Sermon for the 6th Sunday After Trinity, July 11, 2010
“Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” “Jesus said, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’” John 3:3
TO BE dead. To be born. Again. These words describe an extreme alteration in existence, a transformation as dramatic as that of a puffy, many-legged caterpillar spinning a cocoon around itself, turning its body into fluid, then splitting the sides of its burial casing only to emerge a brilliantly colorful winged creature, a butterfly. Do we really undergo such a change? Such a metamorphosis? And if we do, by what effort, by who’s work is it done in us? What will it look like when we’ve really changed?
‘Gettin’ religion’ used to mean someone giving up drinking, smoking, cussing, fighting and running wild in favor of going to church and singing hymns, speaking peaceably to others and staying home nights. The Salvation Army used to march uniformed bands through bars and red light districts, playing spirituals, singing and preaching to the drunks until some of them got religion. This really worked for some people.
A friend of mine spent 18 years in San Quentin Prison for a long list of crimes and while there he hit bottom in solitary confinement. Tattooed from head to foot, this rough-cut individual began to hear words of life from a wild Pentecostal prison preacher. He was given his own Bible. In his depraved state, he set his life on another course, and even while serving his last years behind bars, he began leading other inmates to Christ. Michael T established a church and ministry in Oroville for aftercare of convicts coming out of prison, giving them structure, work, a supportive community and new hope. Michael was here one year on Ash Wednesday. It moved him to have ashes in the cross on his forehead and to take communion with real wine. He, and the men and women working with him, became the sweetest, most vibrant Christians. He died about three years ago, as he would want to go, on the back of his Harley.
If in becoming Christians we are to dramatically change, what is that change and what should it look like? In some church theologies, salvation happens to you without your own will getting involved. God breaks in, changes your heart, gives you faith in His Son, indwells you by His Spirit, causing your dead spirit to come alive in the new birth. You may suddenly exhibit miraculous signs, wondrous words of ecstatic zeal, and never again want your old sins that had plagued you up until that moment. And some people’s conversions really look just like that. I’ve known folks who can point to a split second when their lives turned around. We remember St. Paul.
Riding to Damascus to arrest the Christians, Saul of Tarsus encounters a bright light, a person too brilliant to see, who says, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to make you a minister and a witness both of the things which you have seen and of the things which I will yet reveal to you.” Acts 26:15-17 A more dramatic conversion was never reported. Saul was blind for three days, was visited by one Ananias who taught Saul what Christians knew about Christ and then baptized him. It wasn’t a week before Saul stood in their congregation scaring them half to death, but proclaiming Christ crucified and resurrected. His life thereafter was of another man entirely. Saul became Paul in a new and exciting life.
But if Saul, or Paul, thought that this conversion experience was automatic for all people, a thing outside oneself that nobody could call to themselves or follow by their own will, he never wrote so, nor do his Epistles seem to indicate a completely passive role for the believer. Paul does proclaim the absolute necessity of God’s grace and our inability to help ourselves without it. The change doesn’t just happen to you, nor are you able to save yourself, pulling hard as ever on your bootstraps to effect a meaningful change in yourself that matters to heaven. Grace is given and so we respond. There is a great deal of our own decision involved, even daily, moment to moment, to follow this new life so we don’t let ourselves sink back into our old behaviors and ultimately reject the saving relationship we have enjoyed in Christ. It’s not all God, and is certainly not all us.
St. Paul wrote, “we ourselves were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another. But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. This is a faithful saying… that those who have believed in God should be careful to maintain good works.” Titus 3:3-8 It’s God’s loving mercy, spiritual renewal, and His saving grace that leads us to eternal life, but believing in God, we maintain our good works. The change bears fruit. For as St. James says it: “Faith without works is dead.”
St. Peter stood before 3,000 curious Jews and proclaimed Christ crucified, resurrected and ever-living. As they began to yearn for Jesus and the wonderful new life He offered, Peter enjoined them to “Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.” Acts 3:19 If this only comes automatically, then preaching and instruction, church services and Epistles filled with godly admonitions are actually irrelevant: unnecessary. God will do to you what needs doing and you will become His happy slave even against your will.
