Invitation to Transformation: RSVP

(This was prepared and presented for Greensboro Mennonite Fellowship, August 17, 2014)

I’d like you to think of this message as an expression of appreciation, and a bit of a supplement, to both Jim’s and Solomon’s recent focus on the transformation of life that Jesus offered, expected, and accomplished – and still intends to accomplish – in those of us who choose to follow him.

That is what attracted me to the Lord in the beginning, as a college student many years ago, and it still does. I never had the dramatic story of a messed-up, “wicked” life that seems to be requisite in some circles in order to qualify as having been “redeemed”. My life was just empty: with no purpose, no way to be worthwhile, no place to belong, no people to belong TO. I found the life described in the New Testament, and partly demonstrated by a few small groups committed to it, to be enormously attractive, precisely because it was completely different from anything I had ever seen or known.

That’s why I get so bothered by the prevalence of a few themes that continually crop up in what is labeled “Christian” teaching, preaching or writing, that seem, instead of inviting folks to a transformed life, rather to be trying to assure them that “Just as I am” asserts that no transformation is needed!

These well-meaning, but misguided people promote only half of the real message, that was succinctly displayed on a bumper-sticker in the 60’s and 70’s: “God loves you just as you are – but he loves you too much to leave you that way!” The real message is all about being transformed!

“Transform” – the original word is the one from which we get our biological term, “metamorphosis” – the caterpillar – cocoon – butterfly scenario – actually occurs only four times in the New Testament: twice in the accounts in Matthew and Mark of Jesus’ transfiguration, once in Romans 12:2 (transformed by the renewing of our minds), and once in II Cor. 3:18 (our being transformed, together, into the image of Christ). It would be an interesting project to try to discover together how those four passages are related. The idea, however, runs through the entire New Testament, as people, groups, and situations are radically changed to reflect Jesus’ Kingdom.

Solomon put it extremely well when he observed, “Jesus didn’t come to tell us what to think, but to show us how to live!”, and Jim recently pointed out that being set free from fear enables us to welcome changes. These two ideas are basic to the Kingdom that Jesus came to create, but sadly very rare in “Christian” teaching.

I am convinced that for most people and groups, the confusion results, not from deliberate deception, but from a serious misunderstanding of four words, two of which are found in the New Testament, and two of which are not.

The first, nowhere near as common as general usage would lead one to expect, is metanoeite, traditionally translated “repent”. To the average modern listener, a challenge to “repent” implies having been caught in some sort of misbehavior, or some doctrinal error, for which he needs to beg to be “forgiven”. This interpretation has absolutely NO New Testament basis. Rather, the word indicates a total and radical change of one’s mind, focus, attitude, and behavior away from its self-centered concerns, to a focus on the ways and goals of the Kingdom.

This was already obvious in the conversations of John the Baptist with his audience. When, obviously expecting that some behavior was involved, they asked,”What shall we DO?” he answered, “If you have food and clothing, share it with those who need it. Government agents must quit enriching themselves by cheating people. Soldiers must do no violence to anyone!”
Not a word is said about what anyone was supposed to “believe.” And not a word about anyone’s “eternal destiny”. Just Kingdom values to live by!

The second word is “conversion”, for which the primary original word means simply “to turn around,” or “to return.” It usually had purely physical implications, but could also apply to the direction of one’s attention. It is translated “convert” in only 7 of its 39 New Testament appearances. IN NO INSTANCE does it indicate having lost an argument, or become convinced of some theoretical or theological construct. Even modern usage provides several better illustrations :
* an engine may be converted to run on a different fuel
* a factory may be converted to produce a different product
* farm land may be converted to grow a different crop
* a property’s zoning may be converted to allow a different use.
Any of these would merit a study of its own. The operative concept here is CHANGE.
It may entail a change of ownership, and consequently of activity.
It may indicate a change of direction, or a course correction. (If you’re on I-85 trying to head for Charlotte, and you see a sign for “Raleigh”, you turn around! That’s conversion!)
None of these has any necessary connection to either moral failure or losing a theological argument. The one thing they all have in common is change – with observable results.

The other two words, neither of which appears at all in the New Testament, have compounded the confusion. Far too frequently, whether from a conservative or a liberal perspective, “transformation” and “inclusiveness” are assumed to be opposites. They are NOT.
The early church was a case study in the genuine inclusion of “Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female”, not only in the Kingdom, but in the very family of the King! And this was accomplished without either succumbing to the excesses of first century Greek and Roman culture (the debauchery of which was more similar to our own than we like to admit) , or imposing rigid legal requirements upon prospective participants; and certainly without robbing all languages concerned of their pronouns and making a meaningless muddle of their grammar! (That’s another subject for another time.)
Jesus himself had taught and healed both among the despised Samaritans and in Gentile territory. The crowd present at Pentecost represented the whole world known to Rome. The Jerusalem Conference, described in Acts 15, was a classic example of a faithfully managed confrontation of issues regarding inclusion. The strictures of the old covenant were not imposed upon Gentile converts, but neither were they “affirmed” and encouraged to continue their former behavior!
Every description of the message proclaimed by the early church assumed a radically changed life, whether on the part of Jews or Gentiles. This subject should have a much more thorough study on the part of anyone who is serious about inclusion.

