We hear a lot about sacrifice these days; in fact, I believe the word sacrifice is as overused as the word hero is in today’s language. It seems everyone is a hero for just doing their job, and everyone is making a sacrifice for this or that thing. But are we truly making a sacrifice or are we only fitting it into our schedule?
I always like to start with the definition of a word, so we have a common base to work from so, according to the dictionary sacrifice has three possible meanings;
1. an act of slaughtering an animal or person or surrendering a possession as an offering to God or a divine or supernatural figure.
2. an animal, person, or object offered in a sacrifice.
3. an act of giving up something valued for the sake of something else regarded as more important or worthy.
As to the first meaning: In Jewish ritual law, one had to sacrifice an animal in atonement for your sins. The size of the animal was directly related to the size of the sin, the greater the animal, the greater the sin. Outside of the temple, there would be all sorts of people selling all kinds of animals that would be taken into the temple, ritually killed, and burned on the altar. As Christians, we believe that the final sacrifice was that of Jesus Christ on the Cross, he was, and is, the lamb that was slain and so there is no need for the further sacrifice of this type. It was said that the smoke from the burning sacrifice was pleasing to God, and thus pleasing God, or sins were forgiven.
However, the second part of the first meaning makes mention of surrendering a possession as an offering to God; in other words, a tithe of time, talent, or treasure. But is it a real sacrifice, or is it just something that we do? We do not want to make ourselves destitute, but at the same time, it should hurt just a little.
As to the second meaning: It ties in with the first but not in a ritual way. Native cultures would often thank the animal after it was killed to be used for food. They thank the animal, and its spirit, for the sacrifice of the animal’s life that the hunter may live and provide food for their table. How many of us think of this when we sit down to a nice steak or another form of meat that has been provided for us. The meat did not fall from the sky or appear by some magic in the supermarket; it was attached to a living, breathing, being, created by God, and it deserves our respect and honor.
As to the third meaning: This is more in line with what Paul is writing to the Jewish Christians in his letter.
Paul always grounds his letters in practical advice for those he is writing to. He tackles some pretty heavy theology in his epistles, but in the end, he brings us round to the practical. As preachers this is what we are supposed to do, we can tackle heavy theology, but if I do not bring it around to application in our lives, it is just lecture of sorts and may be of no use. Your job is to find that application and then, apply it to your life.
Paul is telling them to “Present your body to God as a living sacrifice.” To the Greeks, this was a strange idea because the spirit was the highest form, not the body. The body was the vessel that held the spirit. The body would give way, but the spirit was eternal. So, just as Jesus was causing a stir in thinking, now Paul is doing the same thing. For Christians, the body belongs to God just as much as the soul does, and we can serve God with our physical body, our mind, and our soul.
The body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and the instrument through which the Holy Spirit works in the world. It has been said that we are the hands and feet of Christ, and that is meant in the physical sense. But, more importantly, the Incarnation of God becoming a man in the person of Jesus Christ means that it was not beneath God to take on human form and to live and work through that human form.
So what Paul is saying is that we present our body, our whole being to God and everything we do should be pleasing to God. We worship God by being the best we can be at whatever it is we are called to be. If our job is to stock shelves or bag groceries, we bring worship, honor, and praise to God by being the best at it. If our job is to teach, preach, sing, dance, garden, or whatever it is, then we are to be the best at it, and by being the best, we bring honor, glory, and worship to God.
The Greek word that Paul uses for worship means a voluntary undertaking; it means to serve but not in a way that would make one a slave but something that one would give their whole life to. It also means to give your life in the service of the gods; this is not human service but rather service to God.
True worship is the offering to God of one’s body, and all that one does every day with it. Real worship is not the offering to God of liturgy, and ritual. Authentic worship is the offering of everyday life to God, not something transacted in a church, but something that enables us to see the entire world as the temple of God. As much as we are to say, “I am going to church to worship God,” we must also be able to say, “I am going to work, to school, to the park, to the beach, to my job, to worship God.”
This is a radical change. Paul goes on to say that we must not be conformed to the world but must be transformed from it. Paul uses two Greek words that are almost untranslatable to English. One word means the outward form, the appearance that we have that changes from day to day. I do not know about you, but I do not look the same today as I did a year ago, five years ago, or 20 years ago. We change. We dress differently depending on the situation we find ourselves in.
But the word Paul uses for transform is not about the external but the internal. Paul says that for us genuinely worship God; we have to undergo and transformation, not of our external expressing but our internal one. We must change our life from that dominated by the world and what the world expects of us, and we must conform to what God expects of us and have the mind of Christ. Once we have allowed this transformation to begin, we no longer live a self-centered life we now live a Christ-centered life, and this must happen by a renewal of our mind and how we think about the world and how we feel about others. When we allow Christ into our lives when we sacrifice what we want for what Christ wants of us, we become new beings. When Christ becomes the center of our lives, we can then present real worship, not just the worship contained in the four walls of the church but true worship of all of God’s creation and our lives will truly become a living sacrifice to God.