BIG IDEA: When we live as part of the Body of Christ, there is no difference between our worship and our service. While our worship may feel deeply personal and meaningful, what I believe the text is suggesting to us this morning is that our service can be equally as life-giving as our worship.
Beloved in Christ, we are here together this morning to worship God, to experience a personal connection to the divine through our songs, our prayers, our giving, our sacred text. To be reminded of who God is and who we are. To hear again the marvelous story of what God has done for us, and to respond to it. And after we finish, those of you who are members here will have the opportunity to affirm my call as your new pastor. This morning it just so happens that the reading provided for us in the lectionary is a powerfully appropriate word about how we how we work together in the church. This morning we will reflect on Romans chapter 12 verses 1 through 8. And next week, Lord willing, we will be together again to reflect on verses 9 through 21, which describes how we live as the church in the world.
Although the opening verses of Romans 12 are well known and we could get a lot from them just as they are, we always understand the Bible better when we hear it in context. So let me quickly remind you of what the author Paul has been up to in the book of Romans chapters 1 through 11. The message of Romans is that the great power of sin and death in the world has been broken once and for all by the self-sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which rescues and restores all human life. ALL ARE SAVED BY GOD’S GRACE. Period. And chapter 12 is the, “Now what?!” What do we do now that we realize we have new options for living? Through faith, we embrace the reality of our already accomplished salvation and are then empowered to live beyond our old fears and divisions.
Here is what Paul says, verse 1: 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.”
That’s New Revised Standard Version. Is anyone using the King James Version this morning? If you are, you will notice that your version ends the verse differently by saying that this business of being a living sacrifice is our “reasonable service” instead of “spiritual worship.”
What? “Spiritual worship” sounds very different than “reasonable service”! I wanted to show you both of those translations because when we view them together we get fuller understanding of what Paul is trying to communicate. His original audience would have gotten this immediately, but since we are separated from that original situation, we need a little reminding. Here’s what’s happening. Under the first covenant, the Jews had a system of worship, that included the sacred act of service of presenting offerings to God, some of which were dead animals. Paul’s writing and also the book of Hebrews asserts that because of Christ’s victory, that system is no longer needed. But that doesn’t mean that we no longer perform any service to God. Here Paul encourages us to do an expansion of the service that was done in the Temple. What kind of service is that? It is spiritually reasonable service, service about which we think deeply, a mixture of rational thought and spiritual impulse. In light of what God has done, our sacred service, our act of worship is to present our very selves as living, loving, vibrant, ongoing sacrifices.
Well, how could we possibly manage that? It sounds hard, especially the sacrifice part. What would empower us to do something so wonderfully audacious?
Verses 1 and 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. 2 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.
We are empowered to offer our bodies as living sacrifices because our minds have been renewed. Romans chapters 6 and 8 explain that this renewal, this fresh change for the better comes about as we are united with Christ, which starts at our baptism. You may believe that something fundamental changes in you at baptism, or you may believe that your ability to see yourself with a new identity encourages you to actually act differently, but either way, your thinking changes in a way that allows you to trade in the tired drudgery of conformity for the refreshing joy of transformation.
What happens when our minds are renewed? Verse 1 through verse 3:
“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. 2 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. 3 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, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”
When our minds are renewed, we are finally able to think clearly about ourselves. One of the greatest temptations of conformity to the world’s systems is to put ourselves above others. Until we accept that we are already perfectly loved by God, we will desperately seek ways to affirm ourselves. One of the most evil and insidious ways of making ourselves feel better is to make other people feel worse, to identify people who we think are less valuable than we are. Setting ourselves above others is one of our original sins, and one of the first things that is addressed by the renewal of our minds.
Notice that the correction to thinking more of ourselves than we should, is NOT thinking less of ourselves than we should. We think of ourselves exactly as we should according to the faith that we have. That “measure of faith” means the kind of faith appropriate to the situation, like the size of horse we each need to ride in order to accomplish the work set before us. Not more faith or less faith, but different kinds of faith for different people because … We have different work to do in different situations!
