No one seems to know who first said, “The problem with living sacrifices is they keep crawling off the altar,” but in today’s reading, the Apostle Paul encourages us to stop crawling away and start really living, as we devote ourselves to following Jesus. Maybe people cringe from offering themselves because our idea of a sacrifice is pretty gory, and always fatal. Or maybe it’s because people focus on what they will lose as they offer their sacrifice. But Paul asks us to consider a different meaning for the word “sacrifice.” He calls us to remember that the root of this word is the same as the word “sacred.” Instead of thinking of a sacrifice as something we have to give up or give away or kill, Paul invites us to recognize that true sacrifice means setting apart something as sacred or holy, and that thing we are to make holy is ourselves, our whole selves. Hear the word of the Lord as given to the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans, chapter 12, verses 1-8:
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. Do 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.
For 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. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness. – Romans 12:1-8
Paul tells us, in remarkably concise language, what it takes to be transformed into Christ-likeness, rather than conformed to this world. Through the renewing of our minds, we are able to know God’s good and perfect will for us, and become “living sacrifices.”
Our transformation begins the moment we claim Jesus as Lord, and continues throughout our lives. We aren’t talking gory death here, but full and abundant life, dedicating to God our entire will and being. But in order to be transformed into Christ-like people, we must also fight against the urge to conform to the world around us.
Even churches struggle with this pull toward worldly conformity. In our eagerness to be accessible, to be inviting and welcoming, churches often try to look and act as little like “church” as possible, making themselves attractive to those for whom the word “church” has negative meaning. As they strive to accommodate the needs and desires of worldly people, these churches sometimes find themselves offering faith as a commodity, rather than a life-giving source of deep joy and transformation. Paul reminds us that our transformation requires an entire mindset change. We have to start thinking differently in order to grow into our new identities as children of God.
And that mindset requires some humility.
By God’s grace, Paul writes, don’t think of yourselves more highly than you ought to think. In other words, don’t get puffed up, but think of yourselves with modesty, according to the faith God gives you.
Our transformation develops right thinking about ourselves in relationship to God and others. Following Jesus changes our thinking from being self-centered to being God-centered. Instead of putting ourselves first, we recognize our place in the body of Christ, and live into that purpose and function with humility.
Because each part of the body is necessary to the whole, and we are connected to one another through Christ, though our functions may be quite different from one another. I often say that we can be believers in isolation, but true discipleship happens in community. Our part in the body connects us to all the other parts of Christ’s body, the church. We depend on one another to make the body function as it should.
But the gifts we bring, the parts we play in the church’s work, are all different. Paul lists seven examples here, but he identifies at least 20 among his letters to Rome, Corinth, and Ephesus. While it isn’t an exhaustive list, the gifts of prophecy, ministry, teaching, encouragement, generosity, leading (which may really mean administering finances, or being a benefactor), and compassion, are all examples of good gifts, used well. This brief list is not given in any particular order of importance, either. It is simply an illustration of the many ways we work together for the kingdom of God.
So why don’t we talk about these gifts of the Spirit more often? Why don’t we work, as a church, to help people develop their spiritual giftedness? Authors Dan and Barbara Dick explain that most churches depend on structure-based ministry. They determine what needs to happen to keep the institution alive, and then seek church members who can fill those needs. But this approach no longer works, partly because our society no longer trusts institutions of any kind, and individualism has taken prominence over community. But what might happen if we refocused our energy toward developing the gifts that God has already placed among us, and then structured our ministry around that giftedness, instead of looking for the gifts we need to maintain the status quo?
Dan and Barbara Dick tell us, “Gifts-based ministry focuses on the people – their gifts and passions and their sense of call and Christian vocation.” The beauty of developing a gifts-based church is that all gifts can be used in many ways, but their purpose remains the building up of the church, and the equipping of the saints for ministry (Eph 4:12).
The primary mission of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The Minnesota Conference has identified three gospel imperatives to accomplish this mission:
- Grow in love for God – nurturing and strengthening personal Christian faith
- Reach new people – welcoming them into the family of God
- Heal a broken world – live out our calling to be salt and light to a world that needs some good news
As we work toward these goals, our gifts are not delegated to one gospel imperative or another. Rather, we all use all our gifts to address all the tasks of ministry. Everything we do as a church should line up with the ultimate goal of making disciples for the transformation of the world. We nurture faith and love for God, we reach new people, and we help to heal a broken world by exercising the gifts God has given us.
Our gifts are the “superpowers” God has given us to do ministry in this time and place. These spiritual gifts are not only to be used for the benefit of others, however. They are for our own benefit, too. Our gifts also draw us more closely into Christ-likeness, transforming each of us into what God created us to be. When Paul says, “use your gifts to equip the saints for every good work” I sometimes think we forget that we who have been given these gifts are those saints being equipped for ministry.
Dan and Barbara Dick write, “All too often, we are working rather than worshiping when we sing, read, or serve in church. How glorious it would be if we could be truly filled with holy fire in our mission and ministry, if we could trust in that power and allow God to use our spiritual gifts, … to build up the body of Christ and prepare it to be the church in the world.” (22)
Exercising our gifts isn’t something to do just when we feel like it. Serving Christ isn’t a hobby or a way to use our spare time to make us feel better about ourselves. Using our giftedness is how we follow Jesus. Director of Ministry for the Minnesota Conference, Cindy Gregorson often says that she would like to eliminate the word “volunteer” from church vocabularies. When we volunteer, it implies that we are using our discretionary time and energy in an optional activity. Following Jesus is a 24/7 endeavor that requires a completely transformed mindset: there’s nothing optional about being a disciple of Christ.
Dan and Barbara Dick write, “When people who are gifted, graced, and equipped for every good work choose to live and work and grow together in community, the church is fulfilling its mission and call to love God and love neighbor through faithful discipleship.”
So what gifts do you possess? What special superpowers has the Holy Spirit given you for the building up of the church and the equipping of saints for ministry? Today, you are going to have an opportunity to discover your gifts. The ushers are passing out some spiritual gifts inventory forms, and I invite you to prayerfully give attention to learning how God has gifted you – not so we can figure out which committee to assign you to! – but so you can begin to develop your unique gifts in service to God, which is your spiritual worship. If you aren’t a paper/pencil type, and you would rather complete a spiritual gifts inventory online, you can find links to several different assessment tools on the internet. Some websites give you more information about each of the spiritual gifts on the inventory, so you may want to explore those sites to learn more about your particular gift set.
Then I invite you to do something that will dramatically impact the life of our church. I invite you to tell us what your gifts are. You can do it anonymously, if you’re still afraid the nominating committee is going to use this information to put you to work. But it might be an eye-opener to discover what gifts we have among us, where our strengths as a congregation lie, and how God might be calling our church into ministry through the gifts that have been given to us.
So, I’m giving you a homework assignment. This week, discover your gifts, and learn something about them. Pray daily for God to show you how to use your gifts. Then come to church next week, prepared to write the name of your primary gift (with or without your own name – doesn’t matter) on a card that we will collect.
I am eager to see how God has gifted each of us. I am more eager to see how God will transform us individually, and as a church, through the renewal of our minds, so that lives might be changed, and together we might discern the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect. Amen.
 Dan and Barbara Dick, Equipped for Every Good Work: Building a Gifts-Based Church, 19.