Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“God’s Transforming Grace” (Romans 12:1-2)
August 27, 2017
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
When I was a kid in the late 70’s Friday nights on CBS had the amazing double header of The Incredible Hulk followed by The Dukes of Hazzard. For a nine or ten year old boy, it did not get any better than that. In the opening sequence from The Incredible Hulk the narrator in a deep intense voice set the tone:
Dr. David Banner—physician, scientist…searching for a way to tap into the hidden strengths that all humans have. Then an accidental overdose of gamma radiation alters his body chemistry. And now, when David Banner grows angry or outraged, a startling metamorphosis occurs. The creature is driven by rage and pursued by an investigative reporter. (Banner tells the reporter) “Mr. McGee, don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.” (The narrator continues) The creature is wanted for a murder he didn’t commit. David Banner is believed to be dead. And he must let the world think that he is dead, until he can find a way to control the raging spirit that dwells within him.
Watching the “startling metamorphosis” of mild mannered Dr. David Banner into the ferocious Incredible Hulk made for truly riveting late 70’s television.
In today’s passage from his Letter to the Romans the Apostle Paul describes a different kind of metamorphosis. In the first eleven chapters of this letter Paul has set forth the good news of the gospel, that God sent his Son Jesus Christ to die on the cross for the sins of the world, and that our response to God’s gift of salvation is faith. Then in the twelfth chapter Paul shows us what this faith looks like:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:1-2).
In response to Jesus’ sacrifice of himself on the cross, God calls us “to present (our) bodies as a living sacrifice,” to live a life of surrender to the will of God, a life that is not about glorifying ourselves but about glorifying God, a life not of “my kingdom come, my will be done” but a life of “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.” That is the active expression of faith in this passage.
During the sixteenth century English Reformation Archbishop Thomas Cranmer incorporated this exact verse into the Eucharistic prayer he wrote for the 1549 prayer book, a prayer retained in our current 1979 prayer book. In response to Jesus’ sacrifice of himself on the cross for us, as Cranmer put it:
Here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee; humbling beseeching thee that we, and all others who shall be partakers of this Holy Communion, may worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of the Son Jesus Christ, be filled with thy grace and heavenly benediction, and made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him (The Book of Common Prayer 336).
We are called to present ourselves as living sacrifices as an active expression of faith, and as we do that, as Cranmer so beautifully put it, we are “filled with (God’s) grace and heavenly benediction.”
And then in Romans 12:2 Paul continues by identifying the passive expression of faith, as he continues, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds—why?—“so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Again, Paul uses the passive voice here—of not being conformed to the world, but instead being transformed.
In his 1942 masterpiece The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis writes a series of letters from the perspective of a master demon named Screwtape to his nephew demon named Wormwood about how to undermine the faith of Christians who are trying to present themselves as living sacrifices to God, trying to “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed” instead. In the twenty-eighth of these letters Screwtape identifies a prime phase of life in which to pursue this work of undermining the faith of Christians. See if this resonates with you at all:
The long, dull, monotonous years of middle-aged prosperity or middle-aged adversity are excellent campaigning weather. You see, it is so hard for these creatures to persevere. The routine of adversity, the gradual decay of youthful loves and youthful hopes, the quiet despair (hardly felt as pain) of ever overcoming the chronic temptation with which we have again and again defeated them, the drabness which we create in their lives and the inarticulate resentment with which we teach them to respond to it—all this provides admirable opportunities of wearing out a soul by attrition.
If you are not yet uncomfortable, well, it gets worse, as Screwtape continues, “If, on the other hand, the middle years prove prosperous, our position is even stronger. Prosperity knits a man to the World. He feels that he is ‘finding his place in it,’ while really it is finding its place in him” (155).
That is what it looks like to be “conformed to the world.” You do not have to do anything; it just happens as Screwtape and Wormwood continue their persistent and insidious work of “wearing out a soul by attrition.” Perhaps some of you have felt Screwtape and Wormwood working on your soul.
