Sunday, August 31, 2014

Transformed not Conformed! (22A)

A parishioner came to me recently with a sincere request.

“I want to know more about my faith. And I want to help my wife and children live a holy life. What do we need to do?”

I gave him some practical answers. Go to confession regularly was the first one. Come to the Alpha course with your wife was the second. And bring your kids to Lifeteen and youth ministry nights.

Nothing fancy there. I didn’t tell him to fast and pray and start coming to Mass every day. Just some very do-able things to help build a stronger Christian family.

Except they weren’t. They weren’t doable, at least at first glance. The Alpha course conflicts with one child’s swim practice. Sunday nights they can’t get back from Whistler on time. And the Great Adventure bible study conflicts with a work commitment.

Do you think I am feeling critical when I tell you this? Far from it—I understand perfectly. Going to the gym conflicts with my prayer time. Getting to bed messes up my spiritual reading. And emails and texts mess up everything.

Friends, we are all in this together. Most of us are, to some extent, conformed to the world, a phrase most of us missed in the second reading today.

Conformed to the world—what exactly does this mean? Certainly it’s something negative, because St. Paul says “Do not be conformed to the world.”

Now we aren’t mean to become oddballs who annoy others and violate legitimate social standards—St. Paul says later in this same chapter that Christians should “live peaceably with all.” (v. 18)

But there are social standards that we must not follow; there are patterns of behavior that we must reject.

Obviously, some of these are downright sinful. We don’t really need a sermon about them. If your group of friends drinks to excess every Friday night, you will need to make a different choice, whatever the cost.

But others are subtle. We are conformed to this world when we focus always on what we can see. Everything that really matters to us relates to “now” with little or no attention to the life to come.

The word St. Paul uses for this “world” can also be translated as this “age.” One fine scholar puts it bluntly: “If all our calculations, plans, and ambitions are determined by what falls within life here, then we are children of this age.”*

How can we escape conformity to the spirit of this age? How can place faith and its values in the center of our thoughts and actions?

St. Paul tells us in the same sentence: “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” Don’t be conformed by the world, be transformed by God.

Although conformity shows itself chiefly in what we say and do, it begins with what we think. We need to oppose it by “a deep-seated and permanent change” that comes from the renewal of our minds. A Christian with a mind that has been transformed and made new does not model his or her conduct on worldly ways.

So how do we know whether we are being conformed or transformed? One of the best ways is to ask how seriously we take the Scripture.

Once when I quoted St. Paul to my Dad, he said “Yes, but he wrote that after he fell off his horse.”

When Jesus says something startling, do we take him at his word or water his words down until they don’t make much difference?

When we read “love your enemies and pray for those who hate you,” do we hear a platitude or a true command which we want to obey?

In today’s Gospel, Peter says exactly what I would have said to Jesus. So you could say that I talk like a saint. Except that both Peter and I are talking like worldly men, not disciples.

Peter’s motives are good ones—he loves the Lord deeply and is ready to save him from the cross. My motives are good ones, too: I want to defend the Church and save it from persecution and slander. And to answer my email.

And the sincere parishioner’s motives for resisting disruption to his family schedule are also good—he wants his children to enjoy life, learn skills, and play sports.

Still, the fact is that we are conforming to the world whenever we think with the world and with the Lord.

Jesus says “pick up your cross.” The world says “let it go.”

Jesus says “deny yourself.” The world says “get all you can.”

There really isn’t much room for compromise here. “There is not a moment of life that the will of God does not command, no circumstance that it does not fill with meaning” if we respond to the fullness of the Word of God, as John Murray has said.

I’m glad the Gospel shows that even St. Peter, walking and talking with Jesus, didn’t “get it.” Because we all know that he got it in the end, that eventually he was transformed by the power of the Spirit. His mind was not renewed in a flash, but by a steady process of discipleship.

So it is with us. Learning how to put God first takes prayer and countless daily decisions, some of them right and some of them wrong. But if we trust in the goodness and the richness of God’s will for our lives, we will become more and more able to do not only what is good but what is best. In other words, our minds will be transformed, not conformed.

Best of all, we will move closer each day to finding the abundant life that Jesus has promised to all who pick up their cross and follow him.

*John Murray, “The Epistle to the Romans,” The New International Commentary on the New Testament, II, 113.

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