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Transforming and Conforming
Series: The Book of Romans 'Called to Belong'
Leader: Rev. David Thomas
Scripture: Romans 11:33-12:5
Date: Jan 8th, 2023
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I wonder how we feel about New Year’s Resolutions.  Do we make them?  How well do we manage to keep them?  I have to tell you a very rarely make a New Year’s Resolution.  The last one I made was about five years ago.  I resolved to be a “good citizen” at the gym.  I would take care to wipe down equipment after every use (many people aren’t) and be conscientious about returning free weights and plates to their racks when I was finished with them.  It got to the point where I would pick up weights that others had left lying around and put them back as I went along in my training routine. 

I don’t tell you this to make myself look good, necessarily.  I have to tell you that sometimes I  feel a twinge of self-righteousness as I go about my self-imposed weight-tidying duties.  When I do, I remember the words of Paul in Romans 12 (because I often think of the words of Paul at the gym – though I have to say I find it a very good time to think about things).  “You better think” is how the song goes.  “Let your mind go/Let yourself be free.”  What does it mean to be free?  What does all this have to do with the words that we hear from Paul in Romans 12?   This is the point of the letter at which Paul turns his attention to what the truths he has been writing about God mean in the daily lives of those who follow Christ.  They call this the paraenesis, and we see it in many of Paul’s letters – the point where he turns to explicit advice or counsel (though it’s more than advice, as we’ll see).  Paul has hinted at it at a couple of points already in the letter, and we looked at these points last year (!) when we began our journey through this wonderful letter.  In 6:4, Paul talked of walking in newness of life. In chapter 8:4-5 Paul talked about living (or walking) according to the Spirit and setting our minds on the things of the Spirit.  Paul has held off going very deeply into what our trust in God means in our lives because he’s been laying down what the basis is for our trust.  Paul is talking about being made new.  It’s not something we restrict to one month of the year because being made new for the follower of Christ is not a human construct.  It’s not something that depends on us.  According to Google research that I conducted, around 80% of New Year’s resolutions are broken by February (I have to say I was a little surprised the number was that low).  Humanity doesn’t do so great on its own.  We were never meant to do it on our own.  This is the story that Paul has been telling through 11 chapters.  It’s a story of mercy.  “Therefore” is a word we hear as chapter 12 begins, and so we consider what has come before.  “I appeal to you…”  The word here is somewhere between a command and a request.  Some translations have “urge.”  The Greek word is the same one that’s used for “please” today – parakalo.  I appeal to you, therefore, brothers and sisters, by the tender mercies of God.  Renewal.  Transformation.  These things are based on God, who God is, and what God has done/is doing/will do.  We don’t do well with transformation if we’re left to our own devices.  Appeals to self-help can sound more like hectoring or self-righteousness on the part of the one making the appeal.  Someone has said, “It is futile to give practical exhortation apart from the basis on which it rests or the spring from which compliance must flow.” 

How true is that?

Paul is now talking about what a grace-shaped life looks like; what a mercy-shaped life looks like.  A grace-shaped life is based on grace.  A grace-shaped life is based on the truth that we just celebrated.  In our rebellion, God refused to abandon us, and God refuses to abandon us.  “By the mercies of God,” Paul writes here in 12:1, and so we continually remember and return to the mercies of God.  Do the mercies of God make us want to break out into praise?  I pray that they do.  Returning to the mercies of God causes Paul to break out into praise just before this exhortation part of the letter begins.  “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!  How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable are his ways!  For who has known the mind of the Lord?  Or who has been his counsellor?  Or who has given a gift to him to receive a gift in return?”  Remember our Creator in the days of our youth and indeed all our days!  Then a reminder from Paul with this grand, sweeping statement that tells of how everything that we are comes from God.  Everything we have comes from God.  Everything that exists is the work of God’s hand, and everything that exists is sustained by God’s power and love and grace and mercy.  Everything we do as followers of Christ who have the Spirit of Christ in us can be traced back to God and our acting in loving service to God (so don’t let me feel those twinges of self-righteousness at the gym or at least let them get quashed immediately!).  “For from him and through him and to him are all things.  To him be the glory forever. Amen.”

What, then, does this mean?  How, then, shall we live?  It means transformation.  It means confirmation.  It goes beyond willing ourselves to make a change (or changes if we’re very ambitious).  This to me, is a most welcome message because I have found my own will to be insufficient to the task of transformation.  This goes beyond simply being given a set of rules to follow.  One may hold this misconception about the Christ-following life – that it is weakness or immaturity or hive-mindedness in simply being given an outdated set of rules to follow.  What the Christ-following life is, as Paul is telling us here, is a transformation of the entire person that is meant to effect every aspect of our lives.  It’s always new. We talked about God doing a new thing last week.  God doing a new thing in us based on what God, in God’s mercy, has done, is doing and will do.  Someone has said, “For Paul, the Christian story is a story in which the believer works out what God has worked in.”  God has worked mercy within.  To follow Christ is to know the mercy of God every moment of one’s life.  Let’s take a few moments to be aware of God’s gift – of God’s ongoing sustaining gift.  Breathe…

We’re not simply talking about following a set of new or old rules, although there is an ethical component to this whole thing which we will spend some time on over the coming weeks.  We’re talking about having our consciousness renewed – living in conscious awareness and gratitude for God’s gifts and living out that gratitude moment by moment as we go through our days.

