can change one’s identity than this movie, except perhaps the story of Cinderella.
In this film a rich man played by Richard Gere hires a prostitute named Vivian to be there for him, to be his “companion” for the weekend. When Vivian arrives at the man’s apartment, she looks the part of a prostitute, and everyone, including Edward, the rich man, treats her like a prostitute – someone hired to do the bidding of another. In the course of time, Edward realizes that Vivian’s clothes aren’t appropriate for someone who is connected with him, and so he gives her money to buy new clothes. It will take intervention by the concierge and a friend of the concierge to make the difference, but once she gets the new clothes, it transforms her life. People look at her differently, including Edward. No longer do they see a prostitute, but instead they see a beautiful and sophisticated woman. It takes time for her to come to grips with the change, but she begins to feel differently about herself, and as a result her life changes. She ceases to be a prostitute and becomes a person of self worth and value. Indeed, Edward begins to see her as a person and not a thing, and falls in love. Yes, clothes can make the person – or at least changing one’s clothes can symbolize a change in identity.
1. Before and After
As you read the Colossian letter, you will see an emphasis on “before and after.” The author is writing to Gentile Christians, people who once lived in sinful idolatry. He writes to them, telling them that once they had lived outside God’s grace, but now they are children of God. Once their lives had been marked with darkness, but now they live in the light. To make his point the author lists some of the vices that had defined their former lives, vices such as evil desires, greed, anger, malice, lies, and more. That was the old life, the life before Christ, but now that they are in Christ, they have put off this old life and have clothed themselves with a new self.
Most of us who gather here today grew up as Christians, or at least in a Christian context. Many of us have never known a time when we weren’t in the church. That doesn’t mean we’ve not had our struggles or our doubts. It doesn’t mean we’ve lived perfect lives. But it does mean that the “changes” that have occurred in our lives don’t seem as drastic, as those described in this letter. But, for the first readers of this letter, being a Christian meant taking on a new identity. The old self was dead and buried.
Our author knows that even when our lives change, it’s not always easy to keep focused on the things of God. It’s easy to get distracted and even return to the old life. Sometimes the old life even seems more inviting than the present life. Remember the people of Israel, who having wandered in the desert for a time, began to pine for the “flesh pots of Egypt.” Yes, in comparison to wandering in the desert, slavery seemed preferable. At least then they knew where the next meal was coming from and where they would lay their head at night.
The letter serves as a reminder, a wake up call, to people who might be straying from the things of God. It is a reminder to keep one’s focus on the things of heaven – after all, they are now possessors of a new identity in Christ.
2. Baptism, death, and new life.
Although this chapter doesn’t speak directly about baptism, references to death and resurrection, old self and new self, even new clothes, fit well with the biblical understanding of baptism. In Romans 6, Paul links the act of baptism to Christ’s own experience of dying and rising (Romans 6:1-6). This linking of baptism to the death and resurrection of Jesus is one of the most powerful images that emerges out of our practice of baptism by immersion. You go into the waters of baptism and are buried with Christ, leaving behind the old life, dying to sin and its hold on one’s life, and then the baptismal candidate rises out of the waters of death and now experiences the newness of Christ’s resurrection life. The old is washed away, and the new is there to be embraced. The author of this letter goes into detail naming the behaviors that mark the old life, behaviors that are left behind in the waters of baptism.
As the letter continues, the image changes from death and resurrection, but baptism continues to stand behind the images. In the next image, we’re encouraged to strip off the old life and clothe ourselves with the new self. We don’t know when the practice began, but it became common in the early church for baptismal candidates to strip off their clothes before they entered the baptismal waters, where they would be baptized naked, so that they might be reborn as they came out of the baptismal waters, at which point they would receive new clothes, to mark their new identity. Because baptisms often took place on the Saturday prior to Easter, this practice may have given rise to the tradition of buying new clothes for Easter Sunday, as a reminder that in baptism one is made new.
3. Living the New Life
Having received the new clothes, symbolizing one’s status as a reborn self, the expectation is that one will take on a new way of life. First of all, the nature of our relationships has changed. We’re told that in Christ, there are no longer Jew or Greek, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian or Scythian, slave or free, but all are one in Christ. It’s unfortunate that the author of this letter didn’t include that important pairing from Galatians – “male and female,” but I think we can get the point – there is now in Christ oneness of purpose and relationship. The old divisions that society sets up have been set aside as we experience union with God in Christ.
Getting back to the movie Pretty Woman, the transformation wasn’t an easy one, but by the end of the movie Vivian had become a new person. The old life was gone, and while the transformation may not have been instantaneous, those new clothes symbolized her change of identity. Of course, that meant living life differently. There were bumps in the road, but in the end, as is true of most movies, the couple, both changed as a result of their encounter, live happily ever after.
What is true of the movie is somewhat true of the Christian life. The transformation isn’t instantaneous. It is instead, a gradual process. Thomas a Kempis, a 15th century monk, wrote in his devotional classic The Imitation of Christ, about the need for patience in the face of temptation:
Patience is necessary in this life because so much of life is fraught with adversity. No matter how hard we try, our lives will never be without strife and grief. Thus, we should not strive for a peace that is without temptation, or for a life that never feels adversity. Peace is not found by escaping temptations, but by being tried by them. We will have discovered peace when we have been tried and come through the trial of temptation. (Devotional Classics, Richard Foster and James Bryan Smith, eds., San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1993, pp185-186).
Although the transformation will last a life time, we are instructed to see ourselves in a new light. We are a new self, with new clothes, and a new identity, and not only has the nature of our relationships been transformed, but so is the way we’re to live our lives in this world.
In the verses that follow our lectionary reading we find a description of the kinds of behaviors that are expected of those who have clothed themselves with the new self through baptism. Let me read a portion of this text:
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. (Col. 3:12-14)
Whereas the old life was marked by anger, greed, evil desires, the new life in Christ is to be marked by compassion, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, and above all love, which we’re told “binds everything together in perfect harmony.” This is the life we’re called to live, the life that leads to peace with our neighbors and with God. Having taken up this new life, let us, as our author encourages, “teach and admonish one another, and take up hymns and songs of praise, so that “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:16-17).