I still remember my first brush with the “fashion police” from way back in grade school. The popular brand name as a second-grader was Polo/Ralph Lauren. You’re probably familiar with the short sleeve collared Polo shirts with the little embroidered polo player and horse on the breast pocket. Well, my mother wasn’t about to shop at Marshall Fields for her seven year-old. Garage sales and hand-me-downs would do just fine for us.
But one day I inherited a hand-me-down “Polo” shirt of my own from came a cousin. At some point during the day, one of the “popular kids” (yes, these cliques were being formed already in the second-grade) pointed out in front of all my peers that I was wearing an imitation Polo shirt. Instead of a polo horse and player, I had only a purple unicorn in its place! I immediately realized I was just a Ralph Lauren want-to-be, committing fashion fraud. I was wearing the right style, but with the wrong name attached.
We find an opposite trend with spirituality these days. When we survey the selection of religious fashions on sale in the spiritual marketplace, we find that Jesus is back in vogue. But exactly which Jesus is more difficult to discern. Confusingly, Jesus’ name is being stitched on all different styles of faith, coming in all shapes and sizes. People have the right name on their sleeve but widely varying styles. Everybody wants their own distinct “style” of faith but few are willing to completely give up the Name. In other words, the Polo horse and player is being stitched on all sorts of strange looking get-ups, from short sleeve t-shirts to leather vests or bow ties.
One must realize that a spiritual renaissance is underway in the western world. Piggybacking on the postmodern movement is a resurgence of new age spirituality. People who generally steer clear of traditional religion are warmly embracing the many varieties of new age spirituality on offer. Particularly, Eastern spirituality has provided a fresh spiritual oasis for dry and thirsty hearts across the western hemisphere.
Oprah and others help spread the gospel of “self help” religion, teaching us to “tap into our inner divinity.” People are seeking a harmony of heart, mind and soul through Yoga and other Eastern meditative practices. Nature cults have captivated the passions of environmentally sensitive university students striving to reverse the harmful effects of modernity’s conquest of nature while casting a new vision for an earthly utopia.
The mishmash of religious options on display today have still reserved a place for Jesus, however, even if it means turning Jesus into a wandering mystic or sage much like the Buddha in the process. Dan Brown’s best-selling The DaVinci Code has popularized a human Jesus, married to the Magdalan goddess—the embodiment of “the sacred feminine,” and with a child named Sarah. The Gnostic Jesus rooted in the so-called “secret gospels” brings human beings a saving knowledge of their true spiritual nature—getting them in touch with their “inner light.”
Browse you local bookstore. Every week a new book appears presenting Jesus in new garb. There’s Jesus the feminist; Jesus the new age guru; Jesus the Egyptian freemason; Jesus the Berkley liberal born out of due time; Jesus the Buddhist and so on. All of these spiritual paths present themselves as viable alternatives to traditional Christianity. They all hang together on the clothes racks of the spiritual market, marked down at discount price, and begging us to try them on for size.
How then do we know which Jesus is the real Jesus? Like my purple unicorn shirt, how can we spot a cheap imitation when it appears? How can we be sure we are truly clothed with the real Christ?
The Bible provides a relatively simple test of authenticity. Basically, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it most likely is a duck—even if it has a kangaroo tag sewn on its wing! Our outward actions reveal our inward allegiance. “They will know we are Christians by our love,” as the song goes. Jesus said that real fruit trees produce real fruit (Matt 12:33). John the Baptist demanded that those who really wanted to show their faith ought to “produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt 3:8). If you want to wear the team uniform, then you have to play the game by the rules.
Those who refuse to walk the talk should be easy to spot. James asks, “Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense” (Jas 2:17)? Jesus accused the religious leaders of his day of a kind of religious fashion fraud:
They talk a good line, but they don’t live it. They don’t take it into their hearts and live it out in their behavior. It’s all spit-and-polish veneer… Their lives are perpetual fashion shows, embroidered prayer shawls one day and flowery prayers the next…People look at you and think you’re saints, but beneath the skin you’re total frauds (Matt 23:3,5,8 MSG).
Professional athletic apparel has been a big fashion hit recently. Anybody can go to the store and buy an authentic Minnesota Timberwolves jersey with Kevin Garnett’s name and number on the back. But we only need to hand them a basketball and watch them play for a minute to determine whether they are the real thing or not.
Similarly, people wearing the Christian label should demonstrate their faith by their acts of love and charity. James said it this way:
Anyone who sets himself up as “religious” by talking a good game is self-deceived. This kind of religion is hot air and only hot air. Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world (James 1:26-27 MSG).
A wolf can put on a sheepskin and stroll about for a while, but eventually his grisly snarl and killer appetite will blow his cover (Matt 7:16). Even Satan occasionally dresses himself in Christian garb (2 Cor 11:14), but his evil ways soon reveal his true colors.
So, how do we know we are truly clothed in Christ? The answer: As we let our hearts be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom 12:2) we will gradually begin to look more like Jesus—dressed in the character of Christ:
You are the people of God… You must clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Be tolerant with one another and forgive one another whenever any of you has a complaint against someone else… And to all these qualities clothe yourselves with love, which binds all things together in perfect unity (Col 3:12-14).
Like badges on our sleeve, Paul urges us to exhibit the “fruit of the spirit:” love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal 5:22-23). Just as blaze orange give away a hunter from a mile away, so the bright colors of a person walking in the Spirit can be easily seen by passers-by.
Still, no dressing experience is complete until we have carefully considered the occasion at hand and the weather forecast.