A sermon (largely) on Romans 8:28-29; Luke 6:27-36, preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church
It’s a familiar saying from Scripture, perhaps one of the more frequently quoted from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome: “all things work together for good.” You’ve probably heard it from other Christians on several occasions. You shared the news that a job offer didn’t come through. “Don’t worry – all things work together for good. Something better will come along.” You just broke up with a significant other. “I know it’s hard, but you’ve got to remember – all things work together for good.” You were just diagnosed with cancer. “Don’t give up; God will get you through. ‘All things work together for good’.”
Now in all these situations, the person pulling out that clause from Romans 8:28 means well, seeking to shine a ray of hope, an assurance of a brighter future, where a dark cloud has just settled over a friend or family member. Indeed, we can have confidence that God has our future – a good and bright one indeed – firmly in hand no matter what unwelcome circumstances settle upon us at any given time. But it’s also good for us to listen to what Paul actually had in mind when he wrote those words, “All things work together for good,” lest we think that the “good” that God cares most about is to bring us back to pleasant circumstances in this life, rather than to fit us for glorious circumstances in the next. This is one of those many instances where a little attention to context brings a great deal of clarity.
Now we know that, for those who persist in loving God, for those who are called in line with God’s purpose, all things work together unto the good, because those whom God foreknew God also destined to be shaped into the likeness of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. (Romans 8:28-29, DST)
Paul has a very clear idea of “the good” that is the aim towards which all things, by God’s providential ordering, are working – that we should be “shaped into the likeness of his Son,” Jesus Christ, that there should be an unmistakable “family resemblance” between all of us and our eldest brother in God’s household. God’s overarching aim – and this for our ultimate good – is not to make us happy; it’s not to make us prosperous; it’s not to make all the troubles and heartaches of our lives go away. It is to make us more like Jesus so that when at the last day he looks at us, he recognizes his Son, his righteous one, in each one of us.
The Christian life must be a journey of change – specifically change in the direction of becoming more and more like Christ. Paul was clear on this point throughout his writings: “Don’t continue to be conformed to this age, but keep on being transformed” (Rom 12:2). Every one of us is molded, is shaped, as we journey through life. Every one of us is conformed to some pattern. The question before us is, to what will we be conformed? In what direction will we be shaped? Am I going to step out of the ruts that the structures and the logic and the values of “this age” have dug out for me, to keep me inclined to go with its flow, to be the kind of person it wants and even needs for me to be? Am I going to step out into new paths, the path of being transformed in the direction of Christ-likeness, ultimately the path of reflecting the heart of God and responding from the heart of God? The world around me will keep applying its subtle pressures to conform to it, so that I maintain it; or I can cooperate with God’s Spirit as he applies his subtle pressures to transform me, so that God can also keep breaking into this world, this age, and change it through me, starting by reclaiming the space in the world that is me, that is the sphere of my interactions with the world’s inhabitants.
The first two clauses of our mission statement are: “KNOW Christ. GROW more like Christ.” We reflected at length last week on “KNOWing Christ” as we considered Paul’s intensely personal testimony in Philippians: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, being transformed into the likeness of his death, so that I might somehow arrive at the resurrection from the dead” (Phil 3:11). Notice that, for Paul, the knowing and the growing are inseparable. Paul’s passion to know Christ drove him in the direction of growing more like Christ, specifically “being transformed into the likeness of his death,” being changed into a person who would give himself over for God’s purposes, who would live with a view to accomplishing God’s purposes for the other person and, thus, serving the interests of the other person rather than his own interests – which was precisely what Christ did in his death. This growing, in turn, opened up new dimensions of knowing Christ for Paul – for there can be no knowing “the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings” apart from living in line with that “mind of Christ” who loved us and gave himself over for us.
In his second surviving letter to the Christians in Corinth, Paul creates a clever contrast between an episode in Moses’ life and the essence of the Christian life. During the period in which God was giving the Law to Moses, Moses would go up on Mount Sinai and sit in the presence of God. As a result, when Moses returned to the camp of the Hebrews, his face was glowing with the reflected glory of having been in God’s presence. After Moses delivered the next installment of the Law, he would put a veil over his face until the glow had faded away. It’s different with us, Paul declared. As we keep spending time in the Lord’s presence, the glory doesn’t fade away. Indeed, we’re not just glowing with a reflected glory, but our very face – the self we see in the mirror – is becoming the reflection of the One into whose face we are gazing. As Paul puts it, “we all, with our faces unveiled, gazing intently at the Lord’s glory, are being transformed” – the Greek word Paul uses gives us our English word “metamorphosis” – we are being transformed “into the same image, from glory to glory, and all of this from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:18).
