When in Romans: With Minds Transformed

First Baptist Richmond, August 27, 2023
The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Romans 12:1-8

I appeal to you therefore, 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.

            What did you bring with you today?

            No, seriously. You came to worship. What did you bring? Because if this were ancient Israel, and you were a faithful Jew, you wouldn’t have come to the temple without an offering, and probably not without some animal to offer as a sacrifice. Old Testament scholar Lawrence Boadt explains that when it came to worship: “Sacrifices were central. A sacrifice in Israel’s thinking primarily rendered our service back to God,” he writes. “In the case of animal sacrifice, humans returned as a gift the life that God gave as a gift. Thus the death of the animal itself was not as important as the sprinkling of its life-carrying blood on the altar and the taking of the animal out of everyday service to give it back to God alone. The occasion was normally a time of joy, signaling praise, reverence, and thanksgiving to God. But sacrifices could also be offered as petitions or as sin offerings for guilt. Even if the occasion was the hope of forgiveness or relief from disease or other calamity, the note of trust and hope always played a major role in the spirit of offering.”[i]

            Boadt goes on to clarify that, “Sacrifices were well known throughout the ancient world, but in Israel, unlike in some Canaanite cults, the sacrifice was never considered a magical ritual that brought God to act in a certain way. The spirit of adoration and silence and the obedience of the people before Yahweh always stand out.”[ii] So, let me ask again: what did you bring to worship today? In Old Testament times you might have brought:

  1.  A holocaust offering: in which an animal would be completely burned up on the altar after the priest had laid his hands on its head and its blood had been sprinkled on the altar.
  2.  A grain offering: in which you would present a number of small cakes baked with unleavened flour together with a small portion of oil and incense.
  3.  A peace offering: in which an animal would be offered up for thanksgiving to God or to fulfill a vow that had been made. In this case the entire animal would not be burned, but only a few inner organs and the best fatty parts. The rest would be shared as a meal with family or guests. 
  4.  A sin offering: in case you had become unclean by touching a dead body or through disease or other causes listed in the law, or by doing something forbidden by the law, you could make atonement by offering an animal to God. In this case only the fat would be burned and the blood sprinkled on the altar. The rest would be burned outside the temple area.
  5.  And finally, for more serious offenses like cheating or stealing, you might bring a guilt offering. This sacrifice would be a male ram brought to the priest, which would be slaughtered like the sin offering, its fatty parts offered on the altar, and the rest burned outside the camp. There would also be the expectation that you would return whatever you had stolen or cheated someone out of.[iii]

So, let me ask you again: what did you bring to worship?

            We’ve been working our way through Paul’s letter to the Romans over the past few weeks. We’ve looked at the first chapter, where he describes in vivid detail the depravity of the Roman Empire in which he lived and worked; chapter two, where he claims that devout Jews are really no better than their pagan neighbors when it comes to pleasing God; chapters three through seven, where he spells out the remedy for sin—the grace of God, made available to us through our faith in Jesus Christ; chapter eight where he touches on the problem of suffering and insists that if we let it, it can bring us closer to Christ; and finally, chapters 9-11, where he considers the plight of his fellow Israelites who have not accepted Jesus as the Messiah: what will become of them? Paul cannot imagine that God will break the promises he made to his people so long ago. At the end of chapter eleven he pictures them, sinners that they are, knocking on the door of heaven, and God throwing it wide open to let them in. With that thought in mind Paul bursts into doxology: He writes, “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! …For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:33, 36).

            And so it is with Israel very much in mind that Paul begins chapter 12, our text for today, where he writes: “I appeal to you therefore, 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.” Back in chapter 9 he had said about Israel that theirs was, “the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship and the promises,” and when he said worship he was talking about the worship described in Leviticus 1-7, the one I’ve reminded you of this morning, where people actually brought animals to the temple and offered them as sacrifices. It was a physical form of worship. In Romans 12 Paul writes about a spiritual form of worship, in which he invites us to bring our own bodies to church and offer them as living sacrifices. Which is a relief, right? He doesn’t want us to lay ourselves on the altar, but instead every spiritual gift we have been given, every good thing our bodies are capable of doing, every small thing that would build up the church.

            And that’s different.

            Paul calls us to do this “by the mercies of God,” and he does it just after he has said that God intends to be merciful to all (Rom. 11:32). That is, all of us are sinners, both Jew and Gentile. We all deserve death. But God is going to be merciful to us. God is not going to give us what we deserve. Instead God is going to give us life. And with that life we have the opportunity to give something back to God. And so, Paul writes, “by the mercies of God…present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Some translations say, “which is your reasonable worship.” And it is reasonable. If God has spared your life then you owe it to him. You ought to find some good way to give it back to him. And there are lots of good ways. We’ll talk about some of those in a minute, but for now let’s take a look at verse 2, where Paul writes: “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

