Many years ago when I was doing research for a Master’s Degree, I went and spent some time in a township in Cape Town.  The community was an informal settlement consisting of shacks and surrounded by abject poverty. In the midst of this, I noticed a very elegant looking church building that just didn’t seem to fit in this location. It seemed so out of place and far from the given realities of the local people. I started to inquire what people thought about this smart looking church building in the middle of the township. I expected that they would offer a very critical response. However, I was pleasantly surprised when they said something very different. Instead, they expressed how delighted they were by the presence of the church. They were not offended by its elegant look and did not consider it a misfit. Instead, they responded that the church building represented the presence of God in their poverty-stricken situation and the building provided aspiration to what they should become. It stood as a symbol of hope and transformation. 

In many parts of the world, churches have been instrumental in bringing hope and transformation. Admittedly, in some parts of the world churches have remained silent or complicit in perpetuating injustices and oppression. In my own country in South Africa, we have encountered the different dimensions of churches supporting apartheid and others resisting the then government`s policy of separate development based on racist practices. The ecumenical churches in South Africa helped to dismantle apartheid bringing hope and new life securing the human dignity and rights of the majority black people in South Africa. The church can make a difference, challenging authorities, championing human rights and justice and creating a stable and safe society for all people and creation.

Here in the context of Cuba you have moved from colonial oppression and injustices as a Spanish colony to independence. Slaves were imported from Africa, to work on the sugar and coffee plantations. Since independence in 1959, the state has achieved much progress, especially in the areas of education, health, social services and agricultural and industrial production. However, as we know, as in any country there is always more that can be done. 

Christianity in Cuba had been subject to strict control and anti-religious measures by the regime. However, since the 1990`s there has been substantial changes with the freedom of religion and the government has allowed more freedom for churches to grow and live their faith and beliefs. This we acknowledge and appreciate with joy and thanksgiving. 

The world Council of Churches was established 75 years ago with the intention of encouraging and fostering Christian unity and justice as we proclaim Christ to the world. Today 352 member churches and almost 600 million Christians in 120 countries in the world are members of the fellowship. We are working for justice, peace and the integrity of creation in the world. Unfortunately, the world is in crisis as we experience wars, conflicts, ethnic, gender and racial violence, a climate crisis, hunger, poverty, unemployment and the list goes on. In this context, we need churches and Christians to stand together in unity and strength to address these evils in the world. We need churches to exemplify the servant nature of Jesus as we proclaim salvation, justice and peace to the world. We are stronger and better together. A divided church is a weak and feeble witness to a broken, fragmented and suffering world. 

The church and Christians need to take up the mantle of responsibility and show the way in humility but with passion and love. We should not be sleeping when the world is suffering. Our task is to offer hope, peace and joy. We should be affirming life in Jesus where there is denial, deprivation, injustice and death. We should be working towards the ‘fullness of life in Jesus Christ” for all people. 

We should be crossing boundaries and barriers of injustice, discrimination, racism, xenophobia, and every evil that separates people from God and one another, from everything that seeks to destroy the one big human family created and blessed by the Living God. Where there is sin there is death. Jesus came and died that we may have life. His resurrection, ascension, and the promise of his second coming are signs and hope for renewal and transformation. This should be the message of the church. We need to be agents and instruments of hope, peace, renewal and transformation. We should not be dancing with the powerful but identifying with the poor which describes the majority of people in the world today.  This is where Jesus established his mission as recorded in Luke 4: 18-19 when he said: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” 

In fact the entire ministry of Jesus on earth was about renewal and transformation.  It is expressed in his life, suffering, death and resurrection. The resurrection points to a new beginning, a new hope and a renewed and transformed life. It is a testimony to the fact that the powers of darkness and evil, sin and suffering, oppression and death can all find healing and restoration in the completed and victorious work of Jesus on the cross. It is a powerful indication that good will always triumph over evil and God will always reign in this world, even if there are times when it does not seem that way. 

