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.