Transformed By Christ

Pastor Rachel B. Livingston 
Cheltenham United Methodist Church 
July 12, 2020
                                                                 “Prayers of the People” – Picture of the Western Wall in Jerusalem taken by Pastor Rachel B. Livingston


Have you ever received a letter – a letter that someone had taken the time and specifically thought of you to write out words intended for you, intentionally written out by hand using pen and paper – a letter that has the power to change your whole life? A letter that reveals the foundation of life – a letter that elaborates the fullest extent of our faith.  Who would have known that all of this – love, faith, intentionality, doctrine – could come from a letter in the mail?  That all of this could not only speak to the church of Rome, but speak to a future generation – a generation that encompasses the time of now, where we exist as a church as the faithful people of God, and extends to future generations.  The scripture we now read, sent to the church of Rome is a letter that holds such great foundations for our faith, it holds information that can allow us to see God at work in our lives, it holds the words that affirm God’s grace, it holds the concepts that encourage us to be in relationship with Christ and allow the spirit to transform our very being.  We now know this scripture to be part of our Biblical scripture, part of our holy text, but it started out as a piece of mail written by Paul.  A letter that left his hands and traveled along the Mediterranean countryside until it reached the already established church of Rome.  Who could have known that this letter could hold so much, that it could influence our faith and the way in which we live it out?

As we enter our passage of scripture this morning, we have a bird’s eye view of the circumstances of this letter. We are generations removed, the history of the times of Paul has already been documented, and much of the information that we can find about the events and environment that created the context in which Paul wrote this letter, are but a google search away. This letter was penned by Paul, one of the most influential fathers of the Christian faith and the spread of the Christian doctrine throughout the world, outside of the disciples.  Paul was traveling throughout what we would call the Middle Eastern terrain, heading toward Europe to continue to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ.  And this letter to the Church of Rome is likely the most detailed portrayal of our understanding of faith and grace.  He was writing this letter to the Church of Rome from his location Corinth, making his rounds to the churches he had established, as he is headed toward Jerusalem to assist the Christians that live there.  Paul was very intentional to mention that he was seeking to visit with the Church of Rome, to fellowship with them and share salutations, but he never made it to them.  Paul was arrested not long after this letter was sent.

We can envision that Paul is sitting himself down, pen in hand, intently writing out the words that affirm Christian faith, words that would implore them to follow the faith of Jesus Christ, writing out the words that would encourage them to center themselves in Christ and be transformed, writing out words that seek to root the foundations of their faith in their lives and seek to create longevity for future generations of the church.  This is not just a letter to document the doctrine of our faith, but a letter that affirms the faith of the Roman Church and promotes their ability to transform the entire world through their transformation and lived out experience of faith.  Unlike many of the churches that Paul wrote to, the Church of Rome was not established by Paul; it already existed before Paul reached out to them.  While Paul may not have started the church of Rome, he knew their potential, he knew their strength, he knew their ability to create future ministry, he knew that if a solidified doctrine could be situated in Rome, it had the ability to spread to the ends of the earth.  If the Christian doctrine could take hold in Rome, it had the ability to spread to the whole world because of the influence and control of the Roman Empire in the ancient world.  So this letter, written to the Church of Rome meant everything, it literally was fiercely and intentionally penned as a means of building disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

But as we read the words of our scripture this morning, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus – by sending his own son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh – those who live according to the flesh set their minds on things of the flesh, but those who live according to the spirit set their minds on things of the spirit – But if Christ lives in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness,” they are not just words of Christian doctrine, but words of faith that have been lived out by the author, Paul – words he can attest to because of the movement of God’s grace within the life of humanity because it is his story, his lived experience. Paul is a witness to God’s grace, to our need for Christ in our lives, to the need to live within the spirit in ways that transform our lives.  Paul had come from a mighty long way. Paul is saying, “Church, let me tell you what I know for myself to be true. I do not share these words as an empty gesture, but I know them for myself because I have lived them. But this is not just my truth, it is the truth that you can experience too.”

