March 8, 2015

Butterfly Believers

Have you ever seen a transformation take place? With Justin’s help I’m going to show you one this morning. Isn’t that cool? That was a transformation in action. What went into that chrysalis and what came out were not the same thing. I mean, yes, technically it was the same creature. But physiologically speaking it was not. A caterpillar and a butterfly are two different kinds of animals. They look different from one another. They behave differently. They eat different things. If you cut off a butterfly’s wings you are a heartless monster. That aside, you would not be left with a caterpillar. You would have a dead butterfly. The transformation from one to the other is total. There’s no going back.

We love seeing transformations like this. They intrigue and even inspire us. I talked about TV viewing habits last week. Let’s come back there again for minute. Another genre of show popular today has a transformation theme. Most of these involve people. People aren’t turned into other kinds of creatures, but they are transformed all the same. There is a new series on TLC, for instance, called Love, Lust, or Run. Host Stacy London takes women whose fashion sense can be diplomatically described as bizarre, helps them examine why they choose to present themselves that way, and then gives them a total makeover from head to toe. From the promo spots (I haven’t actually watched an episode) it looks like the difference from pre-show to post-show is pretty dramatic. But once the filming is over, the challenge becomes: will they be able to maintain this transformation? These kinds of body image transformations are not like the permanent transformation of a caterpillar to a butterfly. For these kinds of transformation to go more than merely skin deep a different kind of transformation is required.

This morning we are in the third part of our series, The Heart of Christianity. The whole idea for this series is that while we are in this season where people are more inclined to consider the worth of the Christian faith than at other times of the year, I want to equip you with the tools you need to successfully put your faith into practice. We’re doing this by talking about some of the essentials of the Christian faith.

In order to get there, a couple of weeks ago we began this journey not by talking about one of these essentials, but in making sure we were starting from the right place. If we’re not careful, talking about practices essential to the faith can come across like we are simply detailing the rules Christians are supposed to follow in order to get it right. But, as we saw then, Christianity, as opposed to every other religion in the world, is not primarily focused on the rules. It’s primary focus is doing what’s right. This dependence on the rules becomes necessary when we leave behind doing what’s right. When we leave behind what’s right, the rules are all that’s left. We need to grasp this important point to make sure we start in the right place and don’t wander off down a path toward legalism by accident.

Last week, then, we finally got to talking about the first essential Christian practice. This is the practice of confession. We said then that a confession is merely an acknowledgement of truth. Furthermore, when we acknowledge a truth through confession the expectation is that we are going to live in it—otherwise our confession was false or dishonest. For Christians our most basic confession is that Jesus is Lord. The apostle Paul wrote that it is our acknowledgement of this truth in our heart and with our voice that saves us. It is our trust in Jesus’ perfectly keeping the rules on our behalf and sharing His reward—a right standing before God—with us that brings us the life we desire. But, our confession cannot be a one-and-done affair. Instead, it must involve our entire lives. Once we have confessed Jesus’ Lordship, every single part of our lives—every decision we make, every word we speak, every thing we do—should provide a constant proclamation of this truth as we live the life that is truly life. In this way, life comes through confession.

This morning we are going to take things one step further to look at another essential practice that actually enables us to live the confession lives I called for last week. You see, living a confession lifestyle doesn’t happen by accident. We will never drift naturally in that direction. We can only do it when we become something other than we were before making our confession. It only happens, in other words, when we experience a transformation.

The fact that a transformation happens when we begin living out of this confession that Jesus is Lord is not in dispute. You can actually see this for yourselves. If you have a copy of the Scriptures nearby find your way to 2 Corinthians 5. Here in his second letter to the church in Corinth Paul reminds the believers there that in Christ they are totally new. Paul writes in v. 17, “if anyone is in Christ,” in other words, if anyone has confessed His Lordship and is living out this confession, “he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”

Think about this for just a second because it’s a pretty big idea. Paul says that when we are found in Christ, when we have confessed His Lordship and are following Him, we become something new. We transform. What more, the old part of us that was beholden to the rules and caught in a web of sin, has passed away. It is dead and gone. It is not to have any more influence on our lives. Now, often when someone has lost a beloved member of their family they will do things to honor their memory and in this way give the deceased person an impact that stretches beyond the grave. That’s a pretty common thing and not such a big deal. But, what about when someone dies who spent his life as a jerk? He took advantage of other people and abused anyone who got close to him. He was a liar and a cheater and while he didn’t rob any banks he had no problems taking something that belonged to someone else and claiming it as his own. His language was coarse and he seemed to delight in talking bad about other people when they weren’t around. He cheated on his wife several times even though he only got caught once. At work he constantly used other people to get ahead regardless of how they were affected by it. He’d smile a great big smile and put his arm around your shoulders like he was a friend, but only long enough to make sure he got the knife all the way in. He was a racist and a bigot, a misogynist and a terrible father. Everyone who came around him was worse off because of it. In short, he was a terrible person. What influence would we allow him to have from the grave? None if we could help it. At the most we would allow him to serve as an example of what not to do.

