The unraveling United States is spawning a new social order which I pray is more just as we ponder and protest George Floyd, smothered before our eyes by powers cloaked with impunity while the unimpeachable president eggs them on. Even deeper, the church, denuded of its meetings and routines by the virus, is forced to look at itself in the mirror, naked, and consider whether it will pick up the radical mantle required in the next era.
I’ve been pondering the metaphor of “taking on the mantle” for quite a while, since our church decided I should bestow mine on our pastor team in an incremental and deliberate way. Even more, I have been watching clients and friends struggling to feel comfortable in the spiritual and psychological clothes they are wearing in this tumultuous time when we rightly suspect we will never get back to whatever “normal” was.
It seems strange to me that I just recently noticed how the Bible regularly records people using the symbol of the mantle/cloak/robe to mark the life-change a person is making. In the Bible, taking on the mantle marks the special character or gifts someone is called to offer in a time of trouble. Now is that time.
Pictures of taking on the mantle
You may have these pictures of being enrobed from the Bible already collected in your mind, but I think they bear repeating – at least I’m trying to feel them like a tongue of fire wrapping me in possibility.
In Genesis 37 we meet Joseph at seventeen, the same age I experienced my crisis of faith. His father, Jacob/Israel, loved him “more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a coat of many colors.” This robe caused Joseph lots of trouble. I can relate. The “coat” my Father gave me in Christ, has also caused me trouble, along with joy like Joseph’s as I was also called to feed people in our famished world.
In 1 Kings 19 right after Elijah defeats Jezebel’s prophets and hears the voice of God up on the mountain, he receives a vision to anoint his successor. It says he “found Elisha son of Shaphat, who was plowing. There were twelve yoke of oxen ahead of him, and he was with the twelfth. Elijah passed by him and threw his mantle over him.” These wild prophets wore a distinctive cloak of animal skins, which John the Baptist adopted later on. They both struggled with terrible leaders and did their best to keep the knowledge of God alive among people under pressure. Someone may have tapped you to do more than plow; maybe it was God.
Then in Luke 15 Jesus uses the symbol, as well. When the prodigal son returns home, what does his father do? “The father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him.” I feel delighted, if also unworthy, to wear my robe. I consistently meet people who can’t put it on, or who chafe in the false robe they wear, or who long for the parental experience of the Lord’s parable to cleanse their blocked or stunted feelings like fire.
I would never pretend to systematize these Bible readings into a principle of mantle-receiving or pretend I know all they mean. But I do feel them, and I think we can wear our new clothes in Christ with some confidence. Today I feel like I’d better make sure I’m receiving my robe and wearing my mantle.
Put on the new self
The New Testament is full of the image of being clothed with newness. Paul calls us to remember we are clothed with Christ. Our new relationship with God is like being born naked into the world again and given the mantle of our mentor, Jesus — a distinctive robe that communicates how much our Father loves us. Paul shows many facets of this gem of truth but I’ll just mention two.
Clothed with new creation. Paul teaches, “For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” ( 2 Cor. 5:4). This is a great reading for Pentecost, since the whole scene of Acts 2 is a picture of the disciples being swallowed up by life.
As the powers force people into the arms of virus in order to protect the interests of the corporations, I think the whole world may be finally fed up with facing the ravenous exploitation that comes with the materialist worldview they’ve been sold. We’re all like Jesus now, in that the powers would auction off our clothes if they could find a way to get them off us. People can’t escape the sense there is a “heavenly dwelling,” or at least can’t overlook how the present is terribly flawed. So we are yearning, like Paul, for the new creation. [Ever watch the The Robe? Victor Mature helped show it to me].
Clothed with a new character. The story of Pentecost continues in Acts 2 and the whole book, to show that once touched by fire, the new church immediately expresses their new life with new behavior. Paul sums up the change like this in Ephesians 4: “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” We always hear a challenging voice somewhere inside us saying, “So what are you going to do?”
These days the challenge is even more urgent. For many people, this year is the first time they have experienced real danger in their lives. Previously, it has been easier to live behind the walls of the American Empire. This uncertainty has caused them to see how many people have experienced trouble every day their whole lives. As a result, more people are reading the Bible as more than moral guidelines they could apply to their situation. They see it for what it really is: a guidebook for being an alternative to the evil and madness. As Paul tells the Romans, who live in the belly of the Roman Empire beast, “The night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”
So what do we have to do to wear a Jesus “mantle?”