We’re talking about presenting ourselves to God as living sacrifices.  We’re not talking about giving God our time, our talents, our money.  Those things come to us as a gift from God in the first place, and you can’t sacrifice a gift.  I was talking about a carol named “In the Bleak Midwinter” on Christmas Eve.  There’s a great line in that carol that goes, “What can I give him (talking about the Christ child)/Give him my heart.” What I can give him is my life, so that I can say with Paul, it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.  Dying to self can sound scary, I know.  Dying to self and rising with Christ.  It is the way to life and light and love.  It is the way that has been made by the one who called himself the Way, the Truth and the Life.   It is the way that has been made by the mercies of God.  What is the good and fitting and proper response, then, on our part?  You who have the spirit of God in you.  You who have the mind of Christ in you.

I appeal to you therefore, I urge you therefore, I plead with you therefore.  Sister and brother.  Family of God.  Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.  Made acceptable by the sacrifice of God’s son.  Holy – set apart, called, made right with God through the sacrifice of God’s son.  Offering ourselves daily, not apart from our daily lives but in the middle of our daily lives and all that they bring.  Which is our spiritual worship.  Worship not simply as something we do together (though we do that, and it's vital) but worship as an all-of-life offering to God.  To say to God daily, “My life is not my own, it’s yours.”  Paul wrote to the Galatians, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? 20 For you were bought with a price; therefore, glorify God in your body.” Gal 6:19-20  What can I give him?  Give to him my heart.  It’s not just about our body and what we do, see, hear, speak.  It’s also about our minds because this Christ-following is an all of life affair.  Do not be conformed to this world.  This does not mean that everything in the world around us is bad or to be shunned or that no good goes on in the world outside the church.  When Paul says “this world” here, it’s reminiscent of his talk of “life in the flesh” vs “life in the spirit.”  Flesh does not mean all material things (including our bodies), but life lived without regard for God as creator and deliverer and source of love and light and life.  “This world” represents the kingdom of the self, the spirit of fear, of hate, of acquisition, of consumerism, of racism, of xenophobia, of if-it-feels-good-do-it, of….

You get the idea.  How easy it is to be conformed when these things are all around us.  Here’s the other side, though – “…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.”  This is to think through every aspect of life and ask, “What does a grace-shaped life call for here.”  It is to think through every aspect of life and ask, “What does the love of God and love for neighbour call for here?” 

This is not about us merely resolving to be transformed or changed.  This is not transformation that depends on our own ability or strength of will.  This is transformation that is the work of God in our lives.  We’re not called to transform ourselves.  What we can do it put ourselves in situations and nurture relationships (with God and with one another) in which transformation is more likely to happen.  We are called to follow Christ with one another.  Deliverance.  God’s mercy.  God’s grace.  Salvation.  Whichever word we use, the mercy of God is more than an individual reality.  It is a communal reality.  We’re not called to cut ourselves off from the people of God or pursue Lone Ranger (or lone wolf) Christianity.  Discerning and doing the will of God is as much a communal responsibility as it is an individual responsibility.  This whole time Paul has been speaking in the 2nd person plural, and we might well have been saying, “I appeal to you all brothers and sisters…”  We are called to be getting the love of God and neighbour right here.  The Christian community is the visible, intimate expression of our life in Christ. 

So, don’t let us think too highly of ourselves.  Let us remember that the very faith we hold is a gift from God.  Let us remember that we are invited to God’s table as people equally in need of God’s grace and mercy.  Paul uses one of his most famous metaphors for the church here – the church as a body.  We have many parts in this body – there is a diversity here, and no part is called to lord itself over another.  We differ in gifts, in temperament, in calling, in background.  It's wonderful to be part of a gathering and stop to consider how God has brought us along the different paths that have led us to this time and this place.  We’re united in this diversity because we share the same faith – the faith of Christ – and the same Spirit – the Spirit of Christ.  “… so we who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” (12:5). Not only do we belong to Christ, but we belong to one another.

More on this next week, but for today let us consider this truth as we prepare to come to God’s table, as we prepare to accept the invitation to this table of mercy and consider what it means.  Someone has said, “The total commitment total commitment of ourselves to Christ is based on the totality of his mercy to us.”  Hearts given to Jesus and all the implications – from putting weights back in their assigned placed to tasting bread and juice and seeing that the Lord is good together.  May this be our experience of God in 2023, and may this be true for all of us. Amen