January 13, 2017 | Seth Pierce

It is a cruel fact of life that clothes wear out — even the ones we like best. We sadly say goodbye to our favorite sneakers when they fall apart, grieve the miniature version of that special shirt that didn’t survive the dryer, and hold a special ceremony for that pair of jeans — broken in through hiking trips and ball games — that needs to be properly buried and mourned as we turn our attention to the epic quest upon us to find another pair. These quests intensify when clothing is needed for special events like weddings or interviews. While some cultures exist where clothing practices are minimal, most of us can’t not have them — not having clothes is the stuff of nightmares.

A recurring nightmare in our culture is of appearing at school, work or church without any clothes on. Aesop even wrote a fable about an emperor who had no clothes. It’s effective as a storytelling device because most of us dread that kind of exposure.

More than that, we recognize the role our clothing plays in our success. We fuss over school picture day, we have dress codes, and we put up signs that say "no shirt, no shoes, no service." But Jesus is the opposite. No shoes, no shirt moves Him to service. Jesus identifies with the naked of the world and tells His followers to seek them out to clothe them: “For I was naked and you clothed me” (Matt. 25:36).

The ancient word for “naked” is gymnos, which is where we get our English word "gymnasium." In the ancient world people competed in sports in the buff as a way of appreciating the aesthetics of the male form and honoring the gods. The thought of a nude gym class is the worst thing some people could imagine in the contemporary world, but it’s important to note that, when we speak of clothing nakedness within the pages of Scripture, it isn’t about body shaming or insulting God’s creation. It has much more to do with dignity and protection against physical and social elements. It is something God has sought to do for humanity ever since the beginning when sin, selfishness and shame entered the world.

After God created humanity, the Bible records, “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed” (Gen.2:25). That was a very long time ago. Adam and Eve embodied beauty in an existence without shame, a world that didn’t require mirrors because you're always sharp, always on point, on brand, on fleek, whatever else you wish you were on — it’s on … until Genesis 3 happens and man and woman try to become their own gods. Then “their eyes were opened, and they knew they were naked” (3:7).

Genesis 3 uses a different word for “naked” than Genesis 2 — it refers throughout Scripture to a “shameful exposure.” It’s a relational shift that creates a dread of God. In Chapter 3, verse 10, Adam, who clothed himself with leaves (“fall fashion”), says he’s naked, when in fact he was physically clothed.

This is something deeper — it's an unmasking, an utter, painful nakedness of soul, where secret thoughts, sins and practices are laid bare. The world can now read your internal diary (or journal, if you’re a man), and you are open to judgment. It’s a horrifying form of hell, but God doesn’t leave them there exposed to sin. God clothes man and woman with “skins” — the same term used in Leviticus and Numbers to describe priestly garments (Lev. 7:8, 8:7; Num. 20:28; Ex. 28:4, 29:5, 40:14).

In the early church, a woman named Tabitha earned the love of her faith community by clothing those in need. When she fell ill and died, those whose lives she had changed implored the apostles for help — an act of faith that led to Peter being present as she was miraculously raised back to life. Jesus’ brother James writes that, if any of us see someone poorly clothed and don’t help, our faith is a corpse (2:17). And Jesus Himself promises when the earth is made new people will be clothed in white robes of righteousness. Matthew 25 has less to do with style and more to do with removing shame.

Everything we do is an act of communication — even the clothes we wear make “fashion statements.” While standards and styles vary between cultures, clothes communicate. Badges, brand names, uniforms and straightjackets all say something about us. In the relative wealth of the West, when we see someone modeling raggedy, dirty, torn up articles of clothing we know things aren’t going so well.

So, where do we start? There’s a lot of people who have had dignity, power and status taken from them — it’s overwhelming. Jesus uses the word “brethren” at the end of the list in Matthew 25 and then likens Himself to the “least of these.” When compared with Matt. 10:5–31, which describes the state of Jesus’ disciples sent out in the world (without pay, clothes or shelter and how Jesus says whoever rejects them rejects Him), we see a parallel. Jesus is talking about those in communities of believers.

So, to start, practice clothing each other physically and spiritually with dignity — for a witness and for discipline as this practice trickles outward and draws people to Jesus.