Living Worship and Sharing Gifts: Sermon for August 23, 2020 Based on Rom 12. 1-8 (NIV)
I opted to speak to you today on the scripture from Romans, and if you printed the copy of the scripture I included with the bulletin, you may want to look at it as we go along. Paul, back in the days when he was still known as Saul, was a Pharisee. So, well educated, and trained to speak to and write about Hebrew scriptures and the Mosaic law. He wrote his letters in Greek, the working language of the peoples of the Roman empire of his time, and in a particular rhetorical style, as was the tradition in those days. When translated to English, Paul’s letters can be challenging to understand. So, today we heard the New International Version, which is different than what we would normally hear read in church, one that is somewhat easier reading. I also thought I would present this as a wee bible study, to give you a taste of what a bible study can be like.
First, to set the context. After his conversion to Christianity when our Lord gave him the name Paul to mark this remarkable event, and sometime during his travels as a preacher for Christ across the Middle East, Paul came to believe that his true calling was to preach to the Gentiles, the non-Jewish people. He couldn’t get to all the churches as often as he wished in person. His letters are responses to concerns brought to him either in person or by letter from other Christian leaders who were either establishing or managing new communities of Christian believers. Some of the letters in our New Testament that are said to be written by Paul are not his work, but actually written in his name by others as an homage to him, not uncommon in those times. However, Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is well acknowledged by biblical scholars as his, and “Romans is commonly regarded as Paul’s supreme work, the consummate expression of his mature theology.”1 Written in the mid-50’s CE, it is one of his final letters; it is the longest of his letters and is “highly-esteemed”2. Paul wrote this letter from Corinth3 “…in part as an attempt to unify the Roman Church”4.
Our scripture passage for today begins with ‘therefore I urge you, brothers and sisters’ clearly indicating that there is an argument or teaching that preceded what we heard read today, that Paul really wanted them to pay attention to. So, important that we at least have a brief look at what he is referring to. To very lightly touch on that, Paul uses a metaphor of a tree to tell the Gentiles that because of their belief in Christ, they have in effect been grafted into the tree of the Hebrews, the Jewish people, God’s chosen people; they are now new branch of the family tree, as it were. And as such, they too receive the same strength and nourishment from the roots of the tree as all the other branches—the other branches being the Jewish tribes and God of course being the root of the tree. However, he warns them not to feel superior to the ‘other branches’, as their branch can break off the tree as quickly as any other, should their faith fail, and unbelief overtake them. But he reminds them also to remember, God’s mercy is with them too.
So, let’s continue with verse one: ‘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.’ (Rom 12.1)
Paul is instructing them on what this new life of faith will be like in everyday practice. And it begins with worship, true and proper worship, which means offering yourself to God. Paul uses the words ‘living sacrifice’. We have to remember the context of a sacrifice as part of worship in biblical days. It was common practice in many religious contexts for animals to be given as sacrifice, and they were, of course, killed as part of the worship ceremony. Instead, Paul says, proper worship to the Almighty God, the father of our Lord Jesus Christ means giving of yourself, you, a living person, dedicating yourself, your life to God. This is what is truly pleasing to God, this is what worshiping really is—not butchered animals. This is different than what non-believers, non Christians do, because he writes: ‘2 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.’(Rom 12:2) “The idea in verses 1-2 is that one’s whole life – body and mind—becomes an expression of devotion to God.” 5 This “is a call for a new way of thinking”6—considering what God’s will for you is, and living your life according to that will. Don’t conform, but be transformed. “Paul indicates that this may mean we need actually to do things that will put us outside the norms of behaviour for our society, wrapping our minds around what we do day to day in our lives that expresses God’s will.”7 The ways Christians live and non-Christians live is different. We are guided not by just our whims and desires, and what the culture of the day tells us is right, no, we live by the teachings of Jesus. And Jesus’ teachings are very often against what society and our culture tells us is the way to live. And if we give that just a wee bit of thought, we know that’s true! Jesus teaches, among other things, to first love God with all your heart, not to accumulate treasures on earth, but to share what we have with those in need and to put others before self. And we know those principles are counter cultural!
