Friday, September 18, 2009

Having a Christian Mind

Sermon #8 from First Corinthians. The illustrations are obviously from the time and stage of life when the sermon was originally written....

1 Corinthians 2:16b

I was pushing the channel selector on the car radio this past week and happened to find a program on Christian radio I used to listen to years ago. I tuned in for a few minutes, long enough to hear a story about missionary efforts by some Dutch Christians back when slavery was the scourge of Africa. At a time when many people were saying blacks had no soul, these missionaries were trying to find ways to tell them about Jesus. The one way that was open was for them to renounce their Dutch citizenship, voluntarily sell themselves into slavery, and become one with the black slaves. Some did it, and thousands became Christians.

Then I started thinking of other stories where a Christian did what most people would think to be absurd. There is the story of the Anabaptist man back in the 16th century who was running from the magistrate to escape persecution. He had crossed a frozen river and was gaining his escape when he heard cries of panic; his pursuer had fallen through the ice. This Christian fugitive turned back and pulled the man out of the water, saving his life. The reward was that the magistrate then arrested the Anabaptist, and he was killed for his radical faith.

There are also stories among the Brethren in Christ. A Canadian brother, E.J. Swalm, was jailed back in the days of World War I for his commitment to nonresistance. He was willing to suffer whatever consequences his obedience to Christian conscience demanded (and if you haven't read the account of his experience in his book, Nonresistance Under Test, you are missing out on a notable Brethren in Christ story).

What is it that enables some Christians to take such steps of obedience? What is the difference between nominal Christianity and the kind of vital Christian life that gives testimony to the transforming power of Jesus Christ? One answer would be what Paul told the Corinthians at the end of chapter two: we have the mind of Christ.

This subject of the human mind recurs throughout the Scriptures. It is important to understand it is not limited to the physiological process. The mind is one of the things which characterizes the essence of a person. One of Solomon's observations in the Proverbs was as a man thinks within himself, so he is (23:7, NASB). That is the basis for Jesus' great command, Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength (Mk 12:30).

The spiritual mind is the foundation for all that we are and all that we do –– and all of us have one. Every person on earth has a mind motivated and shaped by one of two spirits: either the spirit of the world which is against God, or the Spirit of God. Notice the clarity with which this is given in both Romans and 1 Corinthians:

Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires, but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace, because the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God (Rom 8:5-8).

And again:

The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned (1Cor 2:14).

People who think like the world (which is one way the Bible describes it; other terms are "natural," "flesh" and "sinful nature") cannot understand people like E.J. Swalm. And Christians like the Anabaptist man and the Dutch missionaries are fools to a worldly way of thinking –– which is just what the Bible says: The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers....(2Cor 4:4).

But it's not only in the big issues where the distinction shows. Before we could ever lay our lives down we would need to change our minds about any number of much lesser matters. It begins with the realization that the voices we hear every day are not without a spiritual mindset. The opinions in the news and the bias written into the television programs we watch are reflecting a way of thinking that matches the spirit of the age.

Do you think about how you make up your mind about the issues in our world today? What is your mind's understanding of common things like marriage and family and money? In what context do you place values like rights and freedom and peace? What is your thinking on things like abortion and homosexuality? Are you aware that the world has its own way of thinking, and that it cannot help but be antagonistic to God?

Do our children and youth see that Jesus makes a difference in our attitudes and actions? My son Jeremy and I were at the mall last week and he wanted to buy two books ––"graphic novels" I think they are called, thick comic books that cost ten dollars. He likes them because they have pictures he likes to copy to practice his drawing, and, I think, because they are "in" right now. I opened one at random and found one of the characters telling the others, "Let's go kick some a--!" I showed it to Jeremy and he knew that was unacceptable. As a Christian parent I am concerned about the things that voluntarily go into my children's minds. Even childish entertainment can take our kids either in the direction of Jesus or away from him.

Now the hard thing about all of this is the clear teaching in the New Testament that people who have received God's Spirit by believing in Jesus can continue to allow the old ungodly pattern of thought to dominate their thinking and behavior –– Christians acting like non-Christians. That is precisely Paul's criticism of the Corinthians.

You see, salvation is more than having our sins forgiven and waiting for our trip to heaven. God's intention is to change us, and forgiving our sins is just the first step in that. The promise is throughout the Old Testament. One familiar place is Jeremiah's prophecy: I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts (31:33). The goal is for us to be what God first created us to be –– like him –– "in the image of God," and the one way we know what that was is through God's revelation. God first gave his law and then he gave his Son. Jesus Christ is the one model of complete humanity. He lived out God's law. He fully portrayed God's character. As we look to Jesus we see both what God is like and what we are to be “like.”

Jesus showed that some things are more important than this life and our safety and comfort, and so that Anabaptist man and those Dutch missionaries (and others before and since) were only as foolish as Jesus. Jesus showed our world a selflessness that stands in stark contrast to a woman talking about her "right" to control her own body. Jesus showed a purity that offers people with moral twists the only hope for a way out.

The reason people were first called Christians is because they were so like Jesus. A Christian is a person who is always turning from the old way of thinking to be more and more like Jesus. The contrast of the old and the new.... That is what Paul was writing about to the Ephesians, telling of the truth that is in Jesus teaching us to put off your old self and to be made new in the attitude of your minds, and to put on the new self, created to be like God.... (4:21-24).

It is in that context that we read Paul saying let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus (Phil 2:5, KJV) as he goes on to talk about Jesus not selfishly holding on to his deity, but instead coming into our world as a poor Jewish man to die on a Roman cross. It is in that context that Paul also urged his readers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable –– if anything is excellent or praiseworthy –– think on such things (Phil 4:8). And what other thought could one have after a list like that except Jesus? In fact, in the verse before that he had said, And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (4:7).

To the Colossians Paul said, Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above.... set your minds on things above, not on earthly things (3:1,2). And to the Romans Paul gave this exhortation: Do not conform any longer 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 (12:2).

Whenever we are having trouble in our personal lives or in the church, one of the first things we might do is see if our minds are oriented toward Jesus and his ways or if perhaps we have reverted to the mindset of the world around us. On the other hand, if non-Christians and casual church goers often think we are "a full bubble off center," then there is a good chance our minds are indeed in that process of being transformed.

Later in this Corinthian letter we will see Paul ask his readers ten different times, "do you not know...?" The assumption is that we as Christians do know certain things –– things non-Christians cannot know and cannot understand, and because we know we should be acting like it.

I am very much aware of areas in my own life where my mind desperately needs that transforming which can only come from Jesus. It is encouraging to see ways where it has already happened to a degree, but I have a long way to go. My commitment as a Christian is to keep my eyes on Jesus so the process will continue; my hope as a pastor is that each of you will join me in that process, and that I can be a helper and an encourager for you in that process of being like our Lord.

I want to challenge each of us to be one of those people the world cannot understand because our minds are being remolded so that we are like Jesus. Maybe it won't be a case where we literally sell ourselves or pull the one who is out to kill us to safety (we just don't know things like that ahead of time), but if the mind of Jesus is our standard we will be different.

If that is to happen I need to say one thing over and over, and not only say it but model it, and that is to keep Jesus Christ exalted. As individual people, he is our reason for living. As a church, he is the reason we exist. In every issue that confronts us in the world, in every move we make in our personal lives, and in every decision we make as a church let's be people who look to Jesus. Let's be people whose greatest desire is to be like our Lord. And let's be people who, when hard things come, can be encouraged by hearing from one another these words that Paul gave the Corinthians: we have the mind of Christ.

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