There’s just something –downright American– about a Bible verse that starts with the words “Do not be conformed”, isn’t there? We are citizens of a country that’s known for it’s rugged individualism. There’s a pioneering sense of adventure that’s as old as our nation, and I think most of us claim at least a little bit of that attitude in our day to day lives.
After all, you can’t make forward progress if you stick only to the well-worn paths that others have blazed. So we like to think of ourselves as trail-blazers. We think of ourselves as being on the “cutting edge”. We like to try new things. We push the boundaries.
Paul writes to the church in Rome, and he says Do not be conformed…And we really like that because non-conformity is a value we hold dearly.
I get that.
But I also think there’s more to the story.
Remember a couple of weeks ago, I told you that Paul’s letters are organized by length…the longest ones are towards the beginning of the New Testament, and they get shorter as you go back from there.
So, you can tell pretty easily that Romans is the longest letter that Paul wrote. It’s also the most complex, because even though it shows up first after Acts, it was actually written quite late in Paul’s ministry. So it makes sense that it is the longest letter, because by this point Paul had a lot to say.
Where I’m from, we’d say he’s been around the block a time or two. And we’re left a couple thousand years later, with the task of trying to make sense of this book that’s been called Paul’s crowning theological work.
So that’s just a little bit of background.
And it might lead you to ask why he wrote it in the first place.
Paul wrote this letter for four basic reasons. Two are found in the first chapter, and two are found in chapter 15.
First, he writes because he wants to impart a spiritual gift to the churches that are in Rome. (chapter 1 verse 11). When we think of spiritual gifts, we often think about things Iike speaking in tongues, or prophecy, or things like that.
But I think the spiritual gift Paul wants to give them is more like a relationship.
It’s hard to think of relationship as a spiritual gift, isn’t it? Nevertheless, you knowing me and my knowing you; the relationship we have; it’s a spiritual gift that we give each other. Whether that gift is experienced as a blessing or a curse depends on what we have going on, doesn’t it?
So that’s the first reason he’s writing…because he wants to give them a spiritual gift–encouragement and strength and a relationship.
The second reason he writes is in order to ‘reap some harvest” among them. (Chapter 1 verse 13). Paul wants in on the action, so to speak. He’s ministered all around the world at this point, and yet he’s never been to Rome. So he’s writing to people he’s never met, and he has the audacity to think he has something to offer them.
Some people think Paul is pretty arrogant because of that tone that he takes in a few places like this. After all, he’s never met these people, he can only know what he’s been told about them, and yet he’s convinced that they could learn a thing or two from him.
Some people think he was arrogant…I tend to give Paul the benefit of the doubt.
It’s because of how I’ve come to understand the nature of “Calling” or “Vocation”.
See, you can be as humble as the day is long…but when it comes to doing what God has gifted you to do, when it comes to exercising the vocation God has laid on your heart, using the skills, the lessons, and the wisdom you have gained for such a time as this…in those times, you gain nothing by pretending you have nothing to offer.
It’s not arrogant to call a spade a spade. It’s actually love in action.
I think Paul was honest, not arrogant. (at least like we think of arrogance).
So he’s writing because he wants to give them a spiritual gift, and he’s writing because he wants in on the action. He’s a gifted church leader, missionary, and theologian who has much to offer these churches in Rome, and he makes no bones about it.
(I think there’s something there about how we should use our gifts, right?) (If only it wasn’t for this sense of false-humility that we’ve held up as the Christian ideal).
Now, the other two reasons Paul writes this letter can be found in chapter 15. There we find a third and fourth reason for writing; he wants to remind them of some things they had perhaps lost sight of, and the fourth reason, because he planned to visit Rome and was hoping to gain some support for a mission to Spain that he was planning.
So in a nutshell, that’s “why” Romans exists.
That’s “Why” we have this verse about not being conformed, but rather being transformed by the renewing of our mind. And when we talk about ‘the church in Rome’, at that time…it wasn’t one church, or even an organized group of churches.
The church in Rome at this point met in houses around the city.
There was a strong Jewish flavor to the way they did church, and it was connected to how Jews worshipped there at this time as well…their synagogues were organized in a very similar manner.
