When I first started high school my two elder brothers, Christopher and Michael, were already there. It was a rather old-fashioned school, and we were called by our surname. “Come in Tristram,” the teachers would say. With three Tristrams in the school that could sometimes be confusing. So to distinguish us, rather light-heartedly, Christopher was referred to as Tristram. He was the oldest. Michael was known as Tristram Minor. Then I arrived. I was to be Tristram Minimus – which I didn’t much like!
That stayed with me over the years at school. I think it so often happens – in a family or a community – that although you have grown and changed, others still see you as you were, or remember something you once did, and still define you in those terms. And we want to say, “I’m not that anymore – I’ve changed. Haven’t you noticed?”
It was quite a liberation to leave school and go to university where no one had met Tristram Minimus – but only Geoffrey. Like the lobster which grows and changes and needs to burst out of its old shell, it felt wonderful to make a new beginning, changed from a school boy into an undergraduate.
“To live is to change. And to be perfect is to have changed often.” Famous words of John Henry Newman. They reflect one of the great inner dynamics of the Gospels, which is Christ’s call to each one of us to change. It is not always welcome; it’s not always comfortable; it’s not always easy, but like it or not, if we refuse to change we will die. That goes for us as individuals, and for us as Christian communities. “To live is to change. To be perfect is to have changed often.”
In the Letter to the Philippians which we have just read, Paul tells us quite clearly why we have to change. And these words are my text for this morning. He says, “Jesus Christ will change our humble bodies so that they may be like his glorious body.” Extraordinary words. Whenever Paul talks about the body and uses the Greek word soma, he doesn’t mean the flesh and blood. (He has another word for that – sarx.) He means rather the outward expression of our person – who we truly are. So Jesus will change who we most truly are to become like Jesus. Our calling is nothing less than to become the body of Christ.
Paul understands that this will happen finally and wonderfully the other side of the grave. But even now the Holy Spirit is at work in us, changing and transforming us, so that day-by-day we are being called to change. But God’s Spirit is not trying to change us into someone else, some idealized, holy other, someone we are not. Rather, the Spirit is daily calling us to become that person, that soma that we most truly are. So, the Spirit is calling me to become more truly Geoffrey – the Geoffrey God had in mind when God created me. And so for you, too. And the deep mystery is that the more we become like Christ, like his glorious body, the more we become who we most truly are.
So, how do we change? How do I become more Christ-like and so more truly Geoffrey-like? How do you change and become more Christ-like and more truly Peter-like or Mary-like or John-like? This is Lent, and you might think – well, I’ll just need to get down to some serious religious disciplines! If I want to get physically fit, I know I can go and pump iron and I should see a difference. So, should I start pumping the spiritual iron?
Paul would say emphatically NO. Listen again to Philippians: “Jesus Christ will change our humble bodies, so that they may be like his glorious body.” It is Jesus who will change us, not we ourselves. It is the work of grace. Our work is to deepen our relationship with Jesus so that we can allow him, mysteriously and wonderfully, to change us.
We cannot do it ourselves by spiritual workouts or self-improvement schemes. The Gospels are clear that there is only one way to be changed and transformed. And that is to die. To take up our cross and follow Jesus. To die daily to self and then to allow Jesus to raise us to new life in him. And each time we allow him and trust him to raise us up, so we are changed, transformed more and more into his likeness – the likeness of his glorious body.
That pattern of dying and rising again, which we first experienced when we entered the deep waters of death at baptism, is to be our daily pattern. Every day a new beginning, a new invitation to become the body of Christ, to become who we most truly are: that our humble bodies may be changed into his glorious body. In the Eucharist we make that desire to be daily conformed to Christ explicit. The priest holds up the sacramental body of Christ and says, “Behold what you are.” And we reply, “May we become what we receive.”
So, how has your Christian faith and practice changed you? In what specific ways are you different because you are a Christian? What difference does it make? Lent is a great time to ask these questions. How is God’s Spirit wanting to change me, transform me? Is God asking me to die to something in my life, something which is stopping me becoming the person God truly made me to be? “Unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it cannot bear fruit.” How does God want me to change – today?
“To live is to change. And to be perfect is to have changed often.”
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