Baptized into the body
I wonder what part of Christ’s body Rachel will be? A hand picking up others who fall down? An ear that listens to others in their time of need? The feet that takes things places? A mouth in a classroom telling children about Jesus?
It’s interesting to speculate about the future, but that’s all it is, speculation. Right now, it’s also the farthest thing from Rachel’s mind. All she really cares to know is her next meal and who’s going to hold her. And who’s going to make sure to get the poop cleaned up, because it’s not lady-like to wallow in such filth.
Even though it’s just an exercise in speculation, wondering what Rachel might be when she grows up, it’s not useless speculation. Paul makes it abundantly clear that something will come of this little girl because of the gift given her today. Today, through the washing of rebirth and renewal, Rachel Lynn Tomczak entered the lists as a member of the body of Christ. God transformed her from sinner to saint. That’s the language Paul uses in Romans 12. “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind” and “in Christ we who are many form one body.”
Be transformed. Matthew and Mark use that word to talk about Jesus. We translate the word “transformed” as “transfigured.” We could transliterate Paul’s Greek and understand: metamorphousthe. Metamorphosis. Change. The very hungry caterpillar becomes the beautiful butterfly. The dead in sins, object of wrath sinner, becomes the bought-by-the-blood-of-Christ, washed-in-the-blood-of-Christ saint. What a change! A change only God works. Note the passive, “Be transformed.” It happens to us, not because of us. Rachel did nothing; God did everything. He brought Christ to her, gave her Jesus’ saving work, clothed her in it, washed her in it, baptized her in it: transformed her!
The change starts in the heart. “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” It’s no coincidence that this is baptismal language. The only other place that this noun appears – “renewing” – is in Titus 3, where Paul writes: “He saved us by the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” God and God alone changes, transforms, transfigures, metamorphoses us. A renovation occurs, a change for the better: sinner to saint, dead to alive, lost to found, blind to sight, deaf to hearing, mute to speaking, paralyzed to walking, running, skipping, jumping, separate to together.
In other words, Paul doesn’t suddenly start telling us how to pick ourselves up by our boot straps, even though he says, “Offer your bodies as living sacrifices” and “Don’t conform any longer to the pattern of this world,” and then goes on to lists all kinds of gifts that we have saying, “Use them!” Paul doesn’t locate the skills or abilities in us. This isn’t natural to us, to any of us. Sin is natural to us: “sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” Evil is natural to us: “the thoughts of their hearts were only evil, all the time.” We have, as the well-known hymn says, nothing in our hands. We have nothing for God; we bring nothing to God. Except sin, perversion, and filth. From the youngest to the oldest, from the least to the greatest. That’s why Paul says we need to be changed, transformed, and transfigured. We aren’t a caterpillar waiting to be a butterfly. We’re a corpse that can only rot. We speak against God daily. We rebel and revolt against God. We do nothing else. Our will is bound to this by nature.
Thus Paul uses not only the passive voice of “be transformed” and refers to a mind renewed and changed, but he says that this is all “in Christ.” Or, “in view of God’s mercy.”
We can make that stronger: by God’s mercies, through God’s mercies. The mercy of God causes us to be and to be able. The grace comes from him. The gifts come from him. Christ comes from him; to us and for us. Paul talks about this in 2 Corinthians, “The love of Christ compels us, because I am convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died.” And in Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” It seems silly, really, to run outside of Romans, where Paul says so well: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes…. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed.”
God’s mercy moved him to do what it takes to transform sinners into saints. He sent his Son. He gave his Son into death as the sacrifice of atonement, the means by which, using David’s phrase, God saves us from bloodguilt. Our guilt. His blood. This is the mercy we live “in view of,” mercy we live by and through.
The mercy that changes our entire outlook on life. Paul mentions two changes that happen as a result of this transfiguration. Our lives become living sacrifices. And we look at ourselves in a new light, a light of humble and sober judgment, not thinking of ourselves “more highly than we ought.”
