Resolve: Renew Your Mind
First United Presbyterian Church
“Resolve: Renew Your Mind”
Rev. Amy Morgan
January 14, 2018
Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?
2 On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand;
3 beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out:
4 "To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.
5 O simple ones, learn prudence; acquire intelligence, you who lack it.
6 Hear, for I will speak noble things, and from my lips will come what is right;
7 for my mouth will utter truth; wickedness is an abomination to my lips.
8 All the words of my mouth are righteous; there is nothing twisted or crooked in them.
9 They are all straight to one who understands and right to those who find knowledge.
10 Take my instruction instead of silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold;
11 for wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her.
O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
34 "For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?"
35 "Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return?"
36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
2 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.
Among the top ten New Year’s resolutions, we often find people wanting to read more, learn a new skill, or take up a new hobby. Drawing on the words of our scriptures, people are longing to renew their minds in the new year and gain that choice jewel of wisdom.
The good news for all of us hoping to learn something new and expand our minds this year is that scientific research has discovered that we can change our brains through our behavior. This concept, called neuroplasticity, contends that our brains continue to grow all across the lifespan. They don’t stop growing at 15 or 18 or 25 years old. The things we do, the ways we live, the habits we form, actually cause our brains to change and grow.
Krista Tippett, the host of the public radio program “On Being,” calls neuroplasticity a “wonderful gift.” But she contends that what we’re learning from this scientific study is something Christianity has known for a long time. I would add that our Jewish forbearers also shared this knowledge. The cry of wisdom in Proverbs to all who live – people of every age and stage of life - to learn prudence and acquire intelligence, bears testimony to the belief that we can grow and change our minds across our lifespan. Paul’s encouragement to present our bodies as a “living sacrifice” and “be transformed by the renewing of your minds” indicates he believed our actions - what we do with our bodies - is connected to the reshaping of our minds and the consequential transformation of our whole lives.
Now, when Paul says that presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice is our “spiritual worship,” he’s not separating body from spirit as the Gnostic philosophers of his day would have. It’s quite the opposite, really. The word translated here as “spiritual” is actually the Greek word logikos, from which we derive the English word “logical.” A more accurate translation would be, “worship that is reasonable” or worship that is “worthy of thinking beings.” In other words, the appropriate type of worship for reasonable people is to rely on God’s mercy, God’s grace, and present our bodies – everything we do, every action – as a sacrifice. Paul is almost certainly drawing a parallel to those animal sacrifices made by the Israelites in the temple. A living sacrifice is someone who lives in a way that is holy and acceptable to God, in the same way that animal sacrifice, and the aroma it created, was felt to be holy and acceptable to God.
When Paul talks of what is “holy and acceptable to God,” and what is “good and acceptable and perfect,” the language he uses, again, might be better translated as what is “pleasing to God,” or “what brings God delight.” Now, some of you good, serious Calvinists might bristle at the notion that anything humans do can be pleasing to God. According to John Calvin’s theology, we’re totally depraved, and any good we do is by the grace of God alone. We can’t earn our salvation or any sort of favor with God by doing things to please God.
And that may be all well and true. But that’s not quite what Paul is talking about here. Paul is not talking about earning an A-plus in the school of faith or pandering to a high-maintenance superior being. He’s talking about growth and development in the life of faith; recognizing that our whole lived experience is the life of faith; living in a way that shows we’re “getting it,” – maybe not all the time, and maybe very incompletely, but still, we’re starting to figure out how God and grace and love and God’s reign all work.
We can’t please God by doing things to earn our salvation. But we can bring God delight in the same way a parent delights in a child as they learn to walk or begin to speak. God can take delight in us as we pursue holiness in the same way we take delight in a child’s early finger paintings or first plunkings on the piano. We don’t withhold our love until, or love them more when, they win first place in the juried competition or perform Rachmaninoff’s 2nd concerto. But we delight in each sign of growth, each effort and small victory.
