Intentional Spirituality (A sermon from Romans 12:1-8 and Matthew 16:13-17)


A few years ago three Canadian neuroscientists at the University of Toronto and Wilfrid Laurier University who published their research in the Journal of Experimental Psychology discovered that as people make more money and feel more powerful physical changes in the brain occur that make one less empathetic towards the people around them. They found that a special brain area, known as the mirror system, is filled with cells that activate when you carry out an action, like opening the door or walking across the room, or when you watch someone else do that action. It’s part of how we get inside other people’s heads. And because what we do is linked with how we feel or what we want, the mirror system is what helps us empathize with another person’s motivations and struggles.

What they discovered is that those who feel more powerful and more well-off show far less activity in the brain region that helps us feel empathy. In other words, as one climbs the social ladder, as one grows in position and power, the more affluent and powerful one becomes, the tendency is to feel less empathy and compassion toward others. According to Daniel Keltner, a social psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley “Power diminishes all varieties of empathy.”

If that is true and I have no reason to doubt their conclusions, this means that for most of us who are more well-off and have more freedom and power to choose than much of the rest of the world, we will have to be more intentional about nurturing a spiritual life and living out the love and compassion of Christ. The research, of course, does not mean that we can’t, it just means that statistically we are less likely to reflect the empathy and compassion of Christ than others who may be in a different position. Maybe Jesus intuited this when he said such radical things like: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God”; or “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation”; or when he said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” So this means that we have to be intentional in our discipleship to Christ and in nurturing a life of love and compassion, which is at the heart of true spirituality and what it means to follow Christ.

Paul admonishes the Christians at Rome to be transformed by the renewing of their minds. And in the way he structures the admonition he suggests a pattern of intentionality that we can bring to this process. First, transformation begins with commitment. He says, “Brothers and sisters, . . . present your bodies (your whole selves might be a better translation; it’s less literal, but it captures the meaning) as a living sacrifice to God.” And of course our model is Jesus. Jesus is our model of a “living sacrifice.” The problem with most atonement theories that focus almost exclusively on Jesus’ death is that they ignore the rest of his life. Jesus died the way he lived. I suspect that when the first disciples spoke of Jesus’ death in a redemptive way they intended it as a symbol for the life of love and sacrifice that he lived, as is so beautifully communicated in the Christ hymn that Paul draws on in Philippians 2. Jesus gave himself completely to the cause and will of God. He gave himself to restorative justice for outsiders and compassion for the very ones the religious gatekeepers wanted to push aside. And it got him killed. God didn’t send Jesus to die. God sent Jesus to show us how to live and the powers that be crucified him. Jesus lived a life of love and compassion all the way to the cross. That’s what makes his death meaningful and redemptive. His death is a symbol that gathers up his entire life. His life ended in a premature death on a cross because he lived his life as a "living sacrifice" to God and to humanity. His death was the culmination of a life of compassion, truth-telling, and dispensing grace to all the "wrong" people. The cross is a symbol of self-giving love that Jesus embodied in life as well as in death.

So, a life of commitment, presenting our whole selves as a living sacrifice for God’s cause in the world means secondly, non-conformity to the domination system. Paul instructs, “Do not be conformed to this world.” Living out a life as a “living sacrifice” means non-conformity to the conventional values of society, so that we can be shaped by the values of Christ. All of us have been influenced by the negative “isms” of our culture – materialism, consumerism, exceptionalism, elitism, nationalism, sexism, and racism. The way we overcome these negative “isms” is through our obedience to the teachings of Jesus and by following his example. And when we make that commitment we have the promise that the Spirit of Christ who is in us will empower us to fulfill our commitment. Paul says earlier in this epistle in Rom 8:2: “The law (meaning power) of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set us free from the law (the power) of sin and death.” Sin and death is just a shorthand way of talking about all the destructive isms and addictions that diminish and destroy our relationships and our lives.

