How does a person change?

I was asked by a number of people to put up the contents of today’s sermon up on the blog, so here goes. Be warned in advance – its a long one!

We are in a series on transformation, a topic that most people care about yet also remain perpetually confused about.  At the end of the day, most of us don’t know how to change. We want to be different, and if we knew exactly what to do to become the person we were created to be, most of us would do it.

But internal transformation doesn’t work as simply as physical change. Getting trim and muscular follows a fairly predictable pattern: you need to eat better and exercise more. Its not quite as simple in the spiritual realm. Committing 30 minutes a day to studying or praying can be really helpful, but its not a sure fire formula for transformation.

So, how then does a person change?

The Apostle Paul wrote extensively on spiritual transformation, and has one significant section on the topic in nearly every letter he wrote. Some of the famous ones are Galatians 5 (think “fruit of the spirit”) and 1 Corinthians 13 (think “faith, hope and love”). One of the less famous but very important passages is Ephesians 4, where Paul urges believers to “put off the old self” and “put on the new self.”  It’s a complex and multi-layered passage, and we are studying it phrase by phrase in our current series at River City.  Today we covered Ephesians 4.20-21:

“That, however, is not the way of life you learned when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus.” 

There are two really important phrases in this verse that help shape the way we think about spiritual transformation:

Phrase 1: The “way of life”

This word “way” was used to describe early Christians (Acts 19).  Nobody knew what to call this new religion, so the adherents were described as people who followed in the “way of Jesus.”

The word was originally used by Jesus to describe himself: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”  (John 14.6)

This verse is at times thought of in negative terms because it seems exclusive, but that completely misses the point.  If you go backwards through that verse, it is all about life.  Jesus has come to bring life, and to bring life in all of its fullness (John 10.10).  Jesus wants to see you live as a person who is fully alive – someone that lives at the epitome of your potential and who breathes life to the most hurting places in society. How does a person get that life?  They encounter truth, which is discovered through the “way” of Jesus.

Contrasting a “way” vs. a “point,” or a “path” vs. a “door” helps lance an all too common about human transformation. Many of us carry this fantasy that there is a certain moment where it all comes together.  Character is refined, motives are pure, courage comes naturally, and your compass points true north at all times.  Have you hit that moment yet?

Similar: we think of Christianity as this door that we walk through, and we are suddenly transformed into the new being – fears gone, bad habits erased.  Is that what happened to you?

Thinking of transformation as a “way” we “learn” (more on that in a moment) lets the air out of that fantasy.  There is no magic bullet, microwave solution, or single moment that is going to completely transform you.  It’s not what the Bible ever suggests.  Instead, there is a “way of life” we are meant to experience and learn.

Phrase 2: “The way of life you learned when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus.”

The phrase used by Paul that you can “learn Christ” has been explored and debated by scholars.  This word for ‘learn’ was used to learn a language or a skill or a new job or an art form.  But you don’t ‘learn’ a person. That’s now how that word was used in ancient circles, and its not how we use it now.

But it sounds an awful lot like how Jesus describes discipleship:

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28.19-20)

What is a disciple?  The Greek word for disciple literally translates as ‘pupil,’ ‘apprentice,’ or ‘learner.’  A disciple is someone that has given their life to Jesus, identified themselves through baptism, and has now embarked upon a way of life ‘learning’ Jesus.

It builds upon the former idea – Instead of thinking of being a disciple as the finish line, becoming a follower of Jesus is the starting line and that leads to a lifelong development of connecting to the life in Jesus, growing our character, and engaging our activism in the world.

So how does a motivated person “learn the way of life in Jesus?”

I do think its important to have some type of a system to help give you some structure as you try to learn the way of Jesus.  I’ve spent most of my adult life studying the different way of doing it and experimenting with them in my own life.

I’ve always struggled with a couple of tensions, which I think are valuable to mention:

Tension 1: legalism vs. laziness – this is where spiritual growth and physical growth ARE different.  If you gut through a 30-minute run you’ll always be the better for it.  Is that true with prayer?  Debatable.  But does that mean you don’t do it?  Of course not.  Need something that has freedom but also responsibility

Tension 2: balance of inner and outer life – many of the contemplative traditions failed to carry the message of Jesus to the world; many of the activists failed to be connected deeply to God.

