The Rev. John Bedingfield
In the name of one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
St. Paul tells the Church in Rome this morning, “I urge you, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service.” There is enough in this one sentence for several sermons. But this morning, I would like to focus on “present your bodies a living sacrifice,” and the last phrase of this sentence, “which is your spiritual service.” Interestingly, when you go the HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, and look up the word, “sacrifice” it tells you to look under “worship.” That led me to look deeper into the concepts of sacrifice and worship, and what they meant in Jesus’ time, and what they might mean today.
Remember that St. Paul, the author of this Epistle, was born Saul and was educated and raised as a Pharisee before he was converted by an encounter with the risen Christ. He understood the Jewish background of his religion, and he was a citizen of Rome who was familiar with pagan ways. He also understood the theology of Jesus the Messiah. In the first half of the Epistle, he outlines who Jesus was (and is) in relation to the Christian Church. When we get to chapter 12, Paul wants to shift gears and talk about what Jesus’ mission of salvation means. That’s why this chapter begins with the word, “therefore.” Jesus is the reason we have been forgiven of our sins – He is the author of our salvation. Then we get the “therefore.”
So, because of who Jesus was and what He means to us, St. Paul “appeals” to all Christians, by the mercy of God. The word that our NRSV Bible translates as “appeal,” is translated elsewhere as “urge” or even “plead.” The point of the word is exhortation. Paul is spurring the Roman Christians on – he is like a coach who wants the greatest possible performance out of his team. He exhorts them, by the mercy of God, to present their bodies as a living sacrifice.
The idea of sacrifice has been around as long as humanity has. Sacrifice has always figured into human worship of God – whether that god the one true God or any deity worshiped by any people. As early as Chapter 4 of Genesis, we get a story of Cain and Abel making sacrificial offerings of the fat portions of the lamb and the best of the grain grown, to the God who blessed them with that abundance. From that story through the stories of Abraham giving the best he had to God when God came to visit his camp, through the story of Abraham being willing to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac on the altar of God, if that was what God wanted, we have story after story of sacrifice as a part of worship.
Once God led the children of Israel out of Egypt, Jewish worship began to take shape – a shape that decidedly included sacrifice. Through the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, Moses’ brother Aaron and the house of the Levites was trained in the ways of Priestly worship and sacrifice. Cattle, sheep, goats, doves and pigeons became the sacrificial animals of ancient Judaism. By the time that King Solomon built the first Temple in Jerusalem, the Priests had honed the art of sacrifice greatly.
In the Temple, there were several different kinds of sacrifices – each involving different animals and offered for different reasons. The burnt offering was the most common and most general of sacrifices. Any kind of animal could be used – as long as it was male and free of blemishes – and it was ritually killed, skinned and burned on the altar. (The burning sacrifice took the prayers skyward and brought a “pleasing aroma” to God, which is why we use incense in church even now). This sacrifice could be offered as thanksgiving or in atonement and was done twice a day, every day, in the Temple in Jerusalem. In addition to this twice daily sacrifice, there were peace offerings, thank offerings, free-will offerings, votive offerings, sin offerings and ordination offerings. Each had its own purpose, its own prescribed animals and its own traditional actions associated with it – in other words, each sacrifice had its own liturgy attached to it.
But most of these sacrifices shared some common elements. The animal involved would be ritually killed – that is, prayed for as it was killed as quickly as possible. In some rituals the blood of the animal was splashed on the altar, in others that was not the case. But the carcass of the animal was always burned on the altar – with some part of the resulting cooked meat being offered to the Priests in payment for their work.
One of the sacrifices offered by the Temple Priests did not involve killing the animal or using its blood as a part of the rite – which all of the other sacrifices did, except for sacrifices of grain or wine, obviously. On the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the High Priest would take one of the male goats destined for sacrifice. Because this was a sacrificial animal, it would be as close to perfect as they could get. The Priest would take this perfect goat and say prayers in which he would lay all of the sins of the Jewish people on the goat. Then the goat was run off into the countryside, where it would presumably take the sins of the people with it. Do you see where this is headed? By the way, this sacrifice of the goat on Yom Kippur is where we get the modern term, “scapegoat,” for one who takes the blame for another’s wrongdoing.
During our service, when we say Eucharistic Prayer A, we say that Jesus “offered himself, in obedience to (God’s) will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.” That is the way St. Paul understood Jesus’ crucifixion, as a perfect sacrifice, as the ultimate act of atonement for the sins of the whole world. To Paul, and to most of the modern Church, Jesus’ hanging on the cross was the perfected version of an animal without blemish being laid on the altar in the Temple. Just as Jesus said that He came to fulfill the Law of Moses, so also was His sacrifice the fulfillment of sacrificial acts in worship of God.
So, when St.Paul tells the Romans that they are to present their bodies to God as a holy and living sacrifice, he didn’t mean that they should be ritually killed in the name of God. Jesus did that one time for all of us. No, Paul meant that they were to offer their soma (soma) – their hearts, souls, minds and bodies; their entirety – to God. In our Eucharistic prayers, we offer to God a sacrifice of our prayers and praise. That’s clearly part of what Paul was talking about, but not all that he was talking about.
Paul says that this offering of – again as we put it in our Eucharistic celebration – ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice to God, is the very least we can do, given the immensity of what God has given us – particularly the sacrifice of God’s only Son as the “scapegoat for our sins”.
Today, here and now, we are still called by God, just was the Church in Rome was almost 2000 years ago, to offer to God everything we have, as sacrificial offerings for our sins, and for our blessings. When Jesus’ sacrifice perfected sacrificial death, our sacrifices became those things, short of our lives, that we have to offer God. For modern Americans that means the “Three Ts” we talk about every year – time, talent and treasure.
In coming weeks, this theme – the theme of our need to sacrificially give – is going to reemerge several times. As those weeks and those sermons come around, I want you to keep a couple of things in mind. First, this is not about giving because God needs it (or worse yet, because the Church needs it). Of course God doesn’t need our money and of course the Church does. Money is what the modern world runs on and the Church is a part of that world. But this is not about that need to pay the electric bill and to keep the clergy fed. This is about our need to sacrifice to God. Remember that in the beginning of this sermon, I told you that sacrifice had been a part of worship as long as there has been worship. That’s because people need to give sacrificially in order to connect with God on a deeper level and to feel they are a part of God’s work in the world. It’s the worshiper’s need, not God’s that’s at work. Keep that in mind in coming weeks.
But also, keep in mind that our time and our talent figure in to this sacrificial giving just as does our treasure. Think about how you give of your time and how you use your God-given talent. God blesses your work every day, not just on Sundays. How you use the time God has given you is, in Paul’s words, a part of your spiritual worship.
“I urge you, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service. Don’t be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what is the good, well-pleasing, and perfect will of God.” Amen.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2009, John Bedingfield. Used by permission.