Sunday, August 23, 2020

The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity

Here is the transcript of my sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity.

The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Romans 12:1-8

We come this week to chapter 12 and to the final part of St Paul’s letter to the Romans. At this point, many readers of Romans breathe something like a sigh of relief. St Paul switches from careful and detailed argument that requires much concentration to follow to shorter words of encouragement and exhortation that, at first sight at least, seem far easier to understand. We can now put to one side what St Paul has said in the previous chapters and leave it for those who like that sort of thing!

We should, however, not be quite so quick to forget what St Paul has been telling us. St Paul closes what he has to say about the ‘Jewish-Gentile Question’ in chapters 9-11 by focusing on the ‘mercy of God’. He begins chapter 12 by appealing to the Roman believers ‘by the mercies of God’. It is, then, on the basis of the mercy of God that he has being describing in the previous chapters that St Paul now goes on to make his appeal in the final part of the letter.

As we read what St Paul appeals for us to do in these closing chapters, he wants us to remember all that he has told us about what God has done for us. When we hear what it is that St Paul now wants us to do, we won’t ask, ‘Why should I?’ Instead, as we remember the ‘mercies of God’, it will seem the only ‘reasonable’ thing to do. How else can we react except in gratitude and willing obedience?

We are right, however, to notice a change in how St Paul writes in the closing chapters of the letter. Having told us what God has done for us, he is now focusing on what we need to do in response. He wants us to respond to what he has written in a way that affects every aspect of our lives on a daily basis. We will only understand how to do what St Paul asks us to do, if we have understood something of what he has been trying to explain to us so far. As he makes his appeal, one that requires some serious action on our part and potentially great sacrifice, he hopes that we will keep in mind all that he has written and not put it to one side in the way we are tempted to do.

Imagine, for a moment, going to a motoring school to learn how to drive a car. We might get a bit impatient if the instructor begins by spending quite some time explaining to us how a car works. How you need petrol as fuel; how the engine turns the wheels; what the controls are for; how the brakes work; and so on. We, of course, are eager to sit in the driver’s seat and drive the car, but the instructor knows we need some understanding of the car, if we are to learn to drive it properly. It is only when we have some understanding of the car and how it works that it is safe for us to sit in the driving seat and start the engine.

To use a simple example: if we don’t know where the brake pedal is, we are soon going to be in trouble! We may not need to know all the technical ‘ins and outs’ of how a car works, but we do need to know some!

In chapters 1-11, St Paul has been attempting to explain his understanding of how the Gospel works, especially how it works in relation to the Law and God’s people, the Jews. How, as St Paul wrote back in chapter 1:

‘ … it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith …’ (Romans 1:16-17)

Having, then, explained how he understands the Gospel, in the hope that the Romans will feel able to support him in his preaching of it in Spain, St Paul now seeks to explain what effect it should have on us and how we live.

Firstly, St Paul tells us, we are to ‘present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable, which is our spiritual worship’ (Romans 12:1).

The Roman believers, and indeed anyone in the ancient world, would have been familiar with the concept of sacrifice as part of worship. Sacrifices were offered daily in the temple in Jerusalem. In Rome, there were temples everywhere and animal sacrifice was an integral part of Roman worship. Everyone who heard Romans read would have known exactly what was involved in sacrifice. It wasn’t just a metaphor; it was very physical and very real.

St Paul isn’t just using the idea of sacrifice as a metaphor here either. He is saying that instead of offering an animal in worship, believers are to offer themselves. Our body, which we are to present as a ‘living sacrifice’, refers to everything we are. It is the whole of me; everything that makes me who I am in this world. I am to offer myself in worship to God not as an animal that will be killed and burnt on the altar, but as one who will go on living. It is this that is our ‘spiritual worship’.

The worship of the Church, like Jewish and pagan worship, has sacrifice at its heart. At the centre of our worship is the sacrifice of our Lord on the Cross and our response to it by sacrificing ourselves not once, but every moment of every day as we live lives of obedience for him. We find it hard not to think of worship as something that we go to Church to do. Worship, however, is not simply going to Church on Sundays, and singing hymns and saying prayers, although it includes that. It is something St Paul appeals to us to do every moment of every day.

Secondly, though, for us to do this, we are not to be ‘conformed to this age’, we must instead be ‘transformed by the renewing of our minds’.

It is one thing to want to serve God as a ‘living sacrifice’, but every day we are faced with choices, challenges, problems, and difficulties. How are we to know what God wants of us? If we are to worship God in everything we do, and if everything we do is to be an act of worship, we need to discover what God’s will for us is and what God finds ‘good, pleasing, and perfect’. It is only if our minds are renewed that we will, as St Paul puts it, be able to ‘discern what is the will of God’. Unless our minds are renewed, we haven’t a chance of knowing what God wants.

