08.24.2014 Preaching Text: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed…” (Romans 12:2)
As most of you know, I’ve been arguing of late that the church needs to do a better job of understanding our world from a theological perspective.
Because we joined forces long ago with the secular world, we are tempted to think that what matters most is public policy, and not the theological underpinnings of our faith. Yet such underpinnings form the very basis for Christian self-understanding and constitute what separates us from the wider culture.
Of course, we live in a culture where it’s not always easy to distinguish the things of God from those that aren’t. If we were living in, say, North Korea, the difference between church and state would be patently obvious.
Yet here in the U.S., after almost 300 years of Judeo-Christian influence (and the concomitant values and insights of Western Civilization in general), these differences can get murky. Our culture is, you might say, more gray than black and white.
Additionally, we live in relative isolation from the rest of the world. Bordered by Canada and Mexico and two vast oceans, we have the luxury of functioning as if in a bubble. There are moments, to be sure, when we are dragged out of this isolation, but in general our way of life remains fairly monolithic. As a result we often falsely assume the rest of the world thinks and acts the way we do.
I thought of this as I read the most recent Matters of Faith column in the Cape Cod Times written by a local U.C.C. colleague, Bruce Epping. His meditation was entitled: Choosing to Live in Fear or in Faith.
His basic thesis is that we can either decide to trust or fear the future. Of course, as a pastor, he chooses trust. But trust in whom or what?
“While there is no one definition of faith,” he writes, “I believe faith is ultimately a sense that life is trustworthy, that the moral arc of the universe tends toward goodness…”
At first blush these words read unremarkably, words you’d expect to hear from a pastor. But on close inspection, they diverge quite spectacularly from classic Christian thought.
Consider what we are invited to trust. The universe. Not God, but the universe. Furthermore, it’s this universe that “tends toward goodness.” Classic Christianity, in contradistinction, places its trust in God and God’s providence.
Then again, confidence in the universe is very Western, very American. We instinctively believe that history is moving forward in a positive way, even though, objectively, we know this is far from an open-and-shut case.
As one writer recently put it, we Americans act as if life were a TV show. The hero always wins. No matter how dire things look, the star will be okay. The good guys will win simply because they are good.
In this we betray a deep-seated faith that the mere passage of time will bring about moral evolution, as if “simply tearing pages from our calendars improves the world.”
This is, I would argue, a curious distortion of our culture’s somewhat unique Christian slant on life. We believe in a God who works for good. And because much of our national identity has sought to incorporate this truth into our system of governance, we assume the resulting goodness to be the default nature of reality itself, rather than a tentative but very real aberration of sorts.
Which is to say that biblical faith rejects the idea that there is an iron law of the universe that says good will necessarily prevail. Rather, it is God who, in promising His kingdom, assures us of the ultimate victory of good over evil (as opposed to some spiritually unaided and unredeemed universe).
“Do not be conformed to this world,” writes Paul in our reading this morning from Romans, “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.”
Again, it is not the “universe” or “world” we Christians place our trust in, but God. The hope we have for the future is real – very real – but it is a hope founded on both discerning and acting upon the new creation ushered forth in Christ Jesus.
The ancients, at least in this regard, had it right. They believed we are born with the capacity for virtue, for morality, for goodness. But such things must be learned; they must be taught, lived, practiced. No one is born virtuous, in other words, or good, but must be shaped and molded over time into a virtuous and good human being.
This is perhaps another way of saying that the world, the self, in its untutored, natural state, is neither moral nor good, though it does possess the capacity to be so. For Christians, this means we must be spiritually regenerated and disciplined to become the holy and generous people God intends us to be.
The biblical record agrees, for it maintains that the world, left to its own devices, tends not toward goodness, but evil, injustice, war.
It has been said, for example, that poverty is actually the default state of humankind. It is only through concerted human effort that it is overcome.
Similarly, justice is not the existential norm for the universe. The dominance of the strong over the weak is. Perhaps what we’re seeing on the world stage is a poignant reminder of this. It is only by the efforts of the good that justice is possible at all.
Warfare, likewise, is far from being an anomaly. Rather, it is a natural and pernicious reality deeply embedded within the human heart. Only an enlightened counterforce against the slaughter of the innocent and the weak will prevent such ungodly desecration of life.
But if peace, justice, and goodness can be learned and lived, they also can be neglected, if not lost altogether. Any feigned or blithe confidence in the inevitability of goodness and progress will ultimately prove dangerous, not just for us but for our world.
In the end, our future is premised not on trust in the universe (and its presumed goodness) but on trust in God and God’s goodness. It is based on the assurance of God’s promises, along with the insights and expectations born of the new creation we have in Christ, who alone overcomes the darkness of our world.
Far too often we wrongly assume the relative progress our society has made in effecting these God-given blessings to be not only universal but invincible, unassailable, inexorable. Yet unless these blessings are continually reinforced and lived out, they can – and will – be lost!
Avoiding this fate requires the constant renewing of our faith, living out a determined, spirit-centered life that refuses to sit back assuming things will get better by their own accord. What is required is a life of trust and service, in thought, word, and deed, to the only genuine, reliable source of goodness, God.
The gospel tells us that in the resurrection of Christ, God initiated a divine rescue operation to save us from the world, analogous to Israel’s escape, or exodus, from Egypt. The call to action for the church, therefore, is to resist the world, not accommodate to it; to transform it, not conform to it.
Jesus, in Matthew, asks his disciples who they think the Messiah is. Only Peter gets it right. Perhaps that ought to tell us something. Amen.