If you haven’t already, I suspect you are going to hear the word “transformation” around here quite a bit in the next little while. Pastor Rob and the elders recently proposed changing our vision statement, which you can see on the back of the bulletin. There it says that "God calls us to be a vibrant, growing community totally devoted to Jesus Christ" in five separate areas, areas we call the pillars of our life together as Calvin church. The change is to the third pillar—“personal growth.” If council approves, that pillar will soon read “transformational growth.”
Along with that change, the church council has decided to spend time in the next few months focusing on that particular pillar—transformational growth—studying what it means, setting some goals for how we accomplish it, and eventually creating some strategies for meeting those goals. As part of that decision, Steve Van Drunen, John Andringa and I have spent some time discussing our church’s primary goals related to transformational growth. As we look this morning at the idea of Biblical transformation, I want to thank Steve and John, as well as Pastor Rob, because our discussions have helped direct my thoughts as I prepared to speak this morning.
One of the reasons I volunteered to work with Steve and John to look at transformational growth is that the whole concept of “transformation” has been at the back of my mind for several years. Many of you know that I spent six years on the board of CRWRC, our denomination’s international relief and development organization. At CRWRC, transformation is not just a word or a priority—it is a part of everything they do. We spent much of our devotional time studying transformation, and we had several speakers from around the world come and teach us about God’s desire for transformed communities.
So, as we look at what it means to be transformed, let’s turn in our Bibles to Romans 12. As you turn there, just a brief note about what has come before. Paul has just spent eleven chapters explaining that we are all sinful, and that we can only be saved one way—by grace through faith alone and totally separate from the things we do on our own. Listen to what Paul says next—the word of God from Romans 12: 1-8.
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you. Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man's gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.
This morning I want to focus on Paul’s words in verse two: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing, and perfect will.”
The Greek word that is translated as “transformed” here is one you probably know: metamorphoo—in English, we say “metamorphosis.” “Metamorphosis” simply means “to change into another form.”
If you’re like me, you first learned the word "metamorphosis" sometime in elementary school when your teacher brought some caterpillars into class and you watched them make a chrysalis. After some time inside the chrysalis, the caterpillars emerged as something completely different—a beautiful butterfly. And that is exactly the meaning of the word “transformed” here—Paul is exhorting us as God’s people to go through a metamorphosis, to completely change from our old form into a whole different form.
Interestingly enough, this concept of transformation, of metamorphosis, is used in two different ways in the New Testament. One is actually translated as “transfiguration.” You can read about this in Mark 9, but if you know the story you’ll remember that just a few days before, Jesus told his disciples that some with him would not taste death before seeing the Kingdom of God come with power. He then goes with Peter, James, and John to the mountain. Mark describes what happens this way: “[Jesus] was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.” Jesus was transfigured, he was transformed. For a moment, Jesus’ disciples saw the glorification of Christ’s body as it would happen after his resurrection from the dead.
It is interesting to see that the very same word that is used to describe Jesus’ amazing transfiguration is also used by Paul in Romans and elsewhere to describe the work of the Holy Spirit in believers. In 2 Corinthians 3:18 Paul says that “we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” Just like Jesus, who was glorified beyond comparison at the Transfiguration, and again after his resurrection, we too are being transfigured or transformed; we are being changed into a whole new form.
When a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly, there is very little similarity between what it was and what it has become. A butterfly isn’t just a caterpillar with a couple of wings—it is something totally different. In the same way, the change in us described by Paul is not simply reformation, improving on something that is already there, but transformation, a complete change into a different form. We must be transformed, not just reformed.
So what does it mean when a Christian is transformed? Jack Dennison, a pastor and the founder of a Christian mission organization called CitiReach International says that “Transformation is the change from a condition of human existence contrary to God’s purposes to one in which people are able to enjoy the fullness of life in harmony with God.” The fullness of life in harmony with God—can you imagine anything more exciting than that? Paul, in Ephesians 4:13, describes this change as “attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”
"Be transformed", Paul says, "by the renewing of your minds." Be completely changed, as different from your old selves as a butterfly is from a caterpillar, so that you can enjoy the fullness of life in harmony with God. Probably all of us here today want to be transformed in that way—we want to enjoy the fullness of life in harmony with God. But how do we get there? How does transformation happen?
First, notice that Paul says “be transformed,” not “transform yourselves.” The English major in me notices right away that Paul is using the passive voice when he encourages believers to be transformed. One of the lessons pounded into me by my writing teachers was “avoid the passive voice,” or as one teacher liked to joke, “The passive voice is to be avoided.” (That’s a little English major humor.) Instead, my teachers encouraged me to use the active voice. Instead of writing “the game was won by the Knights,” I should write “The Knights won the game.”
