Do not be conformed to this world;
but be transformed by the renewal of your mind
In Epiphany season we don’t stay at the cradle, in a kind of sentimental beholding of the Christ child, but we are forced, in a sense, by our readings to quickly grow up with Jesus – moving from the cradle to the one story in Scripture of Jesus as a teenager.
Some of you are teenagers now, the rest of us have all been teenagers. We know it is a time of testing many things, distinguishing ourselves in some ways from our parents, seeing both their strengths and being disappointed because we see their weaknesses more clearly. So it is often a time of some tension.
Our Gospel today is the account of Jesus at 12 years of age, on the verge of the teen years!
There is a very important teaching here, a revelation to us in this short account of something very important about who Jesus is.
Jesus was found in the Temple, sitting among the teachers, both listening to them, and asking them questions. And all that heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.
Now you might say – given that we believe that Jesus is both God and man – God in the flesh, why is that strange? Surely he would know everything, being God. But at the end of today’s Gospel is the astonishing statement – And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man. How could he increase in wisdom if, as God, he already knows everything?
Precisely how Jesus is both God and man is an important question that the Church struggled to understand in the early centuries, and only came to a final conclusion about, in the 5th century. The Church concluded that a letter written on this question by Pope Leo in 449AD (The Tome of Leo), sums up the truth of the Gospel accounts: it states that Jesus is one person, but two natures – human and divine, and those two natures are combined in him in such a way that they are unconfused and unmixed.
What does that mean…unconfused and unmixed?
How could Jesus grow in wisdom if he is already Wisdom incarnate? – Because his two natures are combined in such a way that His divine knowing all things does not overwhelm his human unknowing, his human ignorance. So as a human being, he does grow in Wisdom in the way that every human being can grow in wisdom. God is showing us in the flesh how to become wise.
Asking questions! But also because he lives a holy, a sinless, life – he is completely undistracted and focussed – he beholds the world in perfect love.
I speak about the need to be without sin not so that we feel guilty, but so that we know what it is that holds us back from having the heavens open up and having holy Wisdom pour into us – from seeing as God sees, from being able to make wise decisions in our lives, from being able to give wise counsel to those who ask, counsel that is “good and acceptable and perfect”.
How will we think like Jesus thinks? How will we be partakers of Holy Wisdom?
As Christians we believe we are both there, seated in the heavenly places, and not there, living in this world – we are fully God’s sons and daughters, but we are also in need of sanctification. We see wisdom in ourselves but also mixed with worldly ideas. We are both carnally and spiritually minded.
So the society we live in, which is largely from a Judeo Christian background is also a mix – sometimes amazingly wise things come from TV or Hollywood or the internet and sometimes not – usually it is some kind of mix – it is all jumbled together. So we must seek to be discerning about what ideas we accept and what we challenge.
In one sense we all suffer with some degree of mental illness. Our mental illnesses stem from some wrong way of thinking… and being stuck in that wrong way, and because through repetition of thought patterns, we deepen the ruts, the tracks upon which we have thought before, so that it is harder and harder to think in a new way, to get out of the ruts…but grace can lift us to new ways of thinking, God’s ways – out of the rut, onto the open field and with the possibility of ascending the mountain.
The actions in Paris this week – they stem from holding on to anger, nursing a deep hatred – it always leads to violence, whether it be in this spectacular way, or whether it is simply hurting everyone around us by taking away joy, by squelching the spirit of someone who was feeling joy in our midst.
But there are any number of other ways that we hurt ourselves and others around us, holding ourselves back from the growing vision of God, of Love, by how we think. Foremost, if I’m being proud, and so not listening to the advice any other person, especially God, I will block myself from growing in wisdom – St Paul says – “don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but think with sober judgement.” If sensual pleasure is what I really think on all the time, I am distracted and have less love to give my neighbour. Or, if we simply allow our minds to be endlessly distracted by this and that, by a kind of slothfulness, a lack of discipline, we will not grow in wisdom.
Paul says elsewhere, “those who live according to the flesh (e.g. pride, envy, wrath, sloth, greed, gluttony, lust), set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, [set their minds] on the things of the Spirit. To be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life.” [Rom 8:5-6]
St Paul says in today’s reading how it is we can learn to think like Jesus, how we can partake of holy Wisdom, and he holds these two ideas together – by a holy life and by thinking as Jesus thinks.
He starts by “appealing to you, 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.” A holy life is to follow the moral law – and we are all caught in some way by it, but there is no getting around it – that is the way of love! We don’t do it to gain favour with God, to become his children – we are his beloved sons and daughters in all our disordered states, by our baptism and faith – but we follow it if we desire to see the heavens open before us and holy Wisdom to fill us with her treasures [Prov 8:19-21].
The next sentence of Paul is: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind. And how do our minds become renewed?
We not only try to follow, with his grace, His teachings – the commandments – but we also think about the particular ways Jesus acted in his earthly life that continually surprise us.
Paul contrasts worldly thinking and God’s thinking in a number of places in his letters.
- The carnally minded man responds to a hurt by hurting back – but Jesus says, Forgive, love even your enemies – remember him on the Cross – Father forgive them for they know not what they do…they know not – their minds need to be renewed.
- Worldly power asserts itself by strength – God’s power is revealed in weakness, in the cradle, he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips [Isa 11:4], with his words of truth, not by the sword or guns.
- Jesus’ way of thinking is – I came not to be served, but to serve. And he took a towel and washed his disciples’ feet. [Jn 13]
I saw a documentary on Al Jazera recently about how Kenya is dealing with the threat of Islamic extremism – they have death squads, identifying those who are a threat, and there is no arrest, no trial, they simply kill them – in the past couple of years hundreds have died. Surely this is a carnally minded response and we can hope our governments will not follow suit. Surely what we need are not more drones.
But even more importantly we need to guard our minds in how we think on our Muslim neighbours here – not to be naïve to extremism, but not to respond to evil in the few, with evil to all. A greater love, a different way of thinking, is demanded of us if we are to be followers of Jesus…
You have heard that it has been said, You shalt love your neighbour, and hate your enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies, bless those that curse you, do good to those that hate you, and pray for those which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That you may be the children of your Father which is in heaven. [Matt 5:43-45] That is what Jesus said.
The Cross is folly to the world, dying to ourselves and rising in Him, but this is what it is to be transformed by the renewal of our minds. The early Church spread by being persecution, by dying, not by wielding the sword. Paul says, “As it is written, “For your sake, Lord, we are killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.” Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.” [Rom 8:36-37]
Each one of us has been hurt in the past, and there is some way in which our thinking is skewed by that hurt. Each one of us has ideas and expectations of what life is about that are skewed and that affects our better flourishing. Some are suffering deep wounds of grief and that affects how we think. Some of us are battling with addictions and our minds are stuck in that rut.
The renewal of our minds, we are reassured today, is Jesus’ business – he must be in his Father’s house – and our souls and bodies are His Father’s temples. Today we are looking to Jesus who the Wisdom of God – to come and bring about a renewal in our minds, the expansion of our imaginations, so that we can look up, and behold, without being blinded, and see more clearly the beauty of God, the Wisdom of God, the Love of God…a new way of thinking, that we might discern what is the will of God, that is good… and acceptable… and perfect.