We need now to remember what St Paul told us in Romans chapter 1. St Paul, in explaining why the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the ‘ungodliness and unrighteousness’ of human beings, explains that humans have made a conscious decision to reject God. God’s ‘power and nature’ are to be clearly seen in the things that he has made, but although we were created to know God, we have rejected him and abandoned his worship. Society’s’ rejection of God and religion is often portrayed as a sign of our ‘coming of age’ as a race. It is seen as humans leaving behind the superstition and primitive thinking of the past as our knowledge and understanding of the universe increases. It is nothing of the sort. St Paul wrote in chapter 1:

‘ … for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.’ (Romans 1:21-23)

We have, St Paul tells us, become ‘futile in our thinking’; lacking all sense, our minds are ‘darkened’; and although we claim to be wise, we are instead ‘fools’. This hasn’t changed in the so-called scientific age in which we live. We still worship, but rather than worshipping the one, true God who created us, we worship other gods of our own creating. We will always worship something. The need to worship something outside ourselves is intrinsic and essential to who we are as humans. It is only as our minds are renewed that we are able see clearly to worship properly again.

We love to think we are free-thinkers, free, that is, to think however we wish and to explore whatever ideas we find attractive. We condemn any who try to control our thoughts, and we resist any attempt to tell us what we should think. We are outraged when we hear of governments that go in for brainwashing and other forms of mind control. George Orwell’s dystopian vision of the future, ‘1984’, that has ‘Big Brother’ watching us and controlling us, is our ultimate nightmare. Little do we realize that it is a nightmare we have been living for most of our history. It is one that began a long time ago.

‘Claiming to be wise we became fools’: from the moment we are born we are being conformed to this world and taught how the world around us wants us to think. A world, that, as St Paul has described in the opening chapters, is in rebellion against God and which is under the power and control of sin. [It’s worth noting, as an aside, that it is even more serious than that, but St Paul chooses not to go into that in this letter. He will save that discussion for another time. (See Ephesians 6:10-19)]

As we grow up in this world, and as we are educated, we don’t just learn various subjects at school: how to read and do sums, for example; we learn how to think and what to think. We learn not just how to see and understand the world around us, but to see and understand in the way the world wants us to see and understand. Our minds, from even before we are born, are conditioned to think in a way that conforms to the worldview of the age in which we live.

Living the sort of life that God wants us to live isn’t simply about keeping a list of rules such as those that often appear in the self-help books and on websites, it is about a lifestyle that comes from a Spirit-based worldview. St Paul told us all about this in Romans chapter 8. He writes there:

‘For the mindset of the flesh is death, but the mindset of the Spirit is life and peace, because the mindset of the flesh is enmity toward God …’ (Romans 8:5-7)

St Paul tells us in our passage this week that if we are not to be conformed to this world, we must be transformed in the way he has previously described. Our minds and the way we think need renewing if we are to live lives that are ‘holy and acceptable to God’. Only in this way will we be able to stop doing what the world around us wants us to do and start doing what God wants us to do.

St Paul will go on to talk about how, in the Church and in other believers, God has given us a support group to help us. But before he gets on to that, there is something else very important that he wants to tell us. It often gets passed over all too quickly when this passage is read. St Paul writes:

‘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 judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.’ (Romans 12:3)

We have seen how our minds have become corrupted, and how we are not free any longer to think for ourselves but are constantly being conformed to the world around us, a world controlled by sin. This all began when we thought too highly of ourselves. When, as St Paul puts it, we claimed to be wise.

To avoid worshipping the one true God, we wanted instead to choose our own gods. In the past, as St Paul describes, these have been in the image of other human beings or even of animals. The Roman believers would have known only too well what St Paul was talking about. Many of them had worshipped such images before becoming believers. Many, now that they had become believers, would go to their death for refusing to worship them and, not least, for refusing to worship the Emperor of Rome itself.

We think that today we have escaped all this. After all, we no longer build temples to gods and goddesses; we don’t sacrifice animals in worship of divine beings, whatever form they take. We are so wise. We consider ourselves the wisest generation that has ever lived, and yet we are the biggest fools. We don’t worship the image of other humans and animals; we worship ourselves instead.

Thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought to think is now our religion. The tragedy is that this religion of Self has infected the Church. Instead of us offering ourselves as living sacrifices to God and serving him, we think he should serve us. We should be free to change the image of him that he has revealed to us in Christ to make it instead the way we think it should look. And so, Christ has become exactly the sort of teacher we want him to be: a sort of life coach who is always there for us, always forgives and understand us, always tells us how wonderful we are, and who makes very few demands of us.

It doesn’t matter how much we may have to change the Church’s traditional teaching and understanding of God; it is all about us now. We have created an image of the god we want, and we worship its creator. The Church is so conformed to the world, it is hard to tell them apart. Their ideas, concerns, and priorities are much the same. It goes without saying that the Church is there ‘for the city’; there is little difference between them.

