Epiphany 1 – Renewing our minds

After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers,
listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.
[John 2]

Epiphany season – it is the extension of Christmas, – the revealing who Jesus is – the drawing out of the implications of God taking flesh.  Our first encounter after his infancy, and only encounter in his youth – as a boy of 12, lost temporarily to his parents, and being found finally in the Temple. 

It is remarkable that we only have this one story of Jesus as a youth, a story Luke must have learned from Mary, an incident so painful, it was burned into her heart.  In this story, Jesus is being revealed to us as the Wisdom of God in the flesh.  Let us ponder this moment in Jesus’ life.

But before we go there, yesterday I was with my nephew, Daniëlle’s brother’s son Martijn, for several hours and he is 12 years old.  And it is helpful for me to think about him as I think about Jesus at the age of 12.  Maybe you know someone now who is twelve, and can bring that young person before your mind to imagine something of the character of Jesus at that age. 

Jesus, we can imagine was a particularly precocious child, someone developed beyond his age.  His response to his panicked and exasperated parents, when he is finally found is: “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

The Gospel includes the helpful assurance that afterwards Jesus went home with his parents and was subject to them – he still had something to learn from them!  But the passage raises many questions for us.  For one thing, how much did Jesus’ know about his status as the Son of God as he was growing up – it seems he knew something about it.  But what precisely did he know at that time?

The account of this moment became profoundly important to the Church in understanding who Jesus is.  If he is both God and man, then isn’t it obvious that he would know all things? But then how can he really be a human being like us? 

But this short account of Jesus, in a moment just before his teen years, concludes by saying, Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.

It states clearly that Jesus didn’t know all things from the start, that he grew in wisdom and stature.  And the conclusion of the early Church Councils, from pondering this and other passages, is that Jesus was fully God and fully man, but in such a way that his being God did not take away from him being a human being like us.  He had to grow in wisdom.  His divine nature did not “combine” with his human nature in a way that overwhelmed it or replaced it – the phrase used to capture this in the Church Council was that his two natures remained “unconfused and unmixed”.  The interplay between his natures is not something we can ultimately define – but the story opens up a door to the person of Jesus. [Benedict XVI] He learned in the same manner as we learn – by listening to others and asking questions. 

Jesus learns like we learn but there was a difference in his case – he learned more quickly – the Gospel says, they were amazed at his understanding and his answers.  Why? For one thing, his mind was unhindered by sin. 

St Paul picks up on this in today’s Epistle reading:

I appeal 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 worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.

Paul connects the renewal of our minds with not being conformed to this world, but offering ourselves as a holy living sacrifice, a sacrifice unblemished by sin.  He suggests that a new way of thinking, not so worldly, will lead to our holiness.

Modern studies of the mind tell us that when we act in a certain way, our minds develop certain neural networks, pathways that literally embody our behaviours.  If we follow an unhealthy behaviour it is easier to follow that pathway, that neural network, again and we strengthen it – we embody it further – strengthening the number of interconnections in our mind.  If we follow destructive passions – always worrying about what others think of us or always angry or always just trying to satisfy physical pleasures – we embody those behaviours in our mind and it is easier to follow that pathway again.  And when our minds are following those pathways, they are not being lifted up to thinking on the things of God. 

But the good news, medically speaking, is that our brains can continue to grow all our lives.  And the good news, spiritually speaking, is that if, by the grace of God, we break a bad habit, we can form new habits, and new neural networks form in our brains –– so that living in a more holy way becomes a new habit, it becomes more natural for us, easier and easier to follow.  It is the renewal of minds, the freeing up of our minds for higher things.

And those new habits of mind would surely include – wanting to know our Maker better.  And so habits of prayer and reading God’s Word, and asking questions of others – contribute to this. They are hard habits to form at first, but are easier the more we do them.

Paul also connects the renewal of minds, that is, our thinking, with a certain curiosity and acquisitiveness:

be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. 

We’re hoping in a few weeks to form small groups of 4 people for precisely this purpose – I hope you can join in one of these groups when we send out invitations.

In the Greek tradition, from Aristotle, they had the idea of an aporia – a kind of internal contradiction in our thinking that holds us back in our progress in the life of faith.  It is like a knot in our thinking, and it needs to be untied, for us to continue to grow.  As people of faith, we don’t give up when we have a knot in our thinking but face it, speak about them with others, testing our ideas and the ideas of others, that by testing [we] may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Paul also connects this renewal of our minds with a certain humility:

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think.

If we think we know it all, we will never learn.  Or, we may learn on our own, but the pace will be so much slower.  Jesus went into the Temple to learn from others, listening and asking questions.  We benefit from the pure words of God coming from the lips of Jesus – no one has ever found fault with His words.  And in humility we can also benefit also from the wisdom of the ages, from 2000 years of individuals who have lived the Christian life and shared their insights.  We can read the commentaries of others on the Bible or their biographies and also speak with other people in the Church about our questions and seek answers that hinder us in our journey of faith?

Here’s an example of how the renewal of our minds can change our behaviour to become more holy:

The new habits we would like to form also include – responding more lovingly to those around us. 

I was listening this week to a podcast from the Allender Center (Seattle School of Theology and Psychology) about marriage.  Dan Allender was speaking about triggers that can happen with our spouse – where we seem to be suddenly taken aback by something our spouse says – discouraged, or downcast or even angry.  And the idea is to look at those trigger moments, and understand what is below the surface in our minds, some fear that makes us respond automatically – maybe it is a fear of abandonment or being alone, it is often something behind the immediate annoyance.  The beauty of this looking at moments where we are triggered is to stop this automatic way of responding and to form new habits of mind, of interaction, habits informed by a more truthful understanding of the situation, habits that are more loving.

Jesus asked questions and grew quickly, unhindered in his zeal to know His heavenly Father, and unhindered by distractions from the world and from the flesh.  He was not triggered by hidden fears, but with utter clarity of mind, tested at every moment to discern what is the will of God – even to the end of his earthly life in the dark moments in the Garden of Gethsemane – to know and act on what is good and acceptable and perfect.

And he shows us by His embodied life, death and resurrection, that, by the grace of God, we can too: Be transformed by the renewal of your mind.

Amen +