August 21, 2011

A Living Sacrifice

Passage: Romans 12:1-2

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.

Author Paul Beatty wrote: “If all the world’s a stage, I want to operate the trap door”.  A lot of people in the secrecy of their hearts come to this same conclusion.  People start out with lofty ideal—they are going to make the world a better place.  Reality happens to them and they find themselves entertaining the sentiment of Beatty’s pithy saying.  The world would be a better place if certain actors exited via the trap door.

It seems to me that a niggling issue with so much of our human effort to improve our situation is that there is little common agreement on what “better” means?  One of the realities of such lofty ideal in our postmodern era is the abandonment of the idea that capital “T” Truth exists.  What is seen to be better for some is clearly not so for others.

And even if we can get broad agreement on some betterment of the human situation the means for achieving the improved reality is not always an improvement.  Does the end justify the means?  We may find broad agreement that indeed the world would be a better place if we eliminated hunger and starvation.  Many think that the way to achieve this is to reduce the number of people to feed.  Not only do people wish they could operate the trap door they are proposing to do the very thing under the euphemism of population control.

We might even broadly agree the reduction of teen pregnancy to be a societal and personal good.  A 13-year-old in Ontario cannot go on a school field trip without parental permission, or drink alcohol without a parent present.  They aren’t deemed old enough to drive, buy cigarettes, or vote.  But they can get an abortion without patents knowing.  Private abortion clinics in Ontario advertise they will perform abortions for females under 16 without informing parents.  In hospitals parental notification varies according to the individual hospital’s policy.

1.  “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God”, go out there and make the world a better place!  Is that what Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome?  As Paul surveyed the hard realities of the lives of so many in the Roman empire in the light of God’s great love of those very people many would expect Paul to have said just that; that he would issue a call to get out there and work to make things right.

Many Christians today think that the Church’s raison d'etre (reason for being) is to make the world a better place; that we are a collection of people who find common cause around this ideal.  Jesus is my role model, many say, and making the world better is what Jesus’ modeled for us.  In a recent survey undertaken by the United Church’s denominational magazine the Observer it was found that four kinds of believers exist in the United Church.  “Mainliner” was the title given to the largest group (44%).  One of the distinguishing features of the mainliner was their view of Jesus; for them Jesus is first and foremost a role model for living.  By comparison the group identified as “traditionalists” (13%) viewed Jesus first and foremost as saviour.

To be sure Christians are followers of Jesus; to take Jesus as the model for your living is correct.  The thing that niggles at me is this: if we take Jesus as primarily a role model for living (or merely so) the underlying assumption of the human condition is all we need is a better role model; humanity’s lack is adequate and compelling role models.  It is not so much a saviour I need as pattern for what to do.   It appears to imply that I can pattern myself after Jesus once I have understood what he did as he faced life.  I think the shortcoming of this emphasis of role model is the vast underestimation of the corruption of the human heart.

It is instructive that when the Apostle Paul gets to the place in his letter where he turns his attention to the implication of the gospel for how the follower of Jesus should live in the world he says “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God”.  I would agree that to give yourself to God in this way—as a living sacrifice—means better things for life in this world; but such betterment is a result of such a life not the driving force.  The self-forgetful love of God and neighbour is the very essence of what it means to be a living sacrifice.

The posture of taking Jesus as primarily a role model is in its essence too much self-remembering; it is to say to, Jesus watch me follow you. Personal relationship with Jesus is diminished; he becomes objectified as model.  The essence of being a living sacrifice is the self-forgetful posture of nothing in my hand I bring; here I am Lord, I’m yours.

2.  In the New Testament the idea of sacrifice is a positive term; it has the idea of consecration or dedication.  In our era of self-defined victimhood the idea that you are doing a good thing when you make sacrifice is treated with great suspicion.  But in the gospel the idea of being a living sacrifice is a positive idea because it is a correlate of the mercies of God.  Who you sacrifice yourself for makes a huge difference.  Wealth, for example, shows no mercy; you can sacrifice your life for its accumulation and it evaporates in market downturn.

In the earlier chapters of the book Paul has expounded the riches of the gospel: how God makes sinful people right with himself, why all humankind needs to be made right with God, the manner in which the gospel quickens faith in people and binds them to Christ, and so on.  The first chapters are Paul’s discussion of what he summarizes in the phrase “the mercies of God”.

It is these mercies of God that are the ground for Christians presenting themselves a living sacrifice.  What moves the Christian to live like a Christian, to want to live like a Christian? The ground of all that we do is simply God's mercy. Our motivation is gratitude for this mercy. J.B. Phillips, the best paraphraser of the NT, writes, "With your eyes wide open to the mercies of God." Christians are those who have intimate acquaintance with the mercy of God. We know ourselves freed, renewed and invigorated at God's own hand.

I know that I am the beneficiary of God's mercy. I have known since I was a child that as sinner I merited only condemnation; that the amnesty which God fashioned and pressed upon me I didn't deserve at all. (As a child, I would not have articulated it in this fashion, of course, yet I knew) Therefore it had to be rooted in his mercy alone. Mercy is love poured out on those who merit no love at all and never will. That I live at all is a manifestation of God's mercy. That I have been rendered a new creature in Christ Jesus, am sustained in this newness every day by God's Spirit, and am destined for eternal glory; this is an even greater manifestation of mercy. It is this greater mercy which will always be the rock-bottom truth and reality of my life. And ceaseless gratitude will ever be the only worthy motivation of my Christian conduct.

When it comes to this business of how the Christian is to live in the world the posture we take must match reality; reality announced in the gospel.  Are we sinners in need of a saviour or ok people in need of dusting off and being pointed in a better direction?  I have come to know that I cannot trust my own heart to lead me because of its corruption evident in how easily I can rationalize behaviour I know to be out of kilter.  I am ever to present myself to the One who gave his life for me—he will lead me in the way to go.  To offer myself as a living sacrifice is to daily surrender myself to Jesus.