In the Old Testament, when the Israelites settled in the Promised Land, they frequently embraced the worship of the gods of the nations around them, mixing the worship of baal with the worship of the one true God. God sent the prophets to warn them, but they refused to listen to his word through them. As a result, the people of Israel suffered destruction and exile. God doesn’t do threesomes. This mixing of the worship of one religion with another is known as syncretism. Again, the Roman believers would have known all about syncretism. The gods of the Greek Pantheon had been merged with the Roman gods. Participation in mystery religions took place alongside the Imperial cult and the worship of the Emperor. Households and cities all had their own gods. And they all lived happily together. The Church, however, was, as one scholar has put it, the ‘destroyer of the gods’. The Church, at the beginning, took seriously what our Lord said when he answered the question about which is the greatest commandment: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is the only Lord’.

But here’s the thing: Christianity has itself now become heavily syncretistic. The religion of Self is now all pervasive in churches and as long as we get the honour due to us, we don’t much mind what else happens. So, if clergy want to invite members of other religions to join in our services that’s alright. As long as everyone knows that it’s all about what we want and makes us happy, and that we and our concerns are at the centre of what takes place, then all are invited to join in, whoever they may be and whatever they may believe!

The Gospel that is the ‘power of God to salvation’, which St Paul has been explaining and which now he asks the Roman believers to offer themselves in sacrifice to, is, however, one which puts us in our place. Not a place where we do not matter - why would God send Christ to die for us if we do not matter? - but one where God matters more, and where God, and not us, is at the centre.

In the Gospels, there is the famous story of when Jesus casts demons out of a man from the country of the Gerasenes. His name is ‘Legion’ because of the number of demons that possess him. After Jesus has freed him from his possession, we read that when people come to see the man who had been possessed, he is sitting ‘clothed and in his ‘right-mind’ (Mark 5:15). The Greek word here for ‘right-mind’ is the same word that St Paul uses when he writes that we should think about ourselves with a ‘sober judgement’ (Romans 12:3). It would be better translated that we should think of ourselves in a ‘right-minded way’.

It is only when our minds are renewed by Christ that we can be freed from conformity to this world and transformed to our right-mind, able to see ourselves in a right-minded way as we are clothed with Christ.

Thirdly, it is clear, then, that what St Paul is asking in these verses is no easy thing. Not only is the sacrifice we are being called to make itself demanding, the resistance to it, both from the world and from within ourselves, is also great. St Paul, in encouraging us not to think too highly of ourselves, also encourages us to see realistically what we can offer to help others in their worship of God. What we have to offer comes not from within ourselves, but from the ‘measure of faith’ (Romans 12:3) we have been given in Christ.

We are to offer this ‘measure of faith’ to those in the body of Christ as a way of building each other up and helping each other as together we present our bodies as a ‘living sacrifice’. St Paul gives a list of examples of how we may do this. It is not meant to be an exhaustive list of all the ways we can serve God, but one that illustrates some of the possibilities.

What matters is not the particular gift we have been given, but that we use it for the benefit of the body of Christ. ‘We are one body in Christ and individually members one of another,’ writes St Paul. What St Paul is wanting the Roman believers to realize is that membership of the Church is not an optional extra: we are joined to one another whether we like it or not. We don’t choose to opt-in or opt-out of the Church; our membership is a fact by virtue of our faith in Christ.

Just as in the human body different parts have different functions so too in the body of Christ. Now the human body can function without quite a lot of it. From arms and legs to lungs and kidneys, there is much we can do without. We are, however, at our healthiest and best when all the parts work together in the way that they were intended. So too in the Church!

Presenting ourselves as a living sacrifice and refusing to be conformed to this world is not easy. If we are to resist all the many pressures to conform that we come under, we need each other, and we need each other to do their part. Sadly, there are far too many inactive members in the Church. St Paul challenges us not to be one of them. Whatever the ability we have been given by God to do, we are to do it. It is worth mentioning that, although St Paul doesn’t say it here, sometimes what may seem like the least spectacular gift can often make a big difference.

Not only are we not to be conformed to this world, we should remember that our ‘citizenship is in heaven’ (Philippians 3:20); we do not belong here. This is what our Lord was so anxious to tell his disciples on the night before his crucifixion. Our Lord, however, told his disciples then that he would not leave them ‘comfortless’ (John 14:18), and St Paul too has reminded us in chapter 8 of Romans that God has given us the Holy Spirit to help us in our weakness (Romans 8:26). He has also given us each other. The Church is to be an alternative society with an alternative lifestyle. We are different, and we should live like it.

Next week, we will see how St Paul gives examples of what this alternative lifestyle should look like. For this week, the challenge is for us to give our lives in worship to the One who gave his life for us and of whose body we are now a part.


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