A sermon delivered by David Hughes, First Baptist Church, pastor, Winston-Salem, N.C., on August 21, 2011.
As you may know, these days we are following the lectionary as we determine our scripture readings for worship on any given Sunday. This is no small thing for a preacher—it means giving up control of what you preach on and when you preach on it. It means trusting that God will use this pre-set pattern of scriptures to give you a biblical foundation to say what God wants to say when God wants to say it.
What has amazed me about submitting to the lectionary is God’s sense of timing. This pattern of scripture was formulated by church leaders ages ago, and yet the timing of the passages each Sunday seems impeccable.
Today is no exception. For some time now we have been focused on spiritual formation because we agreed as a congregation that we wanted to make developing ourselves onto mature disciples of Jesus and deepening our sense of community our top priorities.
And yet, for all our efforts in this regard— retreats, seminars, sermons, outside speakers—I’ve been concerned that many of us are still fuzzy about the meaning of, “spiritual formation.” After all, it’s a new term for Baptists who grew talking about “Christian education”, “Sunday School”, “Training Union”, “bible study”, and “prayer meeting”. We have a pretty good idea of what those mean, but spiritual formation seems more nebulous. A long-time member of our church confirmed my concern this past week when he admitted to me that he still didn’t understand this “spiritual formation stuff”, and honestly doubted it could make a difference in our church.
So I’ve decided to take one of the four assigned texts for the day—Romans 12:1-8—and use it as a scriptual spring board to talk about spiritual formation as clearly and concretely as I can. Because this passage gets at the different components of spiritual formation as well as any single scripture passage I know.
Now there are lots of definitions of spiritual formation around these days. But the shortest definition I know is offered by Robert Mulholland, a Harvard trained theologian who recently retired from Asbury Theological Seminary. Mulholland says spiritual formation is “the process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others.”
One reason spiritual formation is harder to grasp is that it’s a process that happens in relationship with God and other people over the course of our lives rather than a program that happens over a few. Richard Foster, whose classic book Celebration of Discipline we are about to study as a church, cautions us that the process of spiritual formation never happens in a hurry. It is not a quick fix for a Christian or a Christian church. It is the by-product of intentional, patient, time-consuming effort over a lifetime. And when it happens, and happens well, it changes everything, most of all Christians and Christian churches.
Just last week Joani and I celebrated our 37th wedding anniversary. What that means is that for 37 years now I’ve been learning how to be a good husband to this very good woman. If you asked Joani, she’d tell you I still have more to learn, and she’d be right. Because becoming a fully-developed, Christ-like husband is a lifetime process.
What does the process of spiritual formation look like? Here is where Paul’s teaching in Romans 12 comes in handy.
It turns out our spiritual formation is not something we initiate. God gets the process started through a series of actions Paul calls the mercies of God. The first 11 chapters of Romans outline these “mercies”—how God created us, and loved us, even when we sinned and rebelled against him, loved us so much he sent his only son to die for us. That son, Jesus, overcame death and defeated sin so that we no longer have to live in bondage to either one. The fact is, everything we have—the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat—and everything we are—children of God saved by grace—all this and much more constitute the mercies of God.
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.
God makes the first move toward us. The next move is ours. Every Jew in Paul’s day knew about the need to sacrifice living animals daily to atone for sins committed against God. But that kind of atonement was no longer needed, thanks to the death of Jesus on the cross.
What is required now, Paul says is a living sacrifice—the ultimate sacrifice of the whole of one’s being given without reservation to God. And, Paul says, we don’t make this ultimate sacrifice out of fear or guilt or obligation. We do it out of a deep sense of gratitude for what God has already done for us. And as important—maybe more important—we do it out of a deep desire to be intimately connected to the One who made us, and to live the way that One created us to live, which just happens to be in conformity to the image of Christ.
So, to put this in a Baptist context, we respond to the mercy of God by deciding to become a Christian (which means “one in Christ”), undergo baptism, and become a member of a church. Then, of course, the church we join hopes we’ll enroll in Sunday morning bible study, serve on a committee or a ministry team, and give generously of our resources. All this is well and good. In fact, it’s the meat and potatoes of most churches.
The problem is—and we have generations of churches to prove it—you can be doing all these things and not be growing into fully-developed disciples of Jesus, not taking on the image of Christ, not bearing the fruit of the spirit, not living your life the way Jesus would live it if he were in your place. This colossal failure to do the very thing the church was designed to do—produce mature disciples of Jesus—is what Dallas Willard calls the “elephant in the middle of the church.”
People claim Christ as their Savior, yet never quite get around to living as though he is their Lord. Somehow, they squirm off the sacrificial altar and live their lives much the same as everybody in their surrounding culture.