Here, however, Paul uses the passive voice for a reason. “Be transformed,” he says. He might have said “allow yourself to be transformed.” See, we cannot transform ourselves—the only way we can be transformed is to have the Holy Spirit work in us.
To be sure, we play some role in the process of transformation that allows us to share in Christ and all his blessings. Paul tells us, “do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world,” meaning that we need to separate ourselves from the system of belief that rebels against God and puts us at the center of the universe. The pattern of the world is to worship at the unholy trinity of “me, myself, and I.” We need to break from that pattern and let the Holy Spirit transform us into something completely different.
That’s not always an easy thing, of course. Transformation isn’t something that happens instantaneously. It’s not some sort of “Big Bang” after which we no longer need to change or grow. Rather, as I have for you to fill out on your outline, transformation is an ongoing process.
I mentioned that a few members of council have been looking at transformational growth as being one of the key pillars of our life together as a church. After some discussion, we described it this way: “Transformational growth is a lifelong process, a journey Christians take together as a community.” We are not like the famous frog in the fairy tale, suddenly turned into a dashing prince just by the magical kiss of a beautiful princess. Rather, we change over time, as part of a lifelong journey together that can only end when Christ returns.
The author Frederick Buechner, describes well what transformation means when he says that “faith is better understood as a verb than as a noun, as a process than as a possession. It is on-again off-again rather than once-and-for-all. Faith is not being sure where you are going but going anyway. A journey without maps.” Paul acknowledges the same thing in Philippians, when he says that he has been praying for the Philippians in their walk with God and reminds them that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” Transformation is an ongoing process.
Moving on in the text, Paul tells us that we must be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Sometimes we in the Reformed church tradition are accused of focusing too much on the mind, and not enough on the rest of our personhood—our bodies, our emotions, our relationships. It may be that there is some truth to that. Instead of reading the verse “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” we might read it “be transformed in your mind.” But that clearly is not what Paul is talking about here, especially since he goes on in the very next set of verses to describe the church as a body with many parts, not just a mind, that are equally important to the functioning of the whole.
On the other hand, too many Christians are willing simply to shut off their minds, forgetting that they are a gift from God, and that God reveals Himself not only through the study of Scripture, but also through the study of all the things He has created. There should be no conflict between studying science, the environment, or social issues, and our faith in the Lord as King over everything.
What Paul is saying here is that all of our selves, whole communities, even, will be transformed if we spend time renewing our minds. It is not enough simply to show up in church and sing along, or to follow a set of rules. God wants us to engage our minds and use them to test and approve what God’s will is, his good, pleasing and perfect will. Just like the Christians in Acts 2:42, we should devote ourselves together to Christian teaching, working together to learn more and more about God’s creation and our place in that creation. If we do that, then the Holy Spirit’s transforming work in us builds steam and we come closer to complete transformation, the good work the Spirit will complete in us when Jesus returns.
One of the most important things we need to understand about transformation is that transformation happens within a community. Transformation is not simply a personal change. I don’t know for certain, but I suspect that one of the reasons behind the change in our vision statement from “personal growth” to “transformational growth” lies in the concern that Christians today have become too individualistic, too willing to let our faith become something that affects us personally, but has no impact on the community around us. We need to be reminded that transformation happens within a community.
People were created to be in relationships—relationships with others, and relationships with God. If transformation is really about being able to enjoy the fullness of life in harmony with God, then we need to transform more than just our individual selves, but also our relationships, our families, our churches, our communities, our nation.
The fact that the concepts of transformation and community are intertwined is shown, by what comes next in our text from Romans. After Paul exhorts us to be transformed, he goes on to teach us that we are all members of one body, the church—each of us with different functions necessary to the health of the body.
There is so much that could be said about the interrelationship between the idea of transformation and the need for a community, but there are four points I would like to focus on.
First, individuals need a community within which to transform. I think most Christians understand this to some extent. It’s why we are in the habit of meeting together every Sunday for worship. It’s why we provide opportunities like children’s church, GEMS, and youth group for kids to learn together with other kids their age. It’s why we put such a priority on getting everyone at Calvin involved in a small group Bible study. We need a community of fellow believers, people who are going through the process of transformation with us.
Having a group of people who understand what we are going through is incredibly important. When Kim and I lost two children to miscarriage, Kim felt a lot of comfort from several of the older ladies here at Calvin who told her that they too had had miscarriages and they would be praying for us. Just knowing of others who had experienced the same loss comforted us. Our society even understands this need for community—look at how powerful Alcoholics Anonymous has been in helping people struggling with addiction.