Listen, our sin-broken selves which are put to death, which pass away, when we enter into a relationship with Christ are much more like this guy than some sainted grandmother whose example will lead us to life if we follow it. This is not to say that anybody who’s not a follower of Jesus is a terrible person. We all know that’s not the case. But, apart from Christ we are soaked in sin and bound for death. Everywhere we go we spread seeds of death because that’s all we can do. We are disconnected from the author of life and so all we can produce is death in one form or another. That’s not a judgmental observation; it’s just a factual one. In Christ, we become new. We become bearers and beacons of life. We have been transformed from one thing into another. And this old part of us is given the death it deserves.

Let’s push this just a bit further: what would we say about someone related to that jerk I described just a second ago who after his death tried to bring him back to life just as he was before he expired? We’d say they were nuts. We’d say they had lost their minds and were doing something that just wasn’t right. The world was a made a better place when his impact on it was removed. Why would anyone want to go back to how things were before? Yet when as followers of Jesus we dabble—or even just openly engage—in sin this is exactly what we are doing. We’re trying to play Dr. Frankenstein with the part of us that could produce nothing but death in spite of the fact that we are now able to enjoy real life. We are trying to undo the transformation that has taken place from old to new. That doesn’t make any sense. But still, we often find ourselves there. As Paul writes in Romans 7 and as we have been talking about for the last couple of weeks at the Kitchen Table, there is this battle that rages inside us between what our transformed hearts desire and what our old sinful selves demand. It’s like a butterfly whose inner-caterpillar keeps pining after the “good ole’ days” when he could inch his way along branches, bring destruction to everything he touched, and all the while hoping to avoid being eaten by a bird. Those days aren’t better than what the butterfly now enjoys—flitting around wherever it pleases and savoring the sweet nectar of the most fragrant flowers. And yet through the lens of the caterpillar, such freedom is no improvement on life. Imagine further, then, if on occasion the butterfly listened to this old self and started creeping along branches and eating leaves. What would happen? It would eliminate the food it actually needs to live and ultimately be destroyed by this folly. Thanks be to God that in His wisdom the transformation from caterpillar to butterfly really is permanent. Otherwise there wouldn’t be nearly as many butterflies to enjoy. The beauty of the world would decrease with the loss.

Here’s the thing: We aren’t butterflies. We do hear the voice and have the influence of our passed away selves constantly working against our efforts to live out of the transformation that has taken place when we have embraced the life of Christ. The burning question here becomes: How do we maintain the transformation? We know how to get there—confession. How do we keep it? How do we keep from reverting to what was and experiencing one again the bitter fruits that lifestyle produced? Certainly our hearts belong to Jesus still and we desire to do what is good and right and true, but we’re weak on the follow through. How do we close this gap? The answer is simple: by living transformation lives. We don’t merely content ourselves with a single transformation event. Again, that would be like a caterpillar changing to a butterfly and then removing his wings to crawl around some more in spite of his being redesigned to soar. Instead, just like with confession, we make transformation an entire lifestyle so that it can take hold and make sure our passed away selves stay that way. And, of all the places where this transformation lifestyle needs to take hold in us, the hardest to make it happen is also the single most important: our minds.