Given what we face right now, knowing it is too large to look at it specifically and too unknown to make unchangeable plans, what do we do to take up the mantle and live into our new selves? In Christ we are a new creation and live according to a renewing character. If we want to live out this new life, what do we have to do? I don’t know for sure, when it comes to you, but here is what I have been thinking.
Take it on. — New life in Christ does not just happen to us, we take it on like a coat, we receive it as a gift, we conform to it like a person shipwrecked on a foreign shore adopts the local language. The disciples were waiting for the gift of the Holy Spirit. The day of Pentecost did “happen” — but they had to wear the newness. Joseph had this knack as a teen; maybe you did too. Even after he infuriated his brothers with his dreams and was thrown into a pit, he kept at it the rest of his life.
Nothing in the Christian life is singular, so we need to take on this character as the church, too. The body of Christ is not happening without us, but we are not happening without it, either. I think my appreciation for us sometimes blinds me to what Jesus is really calling us to be. For instance, I just said it “takes all of us” to be the church. But I know I’m talking to a small fraction of us right now and most people manage to never “take on” Circle of Hope and our unique calling in a meaningful way. Imagine how lively we will be when we all take on the mantle — we’re amazing as the fractional picture we are!
Take the time. – This daunting world seems like an even more urgent project right now than it always is. But, to be honest, I am who I am, with a limited amount of goodness to express. What’s more, I rarely know just what to do in a given day; I need to listen to God and others — and that takes time. I’m an organism who decides, not a decision that gets expressed organically. Elisha had the authority, but it took time for people to accept it. After he hit the Jordan River with Elijah’s cloak and parted it, people took notice. But even then, it is surprising how much resistance he got. Don’t give up.
Nothing happens instantly in the church, either. We’ve taken a long time to build who we are at this point. We tried to build in flexibility so we would be ready for anything that came along; and I think we are facing what came along pretty well. But we’re always frustrating someone because we are not yet all we ought to be. Perhaps they see the future so well, they have trouble relating to people who aren’t there yet. Sometimes it feels like we really shouldn’t take the time to “sit around” waiting for something to grow. But I think the message is that we really don’t have another option.
Trust your spiritual instincts. — The prodigal son famously came to his senses. We assume the dutiful son in the story eventually did too, but Jesus leaves that as an open question for his listeners: “Are you going to come to your senses and join the party?” For most of us, the answer is, “Yes. I’m feeling bad, but I definitely want to come.”
Right now, I think we are wondering who we are going to be and what we are going to do next as individuals and as the church. That is, we are wondering if we are just waiting to get back to normal or if this is our chance to trust our best thoughts and desires. Almost every day when I pray, the temptation to wait until it is all over presents itself. Am I going to put on my new self and live, or am I just going to wait until it doesn’t seem so necessary to do that?
Some things have been reinforced for me that I think should be characteristic of us as a church if we are going to offer an alternative to this uncertain and frustrated world. My spiritual instincts keep telling me, in spite of my resistance, to
- Embrace first and trust God to bless the best I have to give as well as trust God to work out the worst that can happen. I want to fearlessly love.
- Jump in and figure out how to do it rather than getting all the ducks in a row before proceeding. Actually ducks instinctively get in line because they automatically follow their mother’s voice. I want to stop asking so many questions as if I deserve an answer. I know enough to get started.
- Be frank instead of doubting every word until caution eliminates creativity. I want to ask for forgiveness rather than avoid needing to ask because I avoid trusting people. I can’t control all the troubles I imagine. We need more truth and less fear.
- Live with a Jesus-lens instead of being whatever you are against. The world needs to live in Christ as a result of Jesus living in the world. Following Jesus is always a self-giving, creative act, not an argument about what right living means.
I’m trying to trust what I hear just like the first disciples had to wake up the day after Pentecost and live new lives. Will these kind of character traits lead us to wear the radical mantle needed in this era? I hate to wait and see, but I will have to do that. And I imagine I could write more tomorrow after I learn what God and you teach me next.