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Made New “In Christ” – Br. David Vryhof

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Romans 12:1-8: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” 

I once lived next door to a young couple who loved to collect old furniture.  On Saturdays and Sundays they would often set out for local flea markets, searching for bargains.  When they returned home, they would unload their purchases, which invariably appeared to me to be pieces of junk, hardly worth even the little they had paid for them.  But then they’d set to work: stripping and sanding the wood, reattaching broken pieces, realigning drawers, tightening joints, and finally painting or staining the surfaces.  The results were breathtaking.  Pieces of furniture that only days before had appeared to be battered, worthless pieces of junk now stood proudly in their appointed places, looking every bit as beautiful as the day they were made.

That image has stayed with me for years as an icon of the transformation God desires to bring about in our lives.  Just as my neighbors recognized a hidden beauty in the old furniture they purchased, so God sees in us human beings a goodness and beauty we often can’t see in ourselves or in one another; a goodness and beauty which were imprinted deep within us at our creation, but which have become disfigured and distorted over time.  What begins in us as the natural birth and development of “the self” grows into a greater and greater preoccupation with ourselves, a preoccupation that separates us from God and conforms us to the world around us.  We gradually become the products of our culture, a culture obsessed with what theologian Marcus Borg calls the “three A’s” of appearance, achievement, and affluence.1  Our identity, our sense of self and our sense of our own worth, become linked to how we look and what we do and what we can afford to buy.  We wonder if we are attractive enough, talented enough, rich enough, smart enough, popular enough, good enough.  We wonder how others are perceiving us.  Do they find us attractive and interesting and worthy of respect?  What do they think of how we look and what we do and what we own?  This preoccupation with self is the chief characteristic of our fallen nature.  It separates us from God and from one another, and leads to alienation, comparison, and judgment – of ourselves and of others.  None of us escapes this entirely; we are all tainted by it, to some degree or another.

This preoccupation with self and our ongoing pursuit of the “three A’s” – appearance, achievement and affluence – cause us to live out of our “false self” rather than out of our “true self.”  The “false self” is the self which is created and conferred by the culture in which we live; when we live out of this false self, we take on the priorities and values of the culture around us.  We become addicted to its expectations and demands, we worry about how we are seen and valued by others, and we lose touch with our “true self”, the self which is made in the image of God and finds its deepest fulfillment in living in union with God.

The Bible uses a variety of metaphors to describe our fallen condition:  We are blind and need to have our sight restored.  We are hungry and thirsty and need to be nourished and fed.  We are lost and need to be found. We have been captured and imprisoned and need to be set free.  We are in exile and need someone to lead us back home.  We are lost and need to be found.  We are sick and need to be healed.  We are in darkness and need light.  We are enslaved and need to be liberated.  We are bound and need to be released.  We are dead and need to be raised to new life.

The promise we have from God is that God can and will save us and deliver us from this fallen state.  For this very reason God has sent a Savior, Jesus the Christ.  God frees us, heals us, saves us, and restores us “in Christ.”  Just as my neighbors were able to transform and restore battered pieces of furniture to their original beauty, so God transforms and restores us to our original beauty “in Christ.”

We cannot accomplish this salvation and transformation ourselves through our own determination and effort.  We need a new birth, a new identity, a new way of living – and none of these can be obtained by our own resolve.  The only way we can enter into this new life, our true life, is by dying and rising, just as Jesus himself did.  This is the way of transformation; this is the way to life that Jesus shows us: dying to the old self and to the old way of living, and rising to a new identity and a new way of life.

It begins with baptism.  “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” writes Paul to the Christians at Rome; “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4).  It begins with baptism – in which we are united to Christ in his dying and rising – but this process of transformation continues throughout our whole lives; daily we die to our old self in order to be raised to newness of life.

This is how Paul describes the transformation that has been accomplished in him.  Looking back at his old life, Paul says, “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more. [I was] circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Phil. 3:4b-6). I had it all, says Paul – a distinguished family line, a superb education, recognition and respect from my community, a blameless reputation.  All that the world values, I possessed.

“Yet whatever gains I had,” he goes on to say, “these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.  More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.  For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…” (Phil. 3:7-9a).  All those gains, all those things I valued so highly before, says Paul, I now count as nothing.  Appearance?  Achievement?  Affluence? “Rubbish,” says Paul.  They don’t begin to compare to what I have found in Christ.  “I have been crucified with Christ;” Paul claims, “and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:19b-20a)

Paul has a new identity, a new way of seeing himself, a new way of living in the world.  He has died to the old self and its ways, and has been reborn into a new identity and a new way of life “in Christ.”  “If anyone is in Christ,” he tells the Christians at Corinth, “there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (II Corinthians 5:17)

This is the heart of Christianity.  The Christian life is a life characterized by transformation. At times we may experience this transformation as sudden and dramatic; at other times, we experience it as more of a slow, gradual shift in how we see ourselves and how we live.  It is a process that continues all our days.

