Transformed by Jesus
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind. — Romans 12:2
It’s so good to become part of this faith community here at Daniels Run Peace Church!
When Karen and I started planning to move to the DC area in the spring, we had planned to be retired and not look for anything at least for a while. But then I found out about this church, and the church found out about me, and as we talked it seemed like a good fit, so here I am!
This morning I’d like to talk about how Jesus can transform the lives of people who encounter him in new ways. I’ll start with Zacchaeus and then end with a part of my own faith journey.
Zacchaeus is one of my favorite stories in the Bible. For one, I can identify with him because I’m short like he was, and like him, I have trouble seeing over the people in front of me if I’m at a parade or any other event for that matter.
I probably can’t climb trees as well as he could, though…😊
But more importantly, I love this encounter of Zacchaeus with Jesus because it is full of surprises, things that we wouldn’t expect would happen.
The story says that he ran ahead of the crowd and climbed up a tree so he could get a bird’s eye view of Jesus when he walked by. He was curious to see what all the commotion with Jesus was about.
This curiosity is kind of surprising, partly because of how it was so strong that it motivated him to climb up a tree, and also because it took Zacchaeus out into a public setting where he’d end up rubbing shoulders with a lot of people who didn’t think very highly of him to say the least.
You see, Zacchaeus was not the most well-liked guy in Jericho. He had a bad reputation, and he was a despised and considered a “sinner” by his fellow Jews because he had sold out and worked for the hated Roman empire, collecting taxes from Jews to feed the system that oppressed the Jewish people.
For people like Zacchaeus, it was a good gig, in the sense that he earned a pretty good paycheck, and he made even more because he was one of the top dogs as a chief tax collector. He was like a supervisor who had a bunch of guys collecting taxes under him.
To compound people’s disdain for him, like most other tax collectors, Zacchaeus exploited his position by charging his fellow Jews more taxes than what they were supposed to pay, and he skimmed some of that off the top to help support his wealthy lifestyle.
So it’s surprising that of all people Jesus could have decided to hang out with, he picked this crooked tax collector. The crowd was surprised—they’re thinking, “why is Jesus giving this guy the time of day?”
They couldn’t believe it, and they grumbled that Jesus, the Son of God, would even think about spending time with that sinner.
To use a term that we’ve been hearing more and more of recently, if there was such a thing as “cancel culture” in Jesus’ day, Zacchaeus certainly would have been cancelled by his fellow Jews, cast out, persona non grata.
But because Jesus embodies the love and grace and forgiveness of God his Father, I don’t think he’s a big fan of cancel culture, at least when it comes to cancelling people and writing them off. With Jesus, no one is ever beyond hope, no one is ever outside the bounds of God’s unconditional love,
In Jesus’ worldview, in his Kingdom, everyone is welcome, everyone has potential, everyone can change, everyone can experience transformation—
And that’s something that we see time and time again in Jesus’ interactions with people, and time and time again people in the crowd are surprised, and confused, and sometimes they get really angry as well, which I think happens in this story.
And then there’s the surprise of Jesus basically inviting himself over to the house of a stranger for dinner. We aren’t given details of who actually prepared the meal, or who else shared the house with Zacchaeus, but in the culture of that day it was most likely women who cooked the food and served the meal.
(I would have loved to see the look on Zacchaeus’ wife or whoever those women were when he walked in the door unannounced with Jesus!)
But probably the biggest surprise of all in this story is how it ends. By the time the meal is over, at the end of the conversation between Jesus and Zacchaeus, there’s this incredible conversion, in the life of Zacchaeus, this salvation, and this total transformation that took place in his life that day.
After all is said and done, Zacchaeus, this shady tax collector who has made a living off by ripping off people who were already struggling to make ends meet,
He gets up from the table and declares, Look, Lord! Starting now I’m going to give half of what I own to the poor, and if I’ve cheated anybody out of anything, I’m going to pay them back four times the amount I took from them.”
Right then and there Zacchaeus casts his lot with the way of Jesus, a Kingdom way where all people are treated with dignity, love and respect, a way that is characterized by compassion and generosity and justice.
Right then and there, Zacchaeus shows that he is willing to make personal sacrifices in order to show that he’s “all in” with Jesus. And he draws the connection that having a good relationship with Jesus means learning to live in good relationships with other people, which is what justice is all about, both on a personal level as well as on an institutional and systemic level.
So this is a surprising story on a number of fronts. And I think it’s also surprising because of how fast the change took place in Zacchaeus—his transformation basically all happened in the course of one day, between when the sun rose and when it set.
That’s surprising because transformation is something that is deep and profound, and it usually takes time for it to truly take place.
