“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost. Exodus 1:8-2:10, Psalm 124, Romans 12:1-8, & Matthew 16:13-20) There is something in me that thrills to this statement of St Paul’s. I instinctively know that it is deeply true and yet difficult to grasp. Maybe like much spiritual truth it is easier to glimpse in our peripheral vision, out of the corner of our eye so to speak. So we shall try and catch some of the meaning looking through three different lenses.
Firstly let us consider that the question of this world, or another, is in part a question of seeing our choices as between two different world vision’s or systems and then giving our allegiance to one. Paul used the same titles for Jesus the resurrected Christ as the Romans did for the Emperor and Paul was clear that it was a choice between the things of God or the power of the Empire.
In the gospel this week Jesus takes his disciples on a long walk and then standing in front of the symbols of power – religious and secular – in Caesura Philippi and asks “Who do you say that I am?” There is a choice of allegiance to be seen and to then be made. Which person, which belief system and value system, which side are we on? It matters because who or what we give allegiance to influences every aspect of life.
Another, a second, way of understanding this is as Paul suggests understanding ourselves as part of one interconnected body. We know this is true as Christians – no matter how much we balk at being put in a group with some other Christians who hold such heretically different views to our selves! - we are all part of the one undivided body of Christ, but it is also true in other ways. As a species seven billion people strong, and as one species on a crowded planet, we are bound in a oneness with others. For better and for worse. Science can now help us with the description of our interconnected belonging that the mystics have always told us about.
And thirdly we are being reminded that this world in which we live and move and have our being is not all there is. Not simply that heaven waits for us after we have finished with life in this vale of tears but rather that what we inhabit here together is a part of, a subset of, this side of the veil, what separates us from all else that is. Scripture, the mystics from all religious traditions, and many of those who have had near death experiences all tell us that we are surrounded by a larger universal reality that is more loving and joyful than we can imagine. The glimpses that we receive in Scripture, in our prayers, in our singing on a good day, in certain numinous moments in creation, all alert us to this greater, deeper, more loving reality and if we allow it this will transform us.
How might we hold all of this together? Aldus Huxley the famous author dictated an essay via his wife just days before he died. He said: “This world is an illusion, but it is an illusion which we must take seriously, because it is real as far as it goes. We must find a way of being in this world while not being in it.”
Jesus the Christ asked “Who do you say that I am?” or maybe “What do you see and what do you hold as centrally important? “ We are challenged to see the anointed one of God and to put the things of the kingdom at the centre of our world and then we will understand that we belong to one cosmic body in which all else belong as well. And then our priorities and preferences will fall in line in the light of that greater belonging. And while taking this life very seriously – gratefully, earnestly, responsibly, and joyfully – we are to know that this is just a fraction of the good and glorious world that God has made and invited us into. And that knowledge gives us courage, joy, hope with which to suffer, struggle and surrender in this seen life. This is our hope and our healing.
If this is all a little too esoteric then let us take the very real world issue of refugees (or any "others" we struggle to include) and consider that when we say that Jesus is the Christ, the holy anointed one of God, we say that Jesus – who was a descendent of refugees and slaves, and who was taken as a child back into the land of slavery in order to avoid death at the hands of the Emperors representatives – is our stance. And that in Christ there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female but a greater oneness that means refugees are our sisters and brothers. That the priority of giving care and protection to a fellow child of God has precedence over arguments about the sovereignty of any nation state or empire.
And all of this struggle to do right and be right is within the context of ultimate beauty and grace and infinite love. Let us be transformed by the glimpsed knowledge that all of us belong to a greater better world than this and that we are called to realise heaven on earth as best we can in our time and place.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, come transform us with your love.