Changing in the Spirit

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on September 28, 2014)

“Changing in the Spirit.” So essential to our vision!

We have a problem though. A conflict. A paradox.

On the one hand, I never, ever want to lose sight of how important and inspiring and beautiful a changed life can be. In particular, I’m thinking of the beautiful change that comes when people first choose to follow Jesus Christ.

10686599_10152690258335688_2824050869696162249_nThis picture showed up on Facebook this week from a high school friend, Andrea Dorr Maurer. Andrea is our own Nick and Alice Maurer’s daughter-in-law, but in the summer of 1984 I was at summer camp with Andrea and her brother Brian. In fact, Brian and I shared a tent that year.

Brian and Andrea didn’t grow up going to church, but they had each been coming to our youth group for a few months. That summer, during one of the gatherings, Brian went forward and prayed, asking Jesus to be his Savior and the Lord of his life. Andrea also wrote this date in her bible, because when she saw Brian accept Jesus, it gave her the courage to do it too. Here’s what she wrote on Facebook when she posted this picture:

“This is the date that I decided to be a follower of Jesus. – wow – over 30 years ago now. There were times when I was not faithful to Him but He was always faithful, always pursuing me. Best decision of my life. What an amazing and wonderful adventure with Him. Such Love.”

It truly was one of the most encouraging things in my life at that time to watch Brian and Andrea changing in the Spirit. Their mom was battling cancer, and their new relationship with God was something that they said gave them strength through those hard days. She passed away the following April, and their trust in God through that time was something that inspired me. I love that both today are still choosing to follow Jesus!

Examples like this are why I became a pastor.

My life has been profoundly and permanently changed by Jesus. So many people I have known and loved over the years have been changed as well. This is such a key part of the good news of God! Changing in the Spirit is possible!

That’s the one hand, the good hand, the piece we never want to lose. But…there is an “on the other hand…” to this issue, too.

So on the one hand, people experiencing change through the work of God’s Spirit is beautiful and powerful. On the other hand…is there really anyone who wants to be told they need to change?

Think about it. When our parents want us to change our hairstyle or stop piercing everything or stay away from the tattoo parlor…does anybody like that being told to change?

When your spouse says you load the dishwasher wrong, and it needs to change…your boss wants you to change how you answer the phone. Nobody likes that!

Years ago, in fact I think it was after one of the first times I spoke here, someone came up to me after the service and said, “Did you know you do this really annoying thing when you speak? You, like, go “tttthhh” with your tongue, like all the time. You really need to change that. It’s super distracting.” Made me so mad!!

And then you take the more serious things…the way we sometimes feel parents or friends or significant others don’t accept us or love us for who we are. The awful feeling that we won’t be accepted or loved unless we change to conform to someone else’s ideal. Relationships shouldn’t be conditional upon changing! Billy Joel even wrote a song about that long ago…

So if we can cheer Billy Joel for loving someone “Just the way you are”… why should we cheer a God who tells us to change?

I think this is a very important question for us to answer as followers of Jesus. We have to wrestle with this. Our faith is based on Christ changing us in the most profound ways-changing how we act, changing our destinies to spend eternity with God.

But what kind of good news is it, if we first have to convince people that they need to change, convince them that something is horribly wrong with them? If we believe our task as Christians is to let everyone know how wrong they are, how futile their lives are, how much needs to change…are people going to want to accept that bad-I mean, that good news?

“Changing in the Spirit” is a part of our vision statement because we believe the fact that God can change us is the most hopeful thing in the world. How do we hold that as our vision, without making God’s love conditional? Without annoying people by constantly asking them to change?

We try to find a way to live that acknowledges two truths: one, God loves us as we are. God’s love is not dependent on our actions or behavior. And two, it is also true that when we do things that aren’t in keeping with how God created us to live, damage is caused. We hurt ourselves and contribute to the pain of this broken world we live in. We also hurt God.

That’s the word I end up using after a lot of thought. God’s love for us is great enough that God in a sense gives us the power to hurt God when we don’t live as God intends.

I said to someone this week that I often feel like I stand between generations…and that sometimes it feels like I’m straddling continents that are drifting apart.

The generation younger than me has grabbed one truth with both hands, this truth that we are all made in God’s image, we are all loved, we are loved as we are! I resonate with them and with this truth.

For this generation younger than me, judging is a horrible word. Expectations, constraints on behavior, they can all be seen as bad things. So often in human relationships, putting expectations on others or boundaries for behavior is also how we put boundaries on love. I love you when you are like me, or when you do things that please me. So this generation younger than me is wary if not critical of any whiff that God might have expectations on us, because they hold so strongly to the truth of God’s unconditional love.

The generation older than me looks at this and worries. They worry, because they have lived long enough to see the damage that is caused when no expectations, no boundaries, no aiming for holiness exists. They believe in God’s love, yes; but the generation older than me has also experienced the reality of this loving God who says, as in Joshua 24:15, “Choose this day whom you will serve.”

The generation older than me has grabbed another truth with both hands, this truth that obedience to God is essential, that forgiveness and reconciliation with God must be sought. And I resonate with them and with this truth.

