“My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you…” Galatians 4:19
(When you read that the title of today’s message is “Christian FACE Formation,” that is no typo. By the time I’m done with this message, I hope we all understand why the switch of “Face” for “Faith” before the word, “Formation.”)
A missionary went to some place in Central Africa sometime back. After he finally got to the point where he could share the Christian faith in their language, in an intelligible, respectful and relevant way, he began with some of the Gospel stories about Jesus, his teachings, his miracles, his healings especially, and how he related so graciously to the poorest, most powerless people around him, like children.
The gospel stories got good receptions; people wanted to hear more. But another response was befuddling. Some people said, “Oh yeah, we know about him. In fact, he’s been here already. My parents and my grandparents often talk about him. He was a stranger who did and acted just like the person you described. He was devoted to your God, he healed sick people, and treated the poor and the powerless so graciously and respectfully, including children. Ever since he left, we also have even been expecting him to come back, like you say he will. Do you know where he went, and how long before he returns? My parents sure miss him. The only thing that’s different, though, is that you call him “Jesus.” My parents, I seem to remember, called him “Charlie [or Oscar, or Ralph—I forget].”
The befuddled missionary did some research and found out that there had already been a foreign missionary there a few decades before, a medical missionary. That would explain the healings. For some reason, “Charlie” had not been able to stay long enough to plant a church. But he had represented his faith and his Lord so well to those people that they confused Jesus for Charlie, and vice versa.
I can think of no better compliment, can you?
In our announcements we have called this day, “Christian Education Sunday.” But increasingly, churches and seminaries are using the term “faith formation,” in place of Christian Education, or just “Sunday School.” As you may know, we have started the search for a Pastor of Christian Faith Formation.
I like that change of vocabulary to “faith formation” because we can so easily reduce Christian Education to merely an engagement of the brain, which we think only happens in classrooms in church buildings, where we get facts and opinions into our heads, or share facts and opinions from our heads, about the Bible and our beliefs, or current events and trends, and maybe that will have something to do with our lives the rest of the week. Or maybe not.
But the word, “Faith” makes me think of something more active and living than just “knowing facts, opinions and ideas.” And the word, “formation”, makes one think of long-term, even lifelong personal growth, change and development, not just learning stuff one day of the week.
We still must know and study the Bible, our beliefs, current issues and more. But the goal of Christian faith formation is not just that we learn stuff and form opinions. Paul’s concern for his Galatian friends is not just what they store between their ears, but what they show through their faces, their bodies, their hands. Paul is concerned not just about what they think about Jesus, but that people come to look like Jesus. Not physically, of course. But in qualities, character, conduct and confession, in relation to God and to others in this life, until that image of Christ in the human being is fully revealed in the next life, as we share Christ’s crown, his throne, his glory and his inheritance. The goal of Christian faith formation that I’d like us to consider and to remember today is that same one which Paul described to his disciples in Galatia: that “Christ be formed in you.”
Paul even likens this process of Christian Faith Formation to labor and childbirth, when he says, “I am in the pangs of labor for you until Christ is formed in you.” That hope does not apply only to First Century Galatian Christians. As Bob Dylan said in a song, “He who is not busy being born is busy dying.” In every stage of life, in every event and every day even, there is something for us to learn and something to unlearn, some task for us to undertake and something to let go, some challenge to overcome and some act of surrender, something childish or churlish in us to die, and something—or rather, someone—more like Christ to be born in us and through us.
In true Christian Faith Formation, nothing less than a new person is being born and emerging in us and through us, through the labor and the leading of the Spirit of God, according to the Word of God. What is being born in and through us is nothing less than a new world, the kingdom of God. Being born in us and through us is no one and nothing less than Christ himself. As Christ lives in us and through us, our real, true, eternal, indestructible selves in Christ’s image, are also being born and growing. I call it our true selves because they emerge and exist in relation to our Creator. Something dies as well in this process, or someone: our false, fearful selves who live only in reference to the world, the flesh and the devil.
But the Galatians’ growth in Christ was not only like labor pains for the Galatians. Paul says that he himself is going through something like labor pains for their growth, and not just his own. He’s giving birth to the image of Christ in the Galatian Christians again, in addition to the first labor pains he went through to birth the church years before. Paul must birth the Galatian Church again, because they have jumped the tracks. They’re falling for teachings and teachers telling them that they must obey certain Jewish laws in order to be saved. In effect, they are ditching their faith in God for faith in themselves and in their own power to please God and justify themselves. And so their spiritual birthing risks becoming a spiritual stillbirth. Paul is then laboring again, like a mother giving birth, in anguished prayer, and painful, pointed teaching to get them back on track.
