Intersections: Sacred Living in a Secular World – Sermon on Romans 12:1-8

August 27, 2017

Someone once said, “The problem with living sacrifices is they keep crawling off the altar.” Maybe people cringe from offering themselves completely to God because they focus on what they will lose when they make a sacrifice. Maybe it’s because our idea of a sacrifice is pretty gory, and always fatal.

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. The thing we are to make holy is ourselves, our whole selves.

This week, we’re finishing up the series on Intersections: Where Faith Meets Life. We’ve wrestled with God, we’ve explored doubt and how science and scripture inform each other. Now it’s time to get down to the real nitty-gritty.

How can we, as devoted followers of Jesus Christ, live sacred, set apart lives, while still staying connected to the world in which we live? How do we live in the world without being assimilated by the world? How can the way we live our lives be so full of joy and peace, so different from worldly living, that our lives attract others to Jesus?

The Apostle Paul has a few ideas. In today’s reading, the Apostle Paul encourages us to stop crawling off the altar and start really living, as we devote ourselves to following Jesus.

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. We have to stop crawling down off the altar.

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.

Churches eager to appear relevant in today’s world can get stuck investing in their look instead of their substance. By striving to accommodate the desires of un-churched people, these churches sometimes seem to offer faith as a commodity they are trying to sell, rather than a life-giving source of deep joy and transformation.

Paul reminds us that a Christian’s transformation requires an entire mindset change. We have to start thinking differently in order to grow into our new identities as children of God. We have to get our minds right, and that means getting our hearts in the right place.

So the first step in living a sacred life in a secular world is humility.

“By God’s grace,” Paul writes, “don’t think of yourselves more highly than you ought to think.” In other words, beware the sin of pride. It’s an easy trap to fall into. After all, if Christ has set us apart as a chosen people, doesn’t that make us better than everyone else? Well, no. It doesn’t. Being part of the Body of Christ is less about privilege and more about responsibility.

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.

This was one of the features of the early church that set Christians apart from the rest of society. “Compassion was not a well-developed virtue among the pagan Romans; mercy was discouraged, as it only helped those too weak to contribute to society. In the cramped, unsanitary warrens of the typical Roman city, under the miserable cycle of plagues and famines, the sick found no public institutions dedicated to their care and little in the way of sympathy or help. Perhaps a family member would come to their aid, but sometimes even close relatives would leave their own to die.” (Gary Ferngren, Christian History, Issue 101, 6.)

And yet Christians, risking their own health, often stepped in to care for the sick and bury the dead. Their humble service to the sick and dying set them apart from the rest of society, and at the same time, began to transform that society. Humility and compassion became more powerful virtues than strength and wealth. This kind of humility showed itself in sacrificial service above and beyond the call of duty.

Does the world see us giving time we can’t spare, and resources we can barely scrape together, in such a humble and sacrificial way?

The second step for living a sacred life in a secular world is community.

Notice what Paul says here in verse one: “present your bodies as a living sacrifice.” Bodies, plural. This kind of set-apart, holy living needs to happen in community. None of us can be the Body of Christ by ourselves.

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 only happens in community. This is why, when we celebrate Communion together, we say, “Because we partake of the one loaf, though we are many, we become one in Christ Jesus.”

Does the world see that we are one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world, as we claim when we celebrate Communion together?

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 of Christ function as it should. It takes all of us to be the Body of Christ, and each of us has a distinct place within that body, based on the gifts we’ve been given.

That brings us to the third step of living a sacred life in a secular world: exercising our giftedness.

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.

Everything we do as a church should line up with the ultimate goal of making disciples of Jesus Christ 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.

Notice that Paul lists each gift as both a noun and a verb. if your gift is ministry, it shows up in ministering; if you are a teacher, that gift is evident in your teaching. Are you an encourager? We will see it in the way you encourage. Is your gift generosity? We will see it in your giving. These are not secret gifts, to be hidden away. They are made evident as they are used. They are made stronger as they are exercised.

These spiritual gifts are not only to be used for the benefit of others, however. They contribute to our own spiritual growth, too. Using our gifts draws 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,” we must realize that we who have received these gifts are those saints being equipped for ministry. And equipping ourselves for ministry takes dedication.

