Homily for Proper 21, Year A
Sunday, August 24th, 2008
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Romans 12:1-8
“So that you may discern the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
-- Romans 12:2
Who am I? What is my place in the world, in the Church, and in the kingdom of God? These are questions that cut to the core of our being and essential for each of us to address if we are to live out our lives with purpose and according to God’s will. These are also questions to which St. Paul turns in the twelfth chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. Having spent the previous eleven chapters probing very deeply the theological essence and understanding of new life in Christ, Paul turns from an exposition of the content of faith to offering ethical instruction on how we are to live as Christian people. He begins by addressing the very question that cuts to the core of each of us, the existential question: Who am I and what is my reason for being?
Thus, I suggest that in these few chapters Paul is addressing the question of our authenticity as Christian people. If we are born anew in Christ, if indeed we have died with him in the waters of baptism, who have we become as we are raised to new life and live in him? His answer, I believe, is threefold. If we are indeed alive to God in Christ, he calls us first to uncover who we are in our relationship with the living God. Secondly, he asks us to consider who we are with respect to the world in which we live. And finally, he exhorts us to consider our relationship with each other in our participation in the body of Christ, that is, the Church.
Consider for a moment the first point. Who are we, who have we become, or better yet, who are we becoming in our relationship with the living God. Paul exhorts us to “present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God which is our spiritual worship. These words would have certainly evoked within the original hearers several admonishments from the Hebrew Scriptures, for example, Hosea 6:6, “For I desires steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings”, and of course, Psalm 50:14, “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and pay your vows to the most High.” Thus, Paul was surely evoking both within the narrative thought world of his first century Jewish listeners and the cultural world of his gentile audience a traditional image of sacrifice turned on its head – the offering of self, rather than ritual, cultic sacrifice.
Some months ago, I spoke about a similar passage found in the First Letter of Peter, and I drew the obvious connection to our post-communion prayer from the BCP: “And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice unto thee.” I do not wish to traverse extensively over ground upon which I have so recently trod, but I do wish to point out that where the New Revised Standard Version of our Bible reads “spiritual worship” in Romans 12:1, the term might be better translated, “reasonable worship.” The BCP prayer certainly picks up this variant meaning. Furthermore, in ancient parlance, to say that we present “our bodies,” is to be understood as connoting “our whole selves.” Thus, in St. Paul’s understanding, what God asks of us is the offering of our whole selves, not just our minds or our hearts, but also our bodies, to God. We offer to God all that we are and all that we have. Again, this evokes a well-known saying of Jesus (which he actually cribbed from the Hebrew Scriptures), “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.”
Now, at the outset this might seem to sound like a tall order, but I suggest that it instead rather simple, and indeed, quite liberating. Consider this: God does not ask us to offer what we have not or who we are not, but to offer what we have and who we are. This is what is reasonable and holy in the sight of God. It involves no striving, nor perfection. We are who we are, good or bad, and all the complexity in-between; wherever we are, who ever we are, whenever we are – God asks us to come to him, as the old hymn says, “Just as I am.” It is the entirety of our being that God seeks. Not just our spirits, souls, or minds, but also our bodies, all that has been created in his image, all that he deemed good in our creation, and yes, also every thing and every way in which we have failed to conform to that image. Just as I am.
This inevitably leads to the second point, found in verse two, in which Paul exhorts us not to be conformed to the world (or more literally, to the present age), but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that we may discern the will of God. Thus the question becomes, “Who am I in this present age; in this beautiful, wonderful, but confusing, complicated, and oft-disappointing world?” Well, if we have come to understand that we are God’s and that in Christ we offer ourselves back to him, then we cannot belong to another. The present age cannot be our master. Who then, are we to be with respect to the world? About one thing, we must be perfectly clear, and I believe Paul is clear on this point because he would not have offered extensive moral exhortation about how to live in the world if he did not believe it, namely, that the Christian life is not about escapism. Just as it is not about escaping our bodies, as the Gnostics and their modern heirs would have, neither is it about escaping this present world. The world is God’s creation. All creation belongs to God. All time is His. Yet, there are forces and powers in this age that rebel against God and his good creation. Indeed, within us we sense sinful desires that draw us from the love of God. Lest we think that these are all external forces, let us remember that each of us has within us the capacity to do great harm to our fellow human beings. Thus, let us not be conformed to what draws us from God, but be transformed. What can this mean, though, to be transformed. I suggest that it means nothing less than learning to see with the eyes of God – to see the world as God sees it, with love, hope, compassion and delight. What is more, it means that we must begin to see ourselves as God sees us, with love, hope, compassion and delight. A recurring theme in the letters of Paul, found especially in Philippians chapter 2, is the exhortation that we might have the mind of Christ. That is, to see as God sees, to act as God acts, to relate to each other and the world as God would relate to us.
We are fond of saying that we were created in image and likeness of God, but Eastern Orthodox theology makes a certain distinction: We were created in the image of God and while that image may be become tarnished it is never completed obscured. God, thus, became man that we might be transformed into his likeness. To be transformed in Christ is to find our truest self, which is both the image and likeness of God. Therefore, in the words of a prominent theologian H.A. Williams, the Christian life is the process of “becoming who I am.” Or to think of it another way, the Christian life is about learning to see myself as God sees me, not through my own eyes but through the eyes of Christ. When we can do this, then we shall the world as God sees it and understand more clearly our place in it.
Finally, we come to ask the question, who am I in the Kingdom of God? As Paul does, elsewhere, he invokes the image of a body, not just any body, but the body of Christ. And as Paul made clear to the Corinthians, so too he explains to the Romans, a body has many parts, and all the parts are necessary to the ordered working of the whole. Whereas the problem in Corinth was that one wanted to be hand when they were a foot, and another wanted to be an eye when they were an ear, in Romans Paul is simply offering the metaphor as a way of understanding that our callings and vocations are gifts from God. Each of us are given talents and skills which we are to offer for the building of the kingdom. Consider again the prayer, we offer “our selves, our souls and bodies,” which is our reasonable worship. Thus, to take up our gifts, to live into them, to live them out is also an act of worship. Paul identifies seven gifts because in the ancient world seven was the number of perfection. The number is purely symbolic; there are as many gifts as there are people. Thus, it is my duty to ask you to consider, explore, and discern your gifts. What is the special talent God has given you? Have your nurtured that gift? Have you honoured that gift? Have you used it for the building up of God’s kingdom? St. Paul also tells us that God gives us a measure of faith with our gifts that enables us to activate them, engage them, to live into them that we might faithfully fulfill the work to which we are called, not only as individuals but as a holy people, God’s Holy Church. When each of us faithfully engages our gifts, then together, as the body of Christ, we can be so much more than simply the sum of our parts, we can bring Christ’s body to the world – A body that has the power to heal a broken humanity and a broken world.
Who am I? What is my place in the world? Who is God calling me to be in his kingdom? The answer of course is simple: God is calling me to be me. Not as I see myself, but as God sees me. God is calling each of us, in our brokenness, and yes, even our sinfulness to become who we are. God is calling us, in the midst of an age that seeks but refuses to see, to see ourselves as he sees us. God is calling us to look within ourselves and claim our talents and skills. God is calling us to look at ourselves and the world through the his eyes, to have the mind of Christ in all things, and most of all, to become who we are, a holy people created in the image of God and growing day by day into his likeness.
Text copyright 2008 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This homily may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, by any means, without the express, written permission of the author.