St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

A Living Sacrifice

A liv­ing sac­ri­fice 

Ser­mon preached at Enmore, Twelfth Sunday after Pente­cost, 27th. August 2017

Read­ing: Romans 12.1–8.

At the end of nearly every Com­mu­nion ser­vice that we con­duct in this church we join in the pray­er: “Fath­er, we offer ourselves to you as a liv­ing sac­ri­fice through Jesus Christ our Lord, send us out in the power of your Spir­it to live and work to your praise and glory.” That pray­er is inspired by the words of the Apostle Paul that we have read in Romans chapter 12, “I appeal to you, broth­ers and sis­ters, by the mer­cies of God, to present your bod­ies as a liv­ing sac­ri­fice.” We repeat the pray­er so often that it is easy to for­get what we are actu­ally prom­ising when we say those words. So let us spend a few minutes think­ing about out what it means ‘to present our bod­ies as a liv­ing sac­ri­fice’.

This week Rose­mary and I spent a couple of days in Manly. Just out­side Coles on the Corso, there is a large impos­ing war memori­al with hun­dreds of names engraved on it. There are so many names that I assumed they must be the names of all those from the Manly dis­trict who had served in the forces dur­ing the First and Second World Wars and sub­sequent con­flicts. How­ever closer exam­in­a­tion revealed that these are the names of all those who paid the ‘Supreme Sac­ri­fice.’ That expres­sion became pop­u­lar dur­ing the First World War and was an attempt to give some dig­nity to the oth­er­wise sense­less, hor­rif­ic losses that occurred on the West­ern Front. In our cul­ture the term sac­ri­fice is most usu­ally used to describe hero­ic death. But in the ancient world sac­ri­fices were just part of daily life.

To ‘present one’s body as a liv­ing sac­ri­fice’ would have been a con­front­ing image for Paul’s ori­gin­al audi­ence- the Chris­ti­an com­munity in Rome. Rome was full of temples- for interest I googled, ‘First cen­tury temples in Rome’ and the search engine came up with pages of them, temples were every­where. About 40 reli­gious fest­ivals were cel­eb­rated annu­ally and the sac­ri­fice of anim­als was an import­ant part of reli­gious observ­ance. The killing of anim­als to appease the gods was a nor­mal part of life in the ancient world. Sac­ri­fice was also famil­i­ar to the Jew­ish believ­ers. The temple in Jer­u­s­alem was primar­ily a place of sac­ri­fice. But in Romans 12 Paul takes the lan­guage of sac­ri­fice and gives it a whole new mean­ing. When Christ died on the cross car­ry­ing all our sins and sor­rows, and then was raised tri­umphant over sin and death, he put an end to the need to sac­ri­fice anim­als. As our old BCP puts it, Jesus made “a full, per­fect and suf­fi­cient sac­ri­fice, obla­tion and sat­is­fac­tion for the sins of the whole world.” In response to God’s gra­cious act in Christ, Paul calls for the Chris­ti­ans in Rome to offer a dif­fer­ent kind of sac­ri­fice, not an anim­al but their own bod­ies as a ‘liv­ing sac­ri­fice.’ How do we offer our bod­ies?

Bod­ies mat­ter for Paul and they mat­ter for Chris­ti­an dis­ciple­ship. How we use our bod­ies is a crit­ic­al part of our response to God’s mercy. At vari­ous times in the Church’s his­tory there have been those who have been apathet­ic toward the body or sus­pi­cious of it. Some have taught that the body must be denied in order to grow spir­itu­ally. Such a view col­lapses when we con­sider the incarn­a­tion of God in the human body of Jesus Christ. In Christ, God embraces the body and affirms our human bod­ies as insep­ar­able from our spir­itu­al life. We live in a soci­ety which is in some ways obsessed with the body- we spend mil­lions of dol­lars on products to make us look more attract­ive, we have gymns on every second street corner and healthy eat­ing has almost become a new reli­gion. Yet on the oth­er hand we find that bod­ies are also being ruth­lessly exploited. There are more people enslaved in our world today than there were when Wil­ber­force achieved the abol­i­tion of the slave trade. The bod­ies of chil­dren and women are being traf­ficked in many parts of the world and it is hap­pen­ing in our major cit­ies. An anti-body per­spect­ive will lead to inhu­mane actions against oth­er vul­ner­able people even with­in the church. This has been brought to our atten­tion recently in the tragedy of domest­ic viol­ence occur­ring with­in church com­munit­ies. Chris­ti­ans need to affirm that bod­ies are import­ant, a gift from God to be val­ued and cared for but not wor­shipped.

