Thursday, January 15, 2009

Romans 12:1-4 - First Sunday After Epiphany

A lot of us western Christians approach Christianity like we approach a subject at school. Indeed, in many of our churches, what is called a worship service can be little different from the college lecture hall, save that there are a number of hymns or other songs sung by way of introduction. We believe that our sole duty is right thinking and the acquisition of Bible knowledge; that if we walk around with the right notions in our heads, we are serving God. We may read the verses in our Epistle today, for example, about being kind-hearted toward one another and think, "Well, that makes very good sense and I agree with it," but go on being anything but kind-hearted.

The apostle Paul in Romans 12:1-4 has a different view. For Paul, the Christian life is not something academic; it is a sacrifice to God. Having presented to the Romans the wonderful work of Jesus Christ on our behalf in chapters 1-11, he begins chapter 12 with the words: I BESEECH you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. When we survey all that Christ has done for us, when we view Him dying on the cross for the sins we have committed, ultimately because he loves us and wants to see us bring glory to our Creator, we are so moved by his sacrifice on our behalf that we desire to render our appreciation to him in kind. The right response is not, "Now I must become a Bible student." Instead, we sing,

Love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.

It is because his love demands our all that Paul tells us to present our bodies to him. Love for God is not expressed merely by holding to a creed. We are to have loving affection for Him and especially loving action, loving obedience expressed in physical and tangible ways. Our love for God is to be lived out through our bodies, for it is through them that we do the will of God in this material world.

Paul speaks of this in chapter 6. Having written of our death and resurrection with Christ through our baptism, he says,
11: Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.
12: Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof.
13: Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin: but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God.
19: I speak after the manner of men because of the infirmity of your flesh: for as ye have yielded your members servants to uncleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity; even so now yield your members servants to righteousness unto holiness.

You see how he expects our new life in Christ to be lived out through our bodies; not just thought about in our minds.

When Sheila and I were in Cambridge a couple of years ago, we visited Ridley Hall, an evangelical college there. One of the students told me that the principal was all the time quoting Bishop Hanley Moule, who was the first principle of Ridley Hall, later becoming the Bishop of Durham in 1901. When he said that I thought, "Ah, here is a kindred spirit, because I'm quoting Moule all the time myself," in fact, the last time I preached here I quoted him. I want to do so again today. Bishop Moule, in one of his commentaries on Romans, wrote of how Jesus served men through His body, "walking to them with his feet; touching them with his hands; meeting their eyes with His; speaking with His lips the words that were spirit and life. As with Him, so with us." As we look, speak, hear, write, nurse, travel, and so forth, we carry out the will of God in this world in relation to our neighbours. We thus render God service.

Let us now note, however, that as soon as we are dedicated as sacrifices to God, what does Paul say we are to do? He says we are to care about how we think! I have not been saying that thinking is not important; it is absolutely critical in fact. What I have been saying is that right thinking does not comprise the whole of our duty, nor is it the starting point of Christian living. The Christian mind is not Christian simply because it thinks Christian thoughts. It is Christian and it thinks Christian thoughts because it has been sacrificially dedicated to Christ. We give our minds to Christ as we give our whole beings to Christ and then, following Paul's instructions here, we work on our minds. We seek to develop a Christian mind.

Working against our effort to develop a Christian mind is the world around us. There is always pressure on us to conform our words and actions to the ideas and ideals of the current age in which we live. Paul tells us we are not to be squeezed into its mold. We are not "of this world," or "of this age." In us has already dawned the age to come. If any man be in Christ, he is new creation. Our thinking is to be governed by the ideas and ideals of the age that was inaugurated with the resurrection of Christ and which will one day replace this current age.

Now this present age encourages pride and self-centeredness. Not so the age to come. Paul tells us that we are not to think of ourselves more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith. Instead of exalting ourselves in pride, we are to think accurately about ourselves; to think no more highly than what is true to fact. As for self-centeredness, our thinking about ourselves is never to be wholly individualistic. We are to always think of ourselves in light of the Body of Christ to which we belong. We thus learn that we are to be people of humility with a mutual concern for one another in Christ.
If we make humility and mutual concern major issues in our thinking, in time, as our minds are gradually molded by these ideals, we will live out in our actions and speech the good, perfect, and acceptable will of God. In other words, we will love God and one another as we ought.

And what will this look like? In our families, we will think about the feelings of others and the consequences of our words and actions in their lives, and try to say and do what is helpful to one another. It is possible for us to be too relaxed about our discipleship in the comforts of home. We can let down the guard over our speech and actions that we tend to keep up when we are in public. In fact, it is in the family where some of our greatest challenges to discipleship may come.
We should not think that we have a right to indulge our anger or selfishness or peevishness with family members because "they are family." They are still our neighbours - indeed our closest, with therefore the highest demand upon our being faithful in Christian charity, not the lowest! The apostle Paul, more than once, tells us who are heads of our homes, not to lay down our lives for the company we work for, but to lay down our lives for our wives. Our wives are told, not to complain about their husbands, but to honour them and obey them. And our children are taught that the beginning of all respect for authority begins with respect and obedience to one's parents at home. And these duties are to be carried out with our bodies - our speech and what we do for each other with our hands and our feet. We are not to merely love and obey with intent. We are to really do it. We are to think about what we should be doing and do it.

If we love the Church we will care about the atmosphere and habits of our homes. Our families are to be mirrors of the Church. And as they come together in the Church, the Church will be a composite of the whole of our families. The quality of the life in the family, in that respect, becomes critical for the overall sake of the Church herself.

In our churches, if we are humble and caring for each other, our life together will look like that described in the rest of this letter, which you may read later. Therein you will find that the Body of Christ, infused with the spirit of self sacrifice unto Christ, will function with mercy and affection and beauty - each recognizing his own place and being concerned to be faithful in it; love, joy, and peace will reign in the hearts of all the believers, who follow the path of humility, kindness, and patience.

But, you may say, that will require sacrifice. Indeed. It's comfortable to keep our religion on a merely intellectual level. But when it comes to "fleshing it out," to actually doing what we believe and think is true, we find that we no longer have the time and energy and resources for ourselves that we once enjoyed. We must lay down our lives in sacrifice.

But, as believers, we are glad to do so, for, as Jesus says, he that loses his life for the Lord's sake will find it. We lay our bodies upon the altar of the gospel of Christ and we find a fellowship of love that answers the longings of our own hearts. We find ourselves not just knowing about the mercies of God, but living in them. We don't just read the story of Christ, but we find ourselves living inside the story with Christ. We are the offering of the gentiles to the LORD promised by prophets of old. We are Christ's living sacrifices, alive more than ever, destined to live for evermore. With such a wonderful calling, let us follow our Lord who has gone before us on the path of sacrifice, and get up on Monday morning, engage our minds to remember what we know is true, and start loving and hoping and believing and serving the people God has placed in our lives.

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