Spiritual Disciplines: Transformation and Joy
This talk was given by Paul Wintle on as part of our worship service over the Internet.
The recording is long.
Before the talk, we had Bible readings from John 15:9–17; Galatians 5:22–26.
Play in browser
MP3 (10.1 MB) (64kb/s constant rate)
Thank you so much for this morning, everybody who’s been part of our time together so far. Now you all know that I used to be a school chaplain. One of the things I did quite often was to lead school assemblies. One particular occasion involved doing five assemblies, exactly the same, back-to-back with five cohorts of students from the same school. I was co-leading the assemblies with Steve Chalke, the founder of the school trust that I was working for, as part of Founder’s Day. Steve always tells engaging stories. This is the story that he told five times in a row.
The story goes that there was once a Rabbi who roamed the countryside meditating upon scriptures from morning to night. He would walk aimlessly through the wilderness inquiring of the Lord. As he walked, he would tap his finger on his forehead as to pound the truth directly into his mind. He wandered and he wondered. Where his feet landed is where he went without a care, without a worry.
One day near dusk with his feet, dusty and swollen, the silence and solitude was shattered with a loud voice that rang out to him. “Stop right there.” The Rabbi looked up completely unaware of his surroundings. Before him stood the high wall of a Roman fortification. Perched at the top of the wall was a Roman guard who was both alarmed and upset at the sight of this roaming Rabbi. “Hello,” responded the Rabbi. “Who are you, and what are you doing here?” commanded the Roman guard. The Rabbi smiled up at him and responded with a question of his own. “How much do they pay you to ask questions like that?” “Five denarii a day,” declared the guard with quite a lot of pride. Still smiling the Rabbi says, “I will pay you double that to come to my house and ask me those same questions every morning.”
Who are you, and what are you doing here? It’s worth pondering. That’s how Steve Chalke’s assembly began. He challenged the students about whether they were living their best selves now, or whether through thinking about their behaviours, choices, lifestyles that their lives could somehow be even better. Something life-changing, something transformational, and what even small challenges could help them become who they wanted to become. Transformation asks questions about not just who I am, but who am I becoming?
Think about a fairy tale. Pinocchio, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. They are all about the transformation of the central characters. Frogs becoming princes, ugly ducklings becoming swans, wooden toys becoming real boys. It’s transformational stories of Rabbis or fairytale characters that can come true. Then if that’s true, then part of our story can be the story of transformation as well. This is what we’re going to be looking at today in our final theme in our Spiritual Disciplines mini-series. Our understanding of transformation is not a command or a demand of God, but a process of becoming, becoming like Jesus.
In his book by John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted, he says, “You won’t always be, as you are now. The day is coming when you will be something incomparably better or worse.” In other words, there’s always the possibility of something that can and will change us, may transform us. “The possibility of transformation,” Ortberg goes on, “Is the possibility of hope.” Spiritual disciplines as we have been discovering, isn’t having a better interior life or making sure we know where we go when we die or understanding Bibles or praying more, though these things, of course, can be good. John Ortberg writes the primary goal of spiritual life is transformation.
I think this is exactly what Jesus is saying when he commands his disciples to love one another here in John 15, because love is transformative, but it doesn’t stop there. Love turns to joy and joy to completeness. They’re steps of transformation showing the world another way, a better way, or as Jesus said about himself, the way. The first thing we notice about Jesus here in John 15, is that he invites his disciples to remain in his love. This cannot happen unless they have got to know how he works, that primarily he wants the very best for people. That’s the understanding of eternal life in John’s gospel.
The mega -background to all of this is that so many people were excluded from being close to God because the interpretation of the Old Testament to many of the teachers of the law was about keeping the rules of dietary requirements, eating the right stuff, circumcision, and keeping the Sabbath. Even the disciples, many of whom were fishermen, who were unlikely to be the right kind of characters to be in. When Jesus calls the disciples to become his followers and to take on his way of being, they do.