While our transformation into more perfect reflections of the glory of our God may not always be as traumatic or as painful as dealing with the loss of a child or overcoming addictions, we definitely need a community around us to love us, to support us, for us to be a part of. Individuals need a community within which to transform.
Second, it takes a community to transform an individual. Just a week or so ago, during some devotional time I was having with other Christians, someone was talking about a young man she knows who she is convinced is being transformed by the Holy Spirit. He might not be a Christian yet, but she was asking that we pray for him.
What struck me about her request was the way she described the Christian community working in this person’s life, being the Holy Spirit’s tools of transformation. She herself talks regularly with him about Christ’s love for him, and explains how he needs that love and forgiveness. She had him spend time with a young couple that modeled for him a loving relationship based on God’s will for their lives. She also gave him time with Christian young men his age who were clearly maturing in their faith and were willing to spend time with him and talk about the issues he faces. She had an adult role model with a common interest spend time with him. And, of course, she asked all of us who were part of that group of believers to pray constantly for the Holy Spirit to work in him. All of these people had different gifts and different tasks, but were a part of the transformation she is seeing in this young man’s life.
Without any of these people, would this young man have any chance to become transformed? Of course we know that God has the power to exert his will regardless of what we do, but this is how the Holy Spirit works—through the community of believers. It takes a community to transform an individual.
Third, the community itself transforms. It stands to reason that if a group of individuals within a community are transforming, the community itself will also transform. We can see this happening on all sorts of scales all over the world.
For example, look at what is happening in neighborhoods right here in Sheboygan where Neighbors Against Drugs has been involved. Having done some volunteer work with NAD, I know that when you first go into a neighborhood with a known drug house, most people are afraid. They don’t want to report what they are seeing for fear that the drug dealers will find out and retaliate against them. In one neighborhood, several neighbors quickly escorted me into their homes to talk, because they didn’t want the people in the drug house to see that they were talking to a NAD volunteer.
However, once the people in the neighborhoods began working together, doing something as simple as joining all of their neighbors in putting a yard sign with the Neighbors Against Drugs logo in their yard, things would begin to change. Neighbors started talking to neighbors. People were willing to pool information to help stop the drug dealing. In dozens of neighborhoods, the simple act of working together as individuals to fight against the drug house transformed the neighborhood atmosphere from one of fear to one of togetherness. In some of those neighborhoods people are once again taking pride in their neighborhood, doing things as simple as planting flowers or painting their house trim. It is not just the people who are changing—the neighborhood itself is being transformed. When individuals transform within a community, the community itself transforms.
Finally, as a community transforms, in turn, the community helps transform the larger community of which it is a part. A while back I told you the story of Teresita, an illiterate indigenous woman from a poor village in Ecuador who became a Christian leader because of the work of CRWRC in creating micro-enterprises—small businesses where groups of poor people pool what little they have in order to become self-sufficient. And as you may remember, her story did not end with the transformation of her little village into a place where the men and women of the community worked together for the common good. She was eventually elected by her community to the Ecuadorian congress, where she worked hard at the process of transforming her whole nation, to make it a more just place for poor people and their communities. When a community transforms, the community helps transform the larger community of which it is a part.
Transformation is all about community. Only in community can we enjoy the fullness of life in harmony with God, and it is our job, as a part of the Christian community here in Sheboygan to be transformed ourselves, to be a community where individuals can come to be transformed, to be a community that encourages its members to be transformed, to be a community that itself transforms, and then, in turn, helps transform the larger community of which we are a part.
So how do we do that? How can we become a transforming community here at Calvin? How can we, as Bryant Meyers of World Vision puts it, recover our true identity as human beings created in God’s image and break the power of this world on our community and the community around us? Again, transformation is an ongoing process, a journey we take together that will not end until Christ returns, but I think there are a number of things we can do to become a transforming community.
First, we must encourage individual gifts within the body. That means recognizing that everyone in the church has gifts that we cannot live without. The gift may be serving, it may be encouraging, it may be giving, it may be leading, it may be anything, but we all have gifts that God wants us to use within the body. We need to help each other identify those gifts and use them. Sometimes we will need to encourage people to use their gifts, and other times we may need to step aside to let someone more gifted than us take over a task we have been doing. We may even need to confront someone who is not using their gifts. In exercising our individual gifts, however, we must remember that we are doing so as part of a community, as part of a body. No one body part is any good on its own—an arm can do little without a trunk to attach itself to. An eye has no purpose if it is not communicating what it sees to the rest of the body. We must encourage individual gifts within the body.