Closely related is the other popular buzz-word, “unconditional.” “Unconditional love”, “unconditional grace”, and their fellows, also pepper the preaching of conservative and liberal alike, although neither phrase appears in the New Testament, nor does “unconditional” anything else.
Now, it is certainly true that nowhere are we told that it is necessary for a person to attain some exalted level of “holiness”, moral or ethical perfection, or anything else, in order to be eligible to answer Jesus’ call. If one person is demanding of another, “you MUST” or “you MAY NOT” (insert your favorite requirement or no-no) – in order to be a Christian”, or if his “target” is asking “Do I HAVE TO” or “Will I be LOST if I… (insert as above) ?”, then both have failed utterly to understand either the scope or the goal of Jesus’ banquet invitation. That invitation is exceedingly broad, as the parable read this morning illustrates. But it does require an RSVP. Both accounts, in Matthew and Luke, assert that the invitation must not only be accepted, but the invited need to show up, and to accord the event absolute top priority. The idea is not to meet any minimum requirement for admission, but to make the maximum effort to conform to Jesus’ pattern!
Even the Old Testament prophets, as well as Jesus and his disciples, constantly urged their hearers to make a choice – and they all also made it abundantly clear that choices have consequences.
This is where the misunderstanding of the term “conditional” comes in. A “condition” is NOT an entrance exam, a resume requirement, or an eligibility test. It is simply a grammatical structure indicating cause and effect. It is recognized by clauses introduced by “if” or “unless”, which are paired with others containing (or implying) “then”. It is neither a threat nor a promise, but a simple statement of fact. It describes the circumstances under which something will – or won’t – happen. Jesus used this kind of statement all the time. Grammatically, if the “condition” is not met, the premise is of no effect. “If it doesn’t rain, we’ll have a picnic.” “If it does, we won’t.” There is no “judgment” involved. But the picnic plans are conditional.
When it involves people, CHOICE is the universal key. Zacchaeus, (Lk.19), the Samaritan woman (Jn.4), and many more of the people healed, rescued, or forgiven by Jesus, were commended for choices made, or instructed in a changed way of life. It was their RSVP that mattered!

This is what Paul was getting at, in the Colossians 3 passage, and parallels in several other letters. Although Paul speaks in the figure of death and resurrection, the transformation of life, the actualization of the “new nature” that Alexis noted a few weeks ago, is neither automatic nor immediate. The RSVP is a lifetime commitment. Most of the tenses are present, which indicates continuous action. It is a process that will – or should– consume the rest of our lives. Only the words referring to one’s initial choice are cast in “snapshot-like” tenses.

The interplay between active and passive is also instructive. “Resurrected” is passive: something that happens to you by the action of another. “Keep on seeking” is active, referring to continuous effort on our part. “Put to death” is also active, but a single act: the deliberate rejection of behavior associated with one’s former life. This is re-emphasized in v.7, where Paul notes “you all used to live that way”, but adds the admonition to “get rid of” all the rest of the list.
It is easy for people or groups to pick out one or two of the items on these or other lists, for a pious diatribe about their unsuitability as Christian behavior – usually focusing on those which do not involve their own favorite expressions of selfishness . But it’s instructive to note that although the entire first list emphasizes components of idol worship, which are definitely to be abandoned, nevertheless, it is only “greed”, at the end, that actually is labeled “idolatry”! And the second list, which concentrates more on behaviors that are hurtful to one’s associates, is summed up with the prohibition of dishonesty! I strongly suspect that greed and dishonesty cause more damage and problems in most churches than perhaps any of the rest of the behaviors, on any of the lists! Paul’s reminder is that the WHOLE “old person” ( or “nature”) has been discarded, along with its behavior, and a new life has begun. But even this new life needs to be “continually renewed” in order to conform to the pattern of Jesus. This part is passive. The Lord does it – but requires our cooperation.

Maybe we should actually consider our RSVP to be our signature on a remodeling contract, with the Lord as the contractor! And as anyone who has done remodeling knows all too well, any worker serious about doing a good job, once he gets started, keeps finding more stuff that needs to be fixed!
The final list in this passage could be considered the “materials list”, which we are actively expected to supply for the job and the “work clothes” we need for the effort.

Fortunately, the Lord never intended for us to have to do the job alone. Absolutely all the instructions are plural. And just to make sure we don’t miss that, Paul closes this topic by urging us to replicate the Lord’s graciousness to us in our life together. It is only in the Body that real and lasting transformation can happen. But Paul is not unrealistically idealistic, either. If a bunch of radically diverse individuals are going to be formed into a unified Body, there are going to be sparks. It takes effort and skill to make all the pieces fit and function together – but our Contractor has an abundance of both.

The solution is found in another word, very common in the athletically-inclined Greek culture, but appearing only this one time in the New Testament. “The peace of Christ” is assigned the job of umpire, or referee, as we seek to follow his calling together. Elsewhere, the Holy Spirit has been designated the “coach” (a more accurate translation than “comforter”). Only under the instruction of these two – the Coach and the Umpire – do we have any prayer of learning to play skillfully on the Lord’s winning team, and to “teach and admonish each other” in a way that will enable us all to do everything “in the name” (as representatives) of our Lord and King – continually giving thanks for the privilege.

The coach and the umpire have had centuries of experience. They know the game very well. They are ready and eager to incorporate all comers into the team – but as players, not spectators.
We just need to send in our RSVP – and show up for practice!


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