A sermon preached by David Barton on 23 August 2020.
Romans 12:1-8. Matthew 16:13-20.
How do slaves get free? They do it by living the present in the light of the future. It’s what we have in our minds that matters. Nelson Mandela on Robben Island was tempted to see his prison guards as thugs. But he deliberately didn’t, seeing them in his mind’s eye as ordinary men, with wives and families and children they loved. And it worked. So effective was it that in turn they came to see and respect him and his essential humanity.
“Do not be conformed to this world,” Paul says, “but be transformed by the renewing of your minds”. In many ways this is a pivotal Pauline verse. Paul’s grumbles about the law are that people put their trust in rules rather than God. We come to believe that we can stand or fall by our own efforts. And not just then, now too! We are all inclined to reduce our faith to a series of rules and practices and an effort to be “good” – whatever that is. “Don’t do that,” Paul says. “Dispense with the idea that your decisions are at the heart of everything, and give yourself up, give yourself away. Let God into your mind and start from there.”
I suppose we don’t want to do this. It’s what Karl Barth, the great twentieth century Swiss theologian called “the great disturbance.” Barth says that all humans and all human systems are ‘disturbed’ by the thought of God. God is not part of any comprehensible human system. The idea of having so incomprehensible and immense a creator built into our lives and systems is simply mind blowing. We shy away from it and reduce everything to rules again. Much easier.
Something similar is going on in the Gospel story. Peter and the other disciples had had their lives completely disrupted since they encountered Jesus. I often think Jesus’ question to them “Who do you say that I am?” is very unfair. After all they had abandoned wives and families and jobs just to be with him. Wasn’t that proof enough of love and trust? But times are short. Jesus insists on having it clear: not what other people think, but “What to you think?” And it needed to be clear in their minds, as it does in ours.
Jesus was not just another teacher like other rabbis of his day, though he was a remarkable one. And on a contemporary level he is not another religious teacher as the Buddha was/is, or the Dali Lama is – remarkable though both are. Jesus makes a claim beyond all that. In Jesus the mystery at the heart of everything opens up. He is the loving embrace of God to us. And to recognise that, however we do it, well or badly, is to step into the flow of life and energy that comes from God’s creative immensity. And to recognise the activity of God in Christ is to find the rock at the centre of our lives on which everything can be built.
And that is Paul’s urgent point: “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds”. The Greek word for renew is “metamorphosis”. A rare New Testament word used four times only. Twice of Jesus at his transfiguration, in Mark and in Matthew – who tells us, “his face shone like the sun.” And twice of us. Here, and when Paul tells us we are transfigured into the likeness of Jesus, “from glory to glory.”
It’s glory when, in the love of God, we slowly allow ourselves to become who we really can be. It’s glory when we let little bits of our lives begin to respond to the prompting of the spirit. And it’s glory when we start to see the light of Christ in the faces around us and begin to know we live in a world shot through with God’s glory. “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”