Jesus was a change agent, in case you missed that. He had a certain way with sharing what really needed to be different. He talked directly to religious leaders and told them that the way that they were living, in spite of following the letter of the law, was sinful. Harsh!
In Romans 11 Paul writes to the church in Rome about Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice. The book of Romans has a special emphasis: Jesus’ death opened the door to those who were not Jewish. Wow! This was actually an incredible difference. This was something that not only Paul had to learn, but many of the apostles and early church congregations had to learn this as well. It was such a profound and new idea for everyone, Paul wanted again to be sure that this was clear to the church in Rome and that they would not fall into the trap that others had, thinking that to become a Christian you first had to become a Jew.
Let’s look at Romans 12:
1Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. 2Do 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.
3For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.
Did you catch what Paul is asking? He is suggesting that Christ’s amazing sacrifice not only opened the door to his own people, but also paved the way for the non-Jewish people called the Gentiles. There was actually a special part of the Temple where only Jews were allowed and the Gentiles and all women had to stay out. At Christ’s death the curtain that separated those two courts was torn, symbolically showing the meaning of Christ’s sacrifice to those outside the faith.
Paul is saying in Romans 12 that the significance of this inclusion is so great that it demands the sacrifice of our own lives. But we are to be “living sacrifices” and that becoming sacrifices is an act of worship.
I don’t know about you, but becoming “living sacrifices” is quite a strange concept. What does that mean and how do I go about sacrificing myself, but at the same time be concerned for my own well being to make that sacrifice a living one? Following Jesus’ example would seem to imply that we were to give up everything, but Paul says that it requires everything but our lives if we are to be living sacrifices.
Fortunately, Paul wrote another verse. In verse 2 he says:
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.
How nice of Paul to include in his letter a 3 point sermon! He says that if we follow these 3 steps then we will understand and know what God requires of us. Pretty good deal if you ask me: if I do what God says then I will be able to honor him for the sacrifice of his son that allowed me to be included as his chosen people. Sweet!
So let’s take each point one-by-one and see what we are required:
Do not be conformed any longer to the pattern of this world…
The key word here is “conformed.” If you take a look at a dictionary like I did you will find that the roots of this word are from Latin. “Con-“ or “com-“ mean “with” or “after” and “formed” can mean “shaped.” So the first step is to stop allowing ourselves to be shaped along with the way the world is shaped. Hmm, that’s easier said than done.
Now don’t think that what Paul is talking about here is sinning. Oh, he is but in context it goes a lot further. Have you ever heard about this concept called “habituation”? Raise your hand if you are now or have ever worn pants. Excellent! Now raise your hand if you have worn shorts.
Do you ever notice how you almost feel like you are still wearing pants even though you are wearing shorts? What has happened is that when you wear pants there are sensations of the fabric rubbing against your skin that happens a lot and really does not require you to pay attention to. It isn’t like the feeling of something that you are holding and don’t want to drop. It is just the nature of wearing pants. So your brain decides that the feeling of pants is something that it does not have to pay attention to, and so it stops bringing those sensations to your conscious mind.
But what happens when you put shorts back on? Well, your brain assumes that you will be putting pants back on at some point and it blocks a sensation that is now not there. So oddly enough the blocking of the sensation is something that you notice and so it feels strange to have shorts on, almost as if you were still wearing pants.
Complicated enough? Have you ever zoned out while driving home and still made it? Do you ever have a snack on the couch while you are watching TV and then look down and it is gone? Strange, but true: your brain intentionally keeps things from you!
When Paul says not to be “conformed” to this world, he is telling us not to allow ourselves to simply slip into the pattern of life and forget what living is really about. Paul is calling us to be intentional about what we do and the way we live. Does that mean that we have to pay attention to every little thing? No, because that is impossible, which is why our brains work the way they do. But it does mean that we need to live our lives with intention and purpose.
Step 2 is just that:
Here is the second key word. Again, hopping into the dictionary we find that this word is also from the Latin. This time “formed” still means “shaped,” but “trans-“ has the idea of “across,” “beyond,” and “through.”
“Transformed” does not mean “separate” or “distant,” rather it has the idea of something higher, greater, and more meaningful. Like the word “transcend” it means that there is a connection with what was or used to be and gives direction to something more and different.
So I just watched Transformers 2 yesterday. Can’t say that it was the best movie, but it was definitely entertaining. If you are familiar with the movies, toys, or cartoons from the 1980s you know that they are vehicles that “transform” into robots. They are still the same pieces with the same gears, valves, switches, and wires. What makes them different is that these parts are rearranged that gives it different function and appearance.
When Paul calls us to “transform” he does so with the knowledge that we are in many ways the same, but we are re-purposed for God’s function and design.
How, then do we “transform”? Paul has this answer for us as well:
…by the renewing of your mind.
This time I didn’t need to jump back to the dictionary, but for the sake of checking myself I did anyway and found that the prefix “re-“ has with it the idea of something that has been done before and is being done again. If we can take a step back to grammar school, you may remember that “renewing” in this sentence is what is called a present participle, and in this case is used as a gerund because it ends with “-ing.” That form of the word “renew” suggests that it is not repeated only once, but many times.
Paul is telling us that it is not enough for us to rethink things once or twice. For him, this is a constant requirement. It is easy to slip back into a habit and forget to consider why we are doing what we are doing. If we do that we are no better than the religious leaders in Jesus’ day that he kept griping at.
I have to admit something to you: I have stopped praying at meal times. I heard that gasp! It’s true, though. It has not been something that I have become firmly against, and in fact I now will do it on occasion.
But what I realized was that I was only doing it because that was what I was supposed to do. It became meaningless to me, much like how I will inadvertently say “uh-huh” to Hidi when she is explaining something to me when I am distracted. It isn’t that I don’t care about her, but I also know that it only upsets her when I either mess things up later or have to ask her to repeat herself.
God deserves our relationship with our full mind and heart. I realized that if I am praying because that is expected of me, but I am not really thinking about it I might as well not even do it. Instead, when I decide that I want to pray before a meal, I am more likely to really think about what I am saying and really engage in a relationship with not only my creator but the creator of the meal that I am about to enjoy.
There are certainly other spiritual practices that I do repeatedly that have not become a habit for me and continue to be something that I can do with my heart and mind engaged. So this is not a statement against repeating something, but it is a statement against doing something because you are expected to and not because you love God and want to be in relationship with your Creator.
So how does a person renew her mind? Part of Einstein’s laws of relativity is that observation changes the thing that is being observed. Once you bring to mind what is happening in your day-to-day life that may have become habit you are already changing it. Think about not only what you are doing but examine the reason and intention of your heart.
Jesus admonished the religious leaders of his time for doing the right things on the outside and having the wrong intentions on the inside. Remember “because you are supposed to” is not a good reason. “Because I love God and want to honor Christ’s sacrifice” is the one that brings our hearts more in tune with Jesus’.
Next bring intention and meaning back to your life. This might mean stopping some of the things that you are doing out of obligation alone. It may be continuing those things but doing a study or talking to someone about what the purposes of those practices are. I could have easily studied about the tradition of praying at meal time and renewed my mind by looking at why those traditions started and what they have meant to other people over the centuries.
Find someone to mentor you in your spiritual practice will also be amazingly helpful. Jesus took on 12 men as disciples to nurture them and instill in them the heart of the gospel and in the book of Acts we read stories of the disciples going out in pairs. The church itself was established so that we would have opportunities to learn the ways of God from others who have journeyed longer and further than we have.