SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV’D SAMUEL L. WOOD AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
SUNDAY, AUGUST 28, 2011, THE ELEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

As Irene bears down on Boston, we are bearing down on the end of our “Summer of Romans,” the string of Sundays in Year A when we read a big chunk of Paul’s Letter to the Romans.  And today we come to a pivotal chapter, chapter 12.  Indeed, we come to a pivotal word - in Greek it’s a very small word, only three letters - and it is imperative for us to understand it if we are to follow the argument of Romans and let the gospel transform our lives.  In today’s reading, Paul calls upon all followers of Jesus to live “sacrificial lives,” so what I want to do this morning is ask of the text three questions:  (1) What is the context of Paul’s call for us to live a sacrificial life?  (2) What is the content of a sacrificial life?  And (3) Where do we find the courage to live a sacrificial life? 

First:  ContextI appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.  A couple of weeks ago, I was having lunch with a friend who was staying with us for a few days, and I did something I don’t normally do - I let our conversation venture into politics.  This was right around the time that Michele Bachmann was gathering momentum as a candidate for the Republican nomination for president, and my friend, who isn’t a Republican, was appalled that so many people seemed to be rallying to support Bachmann.  It was interesting that my friend didn’t seem to be appalled so much at any of Bachmann’s positions on the current issues of the economy or foreign policy; what bothered her was what an article in the Huffington Post later called “a glaring distance between her campaign oratory and her actual conduct as a lawmaker.”[1]  My friend just couldn’t take seriously someone who claimed to be fiscally conservative and opposed to out-of-control government spending, but who had herself taken out a federally subsidized home loan and, as a public official, had applied for government stimulus funds.  Now, bear with me a second - this sermon isn’t about politics, and I’m not about to tell you whether I would or wouldn’t support Michele Bachmann or anybody else.  In fact, given the relative amounts of time my television is tuned to political news and cartoons, I know much more about Clifford, the Big Red Dog than I do about Bachmann or any other candidate.  But my friend put her finger on something all of us instinctively believe, more or less:  Behavior should follow belief. 

Or put it another way:  Duty follows doctrine.  Or conduct follows creed.  Life follows learning.  However we put it, what we say we believe should work its way out into our actions, or else the veracity of our belief is suspect.  And nobody wrote that way more consistently in the NT, perhaps, than Paul.  It is typical of how he wrote that now, after eleven chapters of doctrine, there’s a dramatic shift of tone in Chapter 12 and Paul begins to lay out his ethics.  For Paul, the imperative always follows the indicative - what he compels us to do is always grounded in what we believe God has done for us.   

Notice the whole letter pivots on one little word at the beginning of chapter 12:  In Greek, it’s “oun,” in English, “therefore.”  It points back to the eleven chapters Paul just devoted to laying out what he called “the gospel of God” (1:1).  Remember Paul had once terrorized Christians, but he met the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus and his life changed dramatically.  Where once he had carried death warrants for followers of Jesus, now Paul had become a follower himself, a self-described “slave” of Jesus and of the message of the gospel.  So just what was the message of the first 11 chapters?  John Stott, who died just last month, wrote a commentary on the book of Romans and described the gospel Paul preached this way: 

It is [] that human beings are born in sin and slavery, but that Jesus Christ came to set us free.  For here is unfolded the good news of freedom, freedom from the holy wrath of God upon all ungodliness, freedom from alienation into reconciliation, freedom from the condemnation of God’s law, freedom from what Malcolm Muggeridge used to call ‘the dark little dungeon of our own ego’, freedom from the fear of death, freedom one day from the decay of the groaning creation into the glorious liberty of God’s children, and meanwhile freedom from ethnic conflict in the family of God, and freedom to give ourselves to the loving service of God and others.[2] 

Because of the surpassing greatness of this gospel, and because of the mercy he had received from God, Paul dedicated the rest of his life - and ultimately became a martyr - to see it preached to as many people as possible.  So, if we believe what Paul wrote in the first eleven chapters of Romans about the gospel is true, we are therefore to offer our very lives as a sacrifice to God. 

But the second question is:  What does a sacrificial life look like?  Or, to ask it another way, what is the content of the sacrifice Paul calls us to make?  Present your bodies as a living sacrifice . . . .  Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.  That Paul even mentions bodies here would have been pretty scandalous to any of his Greek readers.  Remember that the Greeks were Platonists, and they had a very low regard for the body.  For them, salvation was something that happened to the soul, and the body was a hindrance, something to be gotten rid of.  But for Christians, the truth is quite the opposite.  In Dallas Willard’s book The Spirit of the Disciplines, he writes:

