August 27, 2017
The readings today from both the Old Testament and the Epistle of Romans are timely. They show people groups in conflict where one is acting with superiority and imposing limitations on the other.
This intersects with some things going on nationally. We think of the recent violence and protests including neo-nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville. There has relatedly been the destruction of historic statues. Additionally, this week the building of a wall as a barrier between the United States and Mexico is again in the news.
In the wide lens the book of Romans is a courtroom drama of salvation, who God is, and what to do to live this Christian life. The emphasis of salvation is Paul’s step by step overview of who we are as humanity. The passage begins, “Therefore...” and whenever there is a therefore, we must ask: “What is it there for?”
Paul in this overview is challenging Jewish ideas about Gentile inclusion in the plan of salvation. Gentile and Jew relationships were awful – isolating and antagonistic…the Jews considered the Gentiles “aliens,” “strangers to the covenant,” “having no hope,” and “without God in the world.” In short, the Jews thought they were superior to the Gentiles.
Paul challenges Jewish thinking about judging others and lays out the reality that all of humanity has the same problem with sin…no one is exempt or superior. But it’s not all confrontation and challenge by Paul: he also describes the miracle of salvation, celebrates God’s love and power and when we get to Romans 12 – our passage for today there is a transition – Paul has gone from helping people groups navigate their relationships with God and each other to instructing on how to live out the truth of our Christian spirituality: we belong to God and we belong to each other. The Christian life is all about relationship and union.
Paul lays out 2 big actions and 2 big concepts to understand our part in response to God’s love and mercy – which are not one-time actions for us. He instructs on the actions – present or offer yourselves to God and renew your minds.
These actions are connected to the concepts of conform and transform. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed. Do not be conformed – do not live after the patterns of the world.
The word in the Greek for transformation is most closely in English: metamorphosis. To be changed into another form…it’s the same word that we saw used on Transfiguration Sunday a few weeks ago: Jesus was transformed. Metamorphosis into another form. To change. To transfigure. To transform.
We need to offer ourselves and we need to renew our minds so that we do not live in conformity with the patterns of the world but are changed: transformed.
These are simple but big ideas. To offer ourselves to God implies that we let go…as in the Old Testament offerings took place…we put ourselves on the altar to God and loose our fingers on our lives – a living sacrifice. Perhaps another word to help us understand presenting ourselves to God is surrender.
The renewing of the mind is also a big idea…the word “mind” here is a wide word: it involves our faculties of perception. Our understanding which includes our judging and our feeling. Holistically is it our capacities in these dimensions: thinking, feeling, judging, understanding.
Let me offer a back drop here…we are so helpless that Jesus has come, died, risen from the dead and still, STILL, we have ongoing limitations…not only sin is still a part of our lives, but are very capacities of mind are limited…sin and limitations on our minds must be a really big deal to still be here after the resurrection.
We desperately need God - and desperately need to engage not only God but ourselves to increase our capacities for living life in a way that embraces God’s design.
So, what does it mean to renew our minds? Well, it’s not passive. But none of the Christian life is.
Colossians, another writing of Paul - helps us see the depth of the problem with our minds as salvation is described. He asserts: “And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, God has now reconciled.”
Outside of Christ we are described as hostile in mind toward God. Hostile. Ouch. That certainly doesn’t sound good. Our habits of mind outside of Christ are further described scripturally as “futility” (Ephesians), “depraved” & “deprived of Truth” (I & II Timothy). But our renewed minds are capable of increased capacities, as described in Luke while Jesus was with companions on the road to Emmaus: Jesus opened their minds to Scripture…increased their capacities.
What helps us renew our minds? In simplicity, what Paul instructs in Philippians: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
How we think, what we think on becomes important…and this is the kicker of the passage…after instructing Christians to offer their lives and renew their minds…which is gigantic…Paul further exhorts on our thinking: “I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement.”
Maybe another way to say this – do not be superior in your thinking about yourself but be humble…perhaps the implication is that without pursuing the renewing of our minds we may lapse into thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought…we may think we are superior.
But the exhortation is to think with sober judgement. It’s a funny phrase…the word most direct from the Greek to English is “sensible.” As we renew our minds we increase our capacity to be sensible. It implies limitation, moderation, objectivity. To hem in our judgement and objectify our perceptions…recalibrating our feelings. Be sensible. Think sensibly.
As the passage continues it asserts that we are members of one another: one body. In addition to our salvation, Jesus through his death and resurrection literally has created a new humanity that is one with each other. We are connected. All humans. This is simply proximity, but also a quality of unity through closeness, and a sharing of substance one to another…it is in its magnitude mystical.
We are one with all whom we see as “other.” All we see ourselves superior to. This is part of the miracle of our Christian faith. We are one. All who breathe…all colors, all philosophies, all sexualities and gender identities, all religions, and all opinions held. God is in to diversity. As we’re made in His image this must cause a bit of awe to think of all that is image of God in the world. God is so much.
But we live in ongoing limitation of sin and mind or thinking. We must intentionally engage offering ourselves – surrendering to God. We must actively participate in renewing our minds that we might be, as Jesus was: transfigured into something new.
At a time like this I and I imagine you ask ourselves: how do I respond as our country experiences racism, white supremacy, and violence as means of conflict resolution…relationships between people that are of superiority and imposition of limitation? I don’t know. But I do know that with great effort we do what we know to do – the first things: offer ourselves to God as a living sacrifice. We seek to be renewed in our minds. As we are transformed we cannot help but be a part of a solution in our neighborhoods, city, state, and nation.