Can we accomplish this transformation ourselves?   Can we obtain it by our own efforts? Absolutely not.  Only God can save us, heal us, and restore our original goodness and beauty.  Our part is just this: to make ourselves available for this transformation by turning to God, and by being intentional about our relationship with God.  When we pay attention to our relationship with God, when we seek to nurture and deepen it, we put ourselves in a place where transformation can occur.  We open ourselves to the life-transforming work of the Spirit.  The work is always God’s; our part is to “let go and let God.”

“Do not be conformed (then) to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” 

In this is life.

 

1 Borg, Marcus J. The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith; (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc; 2003), p. 116.

 

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16 Comments

  1. SusanMarie on November 19, 2017 at 07:44

    I find myself again in complete awe that God knows exactly what I need when I need it. I’ve read this sermon several times before and always liked it. Today it is for me a life-changer, at the very hour I recognized my life needs serious change and transformation.

  2. Rhode on August 31, 2016 at 08:19

    We, the church triumphant are as varied as we are individual. We make horrible mistakes. We avert our eyes. The saints among us try to reverse the current of evil and sometimes find themselves pushing hard but not being able to move themselves or the current. Walking on water happens once in a while when we spot the supernatural Jesus beckoning us. For a moment we are in line with the supernatural; anything and everything is possible. That we sink is no surprise. But, the joy is in the offer and the gift of a life of wrestling with that offer. Against all odds, our Saviour appears with the offer of walking on water if we keep our eyes on Him. Transformation happens.

  3. Mryka on March 29, 2016 at 09:52

    Thank you Jerome for sharing that. That particular attitude in the church formed and deformed much if my youth, but as you said God somehow through all of it would not let me go – so I have become a pilgrim searching and finding a home in many different places, without losing sight of Jesus.
    In trying to forgive those members in authority in the church of my childhood, I see them confronting a world in which many people were confronting situations where they could not help themselves. In I think a godly way of identifying with some of those victims of the world (the very poor, the mentally ill, the truly oppressed) they went too far, and saw the very poverty, oppression, and living in it as a good in itself. Almost an adoption of masochism as a positive good. Unfortunately, when this is accepted I have seen too many people evince sadism in others and then succumb to it themselves when they cannot change the outward forms. See, the only way to live in an oppressive world is everybody glory in their oppression! I think there are some great saints out there – perhaps like Mother Teresa, certainly Dorothy Day, many others I am sure that I don’t know about – who have truly started out that way and by conforming to God’s will have served the poor and ill and oppressed without constantly imposing guilt-offerings on themselves. But those folks are very rare and far outnumbered in the “service ranks” by those who see the self-inflicted pain as the point of the exercise, not the raising up of fellow humans, children of God’s good creation ground down by human institutions (such as the church on many occasions). So then I can forgive those representatives of the church. I can see after a lifetime that it is a very fine line that we need to follow God down between accepting that following Jesus through the way of the cross and standing up an saying “beat me some more” whether it helps or not is often hard to discern.

  4. Pat England on March 29, 2016 at 09:08

    Thank you , Brother, for inspiring me this morning as I await the teaching of some of God’s little ones. I see God in them each day as they seek to know and love Him more and more. I am privileged and humbled that He has called me to share my faith with them through prayer, the Scriptures and our constant reflection on how they illuminate our lives. Having had the experience of teaching in an Episcopal school these past 19 years has broadened and deepened my faith. Having been born into the Catholic faith and educated by devoted Religious women, I have had the unique opportunity to experience Christ through another faith tradition. I am faithful to my own Church, yet pray for our reconciliation with our Christain brothers and sisters who have been a witness to me of the love of our Savior. I now see us all as the Body of Christ, not separated by denominations.

  5. Christopher Engle Barnhart on March 29, 2016 at 08:22

    I loved the phrase “Let Go and Let God” you quoted. I first heard this when I was in my teens and attending Unity Church. It was a good time in my life because Unity Youth Group had become my spirtual and social home. As time passed and I grew I moved away from this association. It wasn’t until I met my wife that I returned to God. Over time I again drifted away from “Letting Go and Letting God’. But again I came back to God and here I am transformed again.

  6. Michael on March 29, 2016 at 08:17

    I understand Pam’s perspective and often feel the same way. Bro. David’s point regarding the three”A” also feels legitimate so what I have come to as I make my way along my path is rather simple. I try to do the best I can with what I have and allow God to sort out the rest. I will never be all things to all people, but if I am as good as I can be to me, God will be happy. It’s the best I can come up with at this point.

  7. Muriel Akam on March 29, 2016 at 04:11

    Let go and trust God- Self examination is important too and one cannot help it and we all want to improve ourselves both in outward matters and inner selves so to speak. But spontaneous joy and delight in the Lord and know that he loves us no matter what is so essential for inner peace and happiness.

