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

Sunday 27th August 2023 — Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost

A liv­ing sacrifice

Ser­mon preached at St. Lukes, Sunday 27th. August. 13th Sunday after Pente­cost. Read­ings: Romans 12. 1–8. Mat­thew 16. 13–20

Pente­cost is the New Test­a­ment name for the Jew­ish Feast of Weeks, when the wheat har­vest was cel­eb­rated by a one-day fest­iv­al dur­ing which spe­cial sac­ri­fices were offered. All the Jew­ish fest­ivals involved sac­ri­fice as a way of express­ing thanks to God for his good­ness as well as express­ing sor­row for sin. The New Test­a­ment writers declared that Christ’s death on the cross put an end to all oth­er sac­ri­fice. In the words of the writer to the Hebrews, “But when Christ had offered for all time a single sac­ri­fice for sins he sat down at the right hand of God.” But the lan­guage of sac­ri­fice is still evid­ent through­out the Scrip­tures and is often found in our hymns and pray­ers. In many Anglic­an Churches includ­ing ours, this pray­er is used imme­di­ately fol­low­ing the Euchar­ist: “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 we may not stop and think about what we are actu­ally prom­ising so, let us spend a few minutes think­ing about out what it means ‘to present our bod­ies as a liv­ing sacrifice’.

Firstly, we should note that this 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.  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 gyms 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. Chris­ti­ans 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 work­place, 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. They came from diverse back­grounds: rich and poor, slave and free, men and women, Jew and Gen­tile. To work togeth­er their love had to be genu­ine. The pagan world around them had nev­er seen any­thing like it. We may not 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, count­ing money, pre­par­ing morn­ing tea etc. Through­out the week mem­bers of our church fam­ily may vis­it sick or lonely people and in many oth­er ways work to bene­fit the wider com­munity. Every­body in our com­munity mat­ters. Note that one of the gifts Paul includes is the gift of cheer­ful­ness. I have been in some churches where that gift was sorely needed! In the King­dom of God, every­body mat­ters because the body of Christ mat­ters, and we are the body of Christ ….and his Spir­it is with us. Amen.


Philip Brad­ford