It turns out something radical is required to counter the rather predictable process of Christians conforming to their surrounding cultures. Paul lines it out in Romans 12:2—Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
If there is one verse of scripture that encapsulates spiritual formation, this is it. This verse acknowledges that we are always being formed by something, and that “something” is usually the attitudes and values of this world. In fact, the only way the world is not forming us is if we are being transformed by the renewing of our minds.
The key words here, of course, are be transformed. The Greek word for transformed is “metamorphosis”, the same word we use to describe the change that takes place when a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. That’s why I’m delighted we have a Sunday morning bible study in our church that displays the image of a butterfly every Sunday as it studies the word of God. Because it’s that kind of radical transformation we are after.
Notice what Paul says and doesn’t say. He doesn’t say “Transform yourselves into the image of Christ through your own will power and efforts.” That’s because spiritual formation is a process we participate in, not a product we produce. Christians do not turn themselves into disciples any more than caterpillars turn themselves into butterflies.
Notice that Paul doesn’t actually say anything about how this process happens—here in Romans 12. Actually, he says more about the process in other letters, especially the letter to the Colossians. Paul seems to assume his readers in Rome have access to the information they need about the “how-to”.
Certainly that is true for us, given we have both the Old and the New Testaments, and especially a description of the life of Jesus in the gospels. Because as you study the life of Jesus, you see that he regularly engages in disciplines and rhythms like public worship and private prayer, solitude and silence, fasting and celebrating, studying the scriptures and serving others. And then if by chance you read on in the New Testament about early Christians and in church history about the spiritual giants of the Christian faith, you observe that they also arrange their lives in such a way that they are also practicing similar disciplines.
And if you look closely enough, you figure out that the disciplines by themselves don’t mean a thing, don’t change a thing. What the disciplines provide is the time and opportunity for God to do the work of transforming your soul slowly but surely from one who is conformed to this world to one conformed to the kingdom of God.
And what does a soul conformed to the kingdom of God look like?
A transformed soul is able to discern the will of God. This is no small thing. Indeed, effective spiritual discernment is one of the most important byproducts of spiritual formation, not only for the individual Christian but for a congregation. After all, we’re not here to just do what we want to do (which, by the way, is how the world thinks). We’re here to do God’s will.
A transformed soul is humble. Paul says transformed people avoid thinking of themselves more highly than they ought. In fact, let me just say that it’s impossible to be on the journey of spiritual formation and an ego trip at the same time.
A transformed soul is deeply connected to a community of believers. Spiritual formation requires times of solitude. But it can never happen in isolation. In fact, some of our most formative moments come as we interact with each other and learn how to love and work with one another even in difficult circumstances. Paul says we are members one of another. Spiritually formed Christians share life with at least a few spiritual friends at a deep, trusting level. And it’s in that deep sharing that God does some of his best work of transformation.
Notice that Romans 12 is not addressed to an individual but to a congregation. That means we are called to live this word of transformation out with and for one another. We aren’t just focused on building deeper community here because it’s a neat idea. Deeper community is God’s idea, and we’re called to be transformed together.
Finally, notice that a transformed soul is engaged in gift-based service for the community of believers and the community at large. Spiritual formation has been accused, sometimes rightly so, of being nothing more than glorified navel-gazing. And the activists among us get especially impatient with the contemplatives among us who seem to think being a Christian means lighting a candle and meditating.
Let me say this as plainly as I can. Spiritual formation is not sitting quietly with a lit candle in a room, although it may involve that. Spiritual formation is the process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others.
Paul illustrates the “for the sake of others” part by listing seven kinds of gift-based service, including ministry, teaching, giving, and leading that spiritually formed people do for others. This isn’t an exhaustive list of gifts or ministries—far from it. The point is —a spiritually formed life will not live for itself, but others. That means evangelism and ministries of love and social justice will flow naturally from the heart that beats as one with Christ’s heart. A church that only cares for itself is not focused on Jesus but itself.
This past week several of you spoke to me about articles appearing on the front page of Wednesday’s Winston-Salem Journal. The paper ran a long article about what a sister church in our community is doing to encourage school teachers—the very kind of thing our church could and should be doing as we labor to establish the Winston-Salem Center for Education and the Arts. Also in the paper was a very disturbing article about the fact that our community leads the nation in the percentage of children who lack adequate food. Many of you were bothered deeply by this, and rightly so.
I don’t know how we should respond to the unconscionable hunger in our community. What I do know is that spiritually formed people would immediately begin to pray and talk together about what God would have them do. And then with little or no fanfare, they would do it.
Spiritual formation is the process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others. My prayer is that we will not only understand it. We will do it. Because if we do, everything will change!