A Living Sacrifice

Exodus 1:8-2:10

Psalm 124

Romans 12:1-8

Matthew 16:13-20

St. Paul appeals to his Roman readers, and to us, “to present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is [our] spiritual worship.” Because we have become so familiar with this phrase, it is worthwhile to reflect on how radical it is. Sacrifice, in Paul’s time, was a very common religious observance, practiced not only among Jews in Temple worship but also by the official pagan cult of Rome and nearly every other religion in that very pluralistic environment: Mithraism, Zoroastrianism, the Egyptian religion of Isis and Osiris, Celtic religions, and the religious practices of the peoples from the Steppes of what is now Russia. Although the religions differed in the manner and context of sacrifices, sacrifices took place frequently and were an ordinary part of their world. In the official Roman religion the patriarch of the family would perform a brief sacrifice with each evening meal, according to some scholars. In the Jewish religion of which Jesus was a part, there were four major yearly festivals of sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem plus dozens of other occasions each year in which people could make sacrifices, or pay priests to sacrifice for them.

Whereas Paul enjoins us to be living sacrifices, in all these religions, the thing sacrificed was a dead animal, not a living human being. Sometimes grain was offered, but that was not a sacrifice in the full sense. In the sacrifice, an animal was cut up and its parts re-arranged or redistributed so as to reinforce what the religious group believed is the proper divine ordering of the cosmos. For instance, in the Jewish sacrificial cult, some part of the animal is burned on the altar so as to go to God, some of the meat is given to the priests, other parts of the animal to the people making the sacrificial donation, and the blood is treated as sacred, usually splashed on the altar. This division marks out the distinctions between the divinity, the servants of the divinity, the people whose allegiance is to the divinity, and the fact that the divine ordering is a life and death matter, a matter of life-blood.

In some vague way, the sacrificial re-arrangement of the parts of the animal not only reflects pre-given distinctions within the religious dimension, it helps to create them. In the ancient world, a great many people believed that a failure to observe proper sacrifices would let the world slip into confusion and chaos. You will remember that St. Paul believed that the world had slipped to such a great confusion of the powers of evil and good that only the sacrifice of the Son of God could restore things to their rightful order. The ancient civilizations of India and China also were shaped with ideas and practices of sacrifices such as these.

These sensibilities are so alien to our own that we find it hard to take them seriously. Few of us sit easily with Paul’s frequent interpretation of Jesus as a sacrificial lamb. Read the early chapters of the book of Leviticus to see detailed prescriptions for a variety of sacrifices that are the background of our Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions. Understanding what sacrifice meant in the ancient world is crucial for understanding what is demanded of us who do not take the language and practice of sacrifice seriously.

The first radical thing in Paul’s admonition to us to be living sacrifices is that we are human beings, not animals. Of course, many religions, especially in times before Jesus and Paul, had practiced human sacrifice, with the same intent as animal sacrifice: to bring order to the cosmos regarding relations between divinity and human life. Given the vigor with which Hebrew Bible writers condemn human sacrifice, it probably was the case that the early worship of Yahweh included it. Or perhaps it is better to say that the early worship of Yahweh was mixed together with the worship of other gods and somewhere along the line human sacrifice was included. But the strain of Israelite religion that came down to Jesus as the worship practice of Second Temple Judaism strongly condemned human sacrifice. How daring of Paul, then, good Pharisee that he was, to advocate that Christians regard themselves as sacrifices, restoring the cult of human sacrifice! Imagine this: we Christians believe in a strange form of human sacrifice, if we take Paul seriously!

Paul’s point in our Epistle today, of course, is that we should be living sacrifices, not dead ones to be dismembered with our body parts re-arranged. Therefore, his sense of human sacrifice did not involve killing anyone. In fact, for Paul, Jesus’ sacrifice unto death was the final, once-for-all, and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. No one else ever again needs to be sacrificed to set right the relation between God and human beings, good and evil. The significance of Jesus’ atoning death was that Jesus did it! We do not have to atone for our sins, only accept God’s mercy. Moreover, for us to think that we do need to atone for our sins, to wallow in that guilt, is itself another sin, the sin of rejecting God’s forgiving grace in Jesus. The good news of the gospel is that we are freed from the guilty life for which a sacrifice might be required to set in right order, because that sacrifice has already been made, once and for all. At least this is the way Paul saw it in his world with its understanding of sacrifice.

With this in mind, we can understand some of the Christian symbolism that is obscure to our modern sensibilities. How were the body parts of Jesus, the human sacrifice, re-arranged? Most obviously, Jesus, once dead, came to life again, signifying that in the cosmic order of things, life trumps death; God is the God of the living. Jesus’ resurrection and ascension into heaven signified that the way to God is open to human beings, after it had been confused or made chaotic by sin. In this respect, Paul called Jesus the first-born of many who will get to God. Yet in another symbolic sense, Jesus left his flesh and blood with us in the Eucharistic practice of his community. Each communion is a symbolic mini-sacrifice in which we, God’s people, get a share of the body of Christ, like in the ancient Mediterranean evening meal sacrifice.

With these reflections on the background of sacrificial thinking in Paul’s time, we can look more directly at his plea that Christians become living sacrifices to God. When he said we should present our “bodies” as living sacrifices, by “bodies” he meant our whole selves, not just our minds or souls or spirits. For Paul, and Christians generally, we are our visible, material bodies, and our bodies are more than mechanical bits of flesh, blood, bone, and nerve. Harmonized as living organisms, our bodies produce or embody all those realities of mind and heart, soul and spirit that we sometimes distinguish from body. A dead body, of course, is just a body. A living body is a person. Paul said to present our whole selves, our persons, to God as a living sacrifice.

