As We Think, So We Are
October 15, 2017, Pentecost 19,Pastor Richard Holmer
First Reading: Isaiah 45: 1-9, Second Reading: Philippians 4: 1-9, Gospel : Matthew 22: 1-14
What’s on your mind? This is not a casual inquiry. The things that occupy your thoughts on a consistent basis are very influential. One of my seminary professors described the gospel as a distinct proposal about how we ought to think and how we ought to live. As Christians, we place a lot of focus on behavior – and rightly so. Christianity is a way of life. As Jesus said, “By their fruits you will know them.” Christian life is centered on faith in God. Yet what’s called for is not blind faith – certainly not mindless faith. Instead, we live with a faith that is always seeking understanding. Such a faith requires some thought on our part. God gave us brains for a reason. God does not ask us to leave our brains at the door when we come to worship – any more than God asks us to leave our faith behind when we depart. Faith is a matter of both mind and heart. As followers of Christ, our aim is to have the mind of Christ: to learn to think like Jesus. In chapter 2 of his letter to the Philippians, this is what Paul says: “Have this mind among yourselves, which you have in Christ Jesus…” Remember those WWJD bracelets? They are a helpful reminder. So we need to consider not only “What would Jesus do?” but also, “How would Jesus think?” How you and I think certainly shapes how we behave, so it is important to get our minds right if we hope to be faithful and fruitful followers of Jesus. There are all kinds of sources which seek to shape and influence the way we think: advertising, political propaganda, the relentless outpouring on the internet and television and radio. (And, of course, Twitter and Facebook.) Tremendous amounts of energy and money get poured into these outlets for one reason: it works. Our thoughts are impacted by what we see, and hear, and read; and not always to our benefit.
We must not let others do our thinking for us. The fundamental purpose of an education is learning how to think. It’s not about mastering a large body of information. The world is changing too fast for that. New information is constantly coming at us. The goal of education is to teach a person how to think clearly, analytically, critically, creatively and consistently. In the same way, Christian education aims at more than memorization of scripture and catechism. We need to think theologically – to make sense of the world and our lives in light of the gospel and Christian tradition. I appreciate the motto of the journal, Christian Century, a magazine I have enjoyed throughout my ministry, “Thinking critically, living faithfully.” The two go together. We believe that just as there is a way to live that is good and right and faithful, so also there is a way to think that is good and right and faithful. This is the kind of thinking that St. Paul encourages in our Reading today from Philippians. Having reminded us earlier in his letter that we Christians have the mind of Christ, Paul suggests what sort of thoughts are on Christ’s mind. Paul offers up a list: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Think about these things instead of other things.
Let’s consider a few of Paul’s suggestions. What’s worth thinking about? What’s on the mind of Christ? What deserves our attention? For starters, whatever is true. Christians subscribe to the notion that there is such a thing as Truth, with a capital T. All truth is not relative or subjective or just a matter of opinion. Truth is not merely “whatever works for you!” The Good News is not fake news. We believe that Jesus actually is what he said: “the Way, the Truth and the Life.” Furthermore, the truth of Jesus applies to all people – not just some people. Some things are true whether we believe them or not. And so, while we must always be humble in our thinking, we do not compromise or apologize for the truth revealed in Jesus Christ. We always keep in mind some essential truths. Things like: the love of God for all people; the reality of human sinfulness – and the promise of forgiveness; the necessity of justice and mercy; the context of eternity: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” (Col. 3:2) These truths are not alternative facts – they are as real as it gets. Keep in mind the Truth that sets us free!
Think about whatever is JUST. True justice begins with having the same concern for everyone – not placing your own wants, wishes, and needs ahead of others. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans: “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought to think.” (Romans 12:3) Having a “me first” attitude is not at all the mind of Christ. We need to be especially concerned for the victims of injustice: those who suffer at the hands of the powerful. To think about what is just is to be mindful of what is good for all – not just for us or for a privileged few.
Think about whatever is pleasing. Actually, a better translation is: “whatever is lovely.” There are many things in this world that are ugly and awful. As Christians we don’t deny or ignore all that’s unlovely in this world, or in us! Yet we don’t let it completely dominate or occupy our thoughts. Instead, we recognize that along with the brokenness and evil in this world, there is much that is good. Along with all that is repellent and odious in this world, there is also great beauty. There is awesome beauty all around us in creation – beauty that amazes and inspires. There is also a wealth of beauty in the human spirit: persons who rise courageously to meet challenges, parents who gladly make sacrifices for their children, artists who point beyond themselves to what is true and good and lovely. We don’t close our eyes or our minds to what is hurtful and unworthy in this world. But we also see what is noble and beautiful. It helps to keep such things in mind, lest we begin to despair.
Think about whatever is gracious. God’s grace is all around – if only we are willing to pay attention. We are more likely to be alert to the moments of grace in our lives and the lives of others, if we keep grace in mind: the simple (yet amazing) grace of being alive, the grace of true friendship, the grace of belonging to a family, the grace of laughter, the grace of kindness and generosity. There’s a lot of cold-eyed cynicism in our world. Those who think cynically know the price of everything – and the value of nothing. We can think differently! To be alert to whatever is gracious is to live with a heart that is warm and open instead of a heart that is cold and hard.
It turns out that, to a large extent, as we think, so we are. There’s a Proverb that describes this effect: Proverbs 27:19 reads, “As in water, face answers to face; so the mind of man reflects the man.” As we think, so we are. What’s on our minds goes a long way to determining our moods, our attitudes and our behaviors – so we need to be deliberate about our thinking. Eugene Peterson paraphrases Paul’s words in Philippians in a way that I find helpful: “…you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious – the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.” You and I can’t control everything that happens – but we can control how we think about things, where we direct our attention, how we choose to respond. There was a time when our culture supported Christian values and priorities – but not so much any more, so we need to be intentional. The gospel proposal is not to embrace a naïve, Pollyanna-like form of mindless optimism, far from it. It is rather to keep in mind that in all circumstances we are not without a reason to live in hope and joy. Recall that Paul wrote these encouraging verses while he was a prisoner, on trial for his life. He could have given in to the disappointment and despair – but he chose a better way. He chose to think differently. Paul encourages us to do the same – for our own good, and for the good of the world.
Paul’s focus on keeping our minds right is a theme expressed in his other letters. In the familiar passage from 1 Corinthians 13, Paul says this: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I THOUGHT like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways.” (1 Cor. 13:11) In the very next chapter Paul adds: “in your thinking, be mature.” (1 Cor. 14:20) We all need to grow up – to grow up into Christ and think responsibly. A mind truly is a terrible thing to waste. And in Romans Paul writes: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your minds.” (Rom 12:2) How we think and what we think can transform our lives. And this isn’t just Paul’s idea. Remember what Jesus said when he was asked what is the greatest commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Paul assures us that thinking about whatever is excellent and worthy of praise will always be helpful, time well spent. He offers this promise, “the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” SO…. What’s on your mind? As you think, so you will be. AMEN.