Becoming What You Already Are

We continue our preaching series on St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. Sermon delivered on Trinity 11A, Sunday, August 23, 2020 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Exodus 1.8-2.10; Psalm 124; Romans 12.1-8; St. Matthew 16.13-20.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

This morning we continue our preaching series on St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. In our epistle lesson, St. Paul urges us not to be conformed to the world but to be transformed by the renewing of our mind so that we can present our bodies as living sacrifices to God. What in the world is he talking about? Is he here exhorting us to try harder to be a good Christian or advocating for  a more robust self-help program (like we need even more delusional thinking than we already have)? If you heard our epistle lesson like that this morning, you probably missed that little adverb “therefore” at the beginning. What is the therefore there for, you ask? I’m glad you did. Maybe now I can get into the heart of this sermon.

The therefore reminds us that St. Paul is not talking about human power, the power to make ourselves better, an oxymoron at best. No, St. Paul is talking here about the power of God. And this should make sense to us if we review quickly how St. Paul has gotten us to this point. Recall that in Romans 1.18-32 he talked about a good amount of wrong thinking, the kind of thinking that darkens our minds, makes us hostile to God, and begins to erase God’s image in us so that we behave more like animals than humans. It results from humankind’s universal enslavement to the power of Sin as St. Paul emphatically states in Romans 3.9. This kind of wrong thinking produces in us lusts of all kinds, malice, envy, murder, and strife. It makes us inventors of evil, faithless, heartless, and ruthless. Left to our own devices—and that’s the key phrase—we refuse to submit to God’s rule and are quick to blame others for our problems and the problems of the world, rather than acknowledging that we too are every bit as enslaved to Sin’s power as those we blame and rail against. It started with Adam and Eve and has continued unabated ever since. No wonder St. Paul talked about the futility of self-help in Romans 7! Try as we might, the human race does not have the power to fix itself from our sin-sickness and all that alienates us from God and each other.

That’s the bad news, of course, and to our detriment we avoid talking about it like the plague. After all, who wants to talk about God’s judgment on our sins? But St. Paul has also proclaimed the gospel boldly to us in this letter, reminding us that to truly be Good News for us, we have to see what he teaches as the power of God working on our behalf to heal us and reconcile us to himself and to each other. Hear him now from previous chapters in Romans:

Because of our faith, Christ has brought us into this place of undeserved privilege where we now stand, and we confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God’s glory (Romans 5.2)

When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners (Romans 5.6)

[S]hould we keep on sinning so that God can show us more and more of his wonderful grace? Of course not! Since we have died to sin, how can we continue to live in it? Or have you forgotten that when we were joined with Christ Jesus in baptism, we joined him in his death? For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives. Since we have been united with him in his death, we will also be raised to life as he was. We are no longer slaves to sin. For when we died with Christ we were set free from the power of sin. And since we died with Christ, we know we will also live with him. We are sure of this because Christ was raised from the dead, (Romans 6.2-5, 6a-9b).

So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death. God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins (Romans 8.1-2, 4).

And then from last week’s epistle lesson, perhaps this most remarkable statement of all: “For God has imprisoned everyone in disobedience so he could have mercy on everyone” (Romans 11.32).

In all these statements St. Paul reveals to us the character and power of God. The operative agent is Christ, not us. In Christ’s death and resurrection, we are freed from God’s terrible but just judgment on our sins and are promised healing, reconciliation, and new life forever in God’s new heavens and earth by virtue of what Christ has done for us. Here’s what this means for us as Christians. It means that our broken minds, bodies, and relationships will be restored, partially in this life and fully in the age to come. It means God is our friend and lover, not our enemy, so that we really do have nothing to fear, not even death and dying. We have these gifts and promises, not because of who we are, but because of who God is made known supremely to us in Christ. Christ died to free us from our sins and draw us to him so that on the last day he can raise us up to everlasting life, complete with new bodies, to live in a world where there will be no more tears or suffering or injustice or fear or alienation. All that was broken will be made new. Christ keeps us united to him by the power of the Holy Spirit who makes Christ known to us. We deserve judgment and death. Instead those of us who have a relationship with Christ get mercy, pardon, and life. This is the kindness of God and the power of God at work in his world and our lives to save us from ourselves and to free us from our slavery to the power of Sin, thanks be to God! Amen?