Here’s the whole passage: Romans 12: 1 through 8. 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. 2 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. 3 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, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
Because of what Christ has done, we have traded in the old practice of sacrifices in favor of serving God through our vibrantly loving and sacrificial lives. New practices in our bodies are fuel by minds that have been renewed through unity with Christ. In our new way of thinking, we realize that comparison with others is meaningless because we all do our God-given work in beautifully unique ways. In our baptism we are not only united with Christ, but also united with one another, becoming together the body of Christ. The reality of this unity is demonstrated not through uniformity, but through a variety of gifts that complement one another.
Let’s take a quick look at those gifts:
First is prophesying. Now, I was raised in the Pentecostal tradition, so this doesn’t freak me out at all, and someday we will unpack it together. This morning, I’ll just say that prophecy is the ability to clarify the Word of God in a particular situation.
The Second gift is ministering. The word for this is “diakonia” which is where we get our term “deacons.” This is straight up service, y’all. Originally it referred to waiting on tables. These are people who do the work, following the plan, seeing what needs to be done and doing it, often without a lot of fanfare.
Third is teaching, usually related to explaining doctrine and how to live it out. As we live together in the Body of Christ, we need people who are trustworthy to provide right instruction for our children for our adults.
Fourth is a word that the NRSV translates as “the exhorter,” which can sound a little scary. This is a very rich word. It’s actually the Greek word used to describe the Holy Spirit. In the gospel of John, Jesus says that when he leaves, he will send a Paraclete (not parakeet). Paraclete literally means, “one called alongside to help.” We are called to partner with the Holy Spirit in comforting, encouraging, and correcting one another when needed, which we can only do when we are close to someone.
Fifth is giving, which we are to do generously. This word for giving implies a total change of ownership, where we no longer expect to control what we have given, in our case because we have selected leaders from among us who we trust will wisely steward our collective resources. And this giving is to be done with liberality, sincerity, purity and graciousness.
Sixth is leading, literally standing before. This is the act of taking the lead, managing, engaging, maintaining and ruling within appropriate bounds. We are called to do this with speedy diligence, not hesitating in the right course.
And the seventh and final gift is “compassioning,” literally doing mercy. As in “blessed are the merciful” in the Beatitudes, and people asking Jesus for healing who cried out, “Son of David, have mercy on us.” This is the kind of mercy God has for us in providing salvation. And we are to do this with cheerfulness, the Greek root is hilarity! When we minister to people in deep pain, we carry the joy of the Lord into their situation.
Now as we close, a few observations about these gifts:
These is not an exhaustive list of gifts, nor is it a cast list for church, with only certain people assigned to each role. Paul is not saying here that only some can lead, and only some can do mercy. This is a list of gifts that we must all do at different times to further our life together, according to the grace given to us in the situation. In the body of Christ, we are all called to minister; we are all called to give; we are all called to encourage. And as you consider calling a new pastor this morning, let me remind you that at the right times we are all called to teach and to lead. We all have gifts that come more naturally, that we have worked to develop, that we can use to serve the body on a regular basis. But we are never to be locked into one certain gift.
Next, in order to exercise our gifts, we must have the right opinion of ourselves. If we are too high-minded and conceited, assuming that we are called to do all the gifts all the time, we may rob other members of the Body of the opportunity to exercise the grace God has given to them. If we think too little of ourselves, we rob the body of receiving a particular gift in the way only we can give it. Thinking of ourselves with sober judgment leads us into rightly using our gifts. Discerning the will of God takes practice, we won’t always get it right. But in the body of Christ, we will always have grace for one another, even when we make mistakes.
Finally, there is no age or ability limit on who can use these gifts. We become part of the body of Christ when we are baptized, and anyone in the body is called to serve. Are you young? You have a certain type of grace to perform a gift that this church needs! We need you! Get on your horse! At the other end, perhaps your horse is now pulling a wagon that has more comfortable seating for you. We are given different grace throughout our lives to exercise different gifts at different times. You are not done ministering; we need you! It may not be the same kind of ministry you did 10 years ago or 30 years ago but we need the gift that you are graced to bring now! Get on your horse (or in your buggy)!
Exercising these complementary gifts is how we do church together. THIS is our act of worship! Living as a sacrifice turns everything we do into sacred service. We realize that doing God’s will leads us into a new kind of worship that expands beyond our traditional religious practices. It includes those certainly, but transcends them by becoming something larger. The reality of Christ alive in us individually is demonstrated by how we live together corporately.