It makes sense, because Christianity probably came to Rome through Jews who had picked it up and were brought there as slaves. So there were these fiercely independent groups of Christians and Jews spread all throughout the city of Rome, meeting in houses…and each one was more or less left to themselves as far as how they worshipped and organized themselves.
So this letter was probably passed around from one house church to the next to the next, and so-on. The issues they were dealing with had to do with divisions between “Jews” and“Gentiles”…Paul uses that language “both Jews and Gentiles”, or “first Jews, then Gentiles” or other combinations of those two groups more often in Romans than in all of his other letters combined.
So there must have been some big fights happening in the Roman churches concerning identity…who was really a Christian, who wasn’t, and how Judaism interacted with all of it.
But that’s a little abstract because it was so long ago and it’s hard to understand.
So I’m thinking that around here it would be like us having fights about who’s a “Real Mennonite” and who isn’t. Who has the right last name, or why our church is better than another church because of x or y or z.
So really, this letter is timeless. In it, Paul addresses issues that are still current. 🙂
So they probably passed this letter around so everyone could hear it, both Jewish Christians and their Gentile brothers and sisters.
You know how when we write letters, we include an opening of some kind, some informal greetings, and then we get into the main body of what we wanted to say?
Romans is the same way, except there are two parts to the main body. Chapters 1-11 provide the foundation for what Paul says in chapters 12-16. In other words, the first eleven chapters are where Paul explains how and why he thinks about God. And then, starting in chapter 12, he applies all of that to how Christians should then live their lives.
The fancy terms for what I’m saying are that chapters 1-11 are where Paul does a lot of ‘theological’ work, while chapters 12-16 are more ‘ethical’.
And we Mennonites love ethics.
I say all that to make this point.
We cannot understand this verse isolated from the 11 chapters that come before it. Paul is building an argument. He’s making his case.
In other words, we can’t read Romans 12:2 apart from Romans 1:16, which says “I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”
We can’t read Romans 12:2 apart from Romans 2:1, which says “you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.”
We can’t read Romans 12:2 apart from Romans 3:9, which says “that all, both Jews and Greeks, or [both Mennonites and Methodists] are under the power of sin”.
We can’t read this verse about being transformed by the renewing of our minds apart from the passage in Romans 5 (verses 1-5) that says “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
Transformation goes deeper than just abstaining from certain behaviors and embracing others. But it’s OK if it starts there.
I’ve been training to run my first-ever half-marathon that’s happening in Berlin on Thanksgiving weekend. I’ve definitely been going through the motions in preparing for that. As Daniel or Scott or Zack can tell you, I don’t really think of myself as a runner.
Nevertheless, I’ve gone out with those guys on Saturday mornings for a long run in every kind of weather you can think of, and over the past number of months my body has gotten used to the idea, even though my mind isn’t there yet.
But I have been transformed, at least in some ways.
I’ve lost weight, I have more energy, and I feel better because of the running I’ve been doing. I want to keep it up.
So you could say in a way, that my mind is being transformed by the renewing of my body!
But the end goal of Christian transformation, (or we could call it “Spiritual Formation”) is not simply becoming better people; physically or mentally or even spiritually.
The end goal of Christian Transformation is not even to make us ‘better’ people…otherwise we’d be called humanists.
The end goal is simply the ability to discern God’s will. How can we know God’s will, when we don’t even know our own?
How can we distinguish between God’s desires and our desires, if we never take time to access either? To know God and to discern His will, we’ve got to know ourselves.
Pay attention to yourself this week. Notice where God might be pulling your attention.
Pay attention to the part of you that feels things… the part that tugs at you when you see something disturbing or beautiful.
Pay attention to that part of you this week, and imagine Jesus sitting with you in that moment. What’s he going to say? What’s he going to feel?
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.
To know the mind of Christ comes from ingesting it; like an unconvinced runner runs, or like a skeptical Christian reads. After a time you start to understand the difference between your own mind and the mind of Christ which lives in you through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Do this so that you may know and discern what God’s will is.
And by the power of the Holy Spirit, may we declare it to be good and acceptable and perfect.