SCRIPTURE – Romans 12:1-8 – Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.
Stewards of God’s Love
Oct. 6, 2013
Whenever I read this famous passage I automatically think of the Transformers. Most people probably know the Transformers as big-budget action movies with lots of explosions. But when I was growing up, the Transformers were a line of toys and a Saturday morning cartoon about a group of ordinary, every-day objects – a car, a truck, an airplane – that could transform into giant robots. There was even one call REV, which stood for Race Exertion Vehicle, not “Reverend.” Darn! As a kid, the Transformers were mesmerizing. Once you saw one of these metal objects transform into a robot, you’d never look at your can opener the same again.
What Paul is talking about in Romans is not the transforming of objects, but of us: “Do not conform to this world, but be transformed.” It’s a great line made even more powerful when you consider the verses around it. Chapter 12 in Romans marks a major shift in the letter. For the first 11 chapters, Paul has been trying to help the Romans understand his beliefs about Jesus. Paul had never been to the Roman church, but was planning a visit in hopes of making that church his base of operations for taking the gospel to Spain. He needed the Romans to be his sugar daddy, to underwrite this missionary journey, so he wrote this letter to introduce himself and what he believed to the Roman congregation.
Paul also knew the Roman church was struggling with inner turmoil. The church was made up of Jewish Christians and converts from Roman paganism, and the two groups didn’t always play nicely together. So in the course of the letter, Paul tries to show them that everybody needs Jesus – Jew and Gentile – and that ultimately the two groups are playing for the same coach, who bestows upon them equally grace and mercy and abundant love.
After Paul makes this point, he ends chapter 11 with this soaring benediction: “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? Who has ever given to God, that God should repay them? For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.” After which the Romans probably said, “Nice sermon, pastor!” and then organist hit the first few notes of the postlude and the people began gathering their things and talking about where they were going for lunch after church.
But Paul isn’t finished. I was once told by an English teacher that when a sentence contains the word “therefore,” you have to ask what it’s there for. When Paul uses “therefore,” he is indicating that what he’s just said has a bearing on what he’s about to say. Chapter 12 verse 1 says, “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.” In other words, Paul is saying because of that wisdom and knowledge and riches and glory, because of all that God has done for you through Jesus Christ, you have something to do in return – to present yourself as a living sacrifice.
Paul’s use of the concept of sacrifice was not arbitrary. Sacrifices played a huge role in the religion of the Jews and the pagans. For the Jews, the practice was instituted as a way of paying restitution when God’s law had been transgressed. For example, God’s law says not to steal a candy bar or there will be punishment. Then someone steals a candy bar. Rather than face the punishment, which was usually something unpleasant like cutting off your hand or death, a system was instituted that allowed an animal to take the place of the candy-bar-stealer. That animal’s blood would be spilled as a means of substitutionary punishment. The animal’s essence of life – its blood – would be drained as a way of paying the penalty required for breaking the law. The animal gave its life in place of the transgressor.
Then comes Jesus. One of the many ways of understanding the crucifixion of Jesus was that he was the ultimate sacrifice. His blood was spilled once and for all so that no one else – human or animal – would have to face the penalty for breaking the law. The law is fulfilled through him. This way of thinking says we are freed from paying that penalty once and for all through the sacrifice of Christ, and we now live in light of God’s grace, not in God’s wrath. Let me tell you, there were a lot of lambs and doves who applauded this decision.
But that doesn’t let us off the hook, says Paul. We are still beholden to God for the abundance of love and grace and forgiveness God has offered us through Jesus Christ, none of which we deserve. Therefore, Paul says, we still are compelled to offer a sacrifice, to pour out the essence of life for God. But this sacrifice isn’t a physical one; instead, we are to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice. We are to take the essence of our lives and lay it before God as a way of saying, “Here, God. Thank you. This is yours.”
Paul says when we make the intentional effort of presenting ourselves this way, we are participating in an act of worship. That may say strange to us. Isn’t worship what we do on Sunday morning? I mean, there’s worship, and then there’s the rest of life. Paul is saying here that the rest of life is ALSO worship when we engage it as living sacrifices to God. The Message translates the first two verses this way: “So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering.” In other words, the offering plate is passed in front of us every day. Every day. What will we offer to God today?
