Do Not Conform

A sermon from Romans 12:1-2

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. 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 12:1-2]

One of my favorite novels is Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. In it we meet the aging Rev. John Ames as he writes to young son in a small Iowa town in the 1950s. Rev. Ames loves the small town & its people. He is 3rd generation preacher; his father was pacifist but we learn that his grandfather moved from Maine to the Iowa frontier before Civil War to join abolitionist fight against slavery. Gilead, like other towns throughout Iowa and Kansas, was founded in order to help enslaved people escape and to change the balance of power in the nation so that future states admitted to the Union would be free.

But by the time Ames writes to his son this history has long passed. The town settled into contented apathy, its roots in the great battle against slavery forgotten. Ames writes that his abolitionist grandfather, disappointed in what the town had become, left Gilead for the scenes of his former battles in Kansas.

He was terribly lonely, no doubt about it. I think that was a big part of his running off to Kansas. That and the fire at the Negro church. It wasn’t a big fire – someone heaped brush against the back wall and put a match to it, and someone else saw the smoke and put the fames out with a shovel. (The Negro church used to be where the soda fountain is now, though I hear that’s going out of business. That church sold up some years ago, and what was left of the congregation moved to Chicago. By then it was down to three or four families. The pastor came by with a sack of plants he’d dug up from around the front steps, mainly lilies. He thought I might want them, and they’re still there along the front of our church. I should tell the deacons where they came from, so they’ll know they have some significance and they’ll save them when the building comes down. I didn’t know the Negro pastor well myself, but he said his father knew my grandfather. He told me they were sorry to leave, because this town had once meant a great deal to them.)

The black pastor and and his congregation remembered the Gilead of the past. But now, during era of Jim Crow laws and lynchings, they know longer felt welcomed. Their church, the symbol of their faith and freedom, suffered an arsonists attack. They had to leave.

And what does Rev. Ames remember most about this moment? The flowers. In contrast to his grandfather, Ames has accepted the attitudes and assumptions of his day. It’s not that he’s a rabid racist; he seems to remember the black church fondly. Instead, like the rest of the town, he views the fire and the black community’s subsequent departure as a benign fact of history. By the time he writes to his son, not a single black person remains in Gilead and nothing about this troubles the abolitionist’s grandson.

Rev. Ames conformed to the forgetfulness of his town, to its tolerance of racial expulsion, to intentional cultural homogeneity at odds with its very founding. He willingly conformed, as a Christian and a pastor who deeply loves his Lord and his congregation.

Despite being a Christian his whole life and his decades as a pastor, I doubt Rev. Ames would be at all troubled by Paul’s warning: Do not conform to the pattern of this world. It’s unlikely that he would see his acceptance of the black community’s flight from the town he loved as having much to do with his own Christian discipleship. He did not recognize how he had conformed to the world because he did not see the ways his world opposed God’s will.

This fictional narrative provokes me to ask a question of myself: How have I conformed to the patterns of this world, patterns that are hostile to God’s good, pleasing, & perfect will?

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In Romans 1-11 Paul presents the gospel. In dense and majestic language, he shows how we are justified by grace through faith in Jesus, who fulfills Israel’s vocation to bless the world and stands in for the judgment of our sins. And then, in chapter 12, he makes a turn. “Therefore…” In other words, Paul will now show what we do in response to what God has accomplished, in response to the gospel.

And what do we do? We offer our bodies as worship. We don’t offer Sunday hymns, tithes, sermons, or ministries, though these matter! Our worship extends beyond Sundays because it’s our bodies we offer to God. It is our whole selves we give to God; living sacrifices, holy and pleasing. Our worship goes where we go. Our worship extends into the world. Christian worship cannot be constrained to a day or contained by a building.

Christian worship extends into the world but, as Paul goes on to say, it does not conform to its patterns. Paul has in mind the realm of sinful rebellion against God, and its consequences: injustice, death. This is the word Jesus has rescued us from: “[the Lord Jesus Christ…] gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father.” [Galatians 1:4]

But though we’ve been rescued from its demise and its judgment, we still live within the world, the present evil age. Though we’ve been transferred from sin and death to righteousness and life, “this transfer does not isolate us from the influence of the old realm.” (Douglass Moo) Until Jesus returns, there remains the temptation to become engrossed with the things of this world (1 Corinthians 7:31); to assume the patterns of this world are normal & miss how they contradict life in God’s Kingdom. This was John Ames’ mistake. The good pastor did not see how his town’s treatment of its black citizens was at odds with the Kingdom of God.