To me, transformation is a holistic, a whole body experience, that’s what makes it transforming: Based on what we see in the story of Zacchaeus, and other encounters that Jesus had with people,
Here’s how I kind of understand what transformation is all about, : (and I think that we could also use the terms “salvation” or “conversion” in the truest sense of their meaning.)
First, transformation happens when there is some new information that we grab hold of up here, in our mind, new thoughts, new understandings that shed light on who we are, and give us a new vision for who we are called to be.
Whatever happened around that dinner table, we know that in some way Jesus helped Zacchaeus understand the importance of treating other people with dignity and respect, he captured a glimpse in his mind about what life in the Kingdom of God is all about.
Next, true transformation travels about 18 inches from the head down to the heart, it’s something that we feel inside, something that touches our affections, that moves us, that provokes in us a change of heart.
With Zacchaeus, we get a taste of the joy he felt in his heart when he jumped up and shared what he was going to do to help the poor and make amends with the people he had cheated.
And then last but not least these changes that take place inside of us get translated into something we live out concretely in our bodies, something that we put into practice in our words and in our actions, in the way we relate to others and live in the world.
Zacchaeus’ transformation was real because it led to a change of lifestyle that was a living out of his new values. We could say that he is living a life of integrity, or being an authentic or genuine person, because his actions naturally grew out of his newfound convictions and values. They matched.
Oh how we need role models of integrity and authenticity in the Church and in our world today!
What happened with Zacchaeus, this transformation of mind, heart and actions, is what the Apostle Paul is talking about in the Romans 12 passage that we heard earlier:
Paul urges, encourages, begs his listeners to offer their bodies, I think he’s saying their whole selves, as a living sacrifice to God that is marked by a life of holiness, a way of life that pleases and honors God, that lives according to Kingdom values.
Then he challenges them to not live by the predominant values of the world, not just go with the flow, but to truly be transformed by the renewing of the mind which I see as including the heart;
He’s saying that what happens here in our head and here in our heart should naturally be expressed out there in the way we live our everyday lives.
I want to share with you a bit of my faith journey with you, it was time in my life when I came to know Jesus in a new way, in a way that led to some important transformation in my life as a Christian, as a follower of Jesus.
It set me on a path that would change my future completely.
My parents were from Italian immigrant families, and like most Italian families at that time, we were brought up in the Catholic Church. And like good Italian Catholics, we had a big family—I’m the third of 8 children, 7 boys and the last was a girl.
I was a dyed in the wool Catholic- baptized as a baby, went to CCD—(like Sunday School but on Saturday), had my first holy communion when I was 8, and was an altar boy when I was in Jr. High and made my confirmation around that same time.
While I didn’t understanding everything that was going on in the mass and all the teachings of the Church, my Catholic upbringing gave me a good solid foundation for my Christian faith, for which I’m grateful.
Now all Christians believe in the Trinity—God the Father or Parent, God the Son who was revealed in Jesus, and God the Holy Spirit. In the Catholic Church there’s a ritual to help remember this: *sign of the cross*
It’s like a simple body prayer…and although people think of it as a “Catholic” thing, I think that other Christians can benefit from involving our bodies in prayer practices more often.
Anyway, I’ve heard it said that in many church traditions or denominations, there’s a stronger emphasis on one part of the Trinity over the other two.
For example, Pentecostal, charismatic churches, talk a lot about the Holy Spirit, and emphasize the power of the HS to work miracles, bring healing and victory over the power of Satan.
I would say that for us Mennonites, we put a strong emphasis on Jesus- for example, a couple of weeks ago Pastor Earl spoke about Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount to love even our enemies. We Mennonites talk a lot about following Jesus as the core of what it means to be a Christian.
One of Menno Simons’ favorite scripture verses was 1 Corinthians 3:11—for no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.
Another early Anabaptist leader named, Hans Denck, is quoted as saying that “no one can truly know Christ unless he follows him with his life”.
Now in the Catholic Church, at least based on my experience, I would say that God is the person of the Trinity who is emphasized more than Jesus or the Holy Spirit.
The Catholic parish I grew up in did a good job of presenting a God who was all the omnis- omni present, omnipotent, omniscient- that’s all-present, all powerful, and all-knowing.
In a way, to me God was kind of the like the Wizard of Oz, great and powerful God, who was watching over us to see if we messed up, a God who was shrouded in mystery, like hidden behind a curtain, unapproachable and kind of scary like that old wizard was in the movie.
That image of God influenced my understanding of Jesus, which was that he was kind of cold and unfeeling. Rarely cracked a smile, and when he talked it was just in monotone voice-
“Peter and John, put down your nets and follow me”
“Fear ye not—I’ve got this storm under control”
“Let the little children come to me”—but I couldn’t imagine any wanting to go to him!