But of course presenting our whole selves includes presenting our bodies, and this part of Paul’s plea that we be living sacrifices has enormous consequences. We need to take care of our bodies, if not for our own enjoyment, then in order to be worthy living sacrifices. In ancient Jewish law, only animals without blemish could be used in sacrifices, and in some occasions only priests without bodily blemish could perform the sacrifices. Paul was contradicting this point of Jewish law by saying that everyone should present themselves, not only those with unblemished bodies, or even unblemished character. Remember in our Epistle he went on to say that people
are different in their skills and also in their degrees of faith, yet all are members of one body. So we should understand that we need to make the best of the bodies that our genes and the accidents of our lives have given us. Some people are healthy, others sickly, some strong, others disabled, some naturally talented, others klutzes, some young, others old, some beautiful, others blemished. For instance, whenever my dermatologist examines me, he mutters under his breath about all the weeds in God’s garden of life. Or consider that in the history of Western Christian art, St. Paul is always represented as bald, an affliction I take more seriously than most! We have to make do with the bodies we have. Paul’s point was that we need to take as good care as possible of our bodies because we present them to God as our spiritual worship.

So fat America needs to wake up and diet if we are going to present our bodies as our spiritual worship! Starving ourselves to look like Twiggy is no spiritual improvement. Lazy muscles need to go to the gym. Those of us who do enough manual labor to stay fit need to take care that we not abuse our bodies. The poverty that makes some people starve or abuse their bodies with too much work is not only intrinsically unjust but also an impediment to spiritual worship. Nicotine, alcohol, caffeine, and other mood altering drugs have the potential to ruin the bodies we offer to God. People with chronic conditions such as hypertension or diabetes need to take special care to remain healthy. I could go on and on, but you get the point. Our bodies are not just for us, they are our sacrificial offering to God. They are part of our ultimate responsibility, and we need to be serious in their care. The reason for this is that they are God’s gift, and the only truthful way to be alive before God is to be grateful.

Our spiritual worship, Paul was saying, does not mean just going to church. In fact, in this whole section of his letter Paul does not mention worship in the sense of church liturgy, although I will not make too much of this point because I am very glad you are here. Rather, Paul meant that our spiritual worship is how we live in the whole of our lives. What we present to God as holy and acceptable is not our ritual liturgy but the whole of what we do and make of ourselves. Actually, one of the meanings of the ancient word from which “liturgy” comes is “work.” In that ancient sense, our entire lives are our “work,” our liturgies.

Paul said, “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.” The problem with this world, Paul thought, rightly I believe, is that it is a confusion of good and evil, a debilitating mixture of the sacred and the alienated, a chaos of responsibilities considered in ultimate perspective. When we pursue holiness as living sacrifices, in our many small ways we do bring a proper divine order out of this confusion and chaos. The activities of our living members move the cosmos to better order, just as they believed about sacrifice in the ancient world. Now I do not mean that morality will ever be simple and unambiguous. What is good for some people is often bad for others, and often we need to make choices between the greater of goods and the lesser of evils. Inevitably we are guilty of wrong-doing even when we are doing our best. And sometimes we cannot even understand what we are doing. Thank the merciful God for creating a religion for sinners!

My point, however, is that to be a living sacrifice is to sort out how we relate to God in everything we do, and to put first things first. Paul said that we should renew our minds so that we may “discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Although life is complicated and morally ambiguous, we still have guidelines for being living sacrifices. In the passage immediately following our text from Romans Paul wrote:

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

You see from these guidelines about what is good and acceptable and perfect, what a difficult job we have to be living sacrifices, so that through our lives we can move the world toward a divine order.

In a society that defines love as self-interest and in a country whose government justifies heinous crimes by citing America’s self interest, we need grace to make love be genuine, to separate ourselves from evil, and cling to the good. In a society that fosters exploitation of neighbor and with a government that insists on being honored above others, we need grace to practice mutual affection and compete in honoring one another. In a society of physical and spiritual couch potatoes, we need grace to serve God with zeal and an ardent spirit. In a land where the rich get richer and the poor poorer, we need grace to sustain hope, patience in suffering, and continued prayer. When we are taught to take care of our own and to condemn people who are different from ourselves, we need grace to serve the saints and extend hospitality to strangers. In a society whose government believes that bending others to our will is macho, we need grace to bless those who persecute us. In a consumerist culture that teaches that joy can be bought, we need grace to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. In a political culture that believes that dominating others is the way to harmony, we need grace to live in harmony without being haughty and to know the limits of our wisdom about what is good for others. In a country that suffered evil from criminal terrorists and responded by declaring a war on terrorism and, finding insufficient numbers of terrorists willing to stand up and be warred upon, attacked two countries that did not attack us, killing more people than all the victims of terrorism combined over the last century, we need grace not to repay evil for evil and to take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. In a nation that votes in politicians who like war, it takes grace to live peaceably with all. In the richest and most powerful nation in Earth’s history which still believes it needs to take vengeance on those who oppose its will for them, it takes grace never to avenge ourselves and to leave judgment to God. How can we not be overcome by all this evil, but overcome evil with good, except by grace?

Brothers and sisters, I assure you that we have the grace to present our bodies as living sacrifices, wholly and acceptable to God, which is our spiritual worship. Let the witness of our lives call the world to love, goodness, affection, honor, zeal, service, hope, patience, prayer, charity, hospitality, blessing the persecutors, sharing joy and sorrow, harmony, humility, wisdom, forbearance of vengeance, and the overcoming of evil with good. These things are God’s order, and our living sacrifice can make them happen. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

Leave a Reply