Saturday, May 30th
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. 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. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness. Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
During these perplexing days of the pandemic, I have found myself wondering about discoveries that are being made of which we’re not yet aware. I’m thinking not only about the domains of health and medicine, but even beyond those… I wonder what some of the bright minds of our time are conceiving during their times of creative aloneness. My curiosity is piqued because of something I learned about Sir Isaac Newton, one of the most influential scientists of all time. Newton’s scholastic career was interrupted in 1665 by the black plague. To escape the outbreak, he left Cambridge and returned to his birthplace, Woolsthorpe Manor, near the town of Grantham. That year of seclusion Newton later described as his “annus mirabilis”, or “wonderful year.” At Woolsthorpe, Newton accomplished three significant things: (1) he invented the mathematical system called calculus; (2) he drilled a hole in the shutter of his bedroom window and held a prism up to the beam of sunlight that came through it, discovering that white light is made up of every color; and (3) he watched apples falling from the trees in his garden and theorized about a force called gravity, which keeps the moon revolving around planet earth. (I love what he wrote later: “I can calculate the movement of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people.”) So, I have found myself thinking, “What are the Newtons of today doing?”
While Paul didn’t have to deal with a pandemic, unless you want to consider the Roman Empire or the Jewish Sanhedrin catastrophes for any Christian evangelist, he did have for the first time in several years some time when he wasn’t starting new churches or imprisoned for his beliefs. He took the opportunity of a three-month stay in Corinth to pen a letter to Rome. It became his longest letter, and it was unique in the sense that he was not writing for any causative problem or issue in a particular church. He had no relationship with the church in Rome prior to this writing, and what he sent was a theological testimony worked out in his mind and lived out in his missionary journeys. It was meant to be a letter of introduction of sorts, a formal effort to acquaint the Roman church with Paul the Apostle. What it became was a description of, and guide for, what it means to be the church.
The entire letter turns with our text for today. The first eleven chapters are theology, brilliant ideas eloquently stated. But in the twelfth chapter the letter pivots to how this theology is lived out in everyday terms by the church. We see this “pivot” in the word therefore. It is almost as if Paul is getting on his tiptoes to make a riveting conclusion, which he does. He talks about being the church as nothing less than making ourselves “living sacrifices,” of having our minds “transformed by and for the purpose of God.”
Curiously enough, I heard this transformation described once by none other than Peter Drucker, the business management expert. He said, “All nonprofit organizations have one essential product: a changed human being. This is a different approach from business. In business, your goal is not to change the customer; it’s not even to educate the customer; it’s to satisfy the customer. When GM tried to tell us what cars we ought to drive, we began to drive Toyotas. But non-profits aim for a different goal; they aim for change. Hospitals seek to change sick patients into healthy ones. Schools aim to change students into educated individuals…” And Drucker continues by saying, “I would dare say that the church’s aim is to make a difference in the way the parishioner lives . . . that is, to change the parishioner’s values –into God’s values.”
William Willimon tells of a friend from college who became an expert in east-west relationships back in the 1980’s, working for a large corporation that was negotiating contracts with the Soviet Union. At a lunch one day in Moscow his Russian counterpart said, “I am an atheist. I make decisions based on the idea that the material world is all there is. I do not believe there is anything more than what we see here in this world. You are a Christian, so you look at life differently than that. But we seem to work together with no problem. So tell me, how does being a Christian make a difference in the way you look at business, or in the way you vote, the way you spend your money? How are you different from me?” The man said that he was stumped by the question, because while he had always considered himself to be a Christian, he had never thought about it in those terms. So he sought out Will, his old friend from college, then chaplain at Duke University, and said to him, “How do I find a faith that matters, that makes a difference in who I am? How do I get a faith that costs something, that demands something of me?”
Robert Bolt makes this point in his marvelous screenplay that was made into the movie, The Mission. Bolt wrote exquisite screenplays, often with religious themes – A Man for All Seasons, Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago and others, but it is in The Mission where he describes the struggle inherent in being authentically Christian, unequivocally the church. The story takes place in the eighteenth century where a Jesuit priest has traveled to the Paraguayan jungles to convert the Guaraní Indians, much to the chagrin of Portuguese slave traders. The movie is a moving depiction of the struggle over what it means to be truly Christian. In the story, Cardinal Altamirano, a Papal emissary, is sent by Rome to make a judgment on whether the efforts of this Jesuit band of brothers conform to the structures of the Catholic church. He has the difficult choice of whether to side with the spiritual inclinations of the Jesuit priests or the political realities of the Portuguese colonials. In one of the closing scenes between Altamirano and Hontar, a Portuguese statesman, Hontar laments that what happened was unfortunate but inevitable, because “we must work in the world; the world is thus.” Altamirano replies, “No, thus have we made the world . . . ” The movie reminds me of something the author James Carroll said when filming a documentary on his book, Constantine’s Sword, “Since the time of Constantine, whenever the church has had to decide between power and justice, it has chosen power.”
Just as new discoveries are undoubtedly being made across a wide range of disciplines during this time, transformational processes are occurring in the life of the church. My prayer is that we might be inspired by a passion such as Paul’s as we seek to be the body of Christ together.
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
Romans 12:1-2 says, “Do not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” What does transformation mean to you? Is there a difference between faith as a matter of opinion/belief and a real, lived experience?
Craig Barnes says, “If we worship because it’s our duty, we’re missing the point. We don’t worship because we have to, but because we get to. Worship is our chance to see what’s going on from heaven’s perspective.” During this time of deep crisis, how might our community of faith be effective in perceiving and articulating to our world the heart of God?
Paul’s exhortation to “Rejoice in hope; be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer,” could not be more timely for us today. Ask for guidance in finding joy, patience, and perseverance individually and as the church.