The Metamorphosis of the True Self (Romans 6:1-11)

The Metamorphosis of a Butterfly


I want to start with an image from the natural world, that symbolizes the marks of transformation is the metamorphosis of the butterfly.

How many of you have had the opportunity to watch a chrysalis transform before your very eyes into a butterfly? I find the metamorphosis of a butterfly captivating and beautiful. But, as with anything kind of change that takes place, it must happen carefully and in its own time. Each stage of metamorphosis is essential in the process of the butterfly becoming its “true self.”

Parker Palmer in his book we are reading for Fresh Bread “A Hidden Wholeness,” tells a story about how sensitive and fragile this process is.

It is an excerpt from the book “Zorba the Greek,” and I want to read it to you in full here:

“I remembered one morning when I discovered a cocoon in the bark of a tree, just as a butterfly was making a hole in its case and preparing to come out. I waited awhile, but it was too long appearing and I was impatient. I bent over it and breathed on it to warm it. I warmed it as quickly as I could and the miracle began to happen before my eyes, faster than life. The case opened, the butterfly started slowly crawling out and I shall never forget my horror when I saw how its wings were folded back and crumpled; the wretched butterfly tried with its whole trembling body to unfold them. Bending over it, I tried to help it with my breath. In vain.

It needed to be hatched out patiently and the unfolding of the wings would be a gradual process in the sun. Now it was too late. My breath had forced the butterfly to appear, all crumpled, before its time. It struggled desperately and, a few seconds later, died in the palm of my hand.

That little body is, I do believe, the greater weight I have on my conscience. For I realize today that it is a mortal sin to violate the great laws of nature. We should not hurry, we should not be impatient, but should confidently obey the eternal rhythm.” – (Zorba the Greek) (pp. 62–63)

What Palmer is concerned about, and why he uses this metaphor, is that we all have hopes of progressing through life, making steps toward healthy change, and how fragile the metamorphosis of our true selves really is.

What do you need in order to allow your true self to emerge from its chrysalis?

Later, Palmer uses this language to talk about this process:

Palmer writes that we need “circles of trust that [consist] of relationships that are neither invasive nor evasive.”

I love this language and I think it can be really helpful for all of us when thinking about our relationships with ourselves and others: Am I being to invasive with myself? with my children? my spouse? my friend? am I being to evasive with myself? my co-worker?

Forcing an issue, or pressing someone to be or do something they are not ready for or capable of, or ignoring what needs to be confronted has adverse affects not just relationally but emotionally, and physically as well.

[Think about the four themes, how do we enter in without invasiveness nor evasion?]

Paul and the True Self

When I read this story alongside what the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 6, I hear Paul describing the process by which we can move out of our old selves, our false selves, and into a truly free and liberated life in God – or as he says to be “Alive to God.”

My guess is that a big part of why you are here, why you have faith at all is because you desire to be alive to God with your truest self.

So what does Paul have to say to us about this metamorphosis of the self?

For one, Paul sees ritual at the center of new life. The ritual or ceremony of baptism symbolizes that death and new life that come from a metamorphosis of one’s true self.

I too think we need moments, ceremonies, or thresholds we cross over in order to mark our own transformation. I don’t need to go to graduation in order to receive my diploma, but to be there in the midst of that ceremony with 500 other people all in that way is a very powerful experience.

For Quakers, Baptism can take on many forms, anything that marks one’s authentic experience of becoming “Alive to God.”

One of these ways is standing and speaking out of the silence. Hearing God speak to you, and then being obedient to respond to that word whether to sharing that with others, or through an action can be a transformative experience. My guess is that all of you are familiar with the nudges that come and the struggle to know how to be obedient to the still small voice.

Another “baptism” for Friends is making a dramatic change in one’s lifestyle. For early Friends, one of the ways that they would show that they had gone through a process of being buried with Christ, and now to “walking in the newness of life” life is that they would take on plain dress and plain speech. For those of us today, it could revolve around what we will and will not consume, where we will or will not work, what we choose to create with our lives, who we relate to, or taking up particular causes.