The key question for us, which is the question raised in our Gospel reading in Matthew 16, is this: Do we trust Jesus enough to follow him and do what he says? That’s the issue. When Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” he is not asking them for a doctrinal statement regarding what they believe about him. Jesus is not wanting a verbal confession of some propositional belief which can mean very little. When you read this question in its context and in light of the passage that follows Jesus is preparing them for what’s ahead. Jesus is headed to Jerusalem and plans on speaking truth to power. I’m sure he had already decided to protest the inequities and injustices of temple religion by overturning the tables of the money changers. That wasn’t a temple tantrum, that wasn’t a spur of the moment decision any more than his peace march into Jerusalem on a donkey was a spontaneous decision. Both were planned. Jesus’ actions in the Temple constituted a staged protest of the injustices of temple religion. And Jesus knows in doing what he did he is going to be killed and so he tries to warn and prepare his disciples. He knows that in all likelihood he will be killed by those in power. And so he says to his disciples, “If you are going to follow me, then you must take up your cross too. You must be willing to lose your life for the sake of God’s kingdom which I preach and embody.”

They think they are ready, but they are not. They still think Jesus is going to restore the fortunes of Israel and Jesus catches them arguing about who among them is going to be the greatest, who is going to have the most power and authority. They still don’t get it! Just like so many of us don’t get it. Some of us think the gospel of Jesus is about going to heaven and being raptured from this earth, when in reality Jesus wants us to follow him so we can be transforming agents on this earth, which God cares deeply about. Jesus wants us to speak truth to power and give our whole selves as a living sacrifice to spread God’s justice and compassion in the world.

So when Jesus says, “Who do you say that I am?” what he is really asking them is: “Do you trust me enough to follow me all the way to the cross? Are you willing to confront the injustices and untruths of the world? Are you willing to speak truth to power and at the same time love your enemies? Are you willing to stand with and for those oppressed and at the same time refuse to be conformed to the world, refuse to allow the hate of the oppressor to become hate for the oppressor. That’s what Jesus is asking. He is saying, “If you believe and trust that I have been sent by God to be a healer and liberator, then fall in line behind me and I will teach you how to be healers and liberators.” This is why he sent them out in pairs to do what he had been doing. Jesus calls us to live out our sonship and daughtership to God the way he lived out his sonship to God. Of course, will not do this in the same way Jesus did in his time and place. But this certainly involves a commitment to healing and liberating ourselves and others from the demonic systems in which we get trapped.

And this leads me to the third thing that Paul says about intentional spirituality and discipleship. Commitment – presenting our whole selves as a living sacrifice for God’s cause and for the good of others the way Jesus did; and resistance – refusing to allow our culture, the economic, social, and political systems we are part of to shape us into their mold; commitment and resistance should lead to service. Service is the third component of this process of intentional spirituality and discipleship.

Bishop Leontine Kelly, was the first African-American woman to be appointed Bishop in the United Methodist Church. Her father was a pastor and she grew up in a parsonage. When she was a little girl he was assigned to a church in Cincinnati, where the community had changed and he was the first African-American assigned to that congregation. The church facilities were magnificent: awe-inspiring Gothic architecture, beautiful polished wood, stained glass windows, and a huge crystal chandelier in the sanctuary. Presidents had worshiped in that congregation. Just as impressive was the parsonage. 

Bishop Kelly says that it was so big that each of the children had his or her own room - something quite new for them. One day the kids were playing in the basement and they discovered a hole behind the furnace that seemed to lead to a tunnel. They asked her to go with them to explore it, but she went to find her father instead. They all went down to investigate and when her father saw what was there he became very excited. He said, “I think we have found something; let’s go over to the church and look.” So they did and found more tunnels.

That night around the dinner table her father told them, "Children, I want you to remember this day as long as you live. Today, we've found a station on the underground railroad. The greatness of this church is not its Gothic structure, the polished wood, its crystal chandelier. The greatness of this church is below us. For these people dared to risk their lives to help the poor, frightened run away slaves find their freedom and that was the mark of their greatness." For us service rarely involves risk to our lives. However, the way we are going as a country it is not inconceivable that this could change and our stand for what is right and good could be a risk to our lives.

