“I appeal to you, brothers and sisters… to present your bodies as a living sacrifice”. Romans 12:1
Last week we heard that crucial part of the good news that the world, and even many in the church, get backwards: we don’t come to church because we’re good people who have our lives together. No, the good news – as surprising as it sounds – is that none of us are good enough to claim any right to stand in God’s holy house; the good news is that, though we can never do anything or be good enough to deserve it, God gives us his mercy, that little spark of holiness that begins the life-long process of transforming us from the inside out. Or, to put it another way, none of us deserve to even gather up the crumbs under the Lord’s table like the dogs in their masters’ house; yet, not because of what we’ve done, but because of his great mercy, he clothes us, cleans us up, and invites us to join him at the table as his guests.
This week, we’re presented with another of the great truths of the good news that, all-too-often, has been understood backwards: Romans chapter 12, verses 1-2, “I appeal to you, 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. 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.”
Sacrifice? No thank you.
There’s no doubt about it, the call on our lives is a call to sacrifice, a call to take up our cross and follow Christ. But what exactly does that mean? What should that look like?
Right off the bat, any call to sacrifice is a call away from the instincts we’ve picked up from a fallen world built around self-preservation and pride, built around making a name for ourselves and earning the respect, or admiration, or perhaps if we’re honest, earning the envy of those around us.
Certainly, “sacrifice” just sounds not just pointless, but downright pitiful to those who have built their lives on trying to get ahead, on trying to make themselves good enough one way or another.
And yes, as we confess our failings and start fresh each day aiming at the target that is the example of Jesus, there are real sacrifices to be made: as we take that leap and finally trust the God who says “I want you to trust me, not your bank account, so give up 10% of what comes in”, there are things to be given up while we learn the freedom that comes with no longer being focused on the dollar; when we take that leap and finally trust the God who says “I made you in my image so that you can have good judgment and make a difference, so take back the control you’ve given to a bottle, or your cigarettes, or the pointless scrolling on your phone, or whatever you’ve used to distract you from what needs to be done”, there’s real sacrifice, and often real pain, that comes with making those changes; when we finally listen to the God who says “vengeance is mine, I will repay”, and “only I know a person’s heart, so turn the other cheek and trust in me”, when we finally lay down the anger and bitterness and revenge and pride that makes so much of the world go around, it’s there we find some of the biggest sacrifices, as we put out those silent fires that have burned within us and learn instead to find peace within. Yes, those are real sacrifices – and, guaranteed, as we crucify those unhealthy ways of life, those false religions, those false gods, there’s real work and even real pain as we learn to live in the imitation of Christ, as that heart of stone slowly warms to a heart of flesh, and we are transformed by the renewing of our minds.
But here’s where the world gets it wrong.
The sacrifices of God give life, rather than take it away.
The world hears “sacrifice” and thinks “that’ll cost you”.
The world hears “sacrifice” and thinks that you give something up only to end up poorer and more pitiful than you were before.
The world hears “blessed are the poor, blessed are the humble and meek” and instantly twists it to imagine that God desires us to be helpless, mindless sheep, weak and easily taken advantage of. Someone told me as much, just a month ago, when we were chatting about why he quit coming to church years ago – he thinks church should help you think positively and feel good about all that you’ve accomplished, he wants a church that tells you to stand tall and be proud of what you’ve done, but all the talk of humility, of being a follower rather than a leader, is like letting the world pass you by, and “that just won’t get you anywhere”, he said.
A living sacrifice?
The world has heard bits and pieces of the Lord’s call to sacrifice, but the twisted message they’ve heard is hardly one worth getting up and getting dressed on Sunday morning to hear.
And, sadder still, too many congregations for too many years have only reinforced that twisted message, as churches everywhere allowed ourselves to ‘put on our Sunday best’, to pretend that we’ve got it all together, as too many congregations gathered only to focus inward, while the world outside saw a locked building whose doors are rarely open, and whose members are neither equipped to reach out as the hands of the body of Christ, nor prepared to speak up as the voice of that body in the world.
