Better, or New?

This past weekend has been incredible. Incredible in the sense that I’ve had three days with John Ed Mathison. I invited John Ed in January to come to FUMC, Monroe, to work with our leadership in discerning a vision for God’s future in our community. John Ed led our Church Council and staff in a retreat on Saturday, preached in worship on Sunday, and led the staff in a retreat on Monday (albeit shortened due to the storms). For me, the best part was having three days to pick his brain concerning life, ministry and the United Methodist Church. Anyone who spends even a day with John Ed quickly understands why he has been so effective and fruitful over 50+ years of ministry.

john ed mathisonJohn Ed never offers platitudes or complex strategies. He offers simple advice and direction. When he says something so strikingly simple, you’re like, “Duh! How could I not have known that?” The weekend was filled with those moments for me.

One such moment came Saturday morning during the Council retreat. One simple statement has resounded over and over in these three days following: “Jesus didn’t come to make us better, he came to make us new.” That, my friends, summarizes the idea of transformation. We’re not meant to be better people as followers of Jesus Christ, we’re meant to be different people. I suppose that single phrase struck me so deeply because I heard it in light of my preparation for Bible study this week. I’m reflecting over Paul’s letter to the Romans, and we deal specifically this week with the powerful transitional passage in Romans 12: 1 – 2:

12 And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. 

I love Paul’s great transition from the theological to the practical in his letter to the Romans. I like it precisely because it moves from the abstract realm to the practical, and after all, the Christian life is meant to be lived practically in community. It would be great to know the mind of Paul as he wrote to the Romans, but I get the sense as I read his letter that perhaps he felt at the end of the day if the theology didn’t become practical it wasn’t much good at all. Paul’s message in Romans 12: 1-2 is as simple as John Ed’s reminder that we are meant to be different people, not simply better people.

Paul, never lacking in boldness (after all, he did tell the Corinthians “imitate me”), shares specifics concerning what this transformation ought to look like (Paul also liked lists!). It is in reflecting on Paul’s specifics that I find myself most convicted. I might even call his counsel in the verses following his call for transformation another set of “be” attitudes. Here’s what I see:

  • “Be” honest with myself (12:3)
  • “Be” in ministry to others (12:4-8)
  • “Be” loving (12:9, 13:8-10)
  • “Be” ethical (12:9, 12:21, 13:11-13)
  • “Be” grateful (12:12)
  • “Be” patient (12:12) (Seriously, he had to add this one?)
  • “Be” prayerful (12:12)
  • “Be” hospitable (12:13)
  • “Be” ‘other’-focused (12:14-15)
  • “Be” peaceable (12:17-18)
  • “Be” a good citizen (13:1-7) (Uh, huh! How many of you find this a hard one?)

As I reflect on Paul’s instruction, I’m compelled (again!) to surrender to the power of the Holy Spirit. I hear Paul saying (again!) that life is a daily surrender of all of who I am to all of who Christ is. Isn’t that what Paul meant when he said, “Give your body to God?” The old KJV renders the passage this way: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.”

The term Paul uses for “service” carried the understanding of a worker offering him/herself to an employer. Paul is saying, “Make this transformation thing your life’s work. Make a living out of living for Christ.” In the same sense that I get up and go to work as a pastor, I should get up giving myself to Christ. In the same sense that a person gets up and goes to work as an attorney, or a doctor, or a teacher, or bus driver, or a (well, fill in your own blank), each of us should get up giving ourselves to the one who gave himself for us. As we do, the Holy Spirit will do God’s transforming work in our lives. Transformation is not a one-time proposition. It’s a lifetime affair. Yes, we’ll likely be better people, too, but more importantly, we’ll be new people.

Until next time, keep looking up…