 II. God’s Grace

Paul was a blood-thirsty hunter of Christians.  He scavenged the land with venom in his eyes as he tore apart homes, families, and livelihoods as he left no stone unturned in the pursuit of those that professed to be followers of Jesus Christ.  He was ready to imprison or kill those who claimed to be in Christ.  In his mind, Christians were a threat to his faith, his people, his being, so he was prepared to uproot Christianity at any cost, even if he became a brute of a man in the process.  And yet Paul, the violent man once called Saul, reached a moment in which God approached him with such force that he had no choice but to hear God – blinded and knocked flat on his face as God reached out and extended him grace – grace in prevenient grace – the grace that comes before that reaches us before we even fully know God.  Even though Paul was a Jew, there was no way he fully knew God because his actions were incompatible with God.  His actions were in the flesh, therefor they were hostile to God, because they would not submit to God.  His actions lacked all of what we know God to be: they lacked love, compassion, and carefulness.  He did not dwell in God and God did not dwell in him; he was just going through the motions, following laws, following tradition until God brought him to his knees.  God said it is time that you turn to me. God is saying, “Now as I extend my hand to you, will you choose me Paul?  Will you put away the persecution, the oppression of others, the rejection of me and hold on to my love, my peace, my grace? Will you choose me?”

As Paul landed on his face, as he searched himself, he landed in a place of humility, he landed in a place of respect, he landed in a place of sheer and utter understanding that he was in radical need of God in Jesus Christ.  He was in need of redemption, salvation, peace, restoration, and of Jesus Christ and all that Christ can provide. He came to the place of justifying grace, the grace that redeems us that shows us we are in desperate need of God.  He was able to witness the part of our scripture that says, “There is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death.” He was able to witness that Christ has justified and made us whole.  And in this understanding, he was able to be a witness that is able to say, “Submit your lives over to Jesus Christ because Christ is our only sense of hope, our only sense of salvation, our only sense of restoration, because we are in desperate need of God.  It is only through Christ Jesus that we are made free, we are made whole.”  Paul is saying to the Church of Rome, “I know you already have the gospel of Jesus Christ, but I want to make sure you know the foundations of our faith that encourage you to give yourselves over to Christ because we are in desperate need of the grace that God has to offer.” And as this letter is a testament to generations beyond just the that of the church of Rome, we can envision Paul saying to us this morning, “Cheltenham United Methodist Church, I know that you have the gospel of Jesus Christ, but I want to make sure that within you is the foundations of our faith, that you know that we must give ourselves over to Christ because we are in desperate need of the grace that God has to offer because through Christ we are saved, through Christ we are redeemed.  In Christ there is “Blessed Assurance” because Jesus is ours, O what a foretaste of Glory divine – Because of Christ we are heirs of salvation, we inherit new life – because Christ came to this world was beaten for our iniquities and bruised for our transgressions, because he stretched open his arms and was nailed to and suffered death upon the cross we have been purchased by God and reconciled back to God. It is only through Christ that this is made possible.”

But that wasn’t the end of Paul’s story, that wasn’t the end of his witness.  From the moment that Paul was brought to his knees in humility before God, he transformed his life in accepting sanctifying grace – that grace the transforms us in Christ and makes us holy through the spirit – the grace that creates within us a desire to be more like Christ.  He wasn’t just someone who simply converted to Christianity and that’s it, he wasn’t one to make a statement of faith today and live a life disconnected from God tomorrow, he wasn’t someone who just said I claim this faith just to get me to the pearly gates. No. That wasn’t the end of his story. He began to internalize the Spirit and live in a way that was shaped according to the Spirit, setting his mind on things of the Spirit with new life and peace.  Paul was transformed from a blood-thirsty man whose blood boiled for the demise of Christ and Christians to a man whose heart now beat for Christ and his teachings.  He was a new being, dedicated to living life according to the spirit, spreading love instead of hate, and to doing ministry that spreads the gospel of Jesus Christ into the world.  He was transformed – a  being that was totally different than the person he once was – he was transformed from a man separated from God living according to the flesh, soaked and functioning in sin and became God’s servant living life focused on the Spirit – growing in grace patterning his life in the ways of Christ. He dedicated his life to growing in God daily.  He was able to reach the point where he was able to say that he could look at his hands and they were new because now they did the work of Christ in the world.  He could look at his feet and see that they were new too, because they walked in the way of Christ.  He firmly stood on his sanctifying grace, growing in the spirit, patterning his life after Christ because he knew that his hope was built on nothing less than Jesus Blood and righteousness.  He was living according to the spirit, with his mind set on things of the Spirit.

