Readings: Romans 12:1-8
Feast Day: Pentecost 12
“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.”
Sometime in the middle of the 4th century Julian, then Emperor of Rome, wrote a letter to Arsacius, the pagan high priest of Galatia in which he said, “It is [the Christians’] philanthropy towards strangers, the care they take of the graves of the dead, and the affected sanctity with which they conduct their lives that have done the most to spread their atheism.”
As far as Emperor Julian was concerned Christianity was spreading at the rate it was mostly due to the utterly novel practices of showing charity to strangers and a belief in the sanctity of each and every human life, no matter how poor or disfigured. And all because of their allegiance to Jesus Christ rather than to the Emperor, an allegiance which earned the early Christians the reputation of being atheists.
Having had one’s life re-oriented to Jesus Christ, the gospel opens one up to a new moral horizon previously unimaginable. For example, some early Christian practices that confounded their pagan neighbours included fidelity within marriage, treating slaves with respect as brothers and sisters, treating women with dignity as equals, not scorning the poor but seeing in them the face of Christ, and refusing to expose infants, a practice that involved leaving newborn children to the fate of the gods by exposing them to the elements and whatever else may come. For those early Christians in pagan Rome following Jesus entailed resisting and rejecting what were otherwise run-of-the-mill, normal practices of the surrounding culture. And, for many of them, this came at a cost, sometimes an extraordinarily high one—their life. Other times it just meant being peculiar, weird, and unpopular.
The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome, to the same church that boggled the mind of Emperor Julian a few centuries later, “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.” As the first Christians in pagan Rome, so Christians in every age and in every place have had to learn the meaning and consequence of being a people who present themselves to God as a living sacrifice. As the first Christians in pagan Rome, so Christians in every age and in every place have had to learn the meaning and consequence of being a people who resist being conformed to the present age but are rather transformed by the renewing of their minds. But how can we account for such a transformation in the lives of those earliest Christians such that their lives stood in stark contrast to the norms of the present age? The all-consuming reality of the mercy of Christ.
I appeal to you therefore, says Paul. That is, Paul’s appeal here is based on all in his letter that has come before this point. And what we find in those first eleven chapters is Paul’s articulation of God’s unfathomable mercy that has been lavished upon all those who are in Christ Jesus. As we heard it put last week: “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all. O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways!” (11:32-33). In other words, when Paul makes his appeal to the Christians in Rome he begins with the grace of God that has now been revealed in Christ Jesus and made one new humanity out of both Jew and Gentile.
And you have received God’s mercy. How can I be sure? you ask. Because you have been baptized into Christ Jesus, and in the sixth chapter of Romans Paul argues that to be baptized is to have your life joined to the risen life of Jesus Christ and thus to be set free from the power of sin and death, “so we too might walk in newness of life,” (6:4).
Therefore, on the basis of your having received God’s mercy, on the basis of your being made a new creature in baptism, therefore what? Therefore present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.
Indeed, in baptism you were presented to God either by a sponsor or by your parents and godparents. (And if by chance you have not been baptized then please do speak with me and I would be delighted to explore this possibility with you further) As a part of that baptismal liturgy you took certain vows. For example, to “persevere in resisting evil and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.” To, “proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ.” And again, to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbour as yourself.” In baptism you were presented to God. But one way that we can present ourselves to God each day is by giving thanks for his mercy towards us and humbly striving to live out our baptismal vows by the help of the Holy Spirit who is at work in us. To present yourself to God as a living sacrifice is to awake each day knowing that your life is God’s and to be lived in service to Him alone.
Our pattern for a life that is a living sacrifice offered unto God is Jesus Christ. As Paul writes elsewhere in his letter to the church in Ephesus: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God,” (5:1-2). The “fragrant offering and sacrifice” that Christ offered unto God the Father in heaven was a life of self-giving love wherein he gave himself even into the hands of those who would kill him. To offer our lives in service to God means a willingness to allow the sacrificial love of Christ to work itself out in you so that you too are learning what it means to lay down your life for your brothers and sisters.
“Do not be conformed to this present age,” Paul says to his readers, because he knows that the temptation for those who have been brought from death to life in Christ is always to revert back to the thinking and patterns of life that they were saved from. In Paul’s view the “present age,” or as he calls it elsewhere, “the present evil age,” describes the power of sin and death at work in the world to form us in ways that are counter to what God desires. How does the status quo of our own present age form us in ways that the gospel might present a challenge to?
Holy Scripture talks about another age as well. Not only “the present evil age” but “the age to come,” in which God would give new life to the world and mankind, bringing justice, joy, and peace once and for all. Paul’s argument in Romans and elsewhere is that this “age to come” has already arrived in Jesus Christ. Moreover, those who have been baptized into Christ, whose lives have been joined to his, have been transferred if you will from the present evil age to the age to come, even while living in the midst of the present age. In other words, for those who are in Christ, God’s future has come bursting into the present already. So live accordingly, says Paul. Live as those who have been brought from death to life in Christ, for you have been. Do not be conformed to the present age, because you’re not a resident of that age any longer. Rather, present your bodies as a living sacrifice to God because he has lavished his mercy upon you in his well beloved Son, Jesus Christ.
As for those early Christians in Rome so too for us the gospel demands a reappraisal of our human situation in light of the reality of Christ. A new moral horizon has been opened to us by the mercy of Christ which we ourselves are called to live out of.
The task for Christians, therefore, is to figure out how to think, speak, and act in ways that are fitting for the age to come that is already breaking in. Thinking, speaking, and acting according to the present evil age are no longer fitting ways for Christians to live. How does this happen? Is it about trying to be a “better person”? Is it a matter of “trying” at all?
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” The only way to resist being conformed to the present age is to be transformed by the renewing of your mind. This is not about “the power of positive thinking.” In fact, it is not about anything we can do at all. Notice that the verb “transformed” is in the passive voice—be transformed. We are transformed as we apprehend—or rather, are apprehended by—the unfathomable mercy of Christ. At the centre of a life that is authentically Christian is a mind that is awake, alert, sober, illuminated by the divine light of Christ.
We are transformed to resemble Christ, given the mind of Christ (Phil 2:5), as we set our minds on him, as we consider him, as we meditate upon his Passion, as we contemplate his mercy. Being transformed is a life-long process that the Holy Spirit works out in us beginning in the waters of baptism and subsequently in great and manifold ways: as we hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest Holy Scripture, as we are nourished by his Body and Blood in Holy Communion, as we give ourselves to one another in love, and as we daily present our bodies to Christ for his service.
It is no mystery then why Paul immediately goes on to speak of the Church: “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 present our bodies as a living sacrifice to God as we present our bodies to Christ’s Body, the Church, of which we are members. As we offer ourselves to one another in love. As gather together to hear the word and receive the sacraments. As we love one another as Christ has loved us.
Brothers and sisters, you have been presented to God in baptism. So each day let us present ourselves anew to Christ as those whom he has brought from death to life. Let us each day pray that the Holy Spirit would renew our minds. Let us ask God to reveal the depth of his mercy to us, that like those early Christians in Rome our common life might come more and more to resemble the life of Jesus Christ and less and less the life of the present age. Amen.
 As quoted by David Bentley Hart in Atheist Delusions.
 NT Wright, Paul for Everyone: Romans, 69.