This is the essence of that challenging chapter: James 2. The Roman Catholic Church thinks they have us hoisted on our own petard: “Ah, saved by works and not by faith alone, see, it says it right there!” And, by golly, they’re right: “You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.” It’s plain as the nose on my face. Time to flock back to the pope. Or not. James doesn’t rewrite salvation history. He doesn’t deny that we have nothing in our hands to bring to God; no works to atone for sins. James doesn’t deny that Rachel desperately needed what God gave her today: the washing of rebirth and renewal, transforming her into God’s own child! James agrees with Paul. His point: “But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.”
One of the great canards hurled at the Lutheran Church is that we ignore good works; worse, we declare good works to be harmful. By no means! We put them in their place. Good works do not precede faith in Christ. Good works do not create faith in Christ. Good works do not earn credit for us before God to merit salvation in any sense. Good works, however, naturally flow from faith. They are what faith does. Writing in 1523, Luther said, “But where worship is offered from the heart, there follows quite properly also that outward bowing, bending, kneeling, and adoration with the body.” There he talked about rituals and gestures in worship, but his words apply to the whole life of the Christian. Where there is faith in Jesus it produces visible fruits. When God transforms us, we become transformed: “able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing, and perfect will,” Paul says.
And this testing and approving ends up in the living sacrifice. That word “sacrifice” can be bothersome. Sacrificing isn’t easy. It’s hard. It’s giving things up. Jesus said so: “He must deny himself and take up his cross.” It isn’t easy to sacrifice, because it’s not for you, it’s for God: “Take up your cross and follow me.” “Whoever loses his life for me will find it.”
“But I just got my life,” the baptized child cries out, “and now I have to give it up!” But what do you have that you didn’t receive, Paul replies. All you have comes from God. Your life, your faith, your skills, your abilities, your money. All God’s, not yours, given in varied measures. To some this, to some that. To some more, to some less. But, in the Church, all together and united.
This is interesting. Paul unites us “in Christ.” That’s where God puts us when he transforms us at Baptism: in Christ, riding in the one ark that lifts us up above death and hell. He merges us into one body only to divide us, within that body, into our various parts. We live together as one, in Christ, yet we serve according to what we have, not what we don’t, what we are, not what we aren’t. Further, we serve in line with what corresponds to “the faith,” that is, God’s “good, pleasing and perfect will,” knowledge of which comes, as our psalm taught us this morning, only from day and night meditation on the word of God. Another sacrifice.
It’s what we do. We have gifts from God; we use them. We breathe because we’re alive. Transformed by God, we see differently, we live differently, Christ’s love compels us: “he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.”
It’s the most un-vicious cycle ever. God transforms us and renews us, washing us clean through water and the word, linking us to the Son who came and poured out the blood that gives Baptism any meaning and power, the Son that gave his body and blood and fills his holy meal with forgiveness and life for us to eat and drink. And that life he gives, as we saw Rachel receive it today. And more than just life, he gives us everything: he makes us the hands, feet, eyes, toes, lungs, fingers, and tongues of Jesus. And made alive by God – and only by God – we do what living things do. Paul lists prophesying, serving, teaching, encouraging, contributing to the needs of others, giving generously, leading, and showing mercy. Christ’s body living, moving, and breathing.
They are only “sacrifices” that have to be “offered” because while renewed and transformed, sin still clings to us. The old man still says, “Hey, haggle with God, see what you can get for that offering.” “Hey, what will it get you to give any money to Synod, you need that for this, that, or the other thing.” “Why would you waste your time serving in church, you have better things to do.” “Why would you waste your time in conformity to God’s Word? The world doesn’t do that!”
The cycle continues. God does, as often as we need, what he did at this font for Rachel: transforms, transfigures, metamorphoses. Us. He preaches us into Christ; he feeds us into Christ; he showers upon us Christ, the once-for-all sacrifice for our sins that allows us to think of ourselves as we ought: not as high and mighty, but servants, saved by God, who offer him our lives because he gave us his; servants who know God’s good, pleasing, and perfect will: he has declared us holy and transformed us in Christ, so that we can be holy as we wait for Jesus to return and make the world holy, renewed, transformed. By the mercy of God alone can we even begin. By the mercy of God we will finish. Amen.