Galatians 4:8-11, 19-20
April 10, 1016
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
Even in the sparse words of the gospel writers who were more interested in telling the story of Jesus than describing to us the psychological state of the disciples, we can still feel the terrible grief and confusion of the ones who were left behind after Jesus is gone. In Luke’s description of the ascension, Jesus is lifted into heaven to reign in glory, yet the triumph of Jesus doesn’t alter the fact that he has left them, that now the disciples are alone. The story of the ascension is a story of a people proclaiming that God has conquered death through the resurrection while coping with the reality that their leader has gone on before them and left them alone. Like the grief-stricken mourners at a funeral who are reluctant to leave the side of the casket after the ceremonies are completed, the disciples gaze into heaven unready to admit that he is gone from their presence. Even though they hoped that he would return again — even though we hope we will see our loved ones again in eternity — to let go of the physical part of the person you loved is to face an uncertain future without them, and that moment of letting go is a sword thrust of pain. Yet as the disciples stood gazing heavenward after the departing Jesus, angels came and prodded them. “Let go now. It’s time. Turn and set your faces forward,” they said.
The angels seem unfeeling of the disciples’ grief. After all, Jesus has just gone. Can you imagine saying to a person in grief as you walk out of the cemetery, “Well, that’s done. Time to wipe your tears and move on.” We know that it takes months, often years to put one’s life back together after the passing of someone dear to you but that is part of what the angels want the disciples to understand — this is no ordinary passing. Jesus hasn’t left their presence. His physical presence is gone from them but he remains with them in a real and living way, and as long as they hold on to the physical man they once knew, they won’t be able to move into the future and to become people in whom Jesus can live once again.
At a funeral service for an elderly Buddhist woman, one of the woman’s daughters stood and said to the people gathered there, “The life of my mother will not end because it continues in the lives of those she loved. Out of love for her, we will become my mother. Let us each stand and dedicate ourselves to continuing in our own lives something of my mother’s life.” And each person stood and made their promise. Some vowed to take on an interest the woman had had — one dedicated himself to growing beautiful roses, another made a commitment to learn the names of the birds that she so loved to watch and feed. Others promised to try to emulate a part of her character in their own lives, so that one vowed to develop the skill of quietness, another committed himself to learning forgiveness because the old woman had been one to forgive freely and deeply. All in that room made their promises and perhaps it was a bit easier for them to leave the casket behind because they knew that the woman’s heart and spirit would live on; they had promised to make it so.
Before Jesus left the earth, he told the disciples that he expected them to do the same as those mourners at the old woman’s funeral. Jesus said, “I will set my spirit upon you so that you will be my witnesses in the world.” Jesus expected the disciples to do more than cherish their memories of days gone by with him; he expected his disciples to take his Jesus spirit upon themselves so that he could continue to live and be active in the world. The physical body of Jesus is gone but the person of Jesus — his heart, his spirit, his will, his love — continues to live because he lives in us.
In his letter to the Galatians, the apostle Paul preaches that we must become Christ and equates the process with childbirth. He says to the members of the church at Galatia, “My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you …” (Gal 4:19) The Greek word that Paul uses to describe Christ being formed in us is μορϕόω. μορϕόω comes from the word “metamorphosis” means “a transformation,” and the animation industry adopted this term to describe the process of seamlessly transforming one object into another. In the Harry Potter movies, Sirius Black morphs into a dog or for those of an older generation, Bruce Banner morphs into the Incredible Hulk. When Jesus was transfigured on the mountaintop into a divine figure of dazzling brilliance, the scriptures say literally that he “morphed” before the eyes of the disciples. And in Galatians 4:19, Paul tells the members of the church in Galatia that they should “morph” into Christ. Most of us understand that as Christians we should try to follow the example of Jesus — ask ourselves “What would Jesus do?” — but there is something even more profound being demanded of us when Paul tells us that we should “morph” into Christ. The difference between trying to follow the teachings of Jesus and actually morphing into Christ is like the difference between your piano teacher saying to you, “I want you to play this piece by Beethoven” and the piano teacher saying “I want you to be Beethoven.” If your teacher asks you to be Beethoven, you are no longer being asked just to play the music of a dead man; you are being asked to hear the music in your head as he heard it and produce it unhindered by what you believe to be the limitations of your own skills. The stakes are suddenly much higher; the demands much more frightening; the responsibility more monumental. When Paul wrote that we must morph into Christ, he was telling us that we are not just to follow the teachings of a dead man but we are to take on the life work of Christ, pushing the boundaries of our skills and abilities, expressing love so that others can understand it, and believing that we, like Christ, can change the world. People should be able to look at us and say, “I see Christ here.”