Paul follows up that directive with an important word of warning: “Don’t be conformed to this world.” I believe he does this because he knows the world will tell us NOT to offer ourselves up as living sacrifices. In fact, the world will tell us just the opposite. The world exhorts us to live for ourselves, not for God. The world tells us we don’t have to sacrifice; we deserve it all! We should have the best cars and the nicest clothes and the biggest houses. The world will tell us faith is a waste of our time and money. The world will try to make us conform to patterns of greed and selfishness and incivility and hostility. A thousand times every day we have to choice whether or not to conform to death-dealing, destructive ways of this world.
Well, that doesn’t sound very enticing. So what’s the other option? “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” I love that Paul specifies the mind here. One of the foundations of our Disciples of Christ denomination is the belief that each person has a brain and is capable of coming to their own conclusions about their faith through study, prayer, and reasoning. In other words, faith is supposed to be something we think about, instead of letting someone else do our thinking for us. “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”
But it doesn’t stop with our thinking. Why are our minds transformed and renewed? To become great thinkers of thoughts? No! We think about our faith so that when we are figuring out how to live it out each day, we do so in ways that are not conformed to this world, but that honor God for the gifts we’ve been given by behaving as good citizens and good servants and good stewards. I read recently that, “Godly knowing leads to Godly living.” To paraphrase Paul, something has to die in order for us to be renewed, and that which needs to die is our way of thinking that conforms to this world. We offer the essence of ourselves to God as an act of worship, and we eschew worldly values by focusing on minds on developing our faith, which then informs how we live.
Unlike the robot transformers of my youth, this transformation doesn’t happen all at once. A more accurate translation of the original Greek phrase is, “Continue to let yourselves be transformed.” This sort of transformation is a process that we must undergo on a regular basis, because some of our worldly ways of thinking won’t go away overnight. Pastor Rick Warren wrote that the problem with a living sacrifice is that it can crawl off the altar, so you have to sacrifice yourself again and again. It’s something we practice every day, over and over again, which eventually will lead us closer and closer to living a life that is good and acceptable and perfect in God’s eyes.
As we do this, Paul says, we will move away from the worldly idea that we are the most important person on earth. That’s not easy, because we are conditioned to believe that message, aren’t we? From an early age, we are subtly inculcated with the belief that we deserve to all the good things in life simply because we are alive, and when that happens, we start to live with an air of entitlement. But that’s exactly what Paul is preaching against here. He says that we aren’t entitled to anything! Everything we have is grace, a gift from God through Jesus Christ. Therefore, we shouldn’t think more highly of ourselves than is appropriate, because when we begin to lift ourselves up, it automatically puts other people down.
Instead, Paul says, we need to recognize that everyone has gifts given to them by the Holy Spirit, and one person’s gift isn’t more important or more special than another person’s gift. But how do we know what our gift is? One way to look at it is that our gift is something God has given us in abundance, something we have so much of that we don’t have any choice but to share it, to sacrifice some of what we have for the sake of others. In a world that tells us to keep all we have so that we don’t lose it, God says to give away what we have in order to be blessed even more.
We’ll talk more about these gifts next week when we look at Paul’s teaching about the church being the body of Christ, but for now, it’s important for us to remember that God gives us gifts for sharing. It’s safe to say that all of us here are blessed in many ways, including in the abundance of resources we have. We may have varying levels of income or savings or possessions, but we are rich. The world tells us that’s great, and we should strive to earn more so we can get more and have more. Paul says not to conform to that way of thinking, but rather to be transformed as we renew our understanding of what we have, who gave it to us, and how we’re called to use it.
As we start our Stewardship Campaign today, I encourage you to start thinking about how God is calling you to use the gifts you have been given. Paul says we are to be transformed, but not for the sake of ourselves. We are transformed in order to be transformers, agents of change in this world who are willing to speak words and model actions of love and grace and welcome in the face of hatred and greed and hostility. Each moment we’re alive we face the choice of conforming or transforming, of worshipping on Sunday or worshipping every day, of giving God what’s left over or giving God the essence of who we are. We have been given such gifts. Will we conform or transform?