Renewing Your Mind
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
August 24, 2008
Scripture: Romans 12: 1-8; Matthew 16: 13-20
“Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” — Romans 12:2
Our lessons for today cry out for a sermon on the church and its nature, which is metaphorically like a human body with many limbs and organs, each with its peculiar function, all making an effective and harmonious whole; but I do not have the desire right now to praise the church. So let me choose just one part of that metaphorical body, the brain, and follow St Paul’s truly important point, that our salvation takes place through a renewal of our mind.
We could take this teaching as especially Protestant, because the saving power passes through the mind and the mind is primarily a processor of words, while in the sacramental versions of Christianity, Catholic and Orthodox, the saving power passes directly into the body, through the mouth. We Protestants do celebrate the sacraments, but for us they are visible words and not grace disguised as bread and wine. I make this point partly because our Gospel lesson today includes the foundational Catholic words, “You are Peter and on this rock will I build my church,” and thus points us to a major theological issue, which we cannot do justice to in so brief a time, but should at least mention.
The mind of course is a function of the brain and the brain is nowadays a center of interest in medical research. The research has immensely important ramifications not merely in the treatment of the brain’s disorders and diseases but also in the cultural sphere where brain becomes mind. Every cultural act of the human body has a material substrate, therefore the sacramental side of Christianity is right to keep spirit and matter compounded together, and the verbal side is right to recognize the word as the way the body breaks beyond its material constraint into the realm of the light, like a seed breaking through the surface of the soil and into the sunshine.
Let us now leave these preliminaries and turn to Paul’s argument: In Romans 1: 25-31 he writes, “…because they exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions…and since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct…wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice, envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless….”
This is a fairly standard Jewish description of the results of idolatry and of the life led by the pagans from a Jewish point of view. As such it is pure Jewish self-congratulation, the sort of smugness you can hear within all sects who by definition think they are the ones and everyone else beneath contempt. In the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18:11-12), the Pharisee expresses it when he says, “I thank you God that I am not like other men.” Paul, however, applies this description to everyone, Jews as well as pagans, to himself as well as the other.
Then he gives us the chapters of this letter that describe what God has done for us in Christ (2-8), and what the position of the Jews now is (9-12), and then he brings us to this passage, 12:1-2, “Now therefore ( that is, ‘in the light of all that I have written so far’) …Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind….”
What precisely is this mind? Remember back in chapter 1: 28 Paul speaks of God giving them up to a “base mind” (KJV: “reprobate mind”)? This mind in 12:2 is that mind in 1:28 in the process of being uplifted and transformed from wretchedness into glory, by the grace of God working in us through our faith in Christ. How does this grace reach us? It reaches us through one another as we live together in the church under the tuition of the Spirit.
Look again at that dreadful list of the activities of the reprobate mind: envy, murder, deceit, gossip, slander etc. That is the world to which we have been conformed. Then look at the activities of the transforming mind in this chapter 12: Not thinking too highly of oneself, loving genuinely, sympathizing, blessing those who curse us, “Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all” (12:17).
Last time I pointed out that it was Peter’s confidence in Christ not in himself that kept him above the waves, which means that anything that hints of the “power of positive thinking” is false. Here, however, we are face to face with a power of positive thinking that is true. The Spirit of Christ comes down the conduit of our faith and infuses our mind with positive thoughts, impulses and powers, and slowly pries us loose from our conformity to this world’s wickedness and reforms us into that world’s goodness. We are being transformed by the renewing of our minds.
Let me end with this quotation from the Apostle at 2 Corinthians 3:17-18, which seems to sum up all I have been trying to say on the basis of these texts from Romans: “Now the Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed (metamorphesthai- the same word as in Romans 12:2) into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”
May we all continue to grow into the likeness of Christ as day by day the Spirit in the community of the church pries us loose from the ugliness of that world that crucifies the Son of God, and sets us free to be molded by the Spirit into the image of our creator, Jesus Christ.