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The 3rd Sunday of Easter; The Collect, John 21:1-19

Quite some years ago I officiated at a wedding (of friends), and clothing was one of the more serious problems that plagued that particular bride and groom in their planning. You see, it was a second marriage for the bride, and a first marriage for the groom, and it seems there are strict rules of what one can and can’t wear under those circumstances. The bride can’t wear white, or anything too long, or with a train or a veil, and that limits the groom in what he can wear. Stripped trousers, a big cravat, and a morning coat look silly when the bride is wearing a little cocktail dress. And yet the groom’s family wanted this to be a big, and fancy, and above all, proper wedding – after all, hopefully it would be his only one. (And so far, it was!) Now, looking back on my wedding planning meetings with this couple, it seems bizarre, but we spent a lot of time discussing clothes!

“Clothes make the man,” was an old saying, although today we might say, “Clothes make the person.” Have you looked at the business or self-help section of a bookstore? Or a magazine rack? Titles such as “Power Dressing” or “Dress for Success” and the like are everywhere. There are articles on what to wear for a first date, for a job interview, to a business party. You can get authoritative advice, sometimes conflicting, on what to wear for just about every human function.

It doesn’t seem to matter who we are; we are judged by the way we dress. For most of us, clothes are important, even if not all-important. We want to dress as presentably as we can. We each have a certain image of ourselves, and we don’t like to be caught out in clothes that are unsuitable at a given time, for a certain function. Just look at me – what I am wearing is acceptable here, and you might worry if I were dressed very much differently – but I’d be considered quite odd if I walked like this into the shops in the plaza not far from here on Ottawa Street. It is a given in our society that people learn, or assume, a lot about us by the way we dress.

There is an old, old hymn, from mid-17th century – it is in the 1971 “Red” Anglican-United Church hymnal, although not in any more recent hymnals that I’ve looked at – which begins in a way that sounds very quaint to us. But it has great beauty and teaches a great truth. It begins, “Lord, when thou didst thyself un-dress/laying by thy robes of glory”. The hymn, of course, is about the Incarnation, the mysterious event in which, we believe, God voluntarily became human. God undressed, God took off the glorious robes of godhood, and chose instead the garment of humanity.

God undressed. What does that mean? We have no images of God in the majesty of godhood. Despite all the symbolic representations in Scripture, in the writings of Christian theologians over twenty centuries (thirty-five over the time of the Old and New Testaments), and in countless pieces of art, ultimately we have absolutely no idea what God, as God, looks like. The best description that theology has come up with is that God, as God, is “beyond description”. God undressed – that undressing could only have been the exchange of unimaginable and undescribable majesty (and even those words have human connotations that are limiting descriptions!) for the humble covering of a human body. The gulf between the dazzle of divinity and the humility of humanity is infinitely wide.

But, God undressed! Why? – Think about it. – Most of us become uncomfortable in the presence of someone who is dressed very much better than we are. We are not at ease in the presence of someone wearing the clothing of authority. Two scholar friends who moved to a Virginia university told me of being invited to a barbecue at the home of an immediate superior. They dressed as they would here; cutoff jeans, tee shirts, sandals, only to discover that in Virginia a barbecue requires flannels and blazer for the gentlemen, and long flowing dresses and wide-brimmed hats for the ladies. I’ll leave you to imagine how uncomfortable everyone felt!

People who dress much as we dress make us feel comfortable. We are at ease with them. They can communicate with us, and we can communicate with them. The gulf between individuals is narrowed by similar clothing. It is in such simple ways that we can begin to understand the incomprehensible gift of the Incarnation. God undressed.

The Lutheran Prayer of the Day for this 3rd Sunday of Easter uses the phrase “the humiliation of your Son”. That is obviously a direct reference to the events of Good Friday – but it can also be seen as an incarnational reference – the Son of God, who is after all God, is humiliated – or humiliates God-self (in the sense of humbled) by taking human form. The Anglican Collect for this Sunday contains the phrase “Your Son made himself known to his disciples.” Put those two phrases together, and you get at least some sense of the necessity of the Incarnation; not only for the redemption of the world (God could have done that without becoming human), but also in order to be “known”. God wanted to make himself known to us.