It is natural for me to conform to the patterns of this world. I am a white, Christian, man within a country that considers itself a Christian nation; within a country that has favored my gender and race since its inception. Not only is there little incentive for me not to conform to society, my privileged experience makes it hard to even see how my conformity has led me to oppose God’s will.

My tendency to conform is true even during a time when immigrants and refugees are slandered publicly, when the abusive power long suffered by women has been made visible, when lands sacred to Native Americans suffer government seizure and corporate pollution, and when African Americans are regularly reminded of their vulnerability to this nation’s violence – whether sitting in a Starbucks, standing in grandmother’s backyard, or playing in a public park. Paul commands me not to conform knowing that, in this present evil age, it is normal and natural to conform to perspectives & assumptions that oppose God’s will & injure my neighbor.

Rather than conforming, God calls us to transformation by the renewing our minds. The vision is big: Jesus renews our minds so that we can know God’s good, pleasing and perfect will.  As Jesus taught his disciples to pray, it is God’s desires that his will would be done on earth as it is in heaven. Our renewed minds allow us to imagine a way of life that conforms not to the patterns of this age, but to the patterns of God’s will, to the patterns of his kingdom. As N.T. Write says,

Christians are therefore in a position… of someone who needs to stop letting the world around dictate its own terms and conditions, and who instead must figure out how to think, speak and act as is appropriate not for the present age, but for the new age which is already breaking in.

Jesus’ atoning death and victorious resurrection makes available to us a complete transformation; hearts of stone that soften to love what God loves; captive minds renewed to see God’s kingdom breaking into this rebellious world. In response to the in-breaking Kingdom of God, disciples of Jesus offer our entire selves in worship by conforming to God’s good, pleasing and perfect will… no matter the pressures and temptations of the present evil age.

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The early Christians sometimes paid a cost for their nonconformity. They were persecuted not for their private beliefs, but for their public worship; for how their renewed minds in Christ led to non-conformity in the world. We can expect this as well. As we discern God’s will, we will find ourselves on the receiving end of this world’s opposition to God’s will.

But more important than the potential cost, not conforming to this world allows for God’s will to be made visible in our lives. The good, pleasing, and perfect will of God, accomplished through Jesus’ death and resurrection, cannot be ignored in this world when God’s people refuse to conform to its patterns.

An epidemic in mid-2nd century killed between 1/4 – 1/3 of those in the Roman Empire. A hundred years later a 2nd epidemic ravaged the empire, killing up to 5,000 daily in Rome alone. Bodies piled up in homes, streets, & pagan temples. The sick were left behind. This was the pattern of the Roman world. In contrast, the Christians stayed behind, caring for the sick.

About this time Bishop Dionysius wrote,

Heedless of the danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains.

The Emperor Julian, an opponent of Christianity, wrote: “The impious Galileans support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.”

The Christians didn’t have to do this. They could have conformed to the pattern of the world. Instead, they looked to their Savior and his pattern; like him, they gave up their lives for their sick and dying neighbors.

Or consider the lot of women in the Roman world: Because of gender-based infanticide, far more boys than girls survived infancy. Girls given in marriage at 12 or younger. Abortion, a decision made by men, killed many women. The Christians, on the other hand, opposed infanticide and abortion; women married older with more choice; they opposed divorce, incest, infidelity, & polygamy (all which disproportionately harmed women); their widows were respected, cared for when necessary. It’s not surprising, then, that off the 33 people Paul greeted by name in Romans, 15 were women: Junia, the apostle; Phoebe, the deacon; Priscilla, the pastor & Paul’s longtime co-laborer in the gospel.

Or what about the early church’s response to their culture’s divisions. Within a cultural worldview that was permanently stratified by ethnicity, citizenship, and class, the church crossed all lines of division. Philip was sent to the Ethiopian eunuch; Peter to the Roman centurion. the diverse church in Antioch was led by multi-racial leaders. Within an empire that survived on divisions and exploitation, the Christians believed that within the Kingdom of God: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” [Galatians 3:28]

None of this was inevitable. The Roman Empire did not praise the Christians for not conforming. Living out their transformed lives was risky and intensely counter-cultural. At times it resulted in deadly persecution. But the gospel could not be ignored!