You can’t be a half-hearted follower of Christ.

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.

At the same time, “exercising our gifts is never a matter simply of letting ‘inspiration’ take over,” Tom Wright tells us. “… You can’t just play at it when you ‘feel like it.’ Christian service isn’t a hobby, though people sometimes think of it like that; it’s a divine calling, and if that calling is to make cups of coffee after church, that needs to be done with energy, care and flair.” (N.T. Wright, Paul For Everyone: Romans, Part 2, 76.)

Is this how the secular world sees us living out our sacred lives?

We demonstrate the Body of Christ at work through humility, community, and exercising our giftedness. But there’s one more thing to consider, and it’s what ties these three things together in a way that the world cannot mistake. This is what sets us apart as holy, without appearing to be holier-than-thou. We find it in another of Paul’s letters, this time to the church at Philippi.

In Philippians 2:5, Paul writes: “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus…”

Imagine having the same mindset as Jesus, learning to see like he sees, listen like he listens, think like he thinks, imagine like he imagines, and do things like he does things. … This, Paul says, is the secret to life. It’s not as simple, though, as W.W.J.D. (What would Jesus do?) … The better question is H.D.J.D.I. (How did Jesus do it?).

“Everything Jesus did he did by the power of the indwelling person of the Holy Spirit. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, baptized by the Holy Spirit, anointed by the Holy Spirit, gifted by the Holy Spirit, inspired by the Holy Spirit, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and infused with the Holy Spirit. He walked in the power of the Spirit, prayed in the language of the Spirit, healed in the power of the Spirit, loved in the way of the Spirit and so on.

“To “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” means to be filled by the same power that filled Jesus.” [1]

That power is the Holy Spirit.

And Paul points out that idea of community yet again: “In your relationships with one another,” he says. Do you see the power of being the church here? As we deepen our relationship with Christ, it deepens our relationships with each other, and that is what the world is watching.

Even when our clothes and homes and cars look just like everyone else’s, how we treat one another within the church should show a way of living and loving together that the world has not experienced. It is the way of being transformed into Christ’s likeness, and we are not transformed alone. Growing deeper in faith means growing deeper in our life together.

J.D. Walt writes, “The reason most of us are stuck is we do not have the kinds of relationships it takes to sustain the level of work the Holy Spirit wills to do in our lives.”

It is that work of the Holy Spirit, transforming us by the renewing of our minds, that the world around us is desperate to see. Our ability to be in the world in a distinctly Christian way, set apart as humble and holy, makes a difference to people who are hungry for the good news that God loves them, that Jesus died for them, that there is more to life than scraping by.

There is abundance. There is peace. There is joy available to all who accept Jesus as Savior and Lord. And our mission as followers of Jesus Christ, is to be and make disciples whose lives reflect that same abundance, that same peace, that same joy we have come to know.
This is the gospel.

How do we live sacred lives in a secular world?

In Philippians1:27 Paul writes: “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.”

What does this mean in 2017? What does “conduct worthy of the gospel” look like?

J. D. Walt writes, “Far from a thin veneer of moralistic behavior, the Gospel is about becoming a New Creation, a profoundly humble, pure-hearted, radically embracing person of extraordinary, holy love. It’s not so much about what we don’t do but who we are becoming together. It’s about becoming a community of people whose relationships are telling a different story, who are writing an alternative ending to an otherwise broken storyline.”

Paul will go on in his letters to give us a vision of conduct that is worthy of the Gospel, conduct that embodies the sacred in a secular world. We’ll be taking a closer look at Paul’s letters to Rome and Philippi over the next few weeks, as we head back to school, and enroll in Discipleship 101 together.

The Healthy Church Initiative Report mentioned last week that the two areas of our church life where the team sees the most potential for future growth are the areas of worship and discipleship. We’ll tackle both of those topics in September.

Meanwhile, the Apostle Paul urges us to “stand firm in the one Spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel. (Phil 1:27)

Living sacred lives, lives set apart as holy to God, requires humility, community, and exercising our giftedness. It means letting ourselves be changed, transformed by the renewing of our minds. It means having the same mindset as Christ Jesus, and conducting ourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

And why does this matter? Why should our lives be devoted to Holy transformation? “So that… you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” May it be so.


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