Paul says to the church in Rome: “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. 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.” These two sentences are so packed with key words that we can’t possibly take them all in at one go. I’m going to talk about four of them: bodies, living, sacrifice, and transform. We’ll start with “bodies.”
One of the great heresies that the early church battled stated that Jesus Christ wasn’t really human, wasn’t really flesh and blood. He didn’t really suffer and die. He just appeared to be flesh. He just appeared to suffer and die. He was a spirit or a ghost, not a person like you or me. A modern day expression of this heresy might say Jesus was a divine holographic projection.
You can see the problem here. We are an Incarnational people, meaning we believe that God makes God known in all the beauty and particularity of creation. This includes us, in our embodied, fleshy selves. And this especially includes Jesus, who took on the fleshiness and particularity of humanity in order to bring us back into a right relationship with God. The theologian Irenaeus frequently wrote against these heretics. He summed up his arguments with this theological zinger, “Jesus became like us to make us like him.” We aren’t divine holographic projections. We have bodies— hairy, ungainly, perspiring, cellulite-padded, beautiful bodies. And Jesus became one of those bodies to show us how to use them in the love and service of God.
Paul appeals to the Romans and to us to present these bodies to God as a “living sacrifice.” This phrase is, of course, an oxymoron. In the Jewish tradition, in which Paul and the rest the New Testament writers were raised, sacrifice was an indispensable part of the worship of God. And an indispensable part of sacrifice was killing the animal being offered. You couldn’t get at the blood to dash against the altar without the unfortunate byproduct of a dead sheep or goat or bull. The sacrifice (however bloody and gory to modern Western eyes) was one way Israel affirmed and strengthened its relationship with God. Paul grabs onto this effect of sacrifice—this affirmation and strengthening—while dispensing with the business about dead animals. And for good reason. Earlier in his Letter to the Romans, he says: “We have been buried with [Christ] by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (6:4). We have already passed through death, says Paul; therefore, if we are going to be a sacrifice, we must be a living one.
Being a living sacrifice means using those bodies of ours for action. We are built to move and run and hold and high-five and embrace and serve. I love the Olympic games because they showcase some of the amazing things we can do with the bodies God has given us: a smiling wide-eyed teenager flipping and spinning in the air; a sprinter running faster than anyone ever has. Look at Michael Phelps if you need some proof. I mean, really. Of course, we don’t need his 93 abdominal muscles to be a living sacrifice. What we need is a desire to serve. When we present our bodies as a living sacrifice to God we offer back to God all the good gifts God has bestowed upon us. We ask God how we can use these gifts to serve in our community and in the world. We listen for that still, small voice calling us to a ministry, a ministry which matches our deep gladness with the world’s deep hunger.* And then we act, asking God to make our bodies into vessels of God’s light bound for a darkened world.
This darkened world asks us for our conformity to its misplaced values and desolating agendas. But conformity with these values and agendas leads to the deformity of our actions as God’s living sacrifice. Paul says, “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.” We make mistakes. We sin. We put lesser things in God’s place. But Paul knows this doesn’t have to be the whole story: be transformed, he says. Allow change and grow. Remember that we are a living sacrifice, and living things continue to renew, to grow new skin, to flower again next year. Our transformation takes place in the renewing of our minds, in the reorienting of our priorities so they resonate with the will of God. The transformation is possible because we are living. The transformation happens when we realize we are a sacrifice. And the transformation affects the world when we present our bodies to God for action.
Now, that old nagging, itchy feeling crops up. “I’m just one person and this all seems so big—what can I do?” We are all individuals, that’s true—remember the beautiful particularity of the Incarnation—but there is a vast chasm of difference between being an individual and being just one person. None of us is just one person. None of us is alone. C.S. Lewis says, “[Human beings] look separate because you see them walking about separately…If you could see humanity spread out in time, as God sees it, it would not look like a lot of separate things dotted about. It would look like one single growing thing—rather like a very complicated tree. Every individual would appear connected with every other.”**
Notice that throughout this whole sermon, I have quoted Paul saying that we “present our bodies as a living sacrifice,” not living sacrifices. Paul is not botching his grammar here. Paul intentionally says that we are a singular living sacrifice, meaning we present our bodies collectively to God. Paul continues: “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” (12:4-5). In the one body of Christ, our individual identities and personalities and gifts find their most perfect expressions. The living sacrifice happens when we affirm and strengthen our relationship with God by sharing our gifts with one another. When the collective body galvanizes into action to do the work of God in the world, transformation and renewal have already begun.
So, “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” Whether you have 4% body fat or a couple of replacement hips, remember that each of our bodies is built for action, for service, for love. Each of our bodies is designed to fit into the one body of Christ. And this body is alive. This body of Christ knits us together as a living sacrifice, offered up to God to bring transformation to the world.
(Sermon for August 24, 2008 || Proper 16, Year A RCL || Romans 12:1-8 )
* Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking
** C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity