Twelve Scriptures project
Texts #8 and 9: Romans 12:1-17; Philippians 2:5-11
Meditation 1: The renewing of your mind
Here is a chicken and egg type question: Which comes first? Is it that we have our minds changed and this leads to a change in our actions? Or is it in the doing of the actions that our minds are changed? In the case of the chicken and the egg, I heard someone say recently that this really isn’t much of a puzzle, as eggs were in existence long before there were chickens. I guess, technically, that question should be clarified as “Which came first, the chicken, or the chicken egg?”
But what about this other question: Does our mind form our actions, or do our actions form our mind? Or to put it visually, does this lead to this? Or does this lead to this?
The answer, of course, is Yes.
Another response is that different ones of us will more naturally experience one direction of this flow more than the other. Some of us tend to think our way into doing things. Others of us do our way into thinking things. In spirituality, this would be the difference between contemplatives and activists. It always works both ways, and the two are by no means mutually exclusive, but depending on how we’re geared, we’ll emphasize one over the other.
I think it’s fair to say that Anabaptists of our variety emphasize the action. We are doers, servers, peacemakers, and this is a wonderful thing. One member here, who shall remain anonymous, told me once that this congregation is a den of doers – spoken in a most affectionate way. This person, however, comes at the life of faith from a more contemplative perspective. Which is to say that the inward journey, the cultivation of the mind and soul through prayer and stillness and other such practices, is especially vital and life-giving – even a matter of survival in this busy, cluttered life. This person, I have no doubt, is not alone.
Because we are doing Twelve Scriptures in ten weeks, we are doubling up two of the weeks, and this is one of those Sundays. Under the theme The Call of Discipleship, Romans 12 and Philippians 2, two letters from the Apostle Paul, are paired together. One of the key links between these two passages is that they begin by emphasizing the work of the inward journey, specifically through the mind. Romans 12 says, “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Philippians 2 says, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”
The whole of the first two verses of Romans 12 states this: “I appel 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 act of worship. Do not be conformed to the pattern of 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.”
There’s a key shift that is happening in these words which happens throughout the entire New Testament. The language of sacrifice is still used, only now, the location of the sacrifice moves away from a temple system and toward the life of the community. You’re the sacrifice, Paul tells the church. Your body, your life is the sacrifice, and you’re the priests offering the sacrifice. Elsewhere Paul says that our bodies are the temple. So the whole sacrificial symbolic system gets re-centered in the relationships and life of the community. This is what the Hebrew prophets had been calling for all along, Micah 6:8 being one of the key places, and this is what Jesus embodied so vividly and offered as a pattern for the community that formed around him. The pattern of the spiritual life, the life in tune with the Divine, is one of giving oneself away on behalf of the world.
But this is where things get tricky. Because this is not the pattern we are enculturated into. “Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world,” Paul writes. “But be transformed, by the renewing of your minds.” The suggestion is that if our minds aren’t renewed, we’ll fall into other types of patterns that have already been laid down, the deep ruts and grooves of cultural habits that aren’t necessarily forming us to lead lives after the pattern of Christ.
We live in a rather privileged time when it comes to the study of the mind, or, at least the study of the brain, which, depending on who you talk to, is or isn’t the same thing. Neuroscience is gifting us with all kinds of learnings about the functioning of the brain. If you tune in to TED talks, or RadioLab, you know this is a popular theme of these programs. The human brain is the most complex thing we’re aware of in the universe, and we are now turning our attention toward better understanding it. We are putting our brains together to study the brain, and that elusive reality of human consciousness. The marvel that we are not only aware, but we are aware that we are aware.
One of the findings, which doesn’t feel all that revolutionary, but which at least is encouraging to have confirmed by science, is how malleable the brain is, even late into life. We have all kinds of patterns and pathways established in the networks of our brains, but new pathways can open up. New connections can be made, new patterns established. When we undergo the renewing of the mind, it is not merely a spiritual reality that happens somewhere out there, but it shows up in the hardware of our bodies.
Meditation 2: The Mind of Christ
How’s this for a neurological challenge: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” What does that look like on a brain scan? Paul isn’t all that concerned with brain scans, but he does follow this up with a statement about what having the mind of Christ might look like. The statement, verses 6-11 of Philippians 2, has long been regarded as an early Christian hymn, something that preceded Paul which he is quoting in his letter, kind of like if I would recite the phrasing of “O breathe on me, O breath of God,” in this sermon. So when the church of Philippi read this, they might have done so with a certain melody in their minds and, as music wondrously does, it might have appealed to a different part of their minds than mere rational argument could ever do. The hymn speaks of Christ as being a part of the Divine, but being that part of the Divine which surrenders itself to the limitations of bodily existence, taking human form, being born in human likeness, as the hymn says. Being humbled, but not only humbled, experiencing death, and not only death, but the most humiliating and shameful of deaths, death on a cross.
If one were to visualize the direction of the hymn, it would start at the very heights of the heavens, and then descend until it does a nosedive through the floor, sinking beneath the entire edifice for what we deem a worthy and dignified life.
Let that same mind be in you. When we undergo the renewing of the mind, this is the pattern, the shape, that it takes.
The key word that has come to characterize this passage occurs in verse 6, the word translated emptied, kenosis in the Greek. This is a pattern of kenosis, the emptying of oneself for the sake of the whole. The self giving itself away on behalf of others.