3. The Apostle urged believers “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God”.  I invite you to underline the word “bodies” in the note book for your mind.  Our bodies?  Does it strike you as odd that uses the word body in talking of devotion to God?  How do I offer my body to God? We need to call to mind that Paul speaks from a Hebrew mindset.

Paul means my self: to offer my body is to offer myself. Paul isn’t making a distinction between the inner and outer life; to offer our bodies isn’t a partial offering to God—my body to God but my thoughts remain my own, as though I were trying to get off cheap with God; I offer my self, all of my self. Then why does the apostle say "body"? Because he is a Jew, and the Hebrew mind knows that there is no human self apart from a body. I have no self apart from my body.

If my friend phones me up and asks, "Would you like to play golf this afternoon?", I don't reply, "Sure, I'd love to play golf; I'll bring along my clubs and shoes; I'll bring along my body too." It would be nonsensical inasmuch as "I" can't play golf apart from my body; there isn't even an "I" apart from my body.

Neither can I honour God without my body; neither can I obey God without my body. My personhood, my identity, my innermost "I", while not reducible to my body, is nonetheless inseparable from my body.  This is at the heart of the claim in the Apostles’ Creed that “I believe the resurrection of the body”; in the resurrection Paul tells us we are raised a spiritual body—different in kind from this body but a body all the same.

There was a time when the idea was popularized that your private and personal life was separate from your public and work  life; the private life scandals our public figures are embroiled in has cast doubt on that notion.  According to the scripture the human is an animated body; the inner life is not separable from the outer life; you are you wherever your show up in the flesh.  Have you ever gone to the grocery store having skipped some of the steps in your typical morning grooming procedures hoping that you don’t run into anyone who knows you? Why?  Instinctively you know that while not reducible to your body, you are nonetheless inseparable from your body.  If the unthinkable happens and you meet someone known to you, you don’t say “I borrowed this body from a neighbour”.

Dr. Victor Shepherd maintains that the story in scripture from cover to cover is the story of God’s reaffirmation of his holiness in the wake of our denial of it and the re-establishing of our holiness in the wake of our contradiction of it.  Holy/holiness as a word group in scripture is used 833 times.  In this text in Romans Paul describes the character of presenting our bodies a living sacrifice as to be holy and acceptable to God.

In the history of the church there has been the tendency of some to equate the holiness of life with a denial of the body; an attitude that assumes there is something evil in our bodliness.  Paul says no such thing.  The body is the creation of God pronounced good.  We can honour God with our bodies.

4.  Some object that this idea of being a living sacrifice, living a life of surrender to God, diminishes humanity.  Philosopher Jean Paul Sartre though that this turns the human into some sort of thing to serve God’s selfish end.  This criticism was from a person who could not conceive of God who is completely self-giving; indeed this is the sin in the garden of Eden—God wasn’t to be trusted to be good.

Last month two magazines arrived in my mailbox on the same day.  One was the University of Toronto magazine.  In it was an article about a recent book by U of T philosophy professor Thomas Hurka, The Best Things in Life: A Guide to What Really Matters.  As a preacher whose trade is ultimate matters I was intrigued to know what a current philosopher though really matters.

His book is said to tackle life’s big concerns.  It explores and offers answers to questions such as: How should we live? What brings the most joy?  What makes life “good?”  Hurka reasons that some combination of pleasure, knowledge, achievement, virtue and personal love can be cause for anyone to deem life worthwhile and desirable.  This means to create a good life is open to everyone since there isn’t just one ultimate good but many, including the satisfaction of completing a challenging task and knowing your inner self.  That’s why a “good” life can take a variety of forms.  “There isn’t one life that’s best for everyone,” writes Hurka.

The second magazine was from Tyndale University College and Seminary.  In it was a story about a student named Kesavan Balashingham titled, I Shall Not Die: A Student’s journey from prison to freedom.  Kesavan was born into a Hindu family in Sri Lanka; the family arrived in Canada in 1989 to eventually settle in Toronto.  One of the results of racial violence at Kesavan’s school was the formation of gangs; Kesavan joined in a group of fellow Tamils.  In June of 1999 he had just finished high school and was fast tracking through an IT program.  A fight took place with a rival gang in which one young man lost his life; everything in Kesavan’s life came to a screeching halt—he was arrested and charged.
Kesavan said “I was going a hundred miles an hour and found myself in provincial prison”. ... I was hopeless. I was about to lose my mind thinking about everything that has taken place in one week.  While in prison to distract himself he asked another inmate to find him something to read. “By God’s grace I was handed a Gideon-placed Bible and I opened it and started reading it, not knowing anything about where Jesus was mentioned ...,” says Kesavan.  “The moment I started reading it my emotions started to settle down and something started to happen from within, I couldn’t explain it, couldn’t put my finger on it.  Through a ministry of a local church in that prison he became a Christian

He was sentenced to nine years in prison; one Bible verse stood out to him—Psalm 118:17: “I shall not die but live to declare the words of the Lord.”  Today Kesavan is a Tyndale graduate working for a software company in Markham that serves not-profit organizations. The article concludes with Kesavan’s word: “The past doesn’t have to be a waste no matter how bad it is.  God can use it for our good, for His glory.  That’s where I’m at: As long as I surrender I find God can use my past in small and big ways.”

As I lay those two magazine stories side by side—stories about what matters in life—one makes me yawn the other grips my heart and shouts YES!  So what do you think is real life “some combination of pleasure, knowledge, achievement, virtue and personal love” or is real life surrender to the Saviour?

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.