Does it feel overwhelming to think about yourself as Christ for the world? Maybe Bruce Banner can morph into the Incredible Hulk but how on earth are you supposed to morph into Christ? You can barely figure out how to work your iPhone let alone be Christ for the world. Paul could not really have expected each of us with all of our inadequacies, our failings, our limitations, our good intentions but bad executions, our sorrows and our struggles, to morph into Christ, could he? My dog Zack is almost 16 years old and every now and then when the sun is shining and the weather is warm, he’ll go running around the back yard as if he is two years old again, but after a few circuits he’ll pull up short as if he suddenly remembered, “Oh wait, I’m old.” In a similar way, we might be able to morph into Christ for a moment or two, and sally forth to heal the sick, feed the hungry, comfort the broken-hearted, and even raise the dead, but soon we will be pulled up short as we remember, “Oh wait, I’m human. Oh wait, I have a temper. Oh wait, I don’t have the energy I used to. Oh wait, I’m not very clever. Oh wait, I have no idea how to do this. Oh wait, I’m running out of steam. Oh wait, I’m hopeless, helpless, clumsy, inadequate, unfocused, rigid, too emotional, not emotional enough. Oh wait, I’m too much of a mortal mess to really be Christ for the world. How could Jesus have possibly expected this of me?”
Sally Hopkins once said to me in book group, “You emphasize the importance of community in your sermons a lot. It seems to be an important theme to you.” I thought about how strange my teenage self would find that statement given that I, as most of you know, am a strong introvert and pretty self-sufficient, but I have become convinced over the years that the only way we can really fulfill the gospel call to be Christ for the world is to be Christ for the world together. No matter how self-sufficient any one of us might think ourselves to be, we are still fallible human beings, and to try to be Christ for the world all by ourselves will lead ultimately to despair. The burden is too heavy and our weaknesses too great to do this on our own. I have become convinced that you might be able to be spiritual on your own and feel the presence of God in your life and be convinced that life has meaning and purpose beyond the ordinary work-a-day world and even be transformed in your hearts by Christ’s gracious love — I believe that you can do all of that without leaving the privacy of your own living room — but to be able to carry Christ’s love into the world and effect real change in other people’s lives, you need the community. Otherwise, like my dog Zack, you’ll run around enthusiastically for a few minutes on your own, and then suddenly realize, “Wait, I’m human.” The burden of the overwhelming need and the recognition of the inadequacy of your abilities will leave you broken-hearted. This is why Paul said, “I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, plural, you all, youse guys, you the whole church.”
At the funeral of the elderly woman I described, no one person promised to become transformed into the woman who had died, but by each taking on a part of her spirit they hoped to ensure that her whole self would live on. After the disciples watched Jesus ascend into heaven, they went back to Jerusalem where they gathered in a room with the other followers of Jesus and it was that community that became known as the church, the body of Christ. What gift which is uniquely yours will you contribute to our becoming Christ together for the world?
Jesus was a healer. Maybe your vocation is one in which you work to heal people’s broken hearts and troubled souls. You can be Christ reaching out to embrace the lonely, and comforting the frightened, taking time to be with those in need.
Jesus spoke out on behalf of the dispossessed. Maybe you are impatient with injustice and your strident convictions can be Christ’s voice on behalf of those who have no voice.
Jesus blessed the children. Is that your call? You can be Christ in the world forming the hearts of our youngest and shaping them in love.
Jesus communed with God in prayer. Maybe you are quiet and introspective, and your way of being Christ is to be a steadfast word of calm wisdom for others.
Jesus talked of the beauty of the lilies of the field and saw the hand of God in the world around him. You can be Christ by committing yourself to creating beauty for others through music, art, or sharing moments that open other’s eyes to the delight of God in the world.
Our gifts are many; the world’s needs are great. Let us morph into Christ so that transformed by love, we may become his transforming love in the world.