Those two tensions would each be worthy of their own post. I mention them because the first book I ever read that helped me ease both of them was “Finding Our Way Again,” by Brian McLaren. I know he is controversial to some, but he is a good guy and loves Jesus. In this book he studied the practices of the different traditions and fused them together into a hybrid form of Christian practices that was incredibly helpful for me.  He uses this graphic to describe the integrated nature of Christianity, and I love it!



Below is a very quick description of each, with a summary of some of the recommended practices that a motivated disciple can engage in with the hopes of “learning” the “way of life” in Jesus:

Contemplative Practices

Contemplative tradition claims that we human beings can also experience and encounter the living God in this life in ways that range from gentle and subtle to dramatic, ravishing, and electrifying.

Solitude / Sabbath / Silence / Reading and Study / Spiritual Direction\Friendship / Practicing God’s Presence / Fixed-Hour Prayer / Prayer Journaling / Contemplative Prayer / Secrecy and Generosity / Simplicity and Slowness / Fasting and Self-Denial / Feasting and Celebration / Holy Days and Seasons / Submission / Gratitude / Meditation and Memorization

A couple of my favorite quotes from this section:

“In classic contemplative literature, these experiences of God are often described as ‘favors’ or ‘visitations’ of God.  They are consistently received as gifts from God, never tricks conjurable by magic incantations or esoteric arts.  They are mysteries that can never be reduced to equations or formulas or techniques.”

“And this distinction – between gifts, mysteries, favors, or visitations on the one side and tricks, magic, equations, formulas, and techniques on the other – makes all the difference in the ancient way of spiritual practice.  The latter cluster of words suggests a way that humans can overpower God; the former, a way that God’s goodness can overpower the ignorance, resistance, obliviousness, and meanness of human beings.  The latter words evoke an economic setting, where we earn payments from God, manipulating God into a position where God must comply to our wishes.  In contrast, the former words suggest an intimate and relational setting, where our efforts – meaning spiritual practices that we engage in – are real, but never understood as a form of earning or buying.  A man may bring flowers and chocolates and songs to express his love for his beloved, and we smile.  But if he brings cash to buy sex from her, we shake our heads.  The distinction may be hard to quantify, but it means the difference between romance and prostitution.”

Communal Practices

If the contemplative is about the inner journey, and the missional is about the outer journey, then the communal practices focus less on “me” and more about “we.”

Inconvenience / Self-preparation / Hospitality / Stillness / Invocation / Singing (Praise & Worship)  / Attentiveness / Interpretation and Discernment / Confession and Assurance of Pardon

A couple of my favorite quotes from this section:

“Showing up is inherently inconvenient.  It means going to a place I didn’t choose at a time I didn’t choose for a purpose I do choose.  My commitment to the purpose – in this case, learning and living a way of life – motivates me to show up.  In this way, going to church when you don’t feel like it becomes the most important kind of going to church there is.” (Brian McLaren, great for church and CG’s)

Hospitality – “Paul’s call to ‘greet one another with a holy kiss’ (repeated four times in his epistles) was more significant than it appears.  Class-conscious Roman society required that people only exchange the kiss with peers, but the early churches brought together Jew and Gentile, men and women, slave and free, rich and poor…”

Missional Practices

Hebrews 10: “Do not neglect the assembling of the saints… so that we may provoke one another to love and good deeds…”

Forgiving those who wrong us / Showing hospitality to strangers – or “the other” / Praying for the sick / Not judging but showing mercy and compassion / Confronting evil, seeking to overcome it with good / Serving / Listening / Speaking truth in love / Practicing neighborliness (including towards enemies) / A bias towards the materially poor rather than showing favoritism to the materially rich / Speaking and working for justice / Proclaiming the good news in word and deed / Throwing parties for those who are forgotten / Walking to the other side of the street to serve those in need / Showing empathy

One of my favorite quotes from this section:

“The pastors and liturgists and worship leaders who serve the community by planning the ‘workout of the people’ are, in this way, like aerobics instructors or sports trainers whose goal is not simply getting people to show up at the gym to work out their kinks and work up a sweat, but rather to use their time at the gym to help them live healthy, strong, productive, and athletic lives.  And this is where our three types of spiritual practice come together.  You could think of it like this: The practices of the contemplative way exist to prepare and equip us for community and mission (what we called the activist way earlier).  The communal practices exist to prepare us and equip us for contemplation and mission.  The missional practices flow from our individual contemplative practices and our shared communal practices, and without expression in mission, our contemplative and communal practices would be incomplete and sub-Christian…”

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