'I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-- what is good and acceptable and perfect.'
--Romans 12: 1-2
'When Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.'
--Matthew 16: 13-20
It’s no secret that I am huge fan of the Transformers. They started out as a cartoon and toyline in the 80s, but they’ve never actually gone away. I got into them when I was five, captivated by these robots that could change their bodies into cars, planes, guns, or even dinosaurs. I followed the exploits of the heroic Autobots led by Optimus Prime, waging their battle to destroy the evil forces of Megatron and his Decepticons, and roughly 400 figures later my collection is still going strong. The characters are complex, their war anything but ordinary, and their adventures timeless. In spite of the fact that they have churned out five terrible movies, the Transformers franchise isn't going anywhere, and I am mighty pleased about that!
Cover for Marvel Comics Transformers # 1 (September, 1984)
When I was a youth minister my kids found out that I was a Transformers fan and one of them asked me, “Isn’t there something in the bible about being transformed?” Why yes there is! That passage is Romans 12: 2, and when they found that out we made sure to put that passage on our youth group shirts, which I still wear from time to time. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” That passage became our mantra. As these middle and high schoolers were going through all kinds of changes in their lives, being transformed on a day-to-day basis, they hung on to those words as a reminder of God's pressence. To be honest, the passage became my mantra too, as I experienced a great deal of transformation--both good and bad--over the course of the next several years. Do no be conformed, I would tell myself, but be transformed.
Our t-shirts from my time as a youth minister.
When Saint Paul wrote those words to the church in Rome he did so to encourage them to always be open to adapting and changing in whatever way that God was calling them; after all, there was a lot of uncertainty and plenty of unrest among those early communities of believers. Paul's words, therefore, were meant to be a source of strength and encouragement. Naturally, Paul knew a thing or two about transformations. Shoot, he probably knew better than anyone else in the whole biblical narrative! He had begun life as Saul, a man who had at least one murder (Stephen) on his hands and likely had more, given his contempt for Christians. Somehow, by the grace of God, he gets transformed into Paul, a champion of the faith, whom many credit as our first theologian and the reason Gentiles were allowed into the faith. The Romans, like every other congregation to which he wrote, knew of Paul’s journey and the power of God to transform lives in ways that are deep and meaningful, ways that not only change individuals but the entire world.
Before Saul became Paul, though, there was a fisherman from Galilee named Simon, brother of Andrew and son of Peter. All four Gospels tell the story of Simon being given a nickname by Jesus. That nickname is The Rock, which in Aramaic is Kephas and in Greek is Peter. But this is no mere nickname. The Rock becomes Simon’s real name, the name he is still remembered by today. When Jesus confers upon Simon this new name his life is transformed into the person Jesus already knew him to be, into:
Modern-day picture of Simon the Galileean.
It was a meeting with Jesus on the road to Damascus that transformed Saul into Paul; in fact, it was a question that Jesus issued, which initiated that transformation. The question was: Why are you persecuting me? In the same manner, it was a meeting with Jesus in Caesaria-Phillipi, and a question, that transformed Simon into Peter. That question: Who do you say that I am? The question stirred in Simon until he stood up and said, "You are the Messiah! The Son of the Living God!" So big was this moment that the Church commemorates it to this day with the Feast of the Confession of Peter on January 18! With that question Simon transforms into The Rock, and soon The Rock and a small group of men and women will transform the whole world.
Truly, that is what happens when we have a genuine encounter with the Living God in the person of Jesus Christ. Such encounters, such holy and sacred moments, transform us into a new person. Whether it is on the road to Damascus in Syria, in the Roman region of Caesarea-Philippi, on a North Carolina beach, or on a Virginia mountain, when we have a true encounter with Jesus we are transformed. This is what Charles Wesley experienced when he said his “heart was strangely warmed.” His life was never the same after that holy moment, and neither are ours.
I had such a moment and was transformed by Jesus on Thanksgiving, 2006. I was enjoying the annual dinner with my family in the shadow of Sharp Top Mountain in Bedford County, Virginia. During the pre-dinner prayer I heard Jesus ask me a question: Will you be a priest in my Church? I was a baseball coach at the time. I struggled with that question, that call to a new life that Jesus was putting before me, but that day I was transformed, and seven years later I became a priest. It was a moment of transformation that began with a question.
There is a little known fact about Transformers. They don't just transform into cars or planes to look cool, but rather they transform to survive. They have to constantly adapt and change, otherwise they will die. I never knew that when I was a kid, but as I've grown older I've noticed how these robots in disguise convey a very real message about God, namely that God is constantly calling us into lives of transformation. Like Paul or Peter, the Transformers also get new names when they accept such a change. Take, for example, the Autobot Hot Rod. He as a cavalier, a free spirit, until the Transformers' equivalent of God (Primus) called him to a new existence, to the awesome responsibility of becoming the new Autobot leader in the wake of Optimus Prime's death. Hot Rod didn't want it initially, but after accepting the call from his god, he became Rodimus Prime!
Hot Rod is transformed into Rodimus Prime in Transformers: The Movie (aka The Greatest Moment in Cinema).
I've learned a lot from the Transformers over the years, namely that God calls us to be transformed in ways that we never really expect. In what ways have you been transformed? Did you get a new name out of it? In the spirit of Peter, Paul, and Rodimus, may we embrace those unexpected moments of transformation. Are you being called to something new, to a new state of being or new way of thinking? In what ways will your own transformation help transform the world? May God give you the grace to never be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the power and love of God in Jesus Christ!
The original Hot Rod (foreground) and Rodimus Prime, who made appearances in my sermon last Sunday.