Christ Centered Resources

A Living Sacrifice

Rev. Ed Searcy

Romans 12:1-8
University Hill United Church : Sun, August 25, 1996
‘Romans, chapter twelve ... verses one to eight’ it makes it so sound so clinical so disembodied. Imagine what it was like before it had been catalogued, numbered by chapter and verse. Imagine ... Imagine Tertius the writer of the letter, the scribe trying to keep up with Paul’s rapid dictation! Imagine him gesturing Paul to slow down as his short-hand races to keep pace with Paul’s complex sentences. Imagine the writer’s cramp he must have by now. Perhaps it has gotten so bad that he asks for a break a break to rest his hand and quench his thirst. Time for Paul to glance back at the pages he has already written: "I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek ... for there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus ... I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come ... will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." Tertius sits back down, pen in hand, and Paul begins to conclude the letter: "I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship." As Tertius scribbles Paul’s hand habitually rubs his lower back ... working out the soreness, and running over the scars left by the lash. ‘Will they get it’, he muses, ‘will they see that our spiritual life is so wrapped up in our flesh and blood?’. With that thought it is as if his whole body remembers, as if every bruise from the rod or from the stones aches again. A shiver passes through him as he recalls the shipwreck, the hypothermia, the near drowning. His ankles feel the weight of the chains that held him in bondage. Tertius recites the words he has written down: "present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God ..." Paul paces the floor and continues: "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." Surely they have heard, he thinks, surely they have heard of that day when his mind was changed ... when his life turned. That day when he was knocked to the ground by the blazing light that day when he was dazed by the voice calling: ‘Saul ... Saul’, the voice of his enemy, the voice of Jesus calling Saul to follow. Tertius mumbles: "but be transformed by the renewing of your minds ..." And Saul turned Paul asks him: "Do you think they will see that I am asking nothing of them that hasn’t also been asked of me?" Tertius just nods his assent ... Paul carries on "For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think ..." In a flash Paul sees himself in Jerusalem a decade past. He sees Peter enraged and feels the blood rising in himself all over again. They had argued late into the night about Jews and Gentiles, insiders and outsiders, ancient tradition and new revelation. In the end, the two had agreed to disagree ... Now, ten years and many confrontations later, he hears Tertius’ speak the words that it has taken Paul a lifetime to learn: "do not think of yourself more highly than you ought to think". ‘I wonder’, thinks Paul ‘if I am preaching this sermon to the church or to myself’. And, of course, as always he is preaching to both. The preacher and the church are not two but one, part of one another. With that, Paul recalls other letters he has written of late, letters mailed to his friends in Corinth ... that diverse congregation of rich and poor, women and men, slaves and masters, yes, even Jew and Gentile together. Where else in the world would one find such a gathering. Surely this was the handiwork of God ... and yet, and yet they misunderstood. Too quickly the dissension had come ... over who was right and who was wrong, over who was keeping the faith and who was denying it, over who was gifted by the Spirit and who went empty-handed. They still imagined that they were a congregation of individuals, each standing alone before God. It was as if they were blind to the single reality that Paul could not ignore: they stood before God not as many single individuals but as one people one community one body. Writing now to a congregation in Rome that he has yet to meet, strangers who know of him only by reputation, Paul decides to get it straight from the beginning this time. He pulls an old sermon out of his Corinth barrel and dictates aloud: "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. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us ..." And Paul's words travel down through time arriving here this morning addressed to yet another congregation that Paul has yet to meet, strangers who know of him only by reputation. We struggle to make sense of his words so carefully dictated to Tertius all those years ago. Submerged in a culture that worships the individual we cannot help but think of ourselves as a collection of individuals. Our identity is wrapped up in our own name, in our own accomplishments and failures. We are not at all sure what it means to be as connected to these strangers beside us as we are to our own arms and legs. Just think how confusing Paul's language sounds in the ears of those preparing for a year of 'higher learning'. Over the next few months I wonder how often they will hear it said that they will have "to make up your own mind" on the matter, or that "we don't want to force anything down your throat". And then they come here where, in the words of one rather blunt but honest preacher: "I am here ... to convert you, to take as my modest aim, by the end of the service ... to invite you to make a 'sacrifice' of yourself, not by putting a dollar in the plate, but by putting your body up on that altar - in short, to get you to worship." Of course, the truth is that the University is also out to convert you and me. The difference is that most of us have already been converted to its way of thinking. We are ready and willing to offer our lives as a living sacrifice to the gods of individual choice. So long as we get to choose what is true and good we will be satisified. But here on Sunday we are confronted by an alternative reality. Here we are met by the Creator of all that is, the One who is met in cruciform self-sacrifice, who calls us to offer our life together in response. Twenty years ago next week I was enrolling in my first year of theology. It was there that I met Terry Anderson who introduced us to the dilemmas of the Christian moral life. Early on I recall Terry pointing us to Romans, chapter twelve as key to understanding Christian ethics. It all boils down, he said, to one word ... the word 'therefore': "I appeal to you, therefore, brothers and sisters ... to present your bodies as a living sacrifice". Christian ethics are, 'therefore ethics' ... for we live, not so that we might be treated graciously by God, but because we have been graced by God who is already redeeming the creation and us with it. Just watch in a few minutes when with the offering Sandra, Dan, Nathaniel and Kristin Kierkegaard bring their newborn Joshua to the altar in an act of thanksgiving. They come in response to the grace of God who surprises and delights us all with undeserved, unexpected gifts given. This little drama enacted before us portrays in ritual form what we are always about in our common life together: life sacrificed to God, minds renewed by God and, by God, lives transformed.