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Romans 12 (Rewiring the Brain)

November 18, 2019

I love The Battle Hymn of the Republic; it’s hard not to become emotional singing those moving words, glory, glory, hallelujah, His truth is marching on. Originally, the lyrics included “as He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.” However, at the time of World War II, musician Fred Waring in Pennsylvania changed the lyric to “As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free,” and more churches followed suit. I know some people prefer the original battle song; but I think it’s interesting that the change was actually made in the context of war; that living through war and serving others can be as great a sacrifice as dying in battle. In the musical “Hamilton,” George Washington makes this point to Alexander Hamilton:

  • “Dying is easy, young man; living is harder.” ~”Hamilton” 

In the early throes of infatuation, lovers often declare, “I’d die for you,” as Bryan Adams did in that 90s anthem, “you know it’s true, everything I do, I’d do it for you,” the soundtrack of my own adolescence. But the question of marriage is those same lovers who would die for one another actually live for one another? Can you make the coffee, replace the toilet paper, take out the trash? Can you forgive his rudeness and forget her nagging and love unconditionally? 

This is what Paul asks us to do in Romans 12: 

  • Romans 12:1–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. 

What Paul is doing in these verses is truly amazing; he is showing us that the entire Old Testament tradition of sacrifice was meant to teach us to sacrifice our very selves as Christ did—but not by dying so much as by living transformed lives. You see, to take up your cross does not mean, for most of us, to be killed for our beliefs, but rather that we are called to kill all that within us is selfish, prideful, worrisome, critical, cowardly, or jealous; to die to self daily in our thoughts, words, and actions. This is becoming a living sacrifice.

If you are terrified by this prospect and immediately want to say, “yeah, I can’t do that. Tuning you out now, preacher; mentally, I’m already at brunch.” Good! You’re right to be afraid because this task is impossible on our own. It’s only through the work of the Holy Spirit that we can do it. And Paul goes on in Romans 12 to give us a how-to: first of all,

  • Romans 12:2-3 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.

Everything begins with the mind. Our words and actions flow from what’s going on upstairs. This is what cognitive behavioral therapy also teaches: the most highly successful strategy for emotional control is to isolate the thoughts that are behind our emotions and examine those thoughts critically. For example: I’m feeling livid because I’ve had to go through a stupid automated process with my insurance company. Now, is it the insurance agent’s fault I have to go through a stupid ten-minute automated system to get to her? No. So I release the anger.

We are called to have the mind of Christ, according to Scripture. Our minds are supposed to actually be changed by the power of the Spirit.

What’s interesting is that science tells us that this process to which God calls us is good for us. So, did you know that complaining is a sin? 

  • Ephesians 4:29 NIV: Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.

Research from Stanford University demonstrates the following:

  • Complaining increases the stress hormone cortisol, putting you in a fight-or-flight response and inhibiting your immune system.
  • Complaining over time physically shrinks the hippocampus in the brain, diminishing your ability for problem solving and intelligent thought. It’s the same area of the brain affected by Alzheimer’s.
  • Complaining forms neural pathways in your brain to make future complaining easier; it becomes a default behavior.

Every complaint we make wires our brain for negativity. So if you, like me struggle with this sin, our task is to re-wire our brains, to be transformed by the renewing of your mind as Paul says, spend more time in prayer and study. The only way we can know the mind of Christ is to spend time with Him, and invite His Spirit into our lives each moment, all day, praying without ceasing. And as we do so, we will find our prayers turn more and more to praise and thanksgiving. 

  • Expressions of gratitude decrease the stress hormone cortisol by an average of 23%. 
  • I Thessalonians 5:18 NIV: give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (pretty)

When you look at what is called for us, to give thanks in all circumstances, doesn’t it seem like something you could never do alone? This is why you can’t be a Christian on your own; the Christian life is not just about assent to a set of ideas, but actually living a different life. Which is not comfortable and not easy. We need one another for accountability, for lifting up, for challenge and for comfort. This is why Paul immediately transitions from the renewing of the mind to the importance of life in the body of Christ:

  • Romans 12:5-8 NIV For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your[a] faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead,[b] do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.

The church is not just some kind of voluntary organization; we are as closely entwined as the different parts of the body. The old English word “member” actually meant “body part,” so if you’re not in church on Sunday, Jesus is missing his pinky toe! You don’t go to church just to consume something; you’re in church for the person next to you, who needs you like the leg needs the foot, like the arm needs the heart. We belong to one another in the church.

And so today we ordain and install our elders, whose mighty task is to discern the will of Christ for our congregation. And those of you who are off the hook for this gig, you must promise to pray for these people and to trust in their decisions and calling. We need these elders, brothers and sisters, now more than ever. We have half new members on the Session! They need you and you need them in a big way. Halfway is not enough in church membership! We are called to be a living sacrifice, and it starts here, it starts now. It’s signing on the sign up sheet. It’s staying for the Hanging of the Greens. It’s calling the member who’s hurting. It’s challenging the church to new ministries and then leading those ministries. It’s a living sacrifice-and it’s the only sacrifice that’s worth everything you have. Would you die for your church family? If so, will you live for them?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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