All through his ministry on earth, Jesus was busy in bringing about transformation. Every time he healed the sick, raised the dead, fed the hungry, rebuked Satan, set the captives free, challenged the Scribes and Pharisees and proclaimed the will of the Father, he was breaking new ground, he was affirming and giving life to the neglected, forgotten, forsaken, poor, needy and the sinner - he was effecting renewal and transformation. Jesus transformed lives and society. He showed that both go together. His ministry on earth was the key sign to the initiation of the Kingdom (reign) of God. The coming of the Kingdom was a sure sign that business as usual was no longer acceptable. The ideals and values of the Kingdom of God were, indeed, a declaration, a manifestation and a pronouncement of new things, a new world order, a new life and a new lifestyle.

Affirming the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the fact that we are saved by Christ alone, Paul says in Ephesians: “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” God has done it all. God is in control. God wants to transform the world and bring in God’s reign, and God calls on us to participate in God’s mission to transform the world. But how can we as Christians do this?

The Apostle Paul provides us with an answer in Romans chapter 12 verses 1-2: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God –which is your spiritual worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Paul is obviously talking to Christians in this passage but what is he calling us to do and just how can we do this? And how might we do God’s will in Cuba?

To understand what Paul is saying in Romans 12: 1-10 we need to go to the last few verses in Romans 11 where the Apostle sets the foundation for a renewed and transformed life. He points out very clearly that God is and must be our foundation. In this doxology he firmly states that “For from God and through God and to God are all things. To God be the glory forever!” God should be the complete source and strength of a transformed life. It begins with repentance: a conscious turning back to God. Life must be about the glory of God. The Apostle takes this idea and connects it to Romans 12 with the opening word “therefore”. What is ‘therefore’ there for? To tell us what we must do if we are to submit and proclaim the Glory of God. So, what must we do? Paul calls us to do 4 things.

Firstly, he goes directly to this in the remaining parts of verse one in Romans 12 where he calls, urges and beseeches Christians to ‘offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God ‘. And we do this only because of the mercy of God, not because of us. The word ‘offer’ tell us that we must consciously submit our lives to God. The word ‘sacrifice’ tells us that it is going to cost us, perhaps it speaks about (costly) discipleship and ‘holy’ tells us that we are distinct, different and set apart for God’s purpose. As John Calvin puts it, “We are the theatre of God’s Glory.” Paul describes this as our (reasonable) spiritual worship. Now it would have been good if Paul stopped right there but he does not. 

Secondly, the Apostle tells us: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world.” Here he proceeds immediately to link spirituality to the world. The idea here is that even though we are in the world we must not be and do as the world does. We belong to God. We are the children of God so we should embrace and live out the ideals of God’s kingdom. We should not be besotted with lust, power, selfish-gains and empire-building. Instead, we should seek first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness. We should seek the glory of God. Conformation to the patterns of the world may lead to deformation, even of the Church.

Again Paul does not stop at conforming; he goes on immediately to make his third point in the instruction “be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” The word ‘transform’ means to change completely from inside out. It has the same meaning as transfiguration (Mat.17:2) or metamorphosis which means to change into another form. The picture here is of a caterpillar which changes into something quite different when it becomes a butterfly. Here Paul is calling us to put on the mind of Christ. To think about what is going on as Christ would think about it and not to come at it with our own human selfish and often sinful thoughts or allegiance to others. We should constantly pray that God’s Holy Spirit would renew our minds so that it would not be the devil’s workshop but pleasing to God. 

The biblical picture of transformation is Shalom: wholeness, peace, harmony, justice, righteousness. More significantly, transformation involves death and resurrection as the life of Jesus has taught us. It is not cheap but costly and sacrificial even death to us. 

The renewal of the mind should also lead to the renewal of the heart. David cried out to God when confronted by the prophet Nathan about his adultery with Bathsheba: “Create in me a new heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10). When our heart cries out to God that is when we experience real change. The expression of metanonia (true repentance) speaks about real and deep change and transformation from within. The renewal and transformation of the heart and mind brings about transformation in boundaries and barriers. A renewed and transformed heart helps us to cross the boundaries and barriers of racism, culture, language, class and all the things that separates and divide human beings. A renewed and transformed heart gives us a heart that longs after God and cares for others: the poor, disadvantaged, strangers, refugees and immigrants. It opens our heart to something new and someone different from us. But it does not stop there!