It’s exciting for a Rabbi to choose people, especially so for those who didn’t even ask to follow him, which was the normal way of doing things. In becoming his followers, they come to learn the way of Jesus, which is based in the core of the Jewish faith. Hear oh Israel, the Lord is God. The Lord is one, love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might. That’s from Deuteronomy 6:4-5, God is one with Jesus. Love God. Then Jesus says, “Love each other, my friends. “ Reflect the transformational life that God offers to those around. Jesus gets into trouble so much with the religious teachers of the day because they want to keep things the same by marking out the religious barriers and boundaries, about who is in and who is out. Jesus focuses on the heart of the spiritual life. “You shall love the Lord, your God with all your hearts, with all your soul, all your might.”
It is what his ministry comes back to time after time after time and how he gets in trouble with the law teachers time after time after time, because he’s reminding them of the core stuff, not about the things that have become identity markers for them. When Jesus commands his disciples to remain in his love, he’s really reminding them of the centre of spiritual life. He’s showing them the sameness that Father God has for him, and that which he reflects towards them. Jesus’ life and example show that loving God also meant loving others. It was never an exclusive thing for God’s own people to be better, but to show the world God’s love. To show others around us that the better way was one of transformation, turning away or repenting from other gods and walking towards a life of love and of joy.
This is what John calls eternal life, which other gospel writers called the kingdom of Heaven or the kingdom of God. It’s what Paul’s writings know as being in Christ, a transformed life of love and joy. Am I moving towards the centre of spiritual life, loving God and people, or am I moving away from it? The result of love of one’s friends according to Jesus brings joy. C S Lewis says that joy is the serious business of heaven. It is an important ingredient of what it is to follow Jesus.
Seriously, we look at the fruits of the spirit in Galatians 5, which lists nine character traits of what spiritual growth might look like. The second in the list after that love is joy. Now, I’m not sure about you but when I think of spiritual disciplines, joy isn’t one that springs to mind. There is something about joy that’s central to Jesus’ teaching here, “So that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” Do you remember last week,
that I use the image of Russian dolls to show that Jesus and his father were made of the same stuff, that they were one. As in John 17, “I pray that they may be one, just as you are in me and I am in you.” Well, here we see it again, but this context is joy. It’s the reflection of God the Father, in the Son, to His people. Perhaps there’s something about joy that’s important as a spiritual discipline after all.
As Moira and the Hortons helped us reflect upon Psalm 150 this morning, and encourage us to bang on the table or bring an instrument to worship him. I had my pens that I was banging around with. I’m sure this brought God joy. Imagine the smile on the face of Father God as we enjoyed praising Him. Joy, rejoicing, rejoice. Joy is a key spiritual discipline. It transforms situations and people and circumstances. “A lightness in my spirit,” according to one older Christian chorus.
John Ortberg writes that Jesus came as the joy bringer, and goes on to quote from G K Chesterton who says, “Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore, they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again,” and the grown-up person does it until he’s nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony.”
Perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It’s possible that God says every morning, “Do it again,” to the sun, and every evening, “Do it again,” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike. It may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that he has the eternal appetite of infancy. For we have sinned and grown old. Our Father is younger than we.
Joy is God’s basic character. Joy is God’s eternal destiny. Here in John 15, in the words of Jesus, we see that God’s intention was that creation would mirror His joy. After teaching on the need for obedience and love, Jesus told his friends that his aim was that they should be filled with joy. Paul writes to the Philippians, “Rejoice. I say it again, rejoice.” John Ortberg quips that the Bible puts joy in the non-optional category, and that joylessness is a serious sin. If this is the day that the Lord has made, and we shall rejoice and be glad in it. How do we embrace joy amid the pain and the suffering in the world, perhaps in our own lives?
In my own time as a professional listener, as a careers advisor, a chaplain. as a pastor, I try to hear beyond the words being spoken. I think I’m learning that often, it is the people closest to suffering who have the most powerful joy. Speaking with a lady on the phone the other day, and she mentioned her aches and pains linked to her age, and then she perked up and started saying about how wonderful it will be in heaven to be free of the pains.
Another person I spoke to told me about the sadness that the house sale she had hoped to buy to be closer to her daughter had fallen through, and then she perked up with a whole backstory to how the house she was living in had been a literal godsend after her husband had left her. Leaning into these kinds of conversations were defiant neverthelessness that stopped the folk being unforgiving and resentful. True joy, it turns out, comes to those who have devoted their lives to something more than mere happiness.
