I am starting to write this as the eclipse happens, after getting a chance to safely see some of the action through proper viewing glasses being passed around at the market. Earlier this summer we took in a local astronomy night with larger telescopes that gave us a chance to view Jupiter with three of its moons visible and Saturn, tilted at just the right angle to see its magnificent rings. I have always loved the perspective these events provide—we are gifted with the reminder, if we take the time to ponder it, of our tiny stature and brief sojourn upon the Earth against the backdrop of Creation’s majesty. None of us controls this, or owns it, and many of us can experience it together, uniting us in our life here on this blue jewel of a planet.
Brother Guy Consolmagno S.J., Pope Francis’ official astronomer, reflected to journalist Elizabeth Diaz last week that the eclipse “reminds us of the immense beauty in the universe that occurs outside of our own petty set of concerns. It pulls us out of ourselves and makes us remember that we are part of a big and glorious and beautiful universe.”
Onto this stage, this week in the lectionary, comes the first part of Chapter 12 of Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome. It is good, at this time and in this place, to sit and ponder together what the Spirit might be saying to the church in North America through the appeals of Paul.
Rightly, Paul anchors his appeals in the mercy of God, which he has spent the first two-thirds of his letter reviewing for the benefit of the church in Rome. Paul speaks from a place of personal, intimate knowledge of the grace upon which he himself rests. God’s mercy is the majestic ground on which we all stand, which none of us can control or own. The grace extended to us all in Christ is what unites us. Losing sight of this truth has always veered the church off course.
From the established knowledge of the grace we have been offered, Paul names our appropriate response: “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” The whole of our living selves—the what and way of the food we eat, the money we earn and how we spend it, our sexuality, what we spend our time on, how we raise our children and treat our aging parents, what we dream of and long for, how we are with others—is offered in glad sacrifice to the God we meet in Christ, that the chaff in it, as determined by Christ, can be burned away and the holy seed of our true selves may rise in new life. Here, the age to come of God’s kingdom fully come, inaugurated in Jesus, meets us in the present age, calling us to live this future life now.
This reformation of ourselves is not, as many of us know, an easy thing to accomplish or maintain. It is one of the reasons we gather together as church, that we might mutually help one another, with humble gentleness, to conform now to Christ’s age to come. It is also–thank God–the work of the Spirit in us.
But, Paul warns, in order to live now in the present as in the age to come, we cannot be conformed to the present age. The present age has often become a stumbling block for many of us in mainline churches (a term we use in Canada to refer to the dominant denominations that built close to the mainline of the train tracks). Things as they are now are not how they could or should be.
Part of our travels this summer took us to friends we met in seminary. We can usually count on sharing in some stimulating and nurturing conversation with one another as our kids play together. One of our friends expressed her frustrations in trying to minister with a congregation conformed to the present age, for whom Sunday worship is often just the opening show to the main event of brunch. She told us how she had to refuse to engage in some of the conversations people had expressed an interest in because the conformity of her congregation’s members meant they would be unable to engage in the discussion as Christians, or come to a decision as a Christian church. And yet, she clearly acknowledges that this is where God is calling her to be. She has witnessed the conversion of a couple who now attend Bible studies and prayer gatherings, the miracle of stones turned into disciples happening before her eyes. And humbly she admits that this was all God’s doing. Hope remains.
Becoming transformed that we might conform to Christ’s reign is supported, Paul points out, by the renewal of our minds, that together we might perceive what is the will of God. Christians are to be a thinking people, not a “go with the flow” people. We cannot think in the way that the world thinks, yet neither are we to always buck the system. We must wade into deeper water than the shallow confines of North American liberals and conservatives, progressives and right-wingers. Discernment in and with Christ is necessary.
And then Paul, just in time, issues another warning. Clarifying that he speaks by the grace given to him, as one who once thought too highly of himself before being confronted by the Risen Christ, Paul tells us to think with sober judgement, in humility and with an awareness of our need for both God and one another.
The image of the church as one body in Christ with many members is, for me, a splendid one:
For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.
Here our individual God-given gifts are woven together. The one body overcomes the tyranny of the individualistic North American culture we live in, while the importance of the individual and the individual’s contributions to the one body are maintained.
It is in our worship together where these sensibilities are offered and transformed. As we read the Bible together, share our own pain and joy and the world’s pain and joy with one another, pray together, sing together, discern together, and eat together, we allow ourselves to be formed into a people that God can use for the sake of the world God so loves. May it be so.