But it isn’t that way. God’s grace plus my cooperation, my decision to accept His help, moment by moment, invites Him inside of me to do what I can’t do for myself. And we fall a thousand times a day, only to be picked up and encouraged to begin again. ‘Repent’ is a happy word, though so often spoken in anger by overzealous movie preachers. Repent is a word God calls out to our lost souls, seeking us to return to Him who is the source of our life. “Come back to me!” cries the creator of the universe to you. If you will turn and face Him, He will guide your steps back to Himself. Faltering at first, weak and unsure, you begin like a toddler and end up the seasoned hiker, climbing the tallest peaks toward Heaven’s pearled gates.
What does the change look like? It’s different in every person. Uniformity in Christians makes me nervous. When everyone dresses, talks, walks and does their hairstyle alike, I fear some other force at work in such a church. We aren’t called to uniformity, but to new life, and life is abundantly varied. The converted Peter was so different from the converted Saul, and then the deacon Philip jumped ahead of them both in bringing Gentiles into the fold. We aren’t created identical, and we aren’t recreated identical either. I think that is why so many churches exist today and so many styles of ministry and worship. Most of that’s good.
So if the change is not an imposed uniformity, what does it look like? What does peace look like? What does love appear as? Peace is, initially, a cessation of hostility. In God’s peace we cease our war against God that was contrary to His will for our lives. We turn toward Him and learn His ways, letting go the things that hurt our relationship with Him. Our sins are many and this may take years, but we now understand that He wants us to stop intentionally opposing Him. The war is over. God is on our side because we are finally on His side. Peace then enters our hearts and minds with well-being and health, mental calm and the satisfaction of one who stops striving and lets God simply come into every area of our lives.
“Let go and let God,” is an admonition from this change. It’s a hard change when we’ve been self-sufficient and independent. We have to stop and release the death grip we have on our lives. God’s way is far better. Peace can be hard to accept, but peace must come, a peace that passes beyond our mental picture of peace and does things our former concept of peace never imagined. For some of us, peace is the hardest part of the change.
When you know where the peace comes from, and you have begun to experience peace with your fellow sojourners on the way, a joy is yours that you never knew. Such joy overcomes sorrows, though the sorrows still have their cause. With this, hope is born and you begin to know with an unaccustomed certainty that things are going to be all right. No matter what this world throws at you, the outcome is assuredly good. When the peace, joy and hope are borne out of your new-found faith, your heart will turn toward the source of all these wonderful graces and you can love God, invisible and mysterious though He is. Loving God, which is the end of all things, starts the process all over again, for now loving Him, you see more things in yourself that need major adjustments in order to be in His will. Changing again, new peace, increased joy, high hope and abundant love carry you farther on the road back home.
The change is not silly or mindless passivity, nor is it angry vengeful zeal. The change is more native to you, in the uniqueness that you are, than any prescription for good behavior or faithful membership can accurately describe. C. S. Lewis wrote about how some will point out Christians who are still pretty rough types, and non-Christians who are actually fine people. He counters that we don’t know how much worse that rough man may have been were it not for Jesus, or how much better the approved pagan might have been were he only to accept the Savior. We can’t compare ourselves with others. But we might apply one litmus test to see if we have made any progress.
“Do not marvel, my brethren, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren,” writes the Apostle John. 1 John 3:13-15 The world will hate you and the true brethren will love you and you will love them. It’s a simple gage, but you’ll know it when you’ve experienced it. If everyone thinks you’re only pretty nice, or conversely that you’re at odds even with your fellow Christians, then you probably aren’t shining brightly enough and some radical changes are still needed. If the world starts getting impatient with you and your new faith, and yet you exhibit love for everyone, and more especially for fellow believers, then rejoice. You’ve made the change.
St. Paul tells us: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” Romans 12:2 That’s the change.