After spending eleven glorious chapters laying out the basic theology of the Christian faith, in chapter 12 of Romans the apostle Paul finally makes a turn and starts telling us what to do with it all. What does it look like when all of that rubber hits the road? In v. 1 he tells us that we are to present our bodies to God as a sacrificial offering. This physical gift is a spiritual act of worship, an entirely reasonable service to God in light of all that He has done for us. But, in order to give our bodies to God, something else has to happen first. Paul hits on this in v. 2. In fact, turn there with me now. You’re going to want to see this for yourselves: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed…” So here is in command form what we’ve been talking about all morning. In Christ we are not to look like the world any longer. This is because we are not like the world around us any longer. We are something different. Yet how is this transformation to take place so that we can give our bodies to God? Look at this: “…but be transformed by the renewal of your mind…”

Our bodies go where our minds send them. We can profess love for God all we want, but if our minds are not on board it won’t make any difference. If our minds are not fully sold on the worthwhileness not simply of the Christian faith, but of the lifestyle that comes along with it we will not take it up. We may do the church thing because that’s the community with whom we have happened to connect, but our life once we walk out those doors will not reflect Christ. It won’t be able to. We will be just like everyone else around us…we’ll just use “holy talk” a little more often. We want to live transformation lives, but if we do not have fully transformed minds it just won’t happen. We want to be butterflies, but as long as we listen to the voice of the caterpillar we’ll never fly like could. We’ll never really enjoy the nectar of God as it was designed to be enjoyed. We will instead be content to shuffle along throwing a bone at the faith and figuring all the while that’s enough. Meanwhile the sin we won’t turn from in full will keep eating away at us until there’s nothing left. In short—and you can take this home with you—if our minds aren’t transformed, our lives won’t be.

So how do we do it? How do we transform our minds? Well, practically speaking, we don’t. That’s the Holy Spirit’s job. That being said, we do have a role to play. You see, because of sin, all of the preloaded software in our brains points us back in the direction from which we came. Being jealous and untrusting and lustful and selfish and angry and cynical and so on, those are the kinds of thoughts that come naturally to us. Furthermore, because those things are natural, they are what our culture naturally produces in its art and media. Without any outside intervention, the stimuli we receive on a daily basis will reinforce all those false and harmful modes of thinking. They will, in other words, put our efforts to live with transformed minds on ice. This is obviously a problem because if our minds are not transformed, our lives won’t be.

Our job in all this, then, is to make a change in the kinds of things we allow in. Jesus Himself said that we can only produce what is inside of us. When something bad comes out of us that’s because it was inside of us. We can only bring out what’s inside. And the kick is, what’s inside of us doesn’t go away. If you’ve got junk in there—and we’ve all got junk in there—taking it out isn’t an option. The well is already polluted. What needs to happen is that we need to overwhelm the junk with good stuff. We need to increase the concentration of the good so high that the junk ceases to have a meaningful impact on how we think. We need to build up such a store of things that are good and true and beautiful that when we dip in and draw from the well of our minds we draw out only good things. We need to expose ourselves regularly to the kinds of things which reflect the transformation that has taken place in our hearts so that our thoughts start going first to those things and not the things that have passed away. We don’t need to be Franken-believers, looking to resurrect what is dead and should be gone; we need to be butterfly believers, totally changed in heart and mind and not going back. The reason for this is simple: if our minds aren’t transformed, our lives won’t be.

So what do we do? Paul has some great advice for us in his letter to the believers in Philippi. Near the end of the letter as he was offering up a sort of laundry list of loosely-connected encouragements he said this: “Finally, brothers [and sisters], whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Look, we live in a cultural awash in garbage trying to pass itself off as art. Everywhere we look there are things that are false, dishonorable, unjust, impure, ugly, lamentable, mediocre, and blameworthy. We are faced with it every time we turn on the television, when we walk past the magazine racks at the store, when we listen to the radio, when we get on the internet, when we scroll down the newsfeed on Facebook, and even when we just listen to the conversations going on around us. It’s everywhere. It’s calling us back to how things were before. It’s the caterpillar in our heads shouting, “Hey! Wasn’t life better when you were crawling around on a branch destroying things and trying to avoid getting eaten?” Of course it wasn’t! But when we’re tired of fighting against the current and want to morally relax we’re really good salespeople. Friends, don’t buy it. Don’t go with it. Don’t just take it in. Replace it. The truth is: there’s still good art and media out there in spite of the level of garbage. Focus on that. Think thoughts that are true and honorable and just and pure and lovely and commendable and excellent and worthy of praise. Let those kinds of things be the primary shapers of your story. Allow them to be the things most freshly on your mind when you draw from your mental well. By their presence see your mind transformed so that you can enjoy the life Christ has to offer; so that you aren’t pulled back down into who you used to be. If our minds aren’t transformed, our lives won’t be. Let the transformation into Christ become not simply an event, but a lifestyle. Live a transformation lifestyle and live the life that is truly life.