Dec. 1, 2013: Romans 13: 11-14

December 2, 2013

Year A, First Sunday of Advent                                                                    

            In junior high I tried out for a play called “Teen.”  I was crushed when I was put in the chorus.  Apparently I had a decent voice, but really no acting ability.   It was a silly play and I didn’t think I had set my sights too high; so I was surprised when I could not even get a small part.  However, when I look back on the audition (and yes, I remember the audition) I was so embarrassed.  I had to say that a boy was a “fox.”   Even in the 90’s that was a hopelessly outdated phrase.  I just could not commit to it. 

Recently, I have been reading a bit about acting.  I have discovered that there are different acting techniques.  Some actors really believe that you have to lose yourself in the character you are playing.  Often people refer to this as method acting.  One particular school of method acting says it “trains actors to use their imagination, senses and emotions to conceive of characters with unique and original behavior, creating performances grounded in the human truth of the moment.”[1] I was trying out for the part of a teenager with a crush on a boy, but apparently as a 13 year old girl, I just couldn’t pull it off convincingly. 

Our epistle for the day (the second reading) comes from Paul’s letter to the Romans.  Paul wrote letters to different kinds of communities and even to some individuals.  We can tell from the content and the style of the letter what kind of community he is writing to.  Sometimes they are Jews who are just learning about Jesus.   Often they are Gentiles who were just being introduced to both Judaism and Jesus Christ.  The Roman community we heard about today was an established Christian community…about as established as you could get less than 30 years after Jesus died.  They knew a fair amount about Christianity, but they were also living in a fairly hostile territory, where they had to be very careful about how they shared and practiced their faith.

It would appear from some of Paul’s words that these new Christians had been Christians long enough to get apathetic.  We all know from our own experience that it does not take too long for that to happen.  We have one amazing retreat, pilgrimage, or outreach experience like Night’s Welcome and then a couple of weeks later we get back to the real world and everything else starts to take priority over our faith.  So it is no surprise that despite the fact that these Romans could not have been following Jesus for more than 20 years, they were already apathetic, maybe even a little lazy. 

It is for that reason why Paul said, “…now is the moment for you to wake from sleep.”  Wake did not mean to literally set the alarm, get out of bed and drink a strong cup of coffee.  When Paul was writing to the Romans, wake was a summoning to moral action.   For at least a decade, Paul had been telling people that Jesus was coming any day now.  People were certain that they would be alive the day that Jesus returned for the second coming.  But as the years passed and Paul kept gazing up at the sun saying, “any minute now…” people were less and less inclined to believe that Jesus was coming back any time soon.  Therefore, there was no real reason to be in a hurry or even to practice their faith.  Maybe this Jesus guy wasn’t coming back at all.

All of those concerns make sense, if the only thing you care about is whether or not you will be saved and get to heaven.  Paul was telling people that now is the time to wake.  They could not wait until Jesus returned.  The world needed their attention now.  “Let us lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light;”

A lot of people struggle with that imagery of armor.  It feels violent.  This is a different kind of armor.  This is an armor that allows people to fight not enemies of flesh and blood but the enemies of injustice, greed, pride, racism and even apathy.  These are the enemies that we cannot fight with swords or guns.  These things require a different kind of artillery.  Often these enemies of darkness, are things that are within us, whether we see it or not.  We can still fight the darkness that is within.  We fight it with light.

You might think that sounds a little abstract, and truth be told, it is.  Thankfully Paul provided us with another image, one that I find far more helpful.  To combat sin, we don’t just put on armor, we put on God.  He said, instead of living in these dark places, doing things that only make our lives more unpleasant and turn us away from Christ, “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” Still, that seems a little abstract.  What does it mean to “put on Christ?”

            The language of “putting on” a person was often used in Jesus’ day to refer to an actor playing the role of a character, “getting in to the role so intensely that (they) live and breathe it day and night, losing and finding (their) identity in that of the character.” [2]  This reminds me of the acting technique I was talking about before–method acting.  Clearly this is not a very new technique if this is what they were doing in Jesus’ day. People have been losing themselves and finding themselves in characters for thousands of years.   Maybe that was why I did not get that part in middle school.  I was not lost in the character.  One of the reasons I will probably never be a very good actor is because I don’t like the idea of getting lost in someone else.

However, what if the person we are losing ourselves in is Jesus Christ?  What would that look like?  Imagine just taking a day where you are method acting, preparing for a part and the part is Jesus Christ.  You would not have put on a robe and sandals and rent a donkey to ride around.  You would act like Jesus.  You would even try to think like Jesus.  If you did it one day, you would just be pretending.  It might feel fake like acting; but what if you tried it every day?  Would it be acting then?

            Christians often get accused of being fake, just playing a part so other people will then think we are good people. We dress up and go to church.  We smile and talk about love.   Then we get in our car and provide less than complimentary remarks to the person who can’t seem to find their indicator.  I don’t necessarily believe that playing a part is really that bad.  Because being the person Jesus wants us to be is a really hard job.  And sometimes, we just have to fake kindness, even when we don’t feel it.  But the more we pretend…all of a sudden we realize, hey I’m not pretending anymore.  This is real.  That does not mean you will still have your moments, but that is the great thing about putting on Christ.  He’s like the classic suit that never goes out of style.  If you screwed up one day, you just dust that suit off and put it back on.  Once you have put that suit on over and over again, all of a sudden, it will be a part of you.  It’s not just that you will lose yourself in Jesus.  We can all find our truest self when we put on Jesus. 

[1]  (The Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute)
[2]Commentary on by Susan Eastman (12/2/2007):