The vitality and power of Christianity is lost when we fail to integrate our bodies into its practice by intelligent, conscious choice and steadfast intent.  It is with our bodies we receive the new life that comes as we enter his Kingdom.  It can’t be any other way.  If salvation is to affect our lives, it can do so only by affecting our bodies.  It we are to participate in the reign of God, it can only be by our actions.  And our actions are physical - we live only in the processes of our bodies.  To withhold our bodies from religion is to exclude religion from our lives.[3] 

God wants the content of our sacrifice to be our very bodies.  But if religion is worthless if it doesn’t work its way out into our bodies and into our lives, into our homes and our offices and the market and all the places our bodies find themselves, the trigger for holiness to shoot out through our bodies is in the mind.  Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.  Notice that both the verbs in that sentence are passive - do not be conformed but be transformed.  That’s something powerful we miss about this passage a lot of the time.  Human beings are “imitative by nature.”[4]  We tend to want to become like what we see.  Even commercials on TV that tout how independent and different we are - watch closely and notice how the gist of the message is “Be independent . . . just like all the cool people!”  We emulate.  And what we think about, what goes into our minds, has an effect on the kind of people we are becoming. 

This summer has been remarkable around the Wood house not least because my oldest daughter, Elizabeth, has discovered Google (or, as her grandmother might say, “the Google”).  We’ll walk by the computer and she’s there watching some music video, and when we ask “How did you find that?” she replies, “Oh, I Googled it.”  It’s hard for her to understand that there are things on the Internet that are not healthy for her to see; they’re not healthy for me to see!  Paul uses a passive verb here to emphasize that we are acted upon by what we see around us in the world.  The lifestyles we see our neighbors living, the philosophies that hold sway in the culture we swim in, the media we consume, the overall coarsening of American public discourse - all of that affects us in imperceptible ways, squeezing us into a mold that is of this world and of this age, not of heaven and the age that has no end.  The counter to it, though, isn’t just to wall Ellie off from the Internet; it is for Ellie and for all of us to allow another force to mold us by renewing our minds, namely the word of God.  In the drama of the Mass, in the story of the bible, in our conversations as fellowship groups and in our own prayers, we are saturating our minds with the word of God which renews us and spurs us on toward sanctification and a life of sacrifice.  God wants both our bodies and our minds.

Finally, if the context of the call to a sacrificial life is the gospel of God’s mercy, and the content is to be our whole lives, our bodies and our minds, the third question is:  Where do we go for the courage to live a sacrificial life like that?  Notice Paul said we are to be living sacrifices, and one thing a living sacrifice is prone to do is crawl off the altar as soon as the fire starts or the knife starts to fall.  Sacrificial life takes courage, and there is only one place to go to get it. 

Look again at verse one:  I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.  You are going to get tired of hearing me say this, but the only way I know of living the sort of life the bible calls us to live is in this verse:  . . . by the mercies of God.  It is only the image of the depth of the love of God for me that ever gives me the courage to offer my life as a sacrifice for him.  An example of how this works is in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton look very much alike, and they both love the same woman, Lucie Manette.  Lucie chooses and marries Charles and they have a child.  The setting of the story is the French Revolution, and Charles, who is a French aristocrat, is arrested, imprisoned, and sentenced to die by guillotine.  At the end of the novel, Sydney . . . visits Charles the night before he is to be executed.  He offers to exchange places with him.  Charles refuses, but Sydney has him drugged and smuggles him away into a waiting carriage.  Then Sydney takes Charles’s place.  Charles and his family escape afterward to England.  That night in the prison, a young seamstress who is also condemned to die comes up to Sydney and begins to converse with him, thinking him to be Charles Darnay.  When she realizes that it is not him, her eyes widen and she asks:  “Are you dying for him?”  Sydney responds:  “And his wife and child.  Hush!  Yes.”  The seamstress then confesses that she is terribly frightened and is not sure she will be able to face her death.  She asks the brave stranger if he will hold her hand to the end.  When the time comes, they go to death hand in hand.  She finds herself composed, even comforted and hopeful, as long as she keeps her eyes on him.[5]

Where are our eyes?  Are they turned toward all the things that would force us into the mold of the world around us?  Or are they on a brave stranger who came into our prison and sacrificed his life for ours, and now offers to hold our hands to the end?

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


[1] “Michele Bachmann Repeatedly Sought Stimulus, EPA, Other Government Funds.”  Huffington Post.  HuffingtonPost.com, 25 August 2011.  Web.  26 August 2011.

[2] John R. W. Stott, The Message of Romans: God’s good news for the world, TBST (Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity, 1994): 19.

[3] Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991): 31 (emphasis in original).

[4] Stott, 323.

[5] Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Dutton, 2008): 199.  The seamstress’ plea is:  "O you will let me hold your brave hand, stranger?" and Sydney’s reply is:  “Hush! Yes, my poor sister; to the last."  Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, available online at http://www.literature.org/authors/dickens-charles/two-cities/book-03/chapter-13.html (last visited 27 August 2011).