Our epistle this morning is from Paul’s letter to the Romans and includes the phrase: ‘I appeal to you, 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’.
It’s a phrase which has found its way into our liturgies, as in ‘We offer you our souls and bodies to be a living sacrifice.’ And it comes up in the first post-communion prayer of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer where it says, ‘And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and lively sacrifice unto thee.’
And all this sounds just fine, but – what would it actually be like, to be a living sacrifice? And if we knew, how keen would we be to become one?
Do we really want to be a living sacrifice? Are we looking forward to being a living sacrifice?
In the last fifty years or so, maybe more, there’s been a change of mind about the reason why Paul wrote to the Romans. The older view, which went back at least to the time of the Reformation, was that Paul was producing in Romans a summary of Christian doctrine, and that it was the most theological book in the New Testament. But later scholarship has encouraged us to read Romans as a practical letter, similar to Paul’s other letters, dealing with the specific situation Christians found themselves in at Rome.
Which was that the believers were divided into groups which couldn’t accept one another, because the Law of Moses divided them.
There were Jewish Christians and there were Gentile Christians, and they had different ways of looking at things. And what Paul was trying to do was to persuade the Christians in Rome to agree to a way of getting those who had been Jews to accept those who’d never been Jews, and who had no intention of observing the whole of the law of Moses, especially circumcision, dietary laws, and the sacred calendar of feasts and Sabbaths.
And at the same time he was trying to persuade those who had been Gentiles to accept membership of a community in which there would also be Jewish members who continued to keep the law of Moses. Both the Jewish believers and the Gentile believers will have to make concessions, he says.
They will have to make sacrifices. They will have to give up what they might think were their fundamental, non-negotiable principles.
That is, both sides would need to see themselves as ‘living sacrifices.’
And this would involve each group in abandoning the support and comfort that they derived from associating primarily, even exclusively, with people who shared the same views.
And we know the feeling. Our natural tendency is to come together for encouragement, and look for it where it will come most readily – from people who think like us.
All this would have to go, says Paul, if we were to join a society that cut across the distinction between Jew and non-Jew, radical and conservative, fundamentalist and liberal.
To be a ‘living sacrifice’ would be like being a permanent exile from home, living among people of another tradition whose ideas and customs don’t exactly coincide with ours, and accepting them as equals.
So then, if we are literally to follow Paul’s advice, and become ‘living sacrifices,’ we are to place our own origins and priorities in the context of other origins and priorities, and be prepared to re-evaluate our most prized religious convictions in order to be free for one another in a new way, a way that makes groups and parties and movements completely out of place.
Such an enlarged community doesn’t mean that various groups lose their character and identity. What does get lost, though, is a sense of status, and superior self-sufficiency.
This is being a living sacrifice, and it requires a change in the way we see ourselves and others. An acceptance of ways that are not our ways. An embracing of different ways of appreciating the presence and action of God in the world.
At one level, discipleship seemed to be pretty straightforward.
Who was Jesus? Well, he was the Messiah, the Son of the living God, says Peter in our Gospel reading this morning, and he was commended for his perception. It was so perceptive, said Jesus, God must have had a hand in it. It must have been a divine inspiration. Flesh and blood has not revealed it to you, Jesus says, but my Father in heaven. This insight of Peter’s was perfect.
There was a bishop who lived in the sixteenth century. He was Bishop of Winchester and his name was Stephen Gardiner. He was very active in all the kerfuffle of the Reformation, and through it all he wrote a lot, and one of the better things he wrote was about artists and the works that they created. When an artist is inspired, he said, when he can see in his or her mind the vision of what he will create, that vision is perfect. Imagine a great building. A great cathedral. Or a garden shed, with benches, and tools and a television. Every garden shed needs a television. Or great Mass setting. A symphony.
A great project. A great enterprise. That original vision, said Gardiner, that is perfect.
But then, he adds, comes the hard part. You actually have to create what you’ve just visualised. And Gardiner called this stage ‘the distance of doing.’
We can visualize this project, even romanticize it and idealise it. And that’s good. That’s perfect. But then you have to put it into practice. You have to make it happen. And this is the ‘distance of doing.’
And this is what Peter didn’t yet understand. He affirmed that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the living God. And this was perfect. A perfect insight. So perfect that even Jesus said it must have been divinely inspired.
But what hadn’t yet dawned on Peter was the ‘distance of doing.’ And this distance of doing would involve a transformation – as Paul has it ‘a transformation by the renewal of our minds’. This is what was involved in being a living sacrifice.
For Peter it was going to mean dis-associating himself from everything he held dear in the way of pre-conceptions, attitudes, points of view, and interpretations. It was going to mean accepting others whose views were totally foreign to him. And this is how it’s going to be for us if we’re to become living sacrifices. It’s going to mean the destruction of what’s in us which divides us from others.
The renewal of our minds will involve us getting to know the people about whom we are so negative, and discovering that they’re not as bad as we’d thought.
For the disciples, and Peter in particular, the renewal of their minds was going to be a pretty daunting affair. As it will be for us as well. But here’s the thing. What gives us hope is that we have the assurance that the Holy Spirit works in our thoughts. He changes the way we think. If our unholiness is the result of unholy ideas, then our holiness will be the result of holy ideas, and these will be the work of the Holy Spirit.
Our uncharitable actions will come from thinking one way.
Our charitable actions will come from thinking another way.
And this other way – the way of the living sacrifice – is a possibility because there is the Holy Spirit who will renew my mind and make it possible for me to change my ideas. And this means I can risk getting to know the people I fear and despise because the Holy Spirit will reveal my neighbor to me as one whom I can love.
And so to this Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit be ascribed, as is most justly due, all praise, thanksgiving, honour and worship, today and for all days to come.