The Christians did not look to the way things were in the Roman Empire for how they should live. Rather, they looked to their Savior, and his kingdom. As they worshipped him, they were led to demonstrate his will, no matter the cost. They lived fully within the world, but as citizens of a different kingdom.

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In 1954, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached from Romans 12:1-2. He said, 

And so although the Christian finds himself in the colony of time his ultimate allegiance is to the empire of eternity. In other words, the Christian owes his ultimate allegiance to God and if any earthly institution conflicts with God’s will it is the Christian duty to revolt against it.

Our allegiance is to Jesus and to his Kingdom. Our allegiance must be active; it means resisting the sinful patterns, unjust institutions, and the harmful assumptions of this age. We must not be lulled into conforming complacency as was Rev. Ames.

What is the evidence of our true and proper worship? What is the evidence that we have offered our bodies as living sacrifices? What is the evidence that we have been transformed by the renewing of our minds? What is the evidence that we have not conformed to the pattern of this world? What is the evidence that God’s will – his good, pleasing and perfect will – is our heart’s greatest desire?

We can’t look to our buildings, budgets, attendance; neither can we appeal cultural relevancy or access to halls of power. After all, for not conforming the early Christians suffered isolation and persecution; for not conforming Paul was imprisoned, flogged, stoned, and shipwrecked; for not conforming Dr. King was threatened, beaten, jailed, and assassinated.

The world’s standards of success and acceptance cannot be what a citizen of the kingdom of heaven looks to. We look, instead, to our Savior and his kingdom. Is our true worship leading us to oppose the unjust and wicked patterns of this world, or have we conformed to them? Is our worship leading us to represent Jesus and his Kingdom in the midst of destructive and, at times, dehumanizing patterns? This is the evidence of our true & proper worship.

The patterns of our world has become especially evident recently. What most women have long known has become more visible: That institutional power is not equally shared between men and women; that, in fact, women often experience the worst of abusive and manipulative power. The racism that works its way through our institutions and societal assumptions has now metastasized into visible white nationalism and xenophobia.

In response to the destructive patterns of this evil age we sometimes hear that Christians should not be involved. These are political issues. But no! They are people issues! And we remain disengaged at the expense of our witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Dr. King pointed this out in his sermon: “The mere fact that slavery, segregation, war, and economic exploitation have been sanctioned by the church is a fit testimony to the fact that the church has too often conformed to the authority of the world rather than conforming to the authority of God.”

When we close our eyes to gender disparities and abusive power, we are conforming to the pattern of this world.  When we appeal to the racial homogeneity of our towns and suburbs as a rationale for not pursuing racial justice, we are conforming to the pattern of this world.

Too long have we affirmed women in church leadership theologically but not practically. Too long have we patted ourselves on the back for having racially diverse denominational leadership without asking how God is calling our church to cross lines of cultural segregation.

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Let me be conclude in a confessional manner: It is so easy for me to conform to the patterns of this world. My gender and race conspire to benefit me, to privilege my life at someone else’s expense. Conformity feels safer. Limiting my worship to some songs on Sundays feels safer. The call to worship with my body, as a living sacrifice, in this world is risky. The call to conform to God’s will rather than this world’s way is risky.

But in Jesus the early Christians found a pattern for sacrificial love that compelled them to give their lives for their sick and suffering neighbors. In Jesus they found a pattern for women’s dignity and leadership. In Jesus they found a pattern for crossing lines of ethnic division, class distinction, and religious taboos. They did not wait for the world to become more like God’s kingdom before proclaiming God’s kingdom in the world.

The early Christians lived non-conforming lives because they worshipped a non-conforming Savior. How could they conform themselves to the same world that their Savior had overcome? Why would we conform ourselves to the racial inequities that our Savior has overcome? Why would we conform ourselves to the gender disparities that our Savior has overcome? May we not forget that Jesus overcame the world so that we would not be conformed by the world!

God’s will is risky! It is not safe and it is not comfortable. The will of God led Jesus to leave the throne of heaven for earth; to exchange divine power for an infant’s weakness; to submit to life as a persecuted ethnic minority within a violent empire; to humble himself by becoming obedient to death- even death on a cross!

There is nothing safe about the will of God, at least nothing that our world would recognize as safe. But the will of God is good, pleasing and perfect.  And for a people who have been rescued from death unto life, from conforming to transforming, for this people the will of God will be courageously expressed in our bodies offered as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God.

Photo credit: Tim Wilson.

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