The Lent and Easter stories about events in the life of Jesus we have been reading in church since Ash Wednesday are about that becoming “known”. Jesus, Son of God, is determined to be known totally. He keeps nothing back. He hides nothing. The weakness and vulnerability that come with his choice of human clothing is visible to all. All of him is shared with us. He shows us his exhaustion, his anger, his disappointments, his depression, his fear. He shows us himself naked and dying, with no dignity or majesty. He lets us see his dead body. God undressed!

But the Son of God lets us see other things too. He shows his intimacy with the Father. He shows his power to heal. In the Transfiguration, he shows the majesty hidden beneath the humanity. He shows iron self-discipline and serene calm under immense pressure. He shows courage and resolution. Above all, he shows the love of God for us! Our Lord most certainly “made himself known to his disciples”.

But after the resurrection, there is a curious thread that runs through the stories of the disciples’ encounters with the risen Christ. These folk, to whom the Lord “made himself known” while they travelled with him up and down the roads of Palestine, somehow did not immediately recognize Our Lord when he appeared to them. For Mary at the tomb, it took being called by name. For two travellers on the road to Emmaus, it took a simple meal in an inn. For the fishing party in today’s Gospel, it is a breakfast of bread and fish. (And no, I am not going to worry you about why 153 fish, or why the right side as over against the left side of the boat; I did all that 3 years ago on this same Sunday, so you know all about those!) The Collect for this day summarizes this recognition of the risen Lord in a meal, on several different occasions; the risen Christ makes himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread.

Some, if not all the people in these stories had been there when Jesus had first done the ritual with bread and wine. Everything about that evening was probably very familiar, something they had done with Jesus many times before. The meal itself, the things said, all the little traditional actions – all were familiar and would have been since childhood. Those present, all of them including Jesus, were after all Jews, and the ritual associated with a meal would have been almost instinctive. Then, suddenly, there comes something that is not familiar. He is quietly saying something so terrible, that like us to this day, they probably never fully understood. He himself is the meal. Bread broken for them now, himself broken for them tomorrow. Wine poured out for them now, his blood poured out for them tomorrow. Only afterwards, some of it told in the stories we are hearing, do they begin to get a glimpse of his ultimate meaning, recognizing the risen Lord at a meal. As time goes, even after the risen Christ ascends to the Father, they continue to break bread and pour out wine, and realize that in this way the Lord continues to make himself known to them.

So it continues to this day. After a regrettably long time of neglect, over the last three or four decades, we Anglicans, and a number of other churches formed in the Reformations of the 16th century, have again become eucharistic churches. Our communities centre their Sunday worship on this mystery that is so simple and yet so profound. It is perhaps ironic that we dress up a little for this celebration. We speak of dressing the altar, and we often call the chalice as it stands on the credence table as a dressed chalice. Those of us tasked with putting on the meal wear very fancy vestments that are definitely not street clothes. Yet what we are doing in this celebration is showing to all what that old hymn presented to us as “the undressing of Our Lord”.

Once, two thousand years ago, the unimaginable and undescribable God undressed, took off the garments of godhood, and put on the garment of mortal humanity. Now, every Sunday, in the presence of his disciples, the risen Lord takes off the robes of majesty, and puts on garments of not very tasty bread and inexpensive wine. He does it for one reason – his great love for us, and he does it with the determination to reach out to us in the only way possible, through our five senses. That way, we in our limitations and in our poverty of comprehension can feel, touch, taste, and yes, receive!

Week by week, Sunday by Sunday, Eucharist by Eucharist, the risen, glorious Son continues to make himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread.

God undresses. Thanks be to God.

Copyright ©2019 by Gerry Mueller