August 27, 2017

On Being a Living Sacrifice

Passage: Exodus 1:8-2:10, Psalm 124, Romans 12:1-8, Matthew 16:13-20
Service Type:

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.

On May 18, 2017 His Excellency the Right Honorable David Johnston, Governor General of Canada spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast in Ottawa. In his remarks he spoke about the faith in Jesus Christ of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth and how her life of faith and service had been an inspiration to him in his work. He directly addressed the importance of the Queen’s public demonstration of trust in faith. Johnston referenced the book published in honor of The Queen’s 90th birthday, entitled The Servant Queen and the King She Serves.

Johnston stated: “In the foreword, The Queen wrote to this little book she referred to a poem quoted by her father George VI in his Christmas broadcast in 1939. Remember the time. Europe again found itself at war. The invasion of Britain was an imminent peril. The King, who had to work to overcome a debilitating stammer, had been thrust onto the Throne only two years earlier, surprised and unprepared after the abdication of Edward VIII.

Here is the poem that he read without a stammer:
“I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year.
Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.
And he replied, 'Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the hand of God.'
That shall be to you better than light, and safer than a known way.”

What is less known—and a less known way—is who gave that poem to King George. It was the future Queen, Princess Elizabeth, his 13-year-old daughter. Typical of Her Majesty’s lifelong tendency to understate and depersonalize, that information is not contained in her foreword. It is only disclosed later in the book by others. The Queen’s faith is robustly rooted and ever-present. In her annual Christmas broadcasts she always refers to Jesus Christ and his teachings.”

As I think about Queen Elizabeth that she is not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ and compare that to the secularization of our Canadian parliament where talk of God is ruled largely out-of-bounds and where faith in a leader is considered a detriment and spoken of as if it ought to disqualify someone from holding public office. I believe we lose much under such secularization.

In the Summer 2017 issue of the journal Comment: Public Theology for the Common Good, editor Dr. James K.A. Smith wrote, “particular, unapologetic religious communities are exactly what we need to sustain a healthy civil society and foster civil public discourse. … there are no “generic” values. Morality is always situated, and virtues are “caught” in specific communities, with specific narratives that fund a specific vision of the good. The envisioned good of diverse, pluralistic, yet civil society that liberal democracies hope for is not a generic vision. It has a particular history—rooted in Christianity—and demands particular virtues. …

So the irony is that what liberal democracy wants—neighbour concern, civility, and tolerance in a pluralistic society—depends on what liberal democracy now seems to want to exclude: … particularistic communities that inculcate Christ-like virtues in citizens. Western liberal democracies have lived off the borrowed capital of the church for centuries. … the vision of a tolerant, civil, pluralistic democracy is itself the outworking of a biblical vision of love of neighbour. [What many others have pointed out is] that increasing inequality, loneliness, and segregation can be correlated with a de facto secularization in North American society.”

1. The Apostle Paul writes to the Christians in Rome in a political climate different than ours yet his vision of how to live as Christians in the world is as relevant now as it was then. “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.”

For many this sounds like an in-house discussion—and in many respects it is. Yet it is profoundly so much more. Paul tells us that our Christian existence unfolds in the world. Christians are committed to the world. We are not to try to live in a little religious ghetto which shuts out the big, bad world. At the same time, the very world which we are to live in and struggle for is a world to which we are not to conform. We are in the world but not of the world.

Recall our Lord’s teaching to his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount. “You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world.” Christ’s people have an important place in our Lord’s agenda for the world—in God’s saving purposes. This salt and light image Jesus uses to speak of our discipleship mirrors what Paul has in mind when he speaks of the believer as a living sacrifice.

The point I make is that living our lives as a living sacrifice to God, being transformed in our thinking by the gospel; this is for the world. Our lives lived unapologetically for Jesus Christ has impact that is profound and deep for the good of society in ways we cannot imagine. This text convinces me that Christians living in this ongoing way of transformation in Jesus Christ engaged in the many endeavours of life that are ours—be they political, educational, medical, financial, not-for-profit—has impact for good in our world. Our learning and being inculcated by the gospel is far more than merely a personal exercise for spiritual development. It is also for the world.

