This is a post I wrote and posted on another platform in early 2022. Given that the New Year is often greeted by thoughts about making changes in our lives, I thought it would be worthwhile sharing it again as we settle into 2023.
Our family recently finished making our way through all six seasons of the 2004-2010 television series Lost, the story of the survivors of an airplane crash as they face the challenges of post-crash life on a very mysterious island in the South Pacific. The survivors are a large and diverse group, but one thing that they all have in common is a history of brokenness in their personal lives. Some have committed crimes, some have failed in important relationships, some carry deep regrets, some are fiercely holding onto bitterness, some are struggling to adjust to physical challenges. In a variety of ways, they are all lost.
One of the themes of the show is that there is such a thing as a fresh start, the conviction that we can never simply speak in an eternally present tense about someone. “You are a bad man” or “you are a killer” are false statements, because they don’t leave any room for change. And the possibility of change is what Lost is all about.
As the series unfolds, changes come about for characters in different ways. For some of them, their arrival on the island becomes a decisive break between their old self and a new self. Stuck in patterns of behaviour for years, patterns that have been reinforced by their surroundings and the people who knew them only according to those old patterns, the new community on the island offers a chance to be something else. The island itself (and here is its mystery) even seems to help them in this transformation. For some of the characters, the change comes much more gradually, with their hard edges worn down slowly by the new relationships they develop in this new setting. For some characters, of course, change is halting or non-existent.
To summarize this theme doesn’t do justice to the power of the stories themselves, which are deeply moving. But a summary gives us the basic idea: Lost was a show that aimed to demonstrate that it is possible for someone to be transformed from one kind of person to another.
Those words, be transformed, are the key. The change doesn’t come because the characters have worked hard to improve themselves. Work and effort is involved, for sure, but the changes come as something of a gift or even a miracle.
Sometimes we find it hard to believe that real change can happen. Sayings about old dogs not being able to learn new tricks and leopards not being able to change their spots reinforce this view. We are what we are. End of story.
But this story, so common in our world, is not the story the Bible tells. The Bible’s story is much more like Lost’s story. (Better, Lost is a lot like the Bible story.)
In the New Testament especially, transformation is everywhere a focus. Jesus reached out to a despised tax collector to join his company of followers finding new meaning in God’s kingdom, claiming that he had “not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:13-17). The apostle Paul’s life becomes the paradigmatic story of a person whose life is turned around (Acts 9).
For Paul this transformation became a central theme of his teaching, and one of the most pointed examples is found in his letter to the church in Corinth. There we see his preference for the word “were” instead of the word “are” when talking to people. In 1 Corinthians 6 he reminds the church “that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9). He goes on to make a pretty comprehensive list of the kind of people who will not inherit God’s promises, including the sexually immoral, idolaters, thieves and swindlers in his list. Then comes the shocking statement: “And that is what some of you were.”
The church in Corinth included a number of people who could formerly have been written off by a one word description of their character. In the common understanding of things, the world would say about them, “That’s what they are. They’re hopeless.”
But Paul, living and thinking in the way of Jesus Christ, sees it otherwise. “That’s what you are” doesn’t leave room for Jesus to work. No, Paul sees it otherwise. Yes, these behaviours and habits are facts in the history of these people’s lives. There is no pretending otherwise. But Jesus has opened up a new present. So Paul writes, “That is what some of you were.”
How has the transformation come about? Paul goes on: “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
Throughout the series of Lost, the reality of Jesus Christ is hinted at, even if it is never quite made explicit. But the reality of Jesus’ way of looking at all of us is there in almost every episode, and even on my third time watching the show through, it continues to move me. “This is what you are” is not the final word on anyone. As long as we have life, Jesus says, “Yes, you are lost, and yes, right now you may be something of a mess, but there is more I can yet do as I work to move you more into line with my intentions.”
The miracle of the gospel is that no one is beyond hope. In Jesus Christ and by the Spirit’s work transformation is a reality. There are people everywhere who are no longer what they once were. For this we give thanks to God in Christ. And trusting that God’s work is not yet finished, there are people around us who appear to be one type of person now but who in Christ can become something new. Washed, sanctified, justified: Jesus’ work continues until the kingdom comes in fullness.