“Be the kind of physician that you would want to have if you were sick.” With these words, Dr. Arnold P. Gold welcomed the incoming class of medical students at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons last month. As thrilled parents looked on, 168 young men and women sat expectantly in the school’s auditorium, their white coats folded over their arms, each waiting to be called to the front of the room and “cloaked” by a senior physician. This marked the 18th annual White Coat Ceremony at Columbia.”
Dr.Sally Satel wrote those words in the Wall Street Journal as she observed a growing tradition in America’s medical schools. The “cloaking” is a symbolic way to remind the physicians going forth to serve their patients and do no harm. Dr. Satel continued her piece.
Dr. Gold, a white-haired and avuncular pediatric neurologist, popularized the practice years ago because, he said, “medical students were becoming enamored of technology and were losing the important aspects of human relationships with patients.” Columbia’s chaplain referred to the coats as “cloaks of compassion.”
I am sure that some are skeptical or even mocking of the gesture. But I believe in the power of symbolism and I am sure I would be moved by that ceremony. I am also sure I could never get through med school. The article led me to consider a similar ceremony that might have some power for followers of Jesus. A “cloaking” ceremony might be a powerful way to illustrate to new believers in Christ what happens when they are delivered by faith.
Many (if not most) of us come to the Cross because we desperately feel the need for a Savior. We have lived a life of selfishness and sin. Some of us have made terrible decisions with consequences that painfully hurt ourselves and others. We cry out for hope. We realize how completely we have failed to live a life that could be acceptable to a Holy God. We fall at the feet of grace and gratefully accept the free gift of salvation.
And this is where the “cloaking” idea could have symbolic power. What if every new believer were brought forward and “cloaked” with a robe of righteousness? Most would protest that they did not deserve to wear such a luxurious garment. Most would point out that they had done nothing to earn being wrapped in this beautiful robe that represented justification and forgiveness. And that would be the very point of being cloaked in this symbolic robe of righteousness. They had done absolutely nothing to deserve this gift of grace other than surrendering their control and self to Christ. All of those objections would be true yet they had been clothed in this beautiful robe. You wear the robe because of grace.
Jesus gave us an amazing picture of justification by faith in the story of the prodigal son. The son rebelled, sinned, and suffered the horrible consequences of his actions. The son realized his sin and in humble desperation decided to throw himself at the mercy of his father. The imagery is compelling. The father runs to him. His act was a gesture of love and forgiveness but also to protect his precious child from the judgment of others.
And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.’
“But his father said to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. And kill the calf we have been fattening. We must celebrate with a feast, for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.’ So the party began. (Luke 15, NLT)
The Father placed the finest robe on his wayward son who deserved nothing after his selfish and sinful actions. In the cultural context readers would have surmised that the “finest robe” was the father’s own robe that he placed on his son. The robe that was worn on the most special of occasions. The custom would have been for the son to bathe, put on clean clothes and then put on the robe. But in a stunning gesture of compassion, the father placed his robe over the filthy garments. By “cloaking” his wayward son, the father gave him a covering of acceptance and salvation. And the father also let everyone know that the son was forgiven, accepted and no longer to be condemned by others who had judged his behavior.
The story is the same today. The Father ran to forgive you when you acknowledged your sin and need. While you were still dirty and clothed in filthy garments you were forgiven, accepted, justified and wrapped in the robe of righteousness. You were declared a saint because of Christ. And you were no longer condemned. Satan would have you forget that the robe of righteousness is wrapped lovingly around you. The author of lies would remind you that you still wear dirty clothing. He would suggest that you need to set aside the robe until you clean up yourself and your garments. That is the power of this story. The robe of righteousness is never earned. It is a gift of grace. On my worst day the Father wraps me up in this precious garment because of His Son Jesus.
How differently we would live if we remembered that truth every day. I am a saint. I am wrapped in the robe of righteousness. Christian “cloaking” would be a great ceremony to teach new believers their identity in Christ. But maybe it is more important to remind us old saints that we are also new creatures who are forgiven, accepted, and wrapped in this incomprehensible gift of grace.
Maybe if trusted that truth we could also model the last part of verse twenty-four in Luke’s passage.
So…the party began.