Service can take many forms. We all have different abilities, talents, and callings. No one gift, no one capacity for service is valued more by God than any other. We are many members with many functions and capacities to serve one another and our world. But given the diverse ways we can serve, generally our service for God’s cause in the world will involve in some way working for restorative justice in society and engaging in deeds and works of mercy and compassion. We may engage in justice and mercy directly or indirectly in any number of ways, but will we engage. We will participate in the loving, healing, restoring, reconciling, and liberating work of Christ.

These factors – our commitment, resistance, and service – will lead us to become a transformed and a transforming people. Actually we will be a “being transformed and transforming people because it is a process and we never fully arrive. As we submit to the process of being transformed, we will simultaneously become agents and instruments of transformation in our families, our communities, and our society. Personally, this will mean a “renewing of the mind” as Paul says. Richard Rohr likes to say, and I tend to agree, we act our way into new ways of thinking more than we think our way into new ways of acting. As we live out our commitment to God’s will, as we live out our resistance to the values and ways of the domination system, and as we give ourselves in service to one another and our world the Spirit of Christ will be doing a renewing, regenerating, transforming work in us and through us.

Paul says this is our “spiritual (or reasonable) worship.” This is how we honor and worship God, by commitment, resistance, and service. By being transformed and being agents and instruments of transformation in our world we honor our Creator, Father, Mother, and Lord of our lives. It is our spiritual or reasonable worship because all of this is squarely rooted and grounded in the “mercies of God.” Paul says, “I appeal to you by the mercies of God.”  God’s love is always a first love. God’s mercies are before anything else and will last beyond anything else.

I’m sure you have heard people say, “We are unworthy of love, but God loves us anyway.” I don’t believe that for a moment and I’m sure Jesus didn’t believe it either. We are not unworthy of love. We are made in God’s image and God’s Spirit gives us life and breath. We are all worthy of divine love. Now, that doesn’t mean we don’t do things that are unworthy of God. We do indeed. Some, maybe many of our words and deeds are unworthy of God. But nothing makes us unworthy of God’s love. And for that very reason Jesus tells us to love our enemies just the way God does. Don’t let anyone tell you that you are unworthy of love.

God may get upset with us. God may get angry with us over how we treat others who are also God’s children whom God loves as much as God loves you or me. But God will never stop loving you, even if you choose to never repent and open your life to God’s love. God is still going to love you. Whatever hell symbolizes, God doesn’t send anyone there. We can choose to live in hell by refusing to let God love us and by refusing to respond to God’s love. There are many right now who are living in a kind of hell because, for whatever reason, they cannot trust and open their lives to God’s unconditional love.

When we open our minds and hearts to God’s love, that’s when we start to make real progress toward renewal and transformation. That’s what compels us to commit our whole selves as a living sacrifice to God’s will and cause in the world. God’s love is what drives us to resist conformity to the injustices of the system. God’s mercies are what inspires us to give ourselves in service to one another and our world.

When you experience God’s mercies, when in the core of your being you open up your heart, your soul, your self to God’s love, then you want to be like Christ, you want Christ to be formed in you, you want to be an incarnation of Christ’s presence in the world. When you open your heart to divine love, then you loving and sacrificially give yourself to God in service to the world which God loves.

Our good and gracious God, open our hearts that we may be able to know the breadth and length and height and depth of your love that you have made visible and tangible in the life and teachings, the death and resurrection of Jesus. May we know through your Spirit at work in our spirits the surpassing greatness of the love of Christ that we might be empowered to offer our total selves up to your loving cause, and find the strength to resist conformity to the injustices of society, and be willing and ready to serve others in a spirit of empathy and compassion. May we be filled with the fullness of your grace. I pray in the name of Christ. Amen.



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