Offering Ourselves to God
A Sermon by Eleanor Childs, Lay Reader,
10 January 2016 Evensong
What a wonderful NT passage we have for the New Year! It contains the only New Year Resolution Christians ever need to make. In case the reading just washed over you – as can happen! – I’m going to read it or rather the first 2 verses of it again but in another translation:
‘Brothers and sisters, I call upon you, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies to Him, a living, consecrated sacrifice, well-pleasing to God – for that is the only kind of worship which is truly spiritual. And do not shape your lives to meet the fleeting fashions of this world; but be transformed from it, by the renewal of your mind, until the very essence of your being is altered, so that, in your own life, you may prove that the will of God is good and well-pleasing and perfect.’
‘Present your bodies’ – what exactly does that mean? Well, we are embodied people. It is through our bodies that we relate to others and the world. Without our bodies we cannot hear, see, speak, move or act. So to offer our bodies is to offer everything we are, all that we think or feel or do. Paul is saying here ‘Take your body; take all the jobs and roles you have in life, take the ordinary activities and work you do each day in home or school or workplace, and offer all that as an act of worship to God.’ True worship, says Paul, spiritual worship, is the offering of one’s body, and all that one does every day with it, to God.
A famous commentator says of this passage, ‘Real worship is not the offering of elaborate prayers to God; it is not the offering to God of a liturgy, however noble, and a ritual, however magnificent. Real worship is the offering of everyday life to God. Real worship is not something which is transacted in a church; real worship is something which sees the whole world as the temple of the living God, and every common deed an act of worship.’ Often Christians sell God short and think regular church attendance and the occasional prayer constitutes worship, but Paul scuppers this idea
This offering of ourselves, of our whole life is called a sacrifice because it costs a lot. Paul is writing from the background of the Jewish sacrificial system. Nearly all ancient religions related to their gods through sacrifice. It’s a basic human instinct to relate to higher powers through respect and a desire to please, or through fear. Judaism was distinctive in that God was the initiator of the relationship and God specified what the sacrifices would be. God revealed himself to Abraham and his descendants and to Moses and he delivered their race from slavery and bound himself to them in a covenant. Their response was worship and obedience. But not any old how or however they chose. God indicated the appropriate sacrifices. There was to be no child sacrifice or human victims as in other religions, no orgies as in other religions. No, their God was holy and life-giving, not destructive or irascible. The sacrifice indicated both their gratitude and his worth. Their most precious possession was their animals and they were to offer the best of them. To offer a sick or lame animal would be an insult to God. Eventually God himself offered the ultimate sacrifice – his only son – to deliver humanity from its bondage to sin and self. That is why Jesus came, in human form, in full agreement with his father’s plan for the salvation of the human race.
The whole Jewish sacrificial system was rendered obsolete by Jesus’ one final, perfect and priceless sacrifice. Sacrificing animals to be killed was no longer the way to worship of God. From this time forward living the whole of our lives to the glory of God is true worship.
The word ‘sacrifice’ is a difficult one for us, often with negative vibes, but what it actually means is total dedication to someone or something and this is costly. It lets nothing stand in its way or distract it. It’s intrinsic to life. We give up a lesser good to gain what we consider a greater good. We frequently see people – people who have given their all to their career, to making money, to their family, to the pursuit of power or fame, or to a good cause. We particularly admire people who sacrifice their own comfort and prosperity for the good of others. They usually don’t think of it in terms of sacrifice, because their desire for and the vision they have of what is good is so strong. That’s why Paul’s first words are ‘I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices.’ Our desire to live to the glory of God is a response to his mercy which Paul has been talking about in the 11 chapters preceding this one. He has spoken of God’s ‘kindness’, ‘love’, ‘patience’ and ‘grace’. In response to this vision of his goodness and generosity we offer our whole lives.
But how on earth do we do it? How do we present our bodies as a living sacrifice? Fortunately Paul explains how. There’s both a negative and a positive instruction: ‘Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world.‘ That’s the negative one. And ‘Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.’ They’re actually 2 sides of the same coin.
What’s the pattern of this world to which we are not to conform? I’d say they are firstly consumerism which fosters greed and envy and dissatisfaction. And secondly, individualism which feeds our self-centredness. We’re the me generation whose watchwords or slogans are ‘what’s right for me.’ ‘Because you’re worth it.’ Go on, spoil yourself.’ We’re the selfie generation. ‘What I want’ is the criterion that shapes all my choices and activities. There are many different patterns in the world, I’ve just identified a couple of the most obvious. We are continuously drip-fed these values through our media so that we hardly notice them. Our internet-connected world via our phones and tablets means we have constant exposure to the world’s values, as never before. If we are spending several hours each night watching TV our minds are being shaped by the world’s values. And we will follow the world’s pattern if not consciously then unconsciously because we have absorbed it into our minds and hearts.
That’s why we need to heed Paul’s instruction to ‘be transformed by the renewing of your mind.’ If we are to resist the world’s patterns we need to have other patterns in place, for as they say, nature abhors a vacuum. If we are going to have any chance of resisting the world’s patterns and values, we need to steep our minds in Scripture, to pray, to meet with other Christians and open ourselves to the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, so that He can bring forth fruit in our lives. Galatians 5 tells us what the fruit of the Spirit is – ‘love, joy, peace patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.’
The outcome of letting God renew our minds is, Paul says, discernment, and enjoyment of God’s will. v.2 ‘Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will‘. Christianity has sometimes been so distorted by its enemies, and even by some of its own members through misunderstanding, that people think that God’s will is to be a killjoy and prohibit all pleasure and fun and make life boring, but it’s exactly the opposite. The more we dedicate our minds and bodies to him, the more we experience love, joy and peace. Which are in pretty short supply in the world’s patterns.
If you think all this is a rather tall order, Paul has further words of encouragement for us. We are not called to be lone rangers, we are in this together. v.4 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 who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.’ This is a metaphor used regularly in Scripture. We are meant to be as intimately related as parts of the body. If we have a sore toe, the rest of our body knows about it. If our diet is bad, it affects the whole of our body. This intimacy may sound a bit scary to some people, but is it as scary as loneliness and isolation? Paul goes on to talk about the gifts God has given each member of the body. They are all given to build each other up so that together we may serve and glorify Christ. If we’re not functioning properly and using our gifts, the body of Christ is that much weaker.
In our world we talk wistfully about the loss of community, and it’s a fact of much modern life in the world, despite all our mobile phones and Facebook which give the illusion of community. But it should be a reality for Christians who are called to be the body of Christ and live in love and mutual support. Our total dedication of our bodies and minds to God is a very small price to pay to reap peace, joy and community.