At the conclusion of his letter to the Christians in Galatia, Paul declared that it didn’t mean anything in God’s sight if a person was circumcised or not – that is, it didn’t matter if a person was Jewish or had joined himself to the Jewish people or not. What mattered in God’s sight was “a new creation” (Gal 6:15). From the rest of Galatians, we get a pretty good idea of what this “new creation” is. Paul himself had become “new creation” as a result of his seeking after the righteousness that comes from God to those who trust Christ to align them with what God approves: “Through the law, I died to the law so that I might come alive to God. I was crucified together with Christ! It’s no longer me living, but Christ living in me. The life I’m now living in the flesh, I’m living by trusting the Son of God who loved me and gave himself over for me” (Gal 2:19-20). This is precisely what Paul so earnestly seeks to bring into reality in and among his converts in Galatia, in regard to whom Paul finds himself at his wits’ end – “My little children, with whom I am again in labor pains until Christ takes shape in and among you!” (Gal 4:19). Paul was after his own and his converts’ complete metamorphosis. This was, for him, an indispensable facet of discipleship – indeed, the aim of all discipleship.
Is that your aim?
Is that where you are heading, seeking to move closer to that end day by day?
The second mandate in our mission statement – “GROW more like Christ” – drives us forward along this trajectory, urging us on to the disciplined “stripping off of the old person” that we used to be apart from Christ and the “putting on of the new person who is being made new again, reflecting the image of the Creator” (Col 3:8-15) – reflecting the image of Christ, “who is the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15). Make no mistake: our goal is not merely to “become a better person.” The goal towards which God works, the goal for which Paul strove, is to bring Christ to life within us, to make us “become a different person” who is “Christ in you,” which also gives us “the hope of glory” (Col 1:27). This is what the Holy Spirit works to bring into being in each of our lives and in our relationships with one another, making us more like Jesus, shaping us to embody him and his attitudes and values more and more.
Growing more like Christ requires a death to make room for a new life. It means our death to our own agendas, our own easily-provoked ill feelings, our own vision for how we want our lives to go and everyone else to behave. It means coming alive to, and living for, God’s agenda, acting and responding to the person in front of us on the basis of God’s initiating love, giving our energies and time and resources over to God’s vision for how God wants others’ lives to go.
Jesus called his first followers to pursue a similar trajectory – that of growing more like God. Since we confess Jesus to be “the image of the invisible God,” we can keep our mission statement, for to “GROW more like Christ” is to “GROW more like God,” it is to have the divine image restored in us and freshly imprinted on all our actions and interactions. And so we read in the Gospel:
I say to you who are listening: keep showing love to your enemies, keep doing good for those who hate you, keep blessing those who persist in cursing you, keep praying concerning those who are mistreating you. To the one striking you on the cheek, present also the other, and don’t hold back your tunic from the one taking your outer cloak. Keep giving to those who keep asking, and don’t demand that the person who takes your goods return them. And what you would desire that people should do toward you, keep doing this for them.
Now if you continue to love those who keep showing you love, what kind of generosity are you showing? Don’t even sinners continue to show love to those who love them? And if you do good for those who have been doing you good, what kind of generosity are you showing? Even sinners do as much. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what kind of generosity are you showing? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much back again. But keep showing love to your enemies and doing good and lending, hoping for nothing, and your reward will be bountiful, and you will be children of the Most High – because he himself is generous to the ungracious and wicked. Persevere in being compassionate just as your Father is compassionate. (Luke 6:27-36, DST)
To “GROW more like Christ” is also to live in line with his instructions, for if ever anyone practiced what he preached, it was Jesus! Who showed his enemies (including us, while we were still his enemies!) more love than Jesus did? Who prayed more powerfully for those who were mistreating him than Jesus did: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34)? Who more than Jesus showed love and did good to those who had not first loved or done good to him?
Our “old self” lives a narrow life, constrained on the one side by our self-centered, self-serving, and self-vaunting drives and, on the other side, by the good or by the lack of good that we encounter in others. The good that our “old self” can do is generally limited by the good another has done (or might do); some words or actions of the other person can rather predictably provoke anger, enmity, or malice in us, as if the other person holds our strings. The “old self” can never rise to the measure of God’s righteousness. But God’s character – which is also the character we see in Jesus – is quite different. It is, indeed, “vast, boundless, free.” It is independent of the good or lack of good in the other; it is so full and so complete that it can be “generous toward the ungracious and wicked,” encountering the ungracious and the wicked with the transforming power that once encountered us, when we were ungracious and wicked.
To know Christ is also to remain continuously tapped in to God’s fullness, God’s completeness, as branches are tapped into and continually nourished and filled by the vine. It is to be empowered for Christ-likeness, for acting and responding to those around us from God’s compassionate and generous character in ways that would have been impossible, incomprehensible, and ultimately undesirable to our “old self.” I think that this is what is really meant by “justification” – not just being declared “innocent” because we have some pull with the Judge’s Son, but becoming just and good because God’s Son now drives us in our inclinations, words, and deeds. I think that this is part of what Paul had in mind when he talked about “salvation” – not just being saved from the consequences of our past sins, but being saved from our past selves, the source of those sins, to become something else, something more beautiful, something well-pleasing to God – to GROW more like Christ. This is what we pray for when we sing the final verse of Charles Wesley’s familiar hymn: “Finish then thy new creation! Pure and spotless let us be! Let us see thy great salvation” as we are “perfectly restored in thee,” as the image of God, which we bore in creation but lost in our fall, is restored in us by Christ, “who is the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15), living in and through us. Amen.