 III. Living In The Spirit Is Difficult

But as we look at Paul’s life we must remember that being transformed by the Spirit and living a changed life was not easy.  While Paul was transformed by Christ, the world around him did not change, the world around him remained focused on living life in the flesh, the world around him still persecuted Christians and made it hard for his transformation to take hold.  The reality is that his family and friends likely did not change their behavior.  They likely still held to their prejudices, were looking for Paul to be the blood-thirsty Saul that he once was, and put strongholds on him that made it difficult to live in the Spirit and carry the message of Jesus Christ.  And society made it no less difficult, as they sought to kill and arrest Christ followers because Christ was a threat to the Roman Empire – acts of kindness that empowered the oppressed and gave salvation to the outcast were in opposition to the ruling structures of the Imperial Power.  How can you profess the gospel of Jesus Christ when societal standards will try to suppress it at every turn? We must also remember that not long after Paul penned and sent this letter he was arrested for his involvement in the Christian movement.  The Christian life, the dedication to giving our lives to Christ, the patterning our lives in ways that are shaped according to the Spirit is often held in contention with the societal structures around us – this is a harsh reality for both the Church of Rome and our present reality in the year of our Lord 2020.
As we seek to set our minds on things of the Spirit, to belong to God, to be transformed by Christ, to build ministry within the life of the Church that is true to Jesus Christ, and to do church in ways that spread the love of Christ reaching people for the furthering of the kingdom of God, there are things in this life that make these tasks hard.  There is poverty, suffering, racial injustice – and just this week many schools both on the collegiate and pre-collegiate levels have been pushed and pressured to hold classes in person, offering their students up as sacrificial lambs, when in reality COVID is still a very real thing, it hasn’t gone anywhere, numbers of cases are still climbing, and we do not have control of it or the fullest understanding of it.  I know we want to get back to our lives but keeping children from spreading germs under normal conditions is already a hard enough task and putting them in harm’s way does not offer the love of Christ to the world. As I bring up these things I don’t mean to bring any of us down, but these are societal things that make it very difficult to spread the love of Christ, to be hopeful about living in the Spirit, to continue professing Christ as our hope for tomorrow in the face of all this.

IV. Be Encouraged To Live In The Spirit

But in the face of all this, we are encouraged to continue living in the Spirit because just as Paul said to the Romans – you are in the spirit because the Spirit of God dwells in you – our author is saying the same to us this morning.  That means if we are in the spirit because the Spirit of God dwells in us then we are seeking to be transformed by Christ, dedicating our lives to Christ, Surrendering our all to God, living in ways that are focused in the spirit, growing toward sanctification as we pattern our lives after Christ.  Any work that we do as the body of Christ, as ministry to the world around us, must reflect that we have been transformed by Christ, that we live according to the Spirit. As this message from Paul transcends to our current reality, our scripture affirms our faith and promotes our ability to transform the entire world through our transformation and lived out experience of faith.  While Paul may not particularly know us as a community of believers, it is God who has moved within the Spirit to deliver the message of this letter to us this morning because God knows our potential, God knows our strength, God knows our ability to create future ministry – and if a spirit of transformation in Christ can embody us, then we have the ability to spread the love, peace, justice, and ministry of Jesus Christ to the world around us – and this letter to the Romans speaks volumes to us this morning.

As I close, I am reminded of the story of Their Eyes Were Watching God written by Zora Neale Hurston.  As the main character Janie travels through her life there are many people who try to impose upon her who they think she should be – her grandmother, her husband, the town’s people – all trying to shape and mold her into a way that does not allow her to live in the fullest expression of herself.  However, after the death of her husband she meets a man who makes her feel alive and more like herself, and while with him she was at a place of renewal and self-expression.  But it wasn’t in her lover that she found the fullest expression of herself.  This moment of full self-expression comes later in the story as she is faced with losing her love sitting in the middle a shanty shack during the heavy destruction of a hurricane.  It was in this moment, in this place of chaos that she was standing there with the realization that her eyes were watching God.  She was able to see God and know the fullest extent of who she was, in the midst of the storm, in the midst of the rain – because she could see God with her.

I bring attention to this because it reveals that in the midst of the storm, societal woes, structural pressures, and pain, as we try to live in the Spirit and live life that is clearly transformed by Christ, which is the fullest expression of who we are as Christians, this societal chaos will try to determine and dictate who we are.  It will try to keep us from living in the Spirit, from being our full selves in Christ Jesus.  But if we look up to God – seeking to be filled by God’s grace, seeking to allow Christ to live in us – to live in the Spirit, living in a way that reflects Christ lives within us, patterning our actions and our ministry after the actions of Christ that provide love, peace, mercy, and justice, then we are doing the work that God has called us to do.

So as we seek to live life, let us be transformed by Christ.  As we seek to create ministry that encourages life in Christ, let us be transformed by Christ; as we stare in the chaos of the storm that is life and society, let us be transformed by Christ; as we seek to do the work of mission in the world by feeding the homeless, clothing the naked, and extending love to those cast out by society, let us be transformed by Christ; as seek to spread the love of Christ throughout the world, let us be transformed by Christ. Because if Christ is in you, though the body is dead to sin, the spirit is life because of righteousness.

Let us seek now to be transformed by Christ and to live in the Spirit!