This morning we are focusing on what we have read in Paul’s letter to the Christians living in Rome. Paul has spent the first two thirds of his letter laying out his understanding of Christian doctrine. He has been explaining what Christians believe, and why they believe these things. He has talked about human sin and guilt, about how we can be free from them and be children of God, he’s talked about God’s love, about Jesus’ death and resurrection, and about the Holy Spirit. It is inspiring and deep and beautiful. But for Paul, it is not enough to just know the theory, to understand the content of Christian belief, it has to make a difference to the way people live. For it to be real it has to be lived out. So, the final third of his letter is all about application. It is all about exploring examples of the difference that Christian belief makes to a Christian life. And this all starts at the beginning of chapter 12, with our reading for this morning.
“present your bodies as a living sacrifice … your spiritual worship.” Paul’s first point is that there is no room for compartmentalising in the Christian life. We can’t have our daily lives over here, and our worship over here. Have you seen those dividers you can get for your sock drawer, with lots of little compartments for each of your pairs of socks so that they don’t get mixed up? They’re great for socks, but we cannot live our lives like that. Jesus has died for us, the ultimate sacrifice, and in response we live our whole lives for him, every moment of our living, lived for him. This is true worship. Our Sunday services are part of this worship, but they are not the whole of it.
Paul then takes it for granted that Christians will want to be able to discern what the will of God is. I think that this is a fair assumption given that the prayer that Jesus taught us, and which we pray most times that we meet together does include the line “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” If we regularly pray that we want God’s will to be done then it makes sense that we should want to know how we can tell what God’s will is.
Paul challenges us to consider what shapes the way that we think. The amazing thing is that the more that scientists find out about the way that our brains work, the more that this idea makes sense. It is literally true that the way that we think changes the shape of our brains, and that as our brains change shape some ways of thinking become easier for us than others. When we have a pattern of thinking or behaviour that we repeat and reinforce, the physical connections between our brain cells change to make that pattern easier to repeat.
When we first start learning something, like how to drive, we have to think about everything, pressing the clutch, changing gear, braking. Before long we aren’t thinking about it much at all and we’ll find ourselves arriving places completely unable to remember driving there at all. Our brain has changed shape.
If we are going to be able to discern God’s will, then we have watch what is shaping our way of thinking. We have to guard against being conformed to the world’s way of thinking. We need to be aware of the television that we watch, the conversations that we have over coffee with our friends, the adverts that we see, the books that we read. If we don’t keep watch over these things then we can find that our minds become shaped by the culture that we live in, and we find it more and more difficult to discern God’s will, because our minds are the wrong shape to be able to see it.
As a contrast to this Paul says that we need to be transformed by the renewal of our minds. If we allow this to happen then we will be more able to discern God’s will, because our ways of thinking will already be along the lines of God’s will.
It seems to me that what Paul goes on to write about in the next few verses can give us a few practical examples of what it means to have renewed minds. Minds that are shaped to think in a godly way, and therefore are more sensitive to God’s will.
Firstly Paul talks about humility, “You are not to think of yourselves more highly than you ought to think”. We know that this is one of the hallmarks of Jesus’ way of thinking. As it says in Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, “in humility consider others as better than yourselves … Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, … he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” In some senses it’s quite simple. We just need to make a habit of putting other people first. In practice this is quite difficult, but it does get easier as we do it more.
Secondly Paul talks about community in the church. This is, of course, related to humility. It is having our whole way of thinking shaped by the fact that we are not solely individuals but that we are part of the body of Christ. It isn’t just some nice sounding phrase that we use as part of the communion prayers, it is a living reality. The way that we think about the decisions that we make are not just shaped by the best interests of ourselves, or even of our families, but of our fellow Christians, of the church, and the place that we have in this community.
Thirdly Paul talks about responsibility. We have all been given gifts by God, and we have a responsibility to use them well, in humility, and in the service of the church, the community that all Christians are part of. It seems to me that the way that we think is shaped by the things that we are good at. Someone who is an encourager tends to see the best in people and can find the right words to say to someone to build them up. Big hearted people see the pain in people’s eyes and know how to come along side and bring comfort and cheer. The gifts that we have been given shape our thinking, if we are faithful and take responsibility for making use of those gifts. If we don’t then our thinking isn’t shaped by them, and we and the whole community of the church lose out.
I don’t know what decisions you face at the moment. Maybe there are individual decisions about moving house, changing jobs, where to send your kids to school, who to marry, what to spend your retirement doing, how to invest your money. Perhaps there are community decisions about the future shape of the church and its mission here in Sherrifhales. Whatever those decisions are, we often pray that God’s will be done, and God does have a will for each of those decisions we have to make. Part of living out our faith, of being living sacrifices, is to discern what that will is, so that we can do it. Habitual humility, community mindedness, and using our gifts responsibly will shape our minds so that we can discern God’s will. When we have particular decisions to make, they can also provide us with questions that can help us to weigh up our choices.
Humility – Do we want to do this thing because it will make us look good, or give us something that we can boast about?
Community – Will it build up the community of Christians I am part of, will it help that community become healthier and stronger?
Responsibility – Does it faithfully make use of the gifts that God has given me?
As we ask ourselves these questions, and ask the Holy Spirit to see the answers to them clearly then we will be more able to discern God’s will in the situations that we face. So we can make good decisions that in turn renew our minds further and make us more able to discern and follow God’s good, acceptable, and perfect will for our lives.