Grace Presbyterian Church
August 20, 2017, Pentecost 11A
To Be Transformed
So what’s the point anyway?
Well, yes, but what of it?
What does any of this mean to me?
What am I supposed to do with all this information?
If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of one of those long and winding lectures and been waiting for the speaker to get to the point, you might have asked one of those questions or something similar. Or perhaps in some cases you’ve had such a question thrown at you – perhaps by one of your children? You might have wondered this about a class in school or a job assignment, or maybe even a sermon on occasion (though I hope not).
It’s fair to suppose that maybe even some of the Romans to whom this letter was addressed, the Jewish and Gentile community of followers of Christ hearing this letter read as a part of their assembly for worship, might just have started wondering the same thing after a while. Paul (who, remember, had never been to Rome and whom most of the Romans had never met) certainly had a lot to say, and had constructed some serious and intricate arguments about sin and human weakness, the grace of God and the love of Christ, and his own feelings about the rejection of Christ by many of his fellow Jews (in what we know as chapters 9-11). By this time it’s entirely possible that those hearing the letter were beginning to wonder “OK, but what’s the point of all of this? What difference does it make? What am I supposed to do with all this?”
Well, now it’s time for the “so what.”
Not surprisingly, Paul introduces this final stretch of the letter with a great big transition word. In Greek it’s ουν (“oun”), which we translate as “therefore.” Paul has used a lot of that kind of language so far, but this is the big one: everything that has come before leads to this. All the intricate and heavy teaching that has come before? Now this is what it looks like in “real life.”
Beyond the opening word, the first two verses of this chapter serve not only to make the transition from teaching to application, but they also provide the foundation for the descriptive material to come. In this platform Paul deftly makes clear that the life for followers of Christ to live is not merely a “private” matter of the heart or the mere checking off a list of beliefs to profess; it is all-consuming, changing the way we live in both body and mind.
Paul’s first exhortation challenges his hearers to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice.” Two things should be clarified here. While we might get hung up on grisly images of sacrifice, the act of sacrifice took many forms in ancient Israel and other religions of the time, many of which did not involve the sacrifice of an animal. You might get a clearer image by using the word “offering” here. Also, you might remember how Paul spent a lot of time earlier in the letter lamenting the fallen condition of the human “flesh” (or σαρχ, “sarx”); here Paul is using not that word but the other “body” word, σομα (“soma”), the one that referred more specifically to the physical human body. So this is not some mere spiritualized exercise; this is an instruction that our whole physical self is to be offered up to God.
The very next verse, though, looks to a different kind of surrender: “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.” It’s not enough for body or mind to be submitted, but the whole together. We are a package deal, so to speak. But it’s not about being made super-smart or some other kind of mental prowess; our minds are to be transformed to “discern what is the will of God”: to see, at least some tiny little bit, what God sees, or how God sees is the whole point of the transformed, renewed mind. And so much of being a disciple of Christ starts with this.
Perhaps it is not an accident that, after those exhortations to make our bodies into living offerings and submitting our minds for transformation and renewal, Paul’s next exhortation is to something like what we would call humility. That’s a word we often use badly or even abuse, misunderstanding it as a kind of self-abasement. Novelist and Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buechner captures that misuse:
Humility is often confused with saying you’re not much of a bridge players when you know perfectly well you are. Conscious or otherwise, this kind of humility is a form of gamesmanship.
If you really aren’t much of a bridge player, you’re apt to be rather proud of yourself for admitting it so humbly. This kind of humility is a form of low comedy.
True humility doesn’t consist of thinking ill of yourself but of not thinking of yourself much differently from the way you’d be apt to think of anybody else. It is the capacity for being no more and no less pleased when you play your own hand well than when your opponents do.
Even this, though, doesn’t completely capture what Paul is encouraging upon his readers and hearers in Rome. It’s not super easy to capture in words, but what Paul is encouraging here is that each of us should see ourself, in Paul’s words, “with sober judgment” – or “in your right mind,” so to speak, not distorted by arrogance or hatred nor by despair or shame.
In short, there is no room for assuming any kind of superiority – or supremacy, to use a word much in the news of late – to anybody else who is a child of God. My job is at least in part not to think too much of myself because I have the gift of being a preacher, or of being a cancer survivor (so far), or of being white, or male, or middle-aged, or a hybrid-vehicle driver or an introvert or any number of other attributes that I might be guilty of elevating as an object of pride or a means to exalt myself above others. Your list will look a little different, but you get the idea. The things we do or are don’t win us extra merit in the eyes of God. We’re not in this for brownie points. If we’re doing it right we see each other as fellow recipients of the gifts of God, nothing less.
Indeed even the thought of judging our selves “on our merits” doesn’t hold water if we’re truly thinking with that transformed mind from verse 2. It’s not about anything but seeing ourselves and one another as those who have received gifts from God, “according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” as Paul puts it, for the purpose of living together in the body of Christ. There’s a lot hinging on that “transforming of our minds,” nothing less than our very ability to be the Body of Christ.
Even our ability to present our own bodies as a “living sacrifice”, our ability to be members of the Body of Christ here in Gainesville or anywhere in the world, hinges on this transformation. Our living in the Body depends on the renewing of our minds. All those lovely spiritual gifts in verses 6-8 start with what happens in verses 1-2.
Up to this point in the letter Paul has been trying to teach the Romans (as he understood it) a myriad of ideas about the law, and its susceptibility to sin; the grace of God and its sole power to defeat sin and to bring salvation to us; and now here is the key to living in that grace, to being “more than conquerors” living in the love of God from which nothing can separate us, as Paul wrote in Chapter 8.
You see, there are certain things a renewed mind, a mind thinking with “sober judgment,” discerning God’s will, cannot do. A renewed mind cannot live in fear. It certainly cannot wallow in suspicion of those who are Other, who are somehow Not Us. A renewed mind cannot see itself as superior because of accidents of birth or ability to check off a list of do’s and don’ts. A renewed mind will never assume that wealth equals righteousness, or that one country is any more special to God than any other, or that our way of doing church is the only way of doing church.
A renewed mind, a mind utterly transforming the way we think and live, discerns the body of Christ equally in a city slum or a shack in the woods. A renewed mind discerns the pain suffered by the oppressed (whether we have ever witnessed it or not), the despair and anguish of the poor and forgotten, the sins of pride of the privileged and elite, and weeps for all of them.
And perhaps hardest of all, a renewed mind is not something we can do. Note that Paul says “be transformed by the renewing of your minds”, not “be transformed by renewing your mind. “ It doesn’t happen just of our own initiative; we can’t just “change our minds” by ourselves. Only in turning away from and renouncing our own willfulness and control can our minds be renewed by the same saving, loving, transforming grace that delivers us out of sin and restores us into full relationship with God. We don’t want to give up our way of seeing the world, of dividing the world into Us and Them; but a mind submitted fully to the love of God, the fellowship of Christ Jesus, and the power of the Holy Spirit learns to see the world through the love of God, the fellowship of Christ Jesus, and the power of the Holy Spirit.
And then, only then, are we no longer conformed to the world, with its scorekeeping and supremacy and walls. Only then do we really start to live as anything at all like the Body of Christ.
Let your mind be renewed, and the Body will follow.
For the renewing of our minds, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #310, I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord; #716, God, Whose Giving Knows No Ending; #322, We Are One In Christ Jesus; #697, Take My Life and Let It Be