What have been the stages of your spiritual metamorphosis? Have you shared them with others? Have you allowed yourself to be open to the process?

A second piece here in Romans is that sin is violence against our true self.

Paul Says,

“We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.” (Romans 6:6 NRSV)

Our “false self” holds us back from freedom. The false self keeps us from becoming “alive to God, walking in the newness of life.”

Paul uses the language of “old self” or “sin” to say the same thing.

Too often the word “sin” is thought of as “there is something inherently wrong or broken within you,” as in “you are utterly wretched and nothing good could ever come from you.”

Have you ever heard a message like this? While it might get an emotional response when we hear that, is it really true? And does it actually reflect the heart of God or the ministry of Jesus? I don’t think so.

If I had to define sin succinctly I would say it like this:

Any violence against your true self is sin. Sin is anything that keeps you living in the illusion of the false self. And it is so tragic because it is the very violence we commit against ourselves and one another that suffocates the image of God within each of us.

In other words, at our very core we are made good, you have that of God within you already. But over time and because of many reasons that image of God has been buried under layer and layer of hurt, resentment, denial, disappointment and more.

Sin is a disruption in shalom. It is a blemish on good that is created, a smudge on a beautiful painting. The painting isn’t ruined or worthless now, it just obscures what is underneath. The smudge needs to be cleaned off.

This reminds me of a story I heard recently:

There was a man who thought he was dead. When his wife asked him to carry out the garbage, he would answer, “I can’t, I’m dead.” Finally in exasperation she asked him if he thought dead men could feel pain. When he responded negatively, she pinched him as hard as she could, to which he blurted out, “[Well] What do you know, dead men can feel pain.” Bill O’ Brien

It’s humbling to recognize there are habits, attitudes, and past events that are keeping me dead, holding me back from becoming who I really am, but it is necessary if the process of metamorphosis is to be completed.

With our opening story, the author tells us that his mortal sin was the invasiveness he imposed on that fledgling butterfly. It brought violence upon the natural processes taking place.

Invasive and Evasive

Think about the ways in which you have been invasive with yourself? The ways in which you are far too hard on yourself. The judgements you can never live up to? The fears that keep you trapped. The desire for approval that you never receive. The pain that is deep inside that you force down and refuse to let it speak.

Now think about the ways we do this to others. There are so many ways that we do not honor the process of metamorphosis of the soul in other people. Just think about our spouses, children or other family members. What about fellow people in the church who believe and live differently from us? Think about the damage that racism, misogyny, homophobia or other prejudices cause to the formation of others true selves.

Now think about evasion and all the things we avoid within ourselves and between one another. We become disconnected to who we really are. We forget what the image of God looks like in us. We forget that there is an image of God in others.

What Paul is saying is here is that through “baptism,” through a ceremonial transition, or “death,” we can let go of these things, we can be like the butterfly, and our true selves can emerge out of the chrysalis.

But it is tender work.

I see the invitation to become “alive to God” as Jesus’ invitation into a participation into a death of our false selves, and a resurrection of life that emerges from the tombs of death.

Becoming Alive to God

Sooner or later we will all follow every other human being who has gone before us and move from physical life to physical death. As the philosopher Epicurus three years before Jesus was born:

“Against other things it is possible to obtain security. But when it comes to death we human beings all live in an unwalled city.” (Critchley, The Book of Dead Philosophers, 39)

What matters is that we are not dead while we have the chance to be truly alive. The question isn’t so much is there life after death, but is there life before death (It was Anthony De Mellow who said something along these lines).

Let’s now allow our false selves to have final say.

Let us willing go through the metamorphosis just like the butterfly, not clinging to the shell, but trusting that the work of Christ in our lives is one that will make us alive to God.

Let us grow as a community of people, of Friends, who refuse to be invasive or evasive to those around us. Let us trust God’s work and God’s timing in others.

Let us be the kind of community that, as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “…consists in…two solitudes [that] protect and border and solute each other” (Palmer 62).

So that all who desire to come to the table will not only eat, but walk in the newness of life that is found in Christ Jesus.