The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
When was the last time you saw someone’s appearance change radically? It seems to me that something phenomenal — or at least peculiar — happened on the mountaintop, either to Jesus or to the disciples who were with him. Did Jesus undergo some sort of metamorphosis that caused him to be radiant? to shine like the sun? to have an aura? to beam? Or do you think that he was always radiant, but people didn’t notice until his followers — Peter, James, and John — go up to the mountain and literally see Jesus in a new light. I suspect that all of us have at times observed the change visage of a friend or loved one after they have had a life-changing experience. There are outward manifestations of inner changes in us that our friends and families notice.
Assuming for the moment that Jesus did change, why is that important? Does it mean that he was surrounded by the divine light? Did something in his life shift at the moment he began to glow? Does it mean that this was a moment of transformation for him, as was his baptism by John? God speaks at the moment of transfiguration, just ask God speaks at Jesus’ baptism, saying, “This is my son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased,” using exactly the same phrase.
Christians are asked to be baptized as Jesus was, but has anyone asked to go through some sort of metamorphosis or transformation? Maybe? When we join Plymouth, we commit to give ourselves unreservedly to God’s service, which is a big deal, but it isn’t quite asking us to be transformed. In a few weeks, you will hear that thorny line in John’s gospel, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above, [John 3.7, NRSV], or in the language of the King James Version, “born again.” No, I’m not about invite you to come forward for an altar call, and I’m also not going to dismiss the idea of you having a spiritual transformation or many spiritual transformations. I’m not going to try and tame the idea of your having a metamorphosis.
Marcus Borg writes, “The metaphor of rebirth, being born of the Spirit, is an image of radical transformation. An old life has been left behind and a new life has begun…Being born again is utterly central to Christianity, one of the main images for the goal and promise of the Christian life. It describes our transformation and, ultimately, the transformation of the world, for those who are born of the Spirit of God as known in Jesus share God’s passion for a more just and peaceful world.” [Marcus Borg, Speaking Christian (SF: HarperSanFrancisco, 2011), p. 169.]
By a show of hands, how many of us really want to be changed, transformed, pushed out of our comfort zone by the spirit of transformation? It’s not easy, and it’s not without consequences. Transformation means changed hearts and changed lives. What would you expect if you, yourself, saw Jesus in the flesh? Would you expect it to be a transformative experience?
Many years ago, I was in a therapy group for Adult Children of Alcoholics in California, and for me it was a transformative experience, and helped me to get a fresh start on my journey, and it marked a new beginning. I know others of you who have gone through the process of recovery, and it can be an incredible transformation. What are the moments of transformation in your life that have turned you in new directions or offered you a fresh start? It doesn’t have to be recovery, it could be the birth of a child, starting a new career, finding a hidden talent or a new avocation. But having a fresh start on life because of a new relationship with God is something incredibly powerful and different.
Most of you know Plymouth’s mission statement that says “It is our mission to worship God and help make God’s realm visible in the lives of people, individually and collectively, especially as it is set forth in the life, teachings, death and living presence of Jesus Christ. We do this by inviting, TRANSFORMING, and sending.”
That middle element, transformation, can be difficult, don’t you think? …especially if we think that we’re done transforming into new persons or that we simply have no need to change. The Kingdom, or "realm," of God is about transformation of THIS world into the world as it would be if God were immediately in charge, instead of the forces of Empire. Doing the work of justice is about transformation. Loving the unlovable is about transformation. Moving away from self-interest and radical individualism is about transformation. Giving yourself to something bigger than consumerism and acquisition is about transformation.
We cannot try and tame transformation without taming the Kingdom of God. And we won’t be part of the Realm of God unless we are transformed and born of the Spirit. And that requires openness to new beginnings, to change, to transformation of our lives, to letting go of some old burdens, to adopting some fresh practices and ways of being Christian.
We are about to enter the 40-day season of Lent, which mirrors Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness; it was a period that was anything but tame: a period of radical transformation for Jesus, even without the radiance he experienced later. Wilderness can be a place for transformation, where we come face-to-face with our truest selves. Perhaps rather than being seen as a period of penitence, we can see Lent as a transformative journey into the wilderness, a time of gestation, of metamorphosis, of new beginnings, of being within the chrysalis — ready to emerge reborn. And it isn’t something we have to do alone…we have companions on our pilgrimage of transformation.
I invite you to open yourself as we finish this season of Epiphany and walk together into the season of Lent next Wednesday evening. I invite you to join all of your sisters and brothers at Plymouth on a pilgrimage of transformation as we walk through the wilderness for these 40 days.
May you be transformed in the midst of your life, knowing that new beginnings are possible.
May you see change as an opportunity instead of a threat.
May you be blessed as you uncover new truths about yourself.
May you know that you are journeying with kindred spirits through the wilderness.
© 2020 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.