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. 2Do 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.
3For 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 judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness. (NRSV)
Paul wrote his letter to the Romans about 57CE. I imagine that the church in Rome, as a brand-new community, would have felt small and insignificant inside the city that served as the seat of government for the first century’s largest and most powerful empire. And yet that community seems to have felt an excessively heavy burden of scrutiny.
Nero, the emperor during Paul’s ministry, was known for a fearsome capacity for political tyranny and personal self-indulgence. Of the few ancient historians who left details about Nero, all but one record that the emperor himself ordered the Great Fire that destroyed two thirds of Rome in 64CE1; and some of those historians suggest that he did so in order to clear space for building projects that would glorify him. However, Nero quickly blamed the Christians for the fire, and thus began the practice of persecuting people who proclaimed the kingdom of God and professed faith in Jesus rather worshiping the empire and the emperor.
While Paul’s letter was written before the fire, Roman culture was still characterized by conquest and control, by entrenched violence and callous disregard for human life. To entertain both the powerful and the poor, human beings fought to the death in the Colosseum. For both sport and crime-prevention, criminals were fed to wild beasts who had been intentionally starved. Any culture which thrives on such barbarism, and on things like slavery, public execution, or lynching, oppresses the poor, the powerless, and the suspect. Those cultures treat human bodies like injured livestock.
So, put yourself in the place of first-century Christians in Rome. How might you react when Paul appeals to you saying, “present your bodies as a living sacrifice…to God,” and that doing so constitutes your true “spiritual worship”? That’s kind of like wealthy people saying to parents of starving children, Well, at least your kids aren’t overweight.
Then Paul begins to clarify himself. “Do not be conformed to this world.” Don’t mistake the temporary securities of military dominance and the temporal pleasures of indulgent wealth for God’s blessings. In the long run, those things do more harm than good. They turn our trust and hope away from God and from God’s very different kind of power and richness. They turn us toward our own comfort and social status, things that must be gained and maintained at the expense of others.
The Caesars of the world, and those who worship him, cannot have their excess without oppressing others or depriving them of basic human needs. And to accept that disparity is to decide that those other people—their bodies, their minds, and their very humanity—is less significant, less valuable. And if we follow Jesus, we cannot justify valuing one person, nation, or race more than others.
So, Paul says, “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.” Overcoming the temptation to devalue other people for one’s own sake requires a transformation of mind and spirit. And while transformation, as a gift of grace, is something we cannot make happen, we can make room for it. According to both Paul and Jesus, transformation occurs when we let go of our fearful, ego-ridden selves.
Don’t imagine yourself as better than anyone else, says Paul. With a clear mind, hold the people around you in awe and gratitude. Discern in each other that which is holy and good, that which reflects the presence of God in whose image all human beings are made, and in whom all humankind is one.
Paul uses the image of a single human body to illustrate the diversity necessary for wholeness in human communities. He reminds his readers that just like ears, eyes, hands, and livers all have their own crucial functions, different people have their own gifts that are necessary to the well-being of families, churches, cities, and nations. Think about it: If Nero did burn two thirds of Rome for personal gain, he illustrates what it means to cut off your nose to spite your face.
While it seems to me that none of us really argue with Paul’s teaching, it also seems to me that in the Rome-like culture of twenty-first century western society, those getting the most attention are those who are tearing the body apart, those who are saying the most spiteful, destructive things about others. Human arrogance, which might be defined as the gluttony of individualistic ears, eyes, hands, and livers, is especially evident during political campaign seasons. And I’m not claiming high ground here. When I’m in a cozy room with like-minded people, and things aren’t going my way, I give in and conform to the world. I lament and condemn just like anyone else. But when I leave that room, shackled by resentment, I can’t discern the will of God. I can’t hear wisdom in the words of scripture. I can’t see the humanity I share with those with whom I so deeply and urgently disagree. I don’t hold them in authentic prayer. I don’t let my transformed mind filter out the toxic anger in and around me so that I feel something of the universal pain and distress underneath it. And that just makes me part of the problem, doesn’t it?
Now, in no way am I saying that we should be so tolerant that we turn deaf ears and blind eyes, or clinched fists and cold blood toward those actions and attitudes that contribute to injustice and create human suffering. To do that would be to forsake Jesus as well as those who are oppressed. I’m saying that to participate in God’s transforming work in the world, we begin by looking for the God-imaged holiness in one another and in the Creation. We, like Jesus, must recognize, name, and celebrate the gifts of those around us because we are incomplete without allthat God has created, called good, and is, even now, redeeming.
Now, a significant difficulty surfaces when we realize that while God gives us a generous diversity of gifts as the body of Christ, we are still called to have one voice—the voice which says through word and deed, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength…and love your neighbor as yourself.” (Deut. 6:5 and Mk. 12:30)
Discerning the will of God—something for which we pray every time we utter the Lord’s Prayer—is a life-long process of learning and relearning, of dying to self and rising to Christ. That process asks us to enter and nurture challenging relationships with people who are in dire need and with people whose understandings of the world seem at odds with our own. When, as Paul says, we “think of [ourselves] more highly that [we] ought to think,” we can’t see the humanity and holiness in others. And so, we dismiss not just the poor and the oppressed, but those who exploit them, those who advocate for them, and those who just don’t care and say, Not my fault; not my business.
Love God with all you have and with all you are, says Jesus. Love everyone around you as you would have them love you. And so that you can do that, he says, take up your cross and follow me.
Jesus leads us in lives of compassion and understanding, lives in which we will claim our gifts and share them, lives in which we can recognize all the ears, eyes, hands, and livers around us—neighbors without whom we cannot fully live.
My name is Allen Huff. I am a Presbyterian pastor (PCUSA) living in the delightful community of Jonesborough, TN. Jonesborough - home of the International Storytelling Center and the National Storytelling Festival - is nestled in the beautiful foothills of northeast Tennessee.
I find that preaching forces me to wrestle with God, my faith, and trying to live as a Jesus-follower in a broken and all-too-often violent world. I want to be known as someone who trusts and follows the Jesus' way of compassion, peace, and justice. I also know the road of discipleship is fraught with challenges from within and without. I tend to use my sermons as a way of struggling, like Jacob at the Jabbok River, with God and with how to make sense of life in this magnificent but incomplete creation. If something you read in these sermons, newsletter articles, and occasional, random musing speaks to you in a positive way, I will be grateful. I'd love to hear your thoughts, too. And feel free to take issue with anything I say. I certainly don't claim to have a lock on the truth.
When I'm not writing sermons, I may be writing songs on my guitar, taking photographs of the mountains, rivers, or streams in east TN and western NC, hiking the woods with my wife, or throwing a stick for our insatiable Border Collie, Todd.
*I have been posting my weekly sermons and monthly newsletters for several years on another site, Storied Faith at: pastorallentn.blogspot.com. While I will soon stop posting on that site, I will maintain it. So if you find anything on either of these sites interesting and helpful, please share with others!
Blessings and peace. Allen
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