There are words, everyday words, whose meaning has changed over time and sacrifice is just one of those words. In the opening verse of the passage we heard read to us today, Paul urges us to “present our bodies as a living sacrifice.” The way we approach this passage today is much different than the way those who were listening to this being read to them shortly after it was written by Paul.
Most of us, sitting here today, have no point of reference for presenting a dead sacrifice to God. Sacrificing animals by way of atonement for sin or as a gift of thanksgiving is so removed from our experience that we have to redefine this term for our present understanding.
When we think of this word, sacrifice, we often come up with negatives in our minds. Parents of athletes often sacrifice time and treasure for their children. Employees are sometimes asked to sacrifice benefits when their company falls on hard times. A heroic soldier sacrifices his or her life for their comrades. Of course, this last example is one of the few times, sacrifice, is used involving the physical body and in this case, can mean death or severe injury.
But Paul calls on us to “present our bodies as a living sacrifice.” For Paul, this does not indicate that we are to “take up our cross” in the manner that we will have to die physically in the course of our discipleship, but he also does not rule it out. What Paul is doing is trying body, and living sacrifice to discerning and living into the will of God. Connecting the body in the way Paul has done pushes us past an emotional or intellectual response to “serving God” and causes us to look at the implications for our very bodies when we live out our discipleship to God.
Paul indicates that this may mean we need to do things that will put us outside the norms of behavior for our society, wrapping our minds around what we do day to day in our lives that express God’s will.
The passage goes on to spell out some of those of those expressions. We are called, each according to our gifts, to use our bodies as prophets, ministers, teachers, exhorters, givers, leaders, and in acts of cheerful compassion. In verse 3 Paul paints a picture for us that the world does not revolve around us as individuals. “It is not about you.” Paul seems to be saying, “and that includes your body.”
We are all about our individual rights. They are spelled out for us in our founding documents, free speech, freedom of religion, life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, etc. All of these freedoms, essential freedoms, involve me, my freedom, not yours, but mine. The world spends a tremendous amount of time telling us how we should live, projects unhealthy body images on young men and women. The world says we have to do whatever we can to get to the top to get the big car, the big house, the 2.5 kids, etc. all the while it is telling us not to care about the person next to us. We are walled off in our cubicles, we sit on the train or the bus with ear buds in our ears, and before the older generation gets all self-righteous, we used to do it with books and newspapers.
So individualistic has the world become that we have no issues with how others are treated as long as we get to do what we want when we want to do it, and how we want to do it.
Friday night I officiated at a wedding of a young couple. They have their whole lives before them. The place was picture perfect, right on the water, the sun was setting behind them, the dress, the tuxedos, the food, the drink, everything had been planned down to the minute. When I told them that marriage was a sacrifice, I used the word martyrdom, and they looked at me a little surprised. I reminded them that in marriage we no longer live for “I, ” but we live for “we.” We do not lose who we are as individuals but now rather than one person; we are two. Sure, we still have and do the things we like, but tiny sacrifices are made each day, and in an authentic sense we become martyrs for each other, we lay aside what I want for what we want.
The same happens in a community such as church. We, as a community, are on the threshold of a new generation, a reformation if you will. We are in transition and, with the help of God; we have to determine what the direction is that we will take. We have to conform our church body to the will of God, and that means that it is not about what I want, it is about what we want.
All of us have gifts to be used for the building up of the kingdom. Paul reminds us that we are all part of one body and that if that body is going to function properly, then all of the parts have to work together. Each part of the body works, not to being glory to itself or to meet only its needs, but to ensure the healthy functioning of the whole system. Each of our gifts is be used for the common interest.
A healthy community is a community that can speak openly and honestly about issues that the community has without fear of one another or bullies, and yes, there are church bullies. A healthy community exists where each person, and their opinion, is valued on equal footing. A healthy community is where one does not need to submit anonymous suggestions in a wooden box, but can speak openly with the leadership of the community and talk about their concerns and their desires. Discernment comes in many forms, and if we believe that God is still speaking and leading, then we have to listen to every voice because we never know what voice God is going to use. I will remind you that God does not call the equipped, he equips those he calls.
Paul’s instruction to us to not think of ones self-more highly than another ought to help foster an atmosphere where communities may work together harmoniously and productively.
But the opposite may also be true, just as there are those who like to think too highly of themselves there are those of us who might think that their skills and not “good enough” to contribute to the working of the community. Paul’s metaphor challenges us to consider that everyone – every member of the body of Christ in the church – has a gift to contribute to the functioning of that body.
Discernment can be scary, stepping out can be scary, but we do so with faith, and we do so with the knowledge that if we are following the will of God, all will be right and the mission will succeed.
Let us pray:
Almighty God, whose compassion embraces everyone, gather the outcast and the lost, heal the wounds of fear and distrust, and make us a community of reconciliation that we may embody your merciful love and rejoice in your astounding grace in Jesus Christ. Amen.