So how do we know what God’s will for us is? I’m currently reading a book entitled “How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going” by Susan Beaumont. The title jumped out at me as I was perusing the books in a lovely little Christian bookstore I found in Mitchell when I was on vacation. If there was ever a time when we don’t know where we’re going, this time of Covid 19 was it, I thought! In a time when the path isn’t clear, when old ways aren’t working anymore and new ways are needed, we need to discern the way forward. Now, discerning God’s will is different from figuring out what makes the most sense, weighing the pros and cons and making “a good choice using sound judgment.”8 Beaumont writes that discerning God’s will is “an ever-increasing capacity to ‘see’ the work of God in the midst of the human situation, so that we can align ourselves with whatever God is doing. (It’s) … a quality of attentiveness to God that, over time, develops our sense of God’s heart and purpose in the moment.”9 To discern means being attentive, being mindful of God’s movement in your life, and to actively spend time with God asking and then listening! This is what Paul is referring to in verse two when he says being transformed by the renewing of your mind. And it isn’t a static thing, do it once and you’re good to go. Paul calls it a ‘test’, which means it’s ongoing, because we don’t always get it right the first time and of course, nothing in life is static, life situations are constantly in flux.
Verse 3: “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.” Paul again provides a warning, in case we start thinking that our way of living makes us better than others. I think if Paul was writing this today he might say: Be careful not to get to full of yourselves! One commentator I read notes the best translation of: ‘think of yourself with sober judgement’, is “‘being modest’ and so avoiding egotism.”10 And each of can measure ourselves in this way by the faith God has given us. In other words: be honest in your judgement of yourself, in faithful consideration, recognizing that all of us have differing levels of faith and gifts.
In verses 4 through 7 many will recognize Paul’s ‘we are one body with many members’ metaphor. The Christian community is like a body. And as our bodies are made of many different parts (or members to use Paul’s term) arms, legs, fingers, head etc, each member of the body has a function, and they are all different, yet all are necessary and when each does what it’s designed to do, the body functions at its optimal level. “(T)his is a reminder of our common need for one another—and of the way in which our gifts are to be used, not for our own glory but for the health of the community.”
As we go forward through these unusual times, a time where we’re not really sure just where it will lead, Paul’s letter to the Romans makes sense for us today. Each one of us needs to discern God’s will, what is God calling you to as a member of the body of Christ in your community? Take some time; spend some time trying to earnestly discern this! Each of you is a valued and necessary member of your church, each of you with gifts that will benefit the whole church. “7 If your gift is serving others, serve them well. If you are a teacher, teach well. 8 If your gift is to encourage others, be encouraging. If it is giving, give generously. If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously. And if you have a gift for showing kindness to others, do it gladly.” (Rom 12: 7-8) These are just some of the gifts of the Spirit. In his letters to the Ephesians and Corinthians Paul speaks of other gifts as well. There are many gifts of the Spirit, and each of us has at least one! And together we are strengthened and nourished by the gifts God has given each one of us to give to our Church and community. That is how we become the body of Christ, together!
The rest of chapter 12 is like a primer for ‘Christian love in action’ and worth the read. So as we’ve delved into these few verses from Paul, I hope it may have whetted your appetite to pick up your bible and read some more—or maybe to consider joining in a bible study. Do find a translation of the bible that you find easy to read, maybe even one with some study notes in it. Paul’s churches faced some serious struggles and challenges, and that hasn’t changed over the millennia! As the summer winds down, we are looking to finding ways to come together again, for ways to live out our Christian beliefs, to deepen and explore our faith while living safely through the challenges of these days. Paul’s letters still provide relevance for our time.
Rev. JoAnn Todd, Rector
The Regional Ministry of Hope
1 The Oxford Bible Commentary. (New York: Oxford University Press: 2017) John Barong and John Muddiman eds., 1083
3 Ibid p. 1104
4 Ibid p. 1085
5 Ibid, p. 377
6 Christopher Hutson in ‘Exegetical Perspective for Romans 12. 1-8’ in Feasting on the Word, Year A Vol 3 eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press 2011) 375
7 Rochelle A. Stackhouse in ‘Pastoral Perspective for Romans 12. 1-8’ in Feasting on the Word, Year A Vol 3 eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press 2011) 376
8 Susan Beaumont, How To Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going (London: Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group Inc, 2019), 68
9 Ruth Haley Barton in Beaumont’s How To Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going, 68
10 Hutson, Exegetical Commentary p. 377