The appeal to you, my brothers and sisters, by the mercy of God, is to present your selves, your souls, and bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.
A living sacrifice… and that makes all the difference.
The world has more than its fair share of sacrificial lambs. The prideful ways of the world know all about sacrificing people to get ahead. In every age, countries send their young to the slaughter for a few kilometers of land, or to defend their honour. Our own pension funds sacrifice local jobs and entire communities to get ahead by moving work overseas. Sadly and inescapably, actual human lives, sons and daughters, in Bangladesh and Pakistan have been sacrificed for the clothes on our backs, while at home, lives are sacrificed every day as drugs, human trafficking, and violence are allowed to run free on the back streets of our cities.
The world thinks it knows all about sacrifice – and, every time, people end up dead.
Death’s battle is lost.
But here’s where the world gets it wrong: yes, the life of following Jesus begins with surrendering our attempts at pride, with dying to self.
But God’s will isn’t to take our sacrifice, say “thank you very much”, and then let us lay there. That couldn’t be more wrong. We’re called not to be a sacrificial lamb – the price of death has been paid, once and for all, on the cross; no, we’re to be living sacrifices… and that makes all the difference.
Yes, we’re called to give up the lives we thought we had, to work through the pain in removing whatever it was that was driving us: trust in money, trust in our strength, slavery to work or something to take the pain away, or a life fueled by anger or bitterness or self-pity. But as that life dies away, as that sacrifice is made, we find ourselves made more alive than we ever were before. And it just gets better. We’re not called to make a change and stay put – to sing “I have decided to follow Jesus” one day and be done with it. No, unlike the ways of this world, we’re called to be daily renewed, daily transformed as our minds learn what it means not to be run by the ways of the world, but to be conformed to the will of God, to see things as God sees them, and to learn our place in the universal Church, the Body of Christ sent with a job to do in the world.
God takes our sacrifice, mercifully carries us through the pain as we die to our old ways of life, and infuses us with life like we’ve never had it before. And that life isn’t just for our own benefit, as though God wanted to put his saints on display. No, we’re given a life full of purpose. We, the Church, are built up so that the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.
And that, my friends, is all about reaching out, going outside our walls.
It’s funny how that verse has so often been preached and read backwards. I’ve known entire congregations who live on the defensive. It’s as though Jesus said, I’ll build my church, and I expect it to stand here, with the powers of darkness knocking on the door trying to knock it down.
It’s the other way around: the church, the body of Christ, is on the offensive; it’s the powers of death that are scrambling in defense. After all – have you ever known a gate to be attacking someone? No, it’s darkness, death, and the grave that have locked their gate, defending their would-be kingdom in a losing battle. And those gates of Hades, the gates of death and the grave will not prevail against us, the Church, when we come knocking: indeed, that’s the whole message of Easter – death closed it’s awful jaws on the body of Christ, but Christ broke free, he loosed the chains, he released those imprisoned inside, and he trampled down death by death itself – and now he wants to accept our sacrifices, not just to die to the ways of the world, but to share in that risen life, and not just for ourselves, but that we can join him, that we can be his hands and feet and voice, not to sit safely inside a fortress, but to go out and knock on the gates of death, to release the prisoners and captives, as the powers of this world, and even death itself, trembles when it sees us coming in the Name of the one true God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
That’s the living sacrifice you are called to share.
Yes, make those hard decisions to turn around. Yes, take whatever fleeting, passing, worldly thing you have put your trust in, or whatever you have used to numb the pain, and put it on the cross and let it die, but then find out what it actually means to be truly alive. Let you mind be changed – transformed – as you learn to see things as God sees them. And then, confident as only those who are truly alive can be, get to work, as we reach out to those around us who are imprisoned by the choices they’ve made, and rattle those gates, for they simply will not prevail against the Body of Christ, truly alive.
That’s the good news. That’s a living sacrifice. And that’s what the Lord asks of us.
May he give us the grace to take up our cross, share in his life, and get to work.