Our own labor, birth and formation into the image of Christ is not a do-it-yourself personal self-improvement project. We each bear a personal responsibility for our growth, yes, but it’s not a private matter. It is also like labor and delivery for all who attend to other people’s growth, as teachers, preachers, mentors, sponsors, counselors, and more. Our new eternal selves, in the image of Christ, emerges only with prayer, care, time, love and labor like that of a mother, from the other mothers and midwives of souls in our churches, our homes and our histories.
I hope that doesn’t scare any of us away from our ministries of faith formation. I hope instead that it encourages us all to attend to the labor and delivery and growth of Christ’s life and image in us and through us. Because it’s not just our own growth and faith formation that are at stake. Our own growth is what will most inspire our students or our classes or our counselees or the attendees at camp to grow: when they see something of Christ emerging in us, when we love them and labor for them with the love and labor of a mother giving birth, as we serve, lead and encourage others in their birthing and growing with the love, wisdom and confidence of midwives.
(BTW, If it occurs to you that what I am saying now has anything to do with my being married to a Certified Nurse-midwife, that would be correct)
Paul had several other ways of describing the emergence of Christ in us and through us: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me (Galatians 2:20).” In his second letter to his Corinthian friends, Paul writes, “… we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”
And that’s why I want us to think about Christian Faith Formation as Christ-like Face Formation. Because the proof of Christian faith formation is in the degree to which Jesus is visible in us. Not that anyone can see Jesus physically, visibly, of course. But is something of Christ evident in our conduct, our character and our confession? In those ways, Christ can express himself through any person, in any face, young or old, male or female, whatever color, whatever the features. And that’s what God wants of us: for the life and the nature of his Son to emerge in us and through us.
But beware. Not everyone will react to the image of Christ in others with joy, faith or attraction. Consider one of our best known Anabaptist martyrs, Dirk Willems. Tried and sentenced in 16th Century Holland for his faith, Dirk managed to escape one wintry day from his prison. Pursuers quickly set out after him. While running across a frozen canal, Dirk heard the cries of one of his pursuers, who had just fallen through the ice. Dirk then remembered the words of Jesus, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,” and returned to help his pursuer out of the water, and so saved his life. But at the cost of his own. Dirk’s rescue of his pursuer resulted in his re-capture and death. Somebody didn’t like what they saw in Dirks. Or who they saw.
But some people will respond as did a Japanese student whom I got to know during my first year at the Mennonite seminary in Elkhart, Takeji Nomura. Before he became a believer, Takeji saw Dirk Willems’ story acted on a Japanese television series about courageous, costly and yet peaceful acts of conscience. Intrigued in why Dirk Willems would do such a counter-instinctual thing, Takeji read everything he could find about Dirk’s Anabaptism, which pointed him toward Jesus and toward the Gospels and the Bible. There he learned that not only did Jesus teach such risky, costly, sacrificial love on behalf of all, even of one’s enemies, he learned about how Jesus himself demonstrated and embodied such risky, costly and sacrificial love for all, even for his enemies. Takeji Nomura found Dirk Willems so compelling, attractive and intriguing to, because he saw Jesus in Dirk Willems, the Jesus who came “not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” He saw in Dirk Willems, Jesus, the ultimate friend of sinners, who “laid down his life for his friends.”
And now Takeji is teaching, modeling and manifesting the ways, the person and the face of Jesus as a pastor to several Japanese Mennonite churches.
Were he here among us today, Dirk Willems would probably tell us that turning around to rescuer his pursuer was contrary to every survival instinct in every cell and organ of his body. At an earlier part of his life he would probably not have been able to do such a thing. Not on his own power, not from the wellsprings of his own human instincts and qualities, no matter how nice and neighborly he had been. Nor did Dirk have much time to stop, consider, reflect and debate whether or not to do good to his pursuer and persecutor. His response had to be at least as immediate and powerful as that natural, normal survival instinct that said, “Keep running.” Like most other Anabaptists of his time, Dirk would likely say that such a counter-instinctual response came from the Christ living within him, and acting through him. It was Jesus doing that through Dirk, more than Dirk doing it for Jesus. I suspect then that a lot of time in prayer, study, worship, fellowship, and the right choices—perhaps years’ worth–went into forming Dirk for his last and most famous split-second decision. But it wasn’t just Dirk making that decision. It was also Christ being formed in him.
That’s the journey which we are all on. That’s the journey to which I hope we commit ourselves today. A poem that Phil Keaggy put to music some 40 years ago says much the same. It’s entitled, “A Sense of Him”
Not merely in the words you say,
Not only in your deeds confessed,
But in the most unconscious way
Is Christ expressed.
Is it a beatific smile,
A holy light upon your brow;
Oh no, I felt His Presence while
You laughed just now.
For me ‘twas not the truth you taught
To you so clear, to me still dim
But when you came to me you brought
A sense of Him.
And from your eyes He beckons me,
And from your heart His love is shed,
Til I lose sight of you and see
The Christ instead.
—by A. S. Wilson