St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 6th Sunday After Trinity, July 19, 2020
“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 caterpillar spinning a cocoon around itself, its body turned to fluid, then splitting the sides of the casing to emerge, a bright and brilliantly winged creature: a butterfly. Do we really undergo such a change? A metamorphosis? And if we do, by what effort is it done in us? What will that look like when we’ve really changed?
Gettin’ religion used to mean someone giving up drinkin’, smokin’, cussin’, fightin’ and runnin’ wild in favor of goin’ to church and singin’ holy songs, speakin’ peaceably to others and stayin’ home nights. The Salvation Army used to march uniformed bands through bars and red-light districts, playing hymns, singing and preaching to the drunks until some of them got religion. This really worked for many people.
A friend of mine, Michael T, spent 18 years in San Quentin for serious crimes and, while there, he hit bottom in solitary confinement. Tattooed from head to foot, this rough-cut guy began to hear words of life from a wild Pentecostal prison preacher. From his depraved state he set his life on a new course, and while serving his last years behind bars, he began leading other inmates to Christ. Michael T built a ministry in Oroville of aftercare for convicts coming out of prison, giving them structure, work, a supportive community and hope. Jordan Crossing, a rag-tag bunch of ex-cons, is now transforming the city of Oroville.
If, in becoming Christians, we are to change dramatically, what is the change and what should it look like? In some theologies, salvation happens to you without your own will 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 new birth. You may exhibit sudden miraculous signs, words of ecstatic zeal, and never again want your old sins. Some people’s conversions look just like that. I’ve known folks who can point to a split second when their lives turned. We think of 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. Rise and stand on your feet; for I have appeared for this purpose, to make you a minister and a witness of the things you have seen and of things which I will yet reveal.” Acts 26:15-17 No more dramatic conversion was ever reported. Blind for three days, Saul was visited by Simeon who taught him about Christ, and baptized him. It wasn’t a week before Saul stood in their congregation, scaring them half to death, 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 nobody could call to themselves or follow in their own will, he never said so, nor do his Epistles seem to indicate a completely passive role for the believer. On the other hand, Paul does proclaim the absolute necessity of God’s grace and our inability to help ourselves without it. The change, therefore, doesn’t just happen to you, nor are you able by yourself, pulling hard as you can on your bootstraps, affect any meaningful or lasting change in yourself that matters to heaven. Grace is given and we respond. There is a great deal of our own decision involved, even daily, every moment, to follow the new life or let ourselves sink back into our old behaviors and ultimately lose the saving relationship we enjoy in Christ.
St. Paul wrote to Titus, “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… 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 we maintain our good works. The change bears fruit. Or as St. James says, “Faith without works is dead.”
Peter stood before over 3,000 curious Jews and proclaimed Christ crucified, resurrected and ever living, and as they began to yearn for Jesus and this wonderful new life, Peter enjoined them to “Repent 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 were automatic, then preaching and instruction, church services and Epistles filled with godly admonitions are irrelevant. God will do to you what needs doing and you will become His happy slave. But it doesn’t seem to be that way. God’s grace plus my cooperation, my decision to accept His help, moment by moment, lets Him do what I can’t do for myself. It can be a tenuous thing. 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 God calling to our lost souls, calling 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 a seasoned hiker, climbing the tallest peaks toward Heaven’s pearled gates.
Now what does the change look like? It’s different in every person. Uniformity in Christians makes me nervous and when everyone dresses, talks, walks and does their hairstyle alike in Christian circles, I fear some other force at work in that church. We aren’t called to uniformity, but to new life, and life is abundantly varied. The converted Peter was so very different from the converted Saul, and then the deacon Philip jumped ahead of them both in bringing Gentiles to the fold. We aren’t created identical, and we aren’t re-created identical either.
But if the change is not an imposed uniformity, what does it look like? What does peace look like? What does love appear to be? Peace is, initially, a cessation of hostility. In God’s new peace we cease our war against God and His standard of righteousness. We turn toward Him and learn His ways, letting go the things that hurt our relationship with Him. We understand that He wants us to stop purposely offending 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 time of the change. It’s hard when we’ve become self-sufficient and independent. We have to stop and release the death grip we have on our lives. God’s way will be much better. Peace can be hard to accept, but peace must come, a peace that passes beyond your mental picture of peace and does things your 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. Joy that 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 you, the outcome is assuredly good. When the peace, joy and hope are borne out of your new found faith, your heart will turn back 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 these things, starts the process all over again, for now loving Him, you see more things in yourself that need to make 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 natural, in the unique person that you are, than any prescription for good behavior or faithful membership can accurately describe. C. S. Lewis wrote about how some will point to Christians who are actually pretty surly types, and non-Christians who are still fine people. He counters that we don’t know how much worse the surly man may have been were it not for Jesus, or how much better the good pagan might have been if he were 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 3:13-14 The world will hate you and the true brethren will love you and you will love them. It is a crude gage, but you’ll know it when you experience it. If everyone thinks you’re pretty nice, or conversely, you’re at odds even with your fellow Christians, then you probably aren’t shining brightly enough and some radical changes are still needed. But if the world gets very impatient with you and your new faith, and yet you know and exhibit love for everyone, especially fellow believers, then rejoice. You’ve made the change.
“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
You can’t do it. You simply pray to God for that wonderful, life giving change, and stop striving. Give Him room in your heart, in your mind, into your daily routine. Then He will show you the way like dance steps on your floor. You take step one, put your weight on it, turn, now step two. There you go! The butterfly emerges!