And so, without devolving into heresy, we can, in fact, please and delight God in our thinking and our doing, in the work of our bodies and the renewing of our minds. In the first verse of chapter 12, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship, Paul is addressing what we do with our bodies – our actions, our practices, our habits – and includes how this involves the mind. In the second verse of chapter 12, 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, he addresses the renewal of the mind, emphasizing that the result is that people, being thus transformed, can work out in practice what is the right thing to do, what is good and acceptable and perfect practice of the faith.
The alternative to this transformational living, Paul says, is being “conformed to this world.” In Paul’s time, this could have meant any number of things. He may have expected the completion of God’s reign to arrive any minute, and so encouraged Christians to live in a way that anticipated that reign. This being somewhat later in Paul’s writing, he may have been encouraging believers to live in this world in a way that witnessed to the values of the reign of God here and now, condemning sin and injustice and pursuing holiness.
Whatever Paul’s concern might have been in the first century, it is not difficult to see how “conforming to this world” would be a problem for Christians today. Conforming to a world where we only listen to the people, and news outlets, and opinions that reinforce our own views is not going to contribute to the “renewing of our minds.” Conforming to a world where we can’t agree on what is a fact, what is “fake news,” what is true and good and real – that is not going to contribute to the “renewing of our minds.” Conforming to a world filled will fearmongering and paranoia and conspiracy theories and systemic distrust – that is not going to contribute to the “renewing of our minds.” Conforming to a world shot through with division and stereotyping and “othering” is not going to contribute to the “renewing of our minds.”
We cannot be transformed, we cannot discern how to live in a way that delights God, by conforming to this world we are living in right now. We must renew our minds. And, if the principles of neuroplasticity and thousands of years of faithful practice hold true, we have the opportunity to renew our minds through each and every action we take.
Krista Tippet has proposed that neuroplasticity applies every bit as much to holiness – virtues like compassion and forgiveness and loving our enemies – as it does to mastering the violin or a new language. There is a theory that you need 10,000 hours of practice to master something – like a free throw in basketball or singing opera. In the same way, we can master the virtues we practice, like generosity or kindness or wisdom, but it may take 10,000 hours of practice. We may be horrible at it to start. But what we do, that “living sacrifice,” is the way that reasonable, thinking people, the intelligent creatures God created us to be, are “transformed.” That’s how our minds are renewed.
Because, ultimately, the Christian life is not about following a list of rules, a set of ethical commands. We were meant to discern the will of God, to think for ourselves, to reason and experience and reflect. To wonder and doubt. To try and fail. To hypothesize and test. We discern the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect. What is pleasing and delightful to God.
Like any resolution, this one is not easy. This is a “living sacrifice.” Something must be put to death in order for this transformation to come to life. As we hear many times in scripture, the path of self-sacrifice is the path of self-fulfillment.
To be transformed in this new year, we must renew our minds through our living sacrifice. Sacrificing our right to be right so that we can hear how we may be getting it wrong. Sacrificing the security of our tribe to experience another way of being in the world. We may have to sacrifice our truth and our facts and our reality to understand a greater truth, another interpretation of data, a different reality. Or we may have to sacrifice the adrenaline rush of fear to enjoy the peace of trusting God…and each other. Maybe what we need to sacrifice is our assumptions, our prejudices – and we all have them – so that we can see ourselves in the “other,” cross the borders and boundaries we’ve constructed between each other, and work together in this new year to live in ways that are delightful to God.
So let’s resolve to renew our minds. Not just through what we read and think and talk about. But through what we practice and how we live. We may begin practicing forgiveness begrudgingly, or imperfectly. But Jesus told us it would take 70 times 7 – 490 times – before we might start to get it. We may begin to practice generosity frugally. But after years of practice, we may begin to understand what Jesus meant when he said, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” We may begin to practice faith filled with doubt. But after enough days of saying, “I believe; help my unbelief,” we may begin to understand Jesus’ command, “do not fear.”
Jesus told us that the greatest commandment of all is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves. This may seem like an impossible command. But God has built into the human brain an infinite capacity for change. And God is delighted with every sign of growth, each effort and small victory.
So in 2018, let us resolve to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. And may God bring our resolve to fruition. Amen.