Second, we must work together to develop corporate spiritual growth. By that, I mean spiritual growth that occurs together within the fellowship of believers. When we together experience God’s holiness and power in our lives, it leads to repentance and a deeper commitment to Christ and His transforming vision for the entire world. We need to continue to develop our corporate spiritual growth.
Third, we need to practice reconciliation. Reconciliation simply means bringing our relationships back to the way they ought to be. As Christians, we are called to be reconciled not only to God, but to each other. This may happen on an individual basis, such as two Christians who are angry at each other and need to become reconciled, but it also happens on a larger scale—such as reconciliation between families or churches or races. As a community, we need to practice reconciliation.
Fourth, we should engage in Christian hospitality and loving service. Both hospitality and service are expressions of love to the people around us, and the very next topic Paul tackles after our text today is love. By serving the people around us and by showing hospitality to them, we build bridges toward them that help establish relationships of credibility and trust. By opening our hearts and our lives to the people around us, we encourage them to be transformed themselves, and to do so within a community of believers. By extending our service to others, we help extend the process of transformation to other communities further away. We need to engage in Christian hospitality and loving service.
Finally we must pray. Prayer is our communication with the God who transforms us. If we are to be transformed, we will need to remain in constant contact with the transformer. If we want our community to be transformed, we will need to know God’s will for the community through communication with Him. Prayer can and should happen individually, but it also must happen together as a community. One of the reasons I appreciate the online prayer chain is that it allows me to engage in prayer together with all of you for the same concerns. If I had my way, we wouldn’t limit the sharing of prayer concerns to the evening service, but also do it together during the morning service, because I believe that prayer together as a community ought to be a high priority. It is my hope and prayer that there are constant prayers, both individual and communal prayers, coming from this fellowship of believers.
As we finish, I want to tell you a brief story about transformation within a small church that spread to the community at large—the kind of transformation we should be praying for here in Sheboygan. This story was told by two missionaries in Nicaragua, one with World Missions, and the other with CRWRC.
They tell of the little village of Los Brasiles, just outside of Managua. The people there are poor, and the government provides very few of the basic services we take for granted. In 1987, a young man named Tomas Ruiz began a small evangelical church there that he called Faro de Luz, which literally translates as “Lighthouse of Light.” Pastor Ruiz says the church remained small, despite his hours of prayer and fasting, because his preaching was “offensive and condemning.” He says he preached a complete separation from the community around them.
In 2001, Pastor Ruiz and two members of his church were invited to a leadership training seminar put on by The Nehemiah Center for Transformational Development, a partner agency of CRWRC and World Missions. The Nehemiah Center preaches Christian transformation and believes that transformation happens when God sends “change agents,” people who adopt a Christian outlook on all of life and work to transform the institutions in which they work—churches, schools, businesses, families—so that the whole community is transformed.
After attending the seminar, Pastor Ruiz and his church realized that they had no impact on their community. In fact, they were disliked because of their self-righteousness. So Pastor Ruiz took a difficult step. He invited the entire village of Los Brasiles to a meeting in the church where he publicly asked for their forgiveness for speaking against the community for 14 years.
While the community did not respond at first, transformation soon became apparent at the church. Members of the church prayed together, they were reconciled to each other and to their pastor, and they began to serve their community. In just three years, the church grew from 25 to 225 members, fully one-fourth of the population of Los Brasiles. Instead of holding services every night, as they had, the church now meets only twice a week so that families may spend time together, and so people from the church can be involved with prayer, leadership development, discipleship, and service to the youth of the community. Simply put, Faro de Luz has opened itself up to the community. It even organized teams to promote healthy homes in the community, dealing with issues such as sanitation, nutrition, and water purification. Faro de Luz has been transformed, and is now an agent of transformation in Los Brasiles and beyond.
This transformation was a complete change, a metamorphosis. It didn’t occur immediately—it was a process, a journey traveled together as a community, and a change that led to transformation beyond the walls of the church and into the larger community.
My prayer today is that Calvin church can experience a similar transformation—I pray that we will walk together as a fellowship of believers knowing that God is working in us as individuals and as a community. I pray that all of us here, and many others who God sends to us, will experience transformation in their lives within this community, so that they can live to the fullness of life in harmony with God. And I pray that as we transform, we are an agent for transformation in our community, so that our schools, our businesses, our clubs, our government will all be transformed, brought into alignment with God’s will for them. Lord, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Note: I preached this sermon on July 29, 2006 at Calvin CRC, Sheboygan.