We are hopefully aware that a certain form of giving oneself away, giving up one’s will and personal well-being, is harmful not just to that person, but to all involved. Psychology has given us important insights into the harmfulness of co-dependence, and the dangers of abusive relationships where one party will not stand up for themselves. This is the not kind of self-emptying or sacrifice we are talking about. It is not like a bucket of water being poured out until there’s nothing left to pour.
Kenosis carries a whole different meaning, as it begins with a sense of absolute fullness, overflowing, but doesn’t see that as something to be contained or hoarded or held on to, like a damn holding a reservoir, but something to pass along, like a river channeling a flow of water. It is being emptied and filled at the same time. It is breathing out and breathing in. “O breathe on me, O breath of God, fill me with life anew.”
As basic as it sounds, it is a wildly extravagant way of going about life. Cynthia Bourgeault notes that this is Jesus’ great gift to the human family. When we think of the spiritual path, we almost always think of an ascent. We are reaching higher heights of understanding, or we are getting closer to God who is somehow up there. We are climbing a ladder of the stages of spiritual development. But she notes the pattern of Jesus’ life is one of continual descent, until he fell through the floor. Always self-emptying. Giving away his power of healing. Giving away his claim to any title of Messiah or King. Giving away food he didn’t even have to thousands of people in the wilderness, only to find afterwards that there are 12 basketfuls of leftovers. Telling parables about farmers flinging their seed so abundantly and carelessly that most of it falls on places it will never grow. About a father who throws away his own dignity by running to greet his son who had so dishonored him, squandered the family wealth, flinging his arms around him before the son can recite his excuses and apology, making a feast to celebrate his return. A woman once came to Jesus, uninvited, while he was a guest at a meal, and poured a whole jar of exquisitely fine and very costly ointment over his head. Predictably, she gets a lecture about the wastefulness of this act, how the perfume was worth a whole years wage and how it could have been sold to help the poor. But the lecture comes from Judas, not Jesus. Jesus’ response is: “Leave her alone. She has performed a good service. And wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she had done will be told in remembrance of her.”
The good news is the abundant, extravagant act of pouring out that which cannot be measured or quantified or repaid. The more it’s poured out, the more water that flows through the river, the wider the banks of the river become. It’s what we celebrate when we take Communion, it’s what the cross represents. Jesus believed is this so much that he allowed his own life to be squandered in an unjust death, that this would become the ultimate parable of Divine Love.
You’ll notice that the third meditation doesn’t have a title. This could be that when one has attained the mind of Christ one reaches a Zen like state in which words fall away and one is simply open to Reality as it is, a perfect channel of love. Or it could be that I didn’t have this part of the meditation figured out by the time Gwen needed to print the bulletin. I’ll let you decide which it is.
The hymn in Philippians does not end with death but continues with the exultation of Christ, who receives the name that is above every name, so that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. The danger here is that rather than seeing Jesus as one who reveals this universal pattern of self-giving love, we re-make Jesus into the very pattern he sought to break, more of a tribal god who is on our team and who everyone else has to get on board with, or else. A more helpful way of seeing this part of the passage is that kenosis is a beautiful idea, but if it remains just an idea, it has little power. It needs a body to live it out. It needs a life we can point to and say – There – that’s what it looks like. That’s what the love of God is like. That’s the power that runs the universe. Kenosis needs a name, and our name for it is Jesus Christ. And as much as we try and resist it, it is persistent in its pursuit of us and one day we’ll all recognize that and bow to its powerless power.
It seems to me that one of the great trials and one of the great gifts of a human lifespan is that we are confronted so regularly with the demands of kenosis, of the emptying of the self. During the first part of life we gain more and more a sense of self, only soon to find that we must give ourselves away and that we can hold on to none of it. We are continually confronted with things we must let go of: people we love die. We can’t pursue all our life dreams. Our bodies don’t always work the way we want them to. Our work, our relationships, our commitments, cause us to give up other ways of spending our time and energy. The losses along the way will cause us to either hold on tighter and tighter to what we are trying to preserve, or enable us to let go of the need to preserve, and simply become a channel of this greater love passing through us. To bend the knee and sing its praises as the only way to truly be alive. To receive the mind of Christ. To not be conformed to the patterns of this world but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.
The goal of such transformation is not personal fulfillment, or spiritual tranquility, although these can be nice benefits. The goal of the renewing of our minds is always love – a participation in the love of God. It always plays itself out in our relationships, in these bodies of ours which are our offerings. Romans 12 goes on to speak of extending hospitality to strangers. Of blessing those who curse us. “Do no repay anyone evil for evil.” “Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.” What kind of pattern is this? Evil, that which harms, that which destroys life, can’t be overcome on its own terms. It calls for an entirely different pattern. An entirely different way of going about life. Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, “We can’t solve our problems by using the same kind of thinking that created them.”
It takes spiritual groundedness and a lively inner journey, to bless and not curse. It takes great faith to go about life in a self-emptying way, flinging love and generosity every which way without watching where it lands.
So these practices of silent meditation, and mindfulness meditation, and prayer for others, and scripture study and discussion, and spiritual direction, and congregational singing: These and many other inward journey practices are one of the key ways we train the pathways of our brains, and the pathways of our feet, to receive the mind of Christ.