2. At this point in Paul’s Roman letter he turns his attention to take up the subject of how to live as a Christian in the world. 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. Then beginning in chapter twelve he tells his readers how this gospel is to be lived in their day-to-day affairs. It is never enough that the gospel be understood and believed; it must always be lived. In fact, we understand and believe the gospel in order that we might live it. Truth has to be done.

The first thing Paul puts forward in his section on what the Christian is to do is the ground of our doing anything at all. 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 eleven years old that as sinner I merited only condemnation; that the amnesty which God fashioned and pressed upon me I didn’t deserve at all. 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 gratitude will ever be the only worthy motivation of my Christian conduct.

Our awareness of God’s astounding mercy certainly sobers us and frequently silences us; but it never immobilizes us. On the contrary, says the apostle, our awareness of God’s mercy moves us to offer our bodies to God as a living sacrifice.

Our bodies? How do I offer my body to God? Paul means my self: to offer my body is to offer myself. I don’t offer this or that about myself, 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 tomorrow”, I don’t reply, “Sure, I’d love to golf; I’ll bring along my clubs; I’ll bring along my body too.” It would be nonsensical inasmuch as “I” can’t 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.

To present our bodies as living sacrifice means all of me. God is not asking for a religious portion of life in the sense of offering prayers, singing songs, and giving money. God wants all of your life to be an offering to our Lord, a continual offering.” That is the kind of worship that pleases God—your “spiritual worship.”
Some translations of the NT say “reasonable service”, others, “spiritual worship”. The Greek expression means both, and I am sure that Paul had both meanings in mind. It’s reasonable in that my obedient service to God is the only reasonable response to that mercy of his which has saved me. At the same time, my obedient service to God, my aspiration to live the gospel, is the only sign that my worship of God is born of his Spirit. “Reasonable service” and “spiritual worship” mean the same thing.

The Greek word translated here has the sense of both logical and spiritual. God wants us to present all of life back to him in a thoughtful, reasonable, and deeply spiritual way.

3. The Christian is to be in the world but not of the world. “Do not be conformed to this world,” is how the Apostle Paul put it. J.B. Phillips paraphrase captures the idea well when he writes, “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within.”

In relationship to how to be in the world but not of the world the first things the Apostle Paul addresses is the subject of how we are one body in Christ each with gifts for the service of this body of Christ. In talking about life as a Christian in the world Paul presupposes that a new community of moral discernment has come into being in Christ.

I note that Paul begins his assertion regarding church life by saying “not to think of yourself more highly than you ought, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” I wonder why he begins on this point. The church at Rome is not one he has visited—is there some report he has that arrogance is a problem for the Christians in this congregation at Rome? I am more inclined to think that Paul knows human behaviour. We must admit we have this self-serving tendency to believe we belong to the best clubs. Typically we don’t want to say the club we belong to is substandard. We believe our choice to belong was a good choice.

And so we can ascribe similar attitude to belonging to the body of Christ unless we are ever mindful that we have come to faith as an act of God’s mercy. We must be careful not to foster an attitude that we have the best religion or that we are a Christian because we are bright and chose what is best. The truth of the gospel is that none of us were worthy yet God chose to be for us nonetheless. To be sure, Paul also wants us to check our attitude at the door that somehow we have done the church a favour by joining and offering our valuable selves. We all have something to contribute, but that contribution is borne of gratitude for the sake of Christ who gave himself for us.

4. One final point and it is to touch briefly on how being a living sacrifice renders life purposeful. For the believer, your purpose in life is not in doubt. It is to be this living sacrifice for God in all the endeavours of life. What God will weave through such a life for his purposes will utterly amaze us when we finally get to see its consummation. The gospel was for first century Rome and is also for twenty-first century Canada.

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.