  8. Patricia Nakamura: Today's WORD comment seerms a very Julian statement! on October 2, 2014 at 21:01

    Today’s WORD comment seems a very Julian statement!

    • Christina on March 29, 2016 at 08:08

      I don’t know where Julian’s statement went to. I couldn’t find it?

  9. Kathy on July 29, 2014 at 01:19

    Let go and let God- my favorite saying. It helps me view life and all the problems I may have in perspective. Turn it over to God- give control to him-trust him. Let go and let God….

  10. Pam on July 23, 2014 at 06:04

    Thanks Jerome, I went back last night hoping to erase my ‘tirade’ at the church to find I could not but instead found your words. No the church does not have such a glorious past and I wonder if much has changed. I think of all those children and what worries me the most is they might not ever know Jesus because of what happened. I watched the ” The book thief” on the weekend and it was like I SAW in that movie, for the first time a confirmation of what I had been thinking about God lately, that He has always looked after me, and it made me cry. It is a movie I shall long think about and can only pray that those children of the Catholic Church, who are now adults, would find this truth about God.
    Thank you for your words of comfort and encouragement for you responded so kindly to ALL my comments graciously, each one of them, how marvelous is that.

  11. Pam on July 22, 2014 at 08:56

    For me, the church has become a place of darkness when before it was a joy. Sitting at home with a cold I realize this ‘condition’ has been developing for a long time. In my view it is the church that is preoccupied with self….. Repent, do this, don’t do that, give, expect nothing in return , happiness – don’t be rediculous! A never ending circle of ‘looking at myself’ , constant reminding of ones self, constant self analysis and if you not doing it to yourself, somebody else will do it for and to you :). I find myself tired and disheartened by it all. I agree that one needs to be self aware but where is self forgetfullness spoken of? That wonderful state of being, that bubbling up of pure joy inside of oneself that spills over with no reason other than the wonder of being alive and infects everyone else. I am finding more and more the truth that like Jesus miracles , so many of them did not happen in the synagogues but outside of them and I find myself wonder why that is so and what to do about it. This longing for Jesus ….. I look at John’s gospel where it said ” Jesus did many other things as well. If everyone of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have enough room for the books that would be written” , these are the books and words I long to hear – about Jesus and not me. I don’t want to think about my or other people’s faults and weaknesses – how is this helpful when all it does , in my opinion , is cause contractiveness instead of joyful expansion to all He has created. What to do , when I find it more joyful to be in the company of non- Christians who are not ‘beating themselves’ up about some perceived imperfection or worse another’s and then the whole long agonizing journey of coming to grips with it. Is this just another step Brothers or a slipping away from Him or with hope, into Him?

    • Jerome Berkeley on July 22, 2014 at 10:27

      Pam, I find your eloquent yearning in this comment to be so beautiful! Your words resonate with me. I try to live by the wise words of John Coltrane’s prayer which he wrote for the liner notes to his album “A Love Supreme”. He prays, “Seek God always. In all ways, seek God.” Growing up in Catholic schools, I was fortunate to be steeped in a rich education of the faith, but that was too often offset by appalling hypocrisy in the form of acceptance of and condoning of racism and as the world would later find out, an appalling blind eye to rampant abuse of children. Despite this, I never soured on God. I still sometimes feel a cloud of shame or worry that I have not conformed to the rigid superficial structure of church attendance of denominational adherence. But I have found my Christian faith enhanced as I learned about other faiths – Islam, Taoism, Rastafari, Buddhism, Krishna….all of these have nourished and informed me. And your words do too, especially your astute citing of John, that Jesus did so much more which was not recorded. God is indeed everywhere – inside AND outside the walls. SSJE and the wider SSJE community has nurtured my faith even more as i mature. I thank you and encourage you on your path – I think you are steeped in courage and wisdom!

  12. Heather T. on July 20, 2014 at 10:58

    Thank you for these words! Beautiful what God does. I have felt this over the past year and wish others in my life could experience it as well.

  13. Fred Rose on August 22, 2011 at 18:53

    Thanks, Br. David. This is excellent. I loved the illustration of the pieces of junk that were transformed by your neighbors into stunning pieces of furniture. How easy it is to be attached to and driven by what the world/culture values. This false self is what makes us scuffed up, beaten up and looking rotten. I pray for transformation and renewal. Behind all the distractions and preoccupations of the world is the invitation to live in and discover our true selves.

    • Ruth West on July 22, 2014 at 12:26

      Thank you, Br. David, for this excellent sermon. St. Paul “tells it like it is.” I not only enjoy the main body of your sermon, but also the footnotes. I praise God that he has taken me, a poor lost sinner, and transformed me by His grace and power into a vessel fit for His use.

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