Transformed by Grace

Sermon for 27 August 2023

Most of us have heard of karma. We even have a basic idea of what it is. I don’t know much about Hinduism or Buddhism, but my understanding is that karma is like the weight of your actions—not just in this life, but in previous lives you lived—and how it determines not just your current existence, but also your future lives. If you’ve lived an incredibly good life, then your karma might be light as a feather, and you will be reïncarnated as a highly spiritual person. But if you’ve lived an evil or selfish life, your karma would be very heavy, and you might be reïncarnated into misery in the next life—perhaps even as a non-human being.

Karma has entered our vocabulary these days—or at least into the vocabulary of people younger than I am. Here’s an example:

I’ve seen a brief video many times of a man in a crosswalk with his dog. He’s screaming obscenities at the person we can’t see (the one with the camera). He’s even making rude hand gestures. But his head is turned because of his preoccupation with being nasty, so when he gets to the opposite curb, he doesn’t see a telephone pole, and he walks right into it. It’s pretty satisfying to watch, and the caption usually assigned to it is perfect: Instant karma.

Because the word we use for it comes from Sanskrit, we think of karma as an eastern concept. But it’s not—at least not exclusively. It’s also found in the Bible. In fact, almost all of us can quote a Bible verse that talks about it. Galatians 6 tells us that you reap what you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit (vv 7b-8). You may not have memorized the second part, but you certainly know the first part.

Karma is not a strictly a spiritual law, either. It’s not limited to Hinduism or Buddhism or Christianity or Judaism. It’s actually a law of the universe. Newton’s Third Law of Physics states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. It’s not just religion, but science that teaches us karma.

There’s another law of physics I want to mention here. It’s the second law of thermodynamics. In a nutshell, it tells us that everything is subject to a force called entropy. If you don’t know what that is, maybe you’ll recognize it in a song we sing sometimes:

Change and decay in all around I see.
O thou who changest not, abide with me.
—Henry Francis Lyte (1847)

The song Abide with Me repeats a physical law, that the expanding universe is subject to entropy, to disorder or decay, to a slowing down, to a falling apart. But there’s an antidote to change, just as there’s something that breaks the eternal cycle of karma. We can never be so perfect that evil won’t weigh us down. And we can never be free from the laws of the universe that dictate change and decay in all we see.

At least we can’t on our own. And that’s where grace comes in. What we cannot do, God can do. Though we will never free ourselves from the consequences of our own—and others’—mistakes, God can. And while we cannot undo the laws of the universe and reverse the power of change and decay, God’s transformative power can.

Most of us probably think about grace in an otherworldly way: not in this life, but in the life to come. We will go to heaven and be free of sin. At the last trumpet, we will be transformed from these earthly bodies into heavenly beings. And thought the Bible may have a few things to say about these things, I usually avoid talking about them. It’s all metaphor, and we probably can’t really understand what it means.

But the Bible talks even more about the effects of God’s grace in the world we actually live in. Jesus acknowledges that, in this life, we are caught up in cycles of violence and hatred. And the antidote he offers is none other than grace. Just as God is graceful toward us, so we ought to be graceful toward each other. Don’t hate those who hate you: love them. Don’t try to get revenge on those who’ve mistreated you: pray for them. Don’t go through life holding grudges: forgive. Don’t strive: let go. Don’t hoard up treasures: give.

Those may all be difficult things to do, but the wholeness of faith allows God to act in and through us. So I repeat: What we cannot do, God can do. We can’t change the law of nature, that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. But through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can live beyond it. But what about the other law I mentioned—the law of entropy, that all things must change and decay and fall into disorder. Most of us recognize this as mortality. It doesn’t seem to matter when we’re young. But the older we get, the more we recognize its inevitability.

There have been religious movements—some based on Christianity—that have tried to deny this law. We don’t have to get sick. If we reach some sort of perfect state, we don’t even have to die. When the Bible talks about transformation, it means we can quite literally overcome sickness and death.

But that’s not at all what Paul is talking about in Romans 12 when he tells the Romans—and us—not to be conformed to the world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Paul was talking about living in the world, but not letting the world decide for us how to be or how to act.

As we discuss this, the first thing to take note of is voice. I hope we all know the difference between active and passive voice. And here, we see the passive.* Paul is not calling on us to transform ourselves. He is telling us to be transformed. And he specifically says this will happen through the renewing of our minds.

You see, our minds, just like our bodies, are subject to decay and disorder and entropy. It’s more evident in some than in others, and most of us associate this entropy with old age. But even that is not what Paul’s talking about here. He’s talking about how our minds are easily led here and there by powers that are not our own.

I just finished a book called How to Stand Up to a Dictator by Maria Ressa. The author is a Filipino-American journalist who returned to the country she was born in to be a journalist after graduating from Princeton. As an authoritarian rose to power, she continued to investigate and report—even though she was repeatedly charged with committing crimes, not only that she didn’t commit, but which didn’t even exist in the criminal code at the time she was accused of breaking the law.

In her investigations, one of the things that Maria Ressa discovered was how social media works. In the Philippines, the vast majority of the population gets their news from a particular social media platform—the same one many of us use in the United States. And what she found out was that news stories are not shared on that platform according to how reliable their source is, how well written the piece is, or even whether or not the story is true. What fuels how many clicks and shares a news story gets is basically how angry it makes people.

While we might have other sources for our news, Americans these days are also increasingly controlled by anger. People seem to want to wallow in their anger, and that’s because they’re allowing their minds to be shaped and shepherded by angry stories they’re reading or angry commentators on the radio and TV.

We who follow Christ, however, allow God to intervene in this decay and disorder. We realize that nobody on their deathbed has ever said, “I wish I’d spent more time being angry,” or “I wish I’d hated more people.” We let God take over and transform us by renewing our minds. We can’t control what’s being said around us. We can’t even control what we hear. But God can break the cycle of what’s happening in the world. There can be—indeed there are—people who don’t react as we’re told by the world we should.

And so faith isn’t something for the future only. It’s not just the way to get to heaven. It’s not just the way to a glorious new spirit body at the end of the world as we know it. It’s also the way we live in this world—not as those who are acted upon by the world, but as those in whom the Spirit is at work. We are saved and transformed by the grace of God.

If we would devote half (even a quarter!) of the time we spend with social media and angry TV and radio reporters to the words of Jesus, then God would do what we cannot: transform us through the renewing of our minds, not allowing our minds to be manipulated by the world.

Romans 12 actually gives a larger context for the setting where this happens. We’re not off on our own, depending on our own resources to help God act upon us. No, we are part of—members of—a larger body, the church. And while God can act on me when I’m alone on a golf course or in my living room, it’s more natural that God is acting on us together in the church.

Faith is the key. We are transformed not according to the amount of willpower we have to improve ourselves, but according to the measure of faith we’ve been given. And so if we allow ourselves to look at our own lives, to look at those around us, and to look at the whole world through eyes of faith, then the cycles of hatred and anger and vengeance that seem to be in control will be broken. Though physical decay continues, our spiritual transformation will be a reality.
—©2023 Sam Greening