“Joy doesn’t always come easily, especially when we experience that the world has not yet been put to rights,” as Tom Wright would say. The world is groaning with its own aches and pains, and yet we see the joy of transformation. The little celebration of late neighbourliness when a stranger goes to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription because you’re shielding. Seeing someone on a walk and they point out to you that there are snowdrops poking through the ground, and you look at them for a moment, basking in a little bit of joy that you would not have noticed had they not pointed it out. The transformation that comes with every new Covid-19 vaccine inoculation, another person who is now more likely to survive the pandemic.
Why not have joy over those little things? Why not go, “Wow, that’s pretty amazing” at those things that are actually not really that little? Those little things can be pretty transformational. Joy brings transformation, and transformation brings joy. The forming of Christ in us expresses goodness and character in our whole being. Transformation allows every part of us to becoming the person we were designed to be. Spiritual growth is a moulding process. Moulding takes time. Processes take time. Transformation occurs over time, and that’s why caterpillars don’t become butterflies overnight. The process of metamorphosis, the Greek for transformation, undergoes change that might hardly be noticeable within the chrysalis.
The core of it all, as always it was is love God, which often looks like love people, which is what Jesus called his disciples to do, to love one another. In essence, it’s to become like him, just like he reflects His Father God. Joy and transformation through love, not laws. Becoming, it usually takes time, love, joy, peace, patience. You get the picture. You might not even notice that you are becoming like Jesus.
2 Corinthians 3:18 says, “We are all being transformed into His image with ever-increasing glory.” Being transformed into His image, this is an ongoing work. Maybe we imagine transformation to be in the twinkling of an eye, then we’ll all be changed, as Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 15, but there’s a difference between being changed and being transformed. Here the emphasis is on having a new changed body. We’re talking about transformation that occurs here and now, often on an incremental basis, and not at all like the road to Damascus’ experience that transformed Paul’s way of life.
Who’s doing the transforming? Who’s doing the transformation? It began at the creation of the world when God said, “Let us make humanity in our own image.” Since then, the shaping and forming of every moment of our life can be an opportunity to learn to live like Jesus. What a joy to see life this way and to know that this is a process of ongoing training, which suggests involves our inputs as well. Training to be like Jesus is the key to all the spiritual disciplines and they all help transformation, whatever we see as a spiritual discipline.
However, we see this, it will always look like love, and joy, and peace, and patience, and kindness, and goodness, and faithfulness, and gentleness, and self-control, as well as a whole host of other positive activities that help us gain power to live life as Jesus taught and modelled it. That is the difference between training and trying, knowing it was always a partnership between the creator and the creation, reconciling the world to the divine. Becoming like Jesus enables us to learn, and relearn, and learn again that it’s okay to make mistakes, and to pick ourselves up, and to be forgiven, and to forgive ourselves and not to dwell on the past. Because it was never about trying, it was about training, which leads to transformation.
Here we come into land, “Who am I? What am I doing here? Who am I becoming?” The steeplechase of life has ups and downs, hazards and jumps. We each have been given life to navigate and to enjoy and to love. The best way to live this life is to follow the way of Jesus in love, and in joy, and in bearing his image, and by bearing good fruit because we are the branches of the vine that is Jesus Christ. We don’t just hang on to the vine because we’re part of it as we grow and develop and as we remain in him. Being like Jesus is spiritual discipline. It involves transformation, not remaining the same. Step by step we are becoming. It is how it has always been. Just not for ourselves but for our church too, who we are and who we are becoming, so that others know we love one another. Indeed love those beyond our fellowship, who feel excluded. Each day becomes another day to practice being like Jesus and should discover transformation is not a one-off event, but a continuation of who we are and who we are becoming. This journey of transformation is not over just yet. In the words of St. Augustine, “Love, then do as you like.”
Ortberg, John, The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002).
This talk is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License
Scripture quotations marked NIVUK on this page and in the audio are from the Holy Bible, New International Version® Anglicized, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.