Romans 12:1-8 and Matthew 16:13-20
Preached FCCW, August 27, 2017
I don’t know where the expression, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” originated; but I’m willing to bet that it didn’t start with the Apostle Paul. After all, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” is basically saying that you should conform to your cultural surroundings. That you should blend in; follow the crowd.
“When in Rome, do as the Romans do” is not the kind of advice that Paul was likely to dispense – not even to actual Romans.
In fact, when he wrote to the Christians living in the city of Rome, he instructed them to do exactly the opposite of what Romans did.
He wrote, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds…”
Far from telling them to “just go with the flow” of the world around them, Paul urges believers to choose a much more challenging alternative.
“Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.”
Now, Paul knew something about making acceptable sacrifices to God. An extensive sacrificial system lay at the heart of his Jewish faith. The Torah – the Jewish religious Law – spelled out in great detail when, where, and how sacrifices were to be offered.
Most sacrifices fell into one of two categories. There were sacrifices made to atone for one’s sins, and there were sacrifices offered as expressions of praise and thanksgiving.
Those were the “whys” of sacrificing. The “what” of the sacrifice, was usually the life of an animal. But not just any old animal would do. You couldn’t present some sickly goat or lamb that was on its way out anyway. The animal offered to God had to be without blemish.
In other words, you were expected to offer God the best you had.
Animal sacrifice wasn’t unique to Judaism. Many of the religions in the Roman Empire had their own sacrificial systems, as well. So, it should come as no big surprise that Paul would encourage the first Christians to include sacrifices in their worship.
“When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” right?
Except that Paul was not encouraging an attitude of conforming to the religious practices of the day.
Instead, he took the concept of sacrificing the life of another living thing, and transformed it into something else –
“Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.”
When Paul says to present your body, he didn’t mean your physical body – the way you would offer the body of an animal on an altar. The word he uses for body really means “your whole being.”
So, to offer your body as a living sacrifice is an appeal to live in such a way that you dedicate your whole self – your whole life — to God.
One way of sacrifice led to the death of the animal on the altar. The other leads to a new kind of life.
Paul’s view of sacrifice is not about losing one’s life, but about finding it.
It’s about offering our best to God, recognizing God’s claim on our lives and putting God’s will before ours.
It’s a sacrifice because it can mean giving up things or behaviors that get in the way of putting God first.
But ultimately what we receive from God’s grace is greater than anything we have given up.
In fact, God’s grace is what makes the old concept of a blood sacrifice obsolete.
No longer did anyone have to sacrifice an animal to atone for their sin, not now that Jesus had, on the cross, offered himself as the once and for all sacrifice that reconciles us to God.
The making of dying sacrifices to restore a relationship with God that had been broken by sin was replaced with the offering of living sacrifices as a grateful response to the ultimate sacrifice made for us.
We are called to offer ourselves to God as a living sacrifice in thanksgiving for all that God has given us, to recommit our lives to Christ, to honor God with all we have and all we are.
Paul gives us some hints as to what offering ourselves as living sacrifices would look like in practice.
First, he says that it means a life that is oriented towards discerning the will of God.
It means applying ourselves to understanding what God wills for us in any given situation, rather being led solely by our own wants and desires, or being directed by outside influences.
The surest ways to discern God’s will are to always be growing in your familiarity with scripture, which reveals God’s nature; and to be intentional about a life of prayer that deepens your intimacy with God.
Discerning God’s will does not come without sacrificing other priorities in our lives to make space for spiritual practices that open our minds and hearts to God.
The first disciples of Jesus sacrificed a lot to follow him, including their livelihoods, their lifestyles and the futures they had planned for themselves.
They sacrificed the comfort and security of conforming to what was popular instead of standing for what was just.
What they gained was to know him better than others who were not willing to make such sacrifices.
One day, Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”
By people he meant the general public. Those who knew him by word of mouth or from a distance.
The disciples repeated back to him a sampling of what they had heard. Then Jesus asked them, “But who do YOU say that I am?”
Peter, speaking for the whole bunch of them answers, “You are the Messiah. The Son of the Living God.”
Jesus responds to this answer by saying, “Blessed are you. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”
What was so blessed about Peter’s answer is that his understanding of Jesus is not arrived at by conforming to popular opinion about him. It is revealed to them by God.
The Apostle Paul might have called it a “transformation through the renewing of their minds.
Hand in hand with greater discernment of God’s will comes a transformation and renewal of our minds as we become less conformed to the world and more conformed to Christ.
As we gain clarity about God’s will for us, we will gain more certainty about the choices facing us – choices between conforming to the values of the world, which are often diametrically opposed to what God values; or becoming non-conformists by adopting and living according to God’s vision for the world.
Generally, offering ourselves as living sacrifices will mean not thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought to think, but understanding ourselves to be members of a community – the body of Christ – whose function is to live out God’s will and vision, the same way that Jesus did.
We are asked to increase our awareness of the gifts that we have to offer to the building up of the body.
Paul lists some gifts here; prophesying, ministering to the needs of others, teaching, exhorting others, giving generously, leading, and demonstrating compassion.
But there are many other gifts, as well. The point is to see where what we have to offer fits into the needs of the church to fulfill its God-given purpose.
For some of us, this will require a transformation in the direction of greater humility. A transformation from thinking about what I get from church to how I can be of better service to God through the church.
But for others, another transformation of thinking is called for. Some of us place too low of a value on the gifts we have to offer.
Transformation of mind might mean ceasing to deny the importance of one’s gifts and stepping forward in faith to share them.
What some of us need is to be liberated from a conformity to others expectations and opinions about us, that prevent us from acknowledging the value God sees in us and that keeps us from discerning God’s will for us, which is to be a valued part of the body.
Either way, we are called today—and everyday—to offer ourselves to God as a living sacrifice; to recognize God’s claim on our lives, then to joyfully give our best to God for God to use.
And to humbly give our worst to God so God might heal and transform us.
We are called to offer ourselves to God as a living sacrifice to sustain and build up the body of Christ, the community of faith.
As we near the end of Summer, you can sense the organizational life of the church slowly stirring from its hibernation.
Church School, the Confirmation program and committees will all be active again before you know it.
There are many opportunities within the church where people’s spiritual gifts are sorely needed, if this church is to pursue the mission to which God calls us.
Paul began this passage with an appeal to his brothers and sisters in Rome, to offer themselves as living sacrifices.
But his words appeal to you and to me, now, as brothers and sisters in Christ, to do the same.
Offer the best that you have to give to God, in joyous response to what God in Christ sacrificed for you.
Present your bodies – your whole being – as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.
What rendered the sacrifices made on the altar holy and acceptable, was that the animals offered were without any defect or blemish.
But what unites us in the Body of Christ is the good news that we are made holy and acceptable through the grace of God, by the sacrifice that God, in Christ, made for us.
Our part is to live in such a way that that grace shines through us.
To be transformed and renewed in your minds to discover God’s will for you,
and God’s purpose for the gifts that you and you alone have to offer.
Copyright 2017 Raymond Medeiros