This is why the therefore is there for. St. Paul wants to remind us again that we aren’t transformed by our power—if that were the case, he would be laying a supreme guilt trip on us in a most cruel way because we are bound to fail—but by the power of God. He reminds us that we already are new creations, people who have God’s image restored in us by virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection and the power of the Holy Spirit living in us. Yeah, I know. If you’re like me it doesn’t feel that way very often. I still am conformed to the ways of the world more than I want to be. I still get discouraged and frustrated and angry more than I want to be, but as St. Paul reminds us here, it isn’t about me. I can’t raise myself from the dead. I cannot heal my sin-sickness. Only Christ can (and does) do that in me by the power of the Spirit, and he does that in you as well. Don’t rely on your feelings as a valid basis to judge if Christ is working in you to renew your mind and transform you into the image-bearer God created you to be so that you can run his world on his behalf. Feelings in this matter are notoriously fickle and unreliable because like us, our feelings are weighed down and distorted by our sin-sickness. Instead, St. Paul encourages us to let God renew our mind so that we can think rightly and faithfully about our new status before God and what that means for the living of our mortal days with all of its flaws, imperfections, sorrows, injustices, and evil. 

So how do we do this? If St. Paul is talking about the power of God at work in us by virtue of our relationship with our crucified and risen Lord, does this mean we can just kick back, act snotty, and wait for the Lord to fully heal and transform us? I don’t think so (unless you are an incorrigible slacker like Carl or Father Bowser or my wayward Methodist friend who is with us today). No, God thinks too much of us not to make us invest in his great love and mercy for us so that we can slowly be healed and transformed by Christ in the power of the Spirit. God expects us to put in our sweat equity and God will do the rest. What does that look like? It starts with worship, reading and studying Scripture, and regular partaking in the eucharist—there’s more to it than these things, but not less, and I am only going to focus on Scripture today because of time constraints. As Christians, we should be able to retain chunks of Scripture to help us in the living of our days. We should memorize and rehearse snippets from the psalms, from Proverbs, from the prophets, and from the gospels and other NT writers. As we have already seen today, there is a rich treasure of wisdom and Truth in St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. How much of it can you pull up right now to reflect on? Then of course there is 1 Cor 15 and Rev 21.1-7 that talk about Christ’s resurrection and the promised new world. This should be stuff we think about, talk about, and rehearse every day. That’s our sweat equity. We see it at work in our gospel lesson. St. Peter clearly knew enough of his Scripture and had seen enough of his Lord to declare him God’s promised Messiah. Christ commends him by telling him that he didn’t come up with this revelation on his own. He did so by the power of God. This is what transformation looks like when God renews our minds. It’s not necessarily spectacular or sexy. It’s just real and good and healthy and wholesome; we see reality much more clearly. But as we will see next week, St. Peter quickly reverted back to the mindset of the world when he denied that his Lord would have to suffer and die. Whoever heard of a crucified Messiah?? This earned him a sharp rebuke from Christ and this poignant story reminds us that until Christ returns to finish his saving work, we must get used to living in a messy world where things are not always cut and dried, much as we would like them to be. 