Fourthly and finally Paul calls us to live a different lifestyle. To understand what the Apostle Paul is telling us in Romans 12: 1-2 we must also consider the verses that follow in that same chapter. Here Paul turns from doctrine to duty, from creed to deed and from beliefs to behaviour. Renewal and transformation speaks about the change of character and conduct we receive in Jesus Christ.  It leads to the transformation ofbehaviour. As Paul tells us the transformed life in Christ knows what it means to live in community, build the body with gifts, and live in love, unity, peace and justice. It knows not to be overcome with evil but to overcome evil with good. However, very often the change that we like to believe that we have on the inside is not really displayed on the outside. One thus wonders whether we have been truly renewed and transformed. Such contradictions does not speak well of Christians in the world today.

The church cannot point fingers at the world without first attempting to get its own house in order. No one will take us seriously if we do not practice what we preach. St Francis once said, “When you go out to preach use words only if it is necessary.” Jesus came to proclaim the kingdom (reign) of God. And this kingdom cuts through every area in life: social, political, economic, cultural, racial, gender, etc. God’s presence in the world tells us that business as usual is no longer acceptable. The time has come for us to be drawn into the unusual business of God.  Our challenge as churches is not only to provide an ‘alternative society’ to the world but to be that society. 

The church today needs renewal in its mission as it faces various contextual challenges. The church needs renewal in its commitment to Christian unity and koinonia so that it can have character, credibility and integrity in its message and witness. The church needs renewal and commitment to justice; to stand where God stands as it champions the rights of the poor and oppressed in the world. The church needs renewal and transformation in its theological interpretation in the light of contextual realities in the world.  Are our theological beliefs life-affirming and inclusive? Albert Einstein asked his secretary to type out questions for his students. She asked him why he always repeated the same questions. He responded, ‘Because I have new answers.”  How do we “pour new wine into old wineskins?”  The church needs renewal in its ecumenical partnerships and interreligious engagement as we tackle the challenges in the world with others. We cannot be church alone. We are church with others. The African concept of Ubuntu makes this clear: I am because I belong.

I started this sermon by making reference to a church in the township which stood for hope and transformation. This is something all Christians should do, sometimes we are good at this and other times we are weak in our witness. We need to rise and shine and be counted. We need to live in the power and hope of the risen Lord. We need to realise who we are and what we have been given in Christ. Once in a village a grandfather was really pleased with his grandson so he decided to give him a little treat. He gave him 10 dollars and said, “Go and see the circus in town.” Excited, Tommy went to town. As he entered he saw a huge tent but there were many people gathered outside looking at the animals and clowns do their acts. When the show ended outside Tommy put his 10 dollars in a bowl and left. He thought that was the actual show. He failed to realise that that was just the practise, for the real show he needed to go into the tent. The churches today sometimes get occupied with the shadow and fail to embrace and reflect on the substance of our faith and practise. We get too caught up with the ‘shadowy’ things that separate and divide us rather than on the substance of our faith - on Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit who unites us and empowers us to be God’s witnesses in the world, making a difference as we affirm life and hope in a struggling world. We need to go into the tent of God’s presence and power rather than remain in our own space and shadow.

As we reflect on the realities and challenges in the world we need to stop and ask: What new thing is God calling us to do? How can we continue to turn a blind eye to injustices, suffering, greed, exploitation and oppression? The WCC invites all people to join with us in a Pilgrimage of Justice, Reconciliation and Unity. This suffering and broken world is in need of healing and transformation. In this time of advent as we await the coming of the Christ child, we are reminded that Jesus has come to reconcile us to the Father and to one another. In Him all things are held together whether in heaven and on earth. Christmas is a time for commitment to Jesus, for renewal and transformation of the world God, in Jesus. Came to save.

Each of us needs to ask: What is God calling us to do to renew and transform this world or your country? Our failure to ask and answer this question will be a missed opportunity to embark upon the new things that God wants to do in us, with us and through us. The disciples responded to the call to follow Jesus. They left their nets and followed him. What are you going to leave behind to follow Jesus today? Following Jesus is no easy task that is why we need the presence and power of God’s Holy Spirit to renew and transform us so that we can be God’s people in the world and in Cuba making a difference in God’s way. Will this be your joy to do? Let our prayer be: “Living God, renew and transform us but start with ME.” Being church today in a world in crisis is a church living in the Christ way and resting in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. May we be the church that God waits for in this season of advent. 

Rev. Prof. Dr Jerry Pillay