And so Paul writes that we need to “be transformed by the renewing of our minds.” The Greek verb translated as “transformed” in Romans 12:2 is metamorpho, from which we derive the English word “metamorphosis.” In fact, it is the same word translated as “transfigured” when Matthew and Mark write of Jesus’ being transfigured before Peter, James, and John as Jesus gave them an unforgettable glimpse of his glory, his face shining like the sun (Matthew 17:2), his clothes “dazzling white” (Mark 9:2-3).
How are we transformed by the renewing of our minds? By God’s grace received in Word and Sacrament so that as Cranmer wrote, we are “filled with (God’s) grace and heavenly benediction.” We are transformed by God’s grace.
An illustration of what this grace looks like…I have been reading the memoir of a great singer-songwriter who grew up in New York City and New England. As a child she began having serious issues with stammering and stuttering. It began one summer when she had a role in a community play, Little Women, based on the Louisa May Alcott novel. She recalls what occurred as she tried to say her line at a rehearsal:
As I started to say the line, my throat went into spasm. It was if a snake, which had been coiled and asleep around my esophagus, had suddenly reared up, strangling the words…My brain and tongue sprang up, fell back, tried again, fell back again, then, at last, the word tumbled out, ravaged, in need of oxygen. That was the unhappy, astonishing birth of my stammer, or at least my first conscious awareness of it (Boys in the Trees: a Memoir 21).
I waited for the stammer to arrive and almost always it did. I had no idea that over the next decade, all through my grammar and high school years living in Riverdale and then for two years in college, I would face the daily struggle to speak naturally or unselfconsciously. I usually failed. During my time in lower school, various classmates would tease me mercilessly, either to my face or behind my back, not just for my stammer, but for the facial contortions and grimaces that accompanied it. Inside, I felt assaulted, broken, consumed with self-hatred (22-23)
But one evening she went to her boyfriend Nick’s house for dinner. It was a nice evening but afterwards Nick told her that his mother had noticed her stammer. She writes:
Tears started spilling down onto my cheeks. “I know, I do stammer. I’m so embarrassed. I’m so sorry—” Nick wouldn’t let me finish. “Stop,” he said. “I know you do. I knew that about you the first time we met.” The thought horrified me. He knew, but he hadn’t said anything? “Well, why didn’t you tell me that?” I said. “Because I loved it, that’s why…It’s part of you. I don’t love you in spite of your stammer, I love you because of it…It’s also charming” (25).
Charming: what an alien idea. I had spent the last ten years doing everything I could to conceal my handicap. Now, in just a moment’s time, my stammer was charming…Nick Delbanco, a confident, worldly, literate Harvard boy, had loved away my stutter’s stigma (26).
This singer-songwriter not only received that grace from her boyfriend, she also received grace from her mother, who taught her that if speaking her words led to stammering and stuttering, to try singing those words instead. It worked. That singer-songwriter is the legendary Carly Simon, whose stuttering and stammering from transformed by grace into beautiful songs. Carly Simon did not transform herself; she was transformed by the grace given her by Nick and her mother.
And when it comes to your life, you are not transformed by your own efforts but by the grace of God. This grace of God has been demonstrated most powerfully in Jesus’ death on the cross for you—when on the cross Jesus, “ravaged, in need of oxygen” and teased mercilessly, died in your place and loved away your stammer’s stigma. Jesus does not love you in spite of your stammer, whatever that may be, but because of it. As this grace of God seeps into your heart a “startling metamorphosis” of a different kind begins to take place as you find the grace of God beginning to quell the raging spirit that dwells within you.
Moreover, this transforming work of God’s grace continues even now and will continue until eternity as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
On the title track of her 1971 album, “Anticipation,” Carly Simon sings:
We can never know about the days to come
But we think about them anyway
And I wonder if I’m really with you now
Or just chasin’ after some finer day
Anticipation, anticipation is making me late, is keeping me waiting
The transforming grace of God enables you to respond to God’s love by presenting yourselves as a living sacrifice, and it protects you from being conformed to the world by Screwtape and Wormwood, and instead be transformed into the image of God’s love. That is God’s “good and acceptable and perfect” will for you.
And it means you can face “the days to come” with great anticipation.