Yeah, I believed in Jesus as Son of God, but I wasn’t really drawn to him. And I didn’t think he really cared much about me either.
Then I made a new discovery about Jesus about my sophomore year in college at UCLA. I went to a retreat up in the mountains sponsored by a Christian group I was part of at my college, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.
And there was a speaker there who talked about Jesus in a new way that I had never heard before. He described Jesus as someone who smiled and laughed and had a good sense of humor.
A Jesus who was approachable instead of being distant, personable instead of aloof, compassionate instead of uncaring.
He talked about a Jesus who enjoyed being around people, and who had this magnetic personality that made people want to be around him. I mean, he always drew crowds wherever he went, right?
The speaker described Jesus as someone who had incredible love for people, all kinds of people, in fact, Jesus paid attention to people who most other people ignored or avoided.
Jesus saw beauty and goodness in people who other people judged as “sinners”.
The speaker talked about Jesus as someone who was so compassionate that he was willing to enter into the pain and the brokenness of people’s lives and give them hope for healing and putting their lives back together.
The speaker told stories of a Jesus who came proclaiming the kingdom of God, an upside-down kingdom where all people have value, where everyone is treated with dignity and respect, a kingdom where you find joy in serving others instead of using others for your own purposes, where you love people even if they aren’t very kind to you.
Basically, the speaker described the kind of Jesus that we see here in story of Zacchaeus.
The image of Jesus I knew before then was not necessarily wrong; it was just incomplete and unbalanced. It was too focused on Jesus’ divinity but not enough on his humanity.
As I learned more about who Jesus was in my mind, I found that in my heart I was drawn to Jesus in a way I never had been before. And I started longing to have a closer, more personal relationship with him,
A relationship that went beyond seeing him as someone who could give me what I wanted if I said my prayers and tried to be good, to someone who could help me learn to love myself and also learn to love other people.
I found that I wanted to be like that kind of Jesus, I wanted to devote my life to following him and learning to live like he lived. I wanted to put this all into practice in my life, so I started thinking and praying about what I was going to do after I graduated from college.
I had this desire to serve God like I saw in Jesus, living and working among the poor and marginalized in society, and a door opened up for me to serve with this voluntary service program ran by the Mennonites; at the time it was just this unknown religious sect to me, having grown up in a large urban area in S. California.
In those days at least, most Mennonites were farmers living in rural areas and small towns, not in Los Angeles or other big cities. (that’s changed now, however).
Anyway, in MVS I worked in a Hispanic neighborhood in the inner city of Denver Colorado, and I started attending a Mennonite church in the area. The congregation’s emphasis on the Christian values of service, community, simplicity and community really drew my attention—they preached it and they worked hard to put it into practice.
After about a year I had seen enough, and I decided to cast my lot with these Mennonites, and I joined as a member of the church. Around that time I met Karen who had also come to volunteer with MVS in the Denver area.
And soon after we were married we felt God calling us to work with Mennonite Church in a Spanish speaking country, and a door opened for us to do that in Bolivia, South America.
After 8 years in Bolivia, and growing a family that now had three children, we decided to return to the US where I would finish seminary and look for opportunities as a pastor.
My first pastoral position was in San Antonio, Texas, and after that I pastored a church in Phoenix Arizona, then I served as a pastor to students in Ohio at Bluffton University, and my journey now has led me here to Daniels Run Peace Church.
I don’t know about you, but from my experience, transformation, real change, usually doesn’t happen as fast as it did in the life of Zacchaeus;
No, in my life it has taken place over time, slowly, as I take things in, wrestle with them, count the cost of how it would affect me, and then have the two steps forward one step back experience of putting it into practice. (or maybe 1 step forward and 2 steps back!).
But then we have a God whose ways are not our ways, and who is able to work miracles in people’s lives like he did with Zacchaeus, in ways that makes us scratch our heads and say “What just happened?” “how did God just do that?”
God has His own timetable. The important thing for you and me is to always be open to learning new things, new discoveries, growing in new ways as followers Jesus. And to always live with a sense of humility, knowing that we haven’t arrived yet and will always be a work in progress.
The important thing is to live with patience and grace toward others and toward ourselves, knowing that God isn’t finished with us yet and He will never give up on us.
My hope and prayer for Daniels Run Peace Church is that that as we share life together and share our faith stories with each other, that we, like Zaccheus, will learn more fully what it means to walk in the ways of Jesus, that we will be transformed from the inside out through cultivating a deeper personal relationship with Jesus, and that our relationships with others will experience the transforming power of God’s love, justice, and grace.
I’m excited to join with you on this journey. AMEN.