Last week I read Joe Gerick’s words from 20 years ago as he addressed our Yearly Meeting when he was superintendent. 

Today I want to read words from 40 years ago, going back to 1974 and Norval Hadley’s superintendent address at Yearly Meeting:

“Today I want to call the church to a new discipline of obedience. I realize there is a great deal being said and written in these days about our ‘glorious freedom’ in Christ. Anything that imposes guilt is not popular…

We can be in ministry without obedience. We can be strong on love for one another without obedience. We can be positive and encourage one another without obedience. We can even pray without obedience, though our prayers will be ineffective. But we cannot have the blessing and the power of God in our lives, our witness, and on our church without obedience.”

40 years ago, Norval Hadley looked at the chaos from the 60’s and the 70’s, and called us to obedience…he even put “freedom” and “love” as separate from, maybe even opposing “obedience”. Like has happened so many times in the history of the church, it seemed as if one had to choose: love or obedience? Freedom or expectation? Unconditional love or sins that need forgiving?

And of course when we think about it, we know the answer. It’s both! We need both.

These continents don’t have to split apart. Can I get some people to bridge the divide with me?

I think the reason we so often get frustrated when someone else tells us we need to change is that we are so used to a world that doesn’t show us unconditional love.

If someone tells us to change, it feels as if they won’t love us until we do. So something inside us fights against acknowledging that any change is needed.

But if we can believe that God’s love truly is unconditional…if that really can sink in and be accepted…then we are all so much more free to look at life and realize: hey!! Change is a very good thing!!

I’m glad I’m not consumed, as I used to be, by the manipulative ways I did things for other people so that they would like me. I’m glad I’m not totally owned by sexual desires, and seeing other people as simply ways to gratify it.

I’m glad there is hope for change when I look at the broken relationships that occur over alcoholism and drug abuse. I want change when I see my selfishness, my jealousy, my envy, my impatience with the people I care about most.

We believe, as followers of Jesus, as Quakers, as Newberg Friends Church, that the Holy Spirit is at work changing us for the better.

We believe this change is impossible without what Jesus Christ has done. We believe that all of the good transformation of character that takes place in the world ultimately comes from God’s great love and power, active in Jesus’ death and resurrection, and given to our world through the Holy Spirit.

We believe it’s more than a forgiveness of ways we’ve broken a code of ethics or laws. It is forgiveness, and it is also the unstoppable power of God, the power exerted so strongly in bringing Jesus back to life after our world rejected and killed him. This change is nothing less than the resurrection power of God at work in us.

We believe this change is not dependent on following a bunch of rules or by attending church or by any rituals. It comes by thanking God for his love, believing Jesus lived and died and lives again, and allowing the Holy Spirit to free us to a life of health and obedience.

In Colossians, this letter we’ve been looking at through this series, Paul is reassuring his readers. Others had been telling them they weren’t doing enough. Some Jewish Christians evidently were telling them they needed the Jewish act of circumcision. Some were saying don’t eat this or drink that, do this esoteric fancy worship stuff, worship the angels to get the help you need.

Paul tells them again and again all they need is Jesus. Jesus has done it all! Listen from chapter 2-listen to how Paul reminds them it’s more than forgiveness. We already have forgiveness, and we also live with the resurrection power of Jesus coursing through our veins, the resurrection power that has already defeated the powers and authorities, the spiritual realities that make us feel so stuck and paralyzed with our bad habits and choices. They are already beaten!

     For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your sinful nature was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.
When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. (Colossians 2:9-15, TNIV)

You don’t have to change to get God to love you.

You don’t have to be convinced of what a jerk you are just so that you can be changed.

As we experience God, as we are listening to Christ, we realize the power, joy and hope of changing and being transformed through the Holy Spirit’s work.

While Jesus has already accomplished forgiveness and the breaking of sin’s power long ago, there is something powerful and beautiful and necessary in choosing to accept it and make it our life’s goal. There’s something beautiful in the first time we do this, and also when we reaffirm and deepen it as we go through life.

If you’ve never had that first, transforming moment…you can say yes to God today. It’s not about the right words. God’s Spirit will help you. You can even come to the front and have someone pray with you if you’d like. You can find a friend after the service or later this week. You can have that first, life-changing moment of saying yes to Christ and opening your life to God’s transforming resurrection power.

You can also choose again to reaffirm your love for how God has loved you; you can choose again today to commit to loving and obeying God, with the Spirit’s power at work in you, doing what you can’t do on your own. I’ll give just a minute in case any one wants to not miss the chance to do that right now.

I invite you to join me as we close, reading this transforming prayer by Richard Foster:

Spirit of the living God, be the Gardener of my soul.

For so long I have been waiting, silent and still
– experiencing a winter of the soul.

But now, in the strong name of Jesus Christ, I dare to ask:

Clear away the dead growth of the past,

Break up the hard clods of custom and routine,

Stir in the rich compost of vision and challenge,

Bury deep in my soul the implanted Word,

Cultivate and water and tend my heart,

Until new life buds and opens and flowers.

Amen.

(“Prayers From the Heart” by Richard J. Foster, p.3)

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