            I was talking with someone last week who said he loves this verse; his whole life has been shaped by it. I had been looking at the Greek text earlier that day and I was able to tell him that the word conformed, in English, comes from the same Greek root as the word schematic, as if to say, “Don’t pattern your life after the schematic diagram of this world,” and especially the world Paul was living in: the corrupt Roman Empire. But instead be transformed (from the same Greek root as metamorphosis), be metamorphosed by the renewing of your mind. Because this can happen: if you begin to think differently you will begin to live differently. For example: if you begin to think that your salvation is not up to you, that it’s up to Jesus, and he has already done everything necessary to save you, it will lead to a different way of life. Instead of anxiously striving to earn your own salvation you will begin to live in a state of gratitude. You will come to church with an offering of thanksgiving, and that offering will be you. “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice,” Paul says, “be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” And then Paul stops preaching and goes to meddling. He says:

  1.  Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought to think. And why would you? If you’ve been following Paul’s argument at all you know that you are a sinner saved by grace. It wasn’t anything you did that saved you; it was what Christ did. So why should you think of yourself highly at all? You are one more sinner, standing in a long line, holding out your empty hands, begging for the gift of grace (think of that the next time you see someone standing on a street corner holding a cardboard sign).
  2.  Instead of thinking too much of yourself, think of yourself as part of Christ’s body with a particular function, for just as your body has many different parts (each with its own function), so does the body of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul talks about the value of each part, but here in Romans 12 he seems more concerned with the function. It’s not so much that the eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you,” but that the eye is for seeing, and the hand is for grasping. “So what about you?” Paul might ask. “What is your function in the body? How do you help the body of Christ do what it needs to do?”
  3.  And then he begins to give examples: “If your gift is prophecy,” he says (we might say preaching), “then prophesy in proportion to your faith; if it’s ministry (or service), then minister! If it’s teaching, teach! Let the one who is gifted in exhortation exhort,” he says, “and the one who is generous, give. Let the leader lead with diligence and the compassionate care with cheerfulness.” In other words, whatever gift God has given you, use it for the good of the body of Christ.

Some of you may remember that when I was a pastor in Washington, DC, we began to have a problem with homeless people sleeping in the doorway of our building. A police officer told us, “If you don’t do anything about this, then you are essentially running a homeless shelter, only not a very good one.” So, I decided to get to the bottom of the problem.  I decided I would spend the night out there and see what was going on. I liked to camp; I had all the right gear. I asked some of our young adults at church if they wanted to join me and one of them said he would. 

So, we showed up one Friday night in October, with our backpacker’s mattresses and fancy sleeping bags. We didn’t bring a tent but while we were staking out our campsite somebody came around the corner to see what we were up to. His name was Harry, and he was from Sumter, South Carolina. He had come to DC for a job, but it hadn’t worked out and now he found himself on the streets. We talked for a while and then he said, “Hey, aren’t you the pastor?” I admitted that I was and he disappeared around the corner. I thought I had seen the last of him. But five minutes later he came back with ten or twelve of his homeless friends in tow.

We ended up sitting on the front lawn in a circle and after sharing their needs one of the women asked, “Can we pray?” So we joined hands and prayed, and when we finished she said, “Oh, now we’ve got to sing ‘Amazing Grace!’” And we did. It was the most ragged, tuneless, and yet somehow beautiful version of that song I had ever heard. It was the kind of grace Paul is talking about in the Book of Romans, the kind that saved a wretch like me.

Harry ended up joining the church; he came down the aisle the next Sunday. And when we started talking about going on a mission trip to New Orleans to help clean up after Hurricane Katrina, Harry wanted to go. Can I just tell you?  That was the oddest assortment of missionaries that have ever come together. When we got to New Orleans the Red Cross asked us to help them organize a warehouse full of donations that had come in, many of them in boxes that looked really heavy. The woman in charge told us there was a forklift, but we couldn’t use it without a certified forklift operator. I looked at my team and wondered if any of us were fit to move those boxes—the eighty-year-old woman, the guy in the wheelchair, the high school student who weighed over 300 pounds. But then I thought, “Wait a minute: where’s Harry?” And that’s when I heard the beep of a horn and saw Harry coming around the corner driving a forklift with a huge grin on his face. Turns out he was a certified forklift operator.

I shared that story with you seven years ago, in a sermon from Philemon, about how Onesimus, a runaway slave, became part of the family. But I thought of it again a few weeks ago when I got the news that Harry had died. He had become a part of that church family in Washington. Week after week he had shown up for worship ready to offer himself as a living sacrifice, to do whatever he could do to make the body of Christ in that place stronger. His funeral was at 2:00 on a Sunday afternoon. I wasn’t able to make it. But I hear the entire church showed up.

“Whatever it is you can do,” Paul says, “whatever your gift is, whatever you’re good at, use that for building up the body of Christ.” In just a moment I’m going to ask those of you who are members to do the same. I want you to take that 3X5 card someone handed you earlier, and while the choir is singing the anthem I want you to think about what you’re good at, what your gifts are, what you love to do—anything, really, that might build up the body of Christ in this place—and then write that down on the card so that, during the closing hymn, you can bring it forward and lay it on the altar. What did you bring to worship today? You brought you.

And it turns out that’s what God wants most of all.

—Jim Somerville © 2023

[i] Lawrence Boadt, Reading the Old Testament: an Introduction (New York: Paulist Press, 1984), p. 272.

[ii] Ibid., pp. 272-273.

[iii] All of this is from Leviticus 1-7 as described by Boadt, Reading the Old Testament, pp. 273-274.