Thermostats set the temperature
Today’s reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans goes like this:
1I 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. (reasonable service)
2Do not be conformed to 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. Romans 12:2
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. (reasonable service)
2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. – Romans 12:2 NIV
In the ancient world of Paul’s day, sacrifice was practiced as a religious ritual that offered someone or some-thing (such as an animal) as a substitute, a way of using someone or something upon which to place the blame for shortcomings (or sins) on the substitute, and then offer its death as a kind of proxy payment.
Paul worked very hard in his teaching to help early believers see that Christ’s death was NOT a continuation of this kind of sacrificial system, but was intended to put an end to it. Christ did not offer his death as payment to God, but rather gave his life willingly in order to live-and die- in perfect self-dedication to the way of God; a God who is the God of life, not death; God the Father, God the Creator, who does not deal in violence and death, but in mercy, and grace and LIFE.
In allowing himself to be the victim of human violence, Jesus rejected the old sacrificial system, refused to be conformed to the ways of the world and to fight back with a violence of his own, but instead reflected the nature of God’s kingdom, by refusing to oppose violence with violence, exposing the fact that unquestioning social conformity is rooted in ignorance and fear, responding to hatred with forgiveness, and transforming death into life.
In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul has written a complex, teaching document, intended to help the believers there come to understand who Jesus is and how to live as his followers.
In these beginning verses of chapter 12, Paul is trying to help them see that this doesn’t simply mean making a few minor, superficial changes in their lives. Following Jesus, he tells them, means being transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit to new ways of thinking, resisting the natural urge to conform to the world and culture around them, and to discern and live according to the will of God.
Not an easy accomplishment.
It’s not, Paul tells them, a simple matter of giving up something else as a gift-a substitute sacrifice.
Giving proper worship (reasonable service) to the God who created them, to whom they already belong (whether they have recognized that or not) means presenting themselves, their entire lives, their whole being, their very existence as a LIVING sacrifice. Which, Paul reminds them, is holy and acceptable to God!
Relevant amid today’s violence
Brothers and sisters, this teaching is just as important for us and just as difficult for us to grasp as it was for the early church; the church has been struggling with it for thousands of years since Paul’s day.
It’s so much easier to believe that Jesus’ death was simply a gift to God as the price for our sins. All we have to do then is accept the gift, say thank you, and keep redeeming the unlimited forgiveness. That takes a LOT of pressure off of us to live differently in a world where the values of God’s kingdom are distinctively and glaringly counter-cultural.
But what if Jesus’ death is meant as a shocking and brutal wake-up call, to serve as a vivid demonstration that the world has a LONG way to go to be restored to what God created it to be.
Jesus’ willingness to suffer as he did is most certainly a profound and humbling demonstration of the depth of God’s love for us, but I think it was also intended to remind us of how far off the mark we still are, and how dangerous it is to be seduced by the values of the world.
If we believe, along with Peter, that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, then his death should serve to jolt us into a passionate desire to break free of any desire to conform to the ways of the world and to desire the transformation of our minds that will bring discernment of the will of God.
One commentator described the struggle like this:
“In the U.S., we live in a culture that inundates us with advertising designed to keep us conformed to this world.
“The marketing/media industry spends billions of dollars annually to flood televisions, websites, billboards, email, regular mail.
“They intrude even onto gas pump screens or the screens on debit/credit card readers. They seek to define us essentially as consumers, individual economic units existing for the sake of larger market shares.
“In addition, each day our families, friends, organizations, religions, political parties, and society at large pressure us to fit in, to stay within the boundaries of tradition, custom, or practice that mark who we’re “supposed” to be.
“Not being conformed to this world is a tall order. The world will fight at every stage to convince us to look the other way rather than glimpse the injustice, hatred, oppression, immorality, greed, and violence that surround us. It takes transformation, renewal of the mind, to detach ourselves from the world’s attempts to occupy us with things that do not matter. Paul implores us to shake off the effects of this world, attend to the things that do matter, and “discern … the will of God, what is good, acceptable, and perfect” (Romans 12:2). 1
We are living in a time when the challenge to not conform to the standards of the world is very vividly in our faces. There are very loud and strident voices urging us to draw lines and choose sides, to practice judgement and discrimination, which are worldly values, instead of following the way of Jesus that shows us compassion and mercy, restoration and love.
To behave in the ways that Jesus has shown us, to be willing to give up cherished, human values and beliefs and submit to a spiritual transformation of our minds is an intimidating and even downright frightening prospect. It’s naïve and unrealistic to believe that following the way of Jesus in a human culture and society ought to mean a smooth and trouble-free existence when the way of Jesus led to his own death at the hands of a human culture. But underlying it all is the fact that his death was not the end. His resurrection shows us that following the way of Jesus is to follow the path that ultimately leads to life.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said that most people “are thermometers that record or register the temperature of majority opinion, not thermostats that transform and regulate the temperature of society.”
Jesus calls us to be thermostats, not thermometers; not to measure the temperature of culture and society and to adapt, but to be thermostats that regulate and transform the temperature of culture and society according to the will of God; to “be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds, so that [we] may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect… to present [our] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is [our] (reasonable service).”
It is a daunting calling; and so we come to the Lord’s table: to receive gift of forgiveness and reconciliation, to be reminded that God’s way is life, to be fed and strengthened for the work that lies ahead, and to submit our lives-our whole selves- to the transforming power of God’s Spirit. Amen.
Dean and Vice President
Moravian Theological Seminary