Paul declares that a bod­ily sac­ri­fice is “holy and accept­able” but it is also “spir­itu­al wor­ship.” The term ‘spir­itu­al wor­ship’ does not refer to some kind of mys­tic­al exper­i­ence. In an earli­er chapter he has used the word ‘wor­ship’ to refer to the temple ser­vice of Israel-the sac­ri­fice of an anim­al by the priest. But now Paul redefines wor­ship, not as the sac­ri­fice of a dead anim­al but as the Chris­ti­an offer­ing his or her body as a liv­ing sac­ri­fice to God. Paul shifts the focus of wor­ship away from the sanc­tu­ary or temple to the mar­ket­place of daily liv­ing and com­mu­nic­at­ing. Our wor­ship is not just what we do for an hour or so in church each Sunday, import­ant though that is, our wor­ship includes what we do at home or at work on the oth­er days of the week. The way we speak to the waiter who serves us our cof­fee, the way we relate to our fam­ily, the way we behave in our work place, the way we fill in our tax return, all of these things will say some­thing about the qual­ity of our Chris­ti­an char­ac­ter. Our every­day beha­viour becomes an expres­sion of our thank­ful­ness to God for his mercy and good­ness to us. God does not want some­thing from us, he wants us — every part of us.

The Chris­ti­an way of life will at times be at odds with the mores of our soci­ety; that is why Paul coun­sels, “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.” J.B. Phil­lips, a noted Bible schol­ar of the last cen­tury, trans­lated the first part of that verse, ‘Don’t let the world squeeze you into its own mould’ which cap­tures the concept very nicely. Our think­ing should be shaped more by the teach­ings of Jesus than by the SMH or Aus­trali­an edit­or­i­als. Chris­ti­ans need to be people with minds that are awake, not con­tent to just think the same way every­one else does.

After Paul’s appeal for the Chris­ti­ans in Rome to present their bod­ies as a liv­ing sac­ri­fice, it is an easy segue to his favour­ite meta­phor of the church as one body with many mem­bers. Part of offer­ing one’s body as a liv­ing sac­ri­fice involves act­ing in ways which build the whole com­munity and not just one­self. Liv­ing in a soci­ety which keeps telling us to be self-focussed and to look after num­ber one, Paul’s encour­age­ment ‘not to think of your­self more highly than you ought to think’ is worth not­ing. To be a Chris­ti­an is to be part of a com­munity: we are not only joined to Christ in a pro­found and spir­itu­al way but we are also mem­bers of each oth­er and there­fore must have spe­cial regard for each oth­er as mem­bers of the body of Christ.

In the Roman con­text to which Paul was writ­ing, Chris­ti­an com­munity was very intim­ate. The church in Rome was a col­lec­tion of small house churches, where most of the mem­bers would have met daily for some meals and for pray­er togeth­er. Com­munity was a con­stant real­ity of their daily lives. We don’t have the same intens­ity of exper­i­ence that those first cen­tury Chris­ti­ans had but we should make the most of the oppor­tun­it­ies we do have for fel­low­ship and pray­er togeth­er. Paul affirms that every­one in the Chris­ti­an com­munity has gifts and every­one has received grace from God. The gifts are dif­fer­ent, some are pub­lic, oth­ers are less obvi­ous but all are vital to the health of the one body. We depend on one anoth­er for the body to func­tion effect­ively. To use one small example- our gath­er­ings every Sunday depend on people par­ti­cip­at­ing in vari­ous ways- wel­com­ing people, read­ing les­sons, play­ing the organ, lay assist­ing, teach­ing Sunday School, count­ing money, pre­par­ing morn­ing tea etc. Through­out the week mem­bers of our church fam­ily, help in the office, pre­pare the pew sheet, vis­it the sick, pur­chase and arrange the flowers, pay the bills, bank the money, and our treas­urer man­ages the fin­ances and com­pletes all the com­pli­ance issues deman­ded by gov­ern­ment and dio­cese. Every­body in our com­munity mat­ters; just turn­ing up on a Sunday is a great con­tri­bu­tion. Notice that one of the gifts Paul includes is the gift of cheer­ful­ness. I have been in churches where that gift was sorely needed! In the King­dom of God, there are no ‘nobod­ies.’ Every­body mat­ters because the body of Christ mat­ters, and we are the body of Christ ….and his Spir­it is with us.

Philip Brad­ford