So we read Scripture and worship God together and feed on our Lord’s body and blood together to open ourselves to the power of God. God will take our sweat equity and use it to further heal and transform us by renewing our minds. Here are two quick examples of how God’s transformational power might work. I’m sure you will find many parallels in your life to which you can apply this dynamic. I have a friend whose father effectively disowned him when he left home to attend college at an out of state university. Sadly, he and his dad never reconciled and his father has since died. It’s as sad a story as you will ever hear because reconciliation and redemption are no longer possible. My friend has carried his heavy burden very well but you can see the hurt bubble up from time to time and anyone with an ounce of compassion and empathy, themselves gifts from God, understands the underlying pain that continues to roil just beneath the surface and can never be adequately resolved. How can God heal that deep and awful hurt? Well, since both father and son were (and are) Christian, despite their breach, God can use the promise of full healing and restoration at the renewal of all things made possible only by their relationship with Christ who was crucified and raised from the dead to give my friend real hope (expectation) and promise. By an informed faith he can meditate on the love, mercy, and power of God made known in Christ along with God’s promise to restore all things to himself for those who are in Christ. The unresolved conflict becomes a season of hurt rather than a permanent failure with its accompanying hurt, allowing God to bear the brunt of the pain on behalf of my friend. How that will happen is not up to us or in our power. But it is in God’s power made known supremely in Christ’s death and resurrection and God will use that knowledge to transform and heal my friend if my friend will let God do so. I’m not talking about a quick fix solution. I am talking about my friend reminding himself in a sustained way about the love and power of God made known in Christ and letting God start to bring about real, if only partial, healing in this mortal life. Complete healing will have to wait for God’s new world, but what a blessed hope and promise to anticipate! What hurts, heartaches, and sorrows in your life do you need to let God begin to heal (transform) by the renewal of your mind?

Or consider our upcoming elections—and you are going to hear a lot from me on this topic in the coming days because the Church needs to be bold in our leadership by living out the high standards of our gospel proclamation. Our nation is torn apart by bitterness, division, and rancor. We are quick to condemn our enemies and love to play the blame game. There are people on both sides of the divide who truly loathe their enemies and are ready to call them all kinds of vile things, sometimes even wishing for their death! This is being conformed to the ways of the world where we look to our own false righteousness instead of God’s to justify our darkened thinking and behavior. So how can the power of God renew our minds so that he can begin (or continue) to transform us back into his full image-bearers again? Consider this. What would it look like the next time we are ready to lambast our favorite political enemy if instead we reflected first on the reality that Christ died for that person too, whether he/she believes or accepts that fact or tries to live by it? What if we stopped and remembered that we too are sinners unworthy of Christ’s love but who enjoy it anyhow and have therefore been made into new creations, warts and all, because of our relationship with our crucified and risen Lord? If Christ has forgiven us, why can we not forgive our enemies in the power of the Spirit and speak kindly and/or gently about them (or simply remain quiet)? To be sure, this isn’t easy to do. But if we resolve to reflect on Christ’s love for our enemies and his command to us to forgive those who mistreat us, then we may find ourselves less willing to engage in ad hominem attacks on those whose views/behaviors disgust us. If we get to that place, we will know that God is indeed transforming us by renewing our minds. Can you imagine how differently our country would look if Christian voters resolved to open themselves to the transformative power of God to renew their minds? Can you imagine what this little parish might accomplish if we all availed ourselves to the power of God made known to us in the death and resurrection of Christ? 

This is what it means to offer our bodies, i.e., our entire selves, as living sacrifices to God. For you see, my beloved, our transformation must always lead to changed behavior, speaking, and thinking and that takes place within the framework and context of our bodies. It must mirror what we already are and what we will fully become when Christ ushers in God’s new creation. God gave us bodies and intends to raise them from the dead one day. He therefore calls us to use our bodies in his service and service to others. When we do, we are assured that we are seeing the fruit of our transformation, the power of God at work in us so that we can live to become the fully human beings that God created us to be, the people we already are because we are united with Christ. This isn’t about self-help. This is about the power of God at work in us. Rejoice and be thankful for God’s great gifts and mercies he showers on you. It may not feel like you are making any real progress. In fact, sometimes you may feel like you are actually regressing! But don’t be afraid or get discouraged. That’s your fallen self trying to prevent God from transforming you by renewing your mind. God is greater than your fear and doubt. So let us encourage each other and remind each other that we are already new creations, even when that reality is hidden from our sight. Let us also read Scripture together and serve and worship the Lord together, rejoicing that we love and serve such an amazing, generous, kind, and loving God. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. 

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.