Our world shapes who we are. The world in which I grew up is really different world than the one in which many of you grew up. I do not remember when Jimmy Carter was president, nor have I ever watched the Ed Sullivan show. Many younger members of our congregation may not remember a time when nearly every household did not have a Personal Computer, not to mention remember the world of computers prior to Microsoft Windows and the wonderful thing that once was MS Dos. Many may not remember the world before cell phones; while my grandmother could tell me of the first time she saw an automobile and how frightened she was.
The world in which we live shapes the way we think and the way we understand things. Sometimes I still find it odd that when I was in 4th grade science I learned that we were living at the end of an ice age while today’s young people are learning about global warming and its effects on us and our environment. The world in which some of you grew up in believe it or not was not the same world in which I grew up. The different world in which each of us has lived has form and shaped us and how we see the world around us. It affects how we live and how we think, in ways that we don’t even know and probably will never fully understand.
In today’s passage Paul calls for us to step outside of everything that we know about our world and do something radically different that really does not make much sense at all. He calls for us to give ourselves to God as sacrifices, as living sacrifices. Giving yourself as a sacrifice was pretty much just as much of a radical idea in Paul’s day as it would be today. As daily riding in a motor-powered machine that can travel at speeds upwards of 60 miles an hour would be to people who lived right here in Cambridge at the time this church was formed. It would have been a completely non-sensical idea to most of them. Likewise, for many reasons the idea of a living sacrifice utter non-sense to most of us.
Before we can come to any kind of understanding what a living sacrifice is we need to first understand how the people to whom Paul would have understood sacrifices. The Jews in the church at Rome would have understood the idea of sacrifices; because sacrifices are were a part of Jewish worship. The Jewish sacrificial system had dual purposes. First it was a way for the worshiper to acknowledge who God was in their life. It was a way of thanking God for giving the things that gave you and your family sustenance, thanking God for continually providing the things that are needed to make it from day to day, week to week and season to season. It also helped maintain the priesthood. Many offerings, such as grain offerings and oil offerings were not burned at all but were simply given to the temple, and most sacrifices were not whole burnt offerings, meaning that they were not entirely consumed by fired, but instead were simply cooked or only a certain portion was burnt on the alter. Anything that was not wholly burnt on the alter was used by the priests and their families, since they had no other means of supporting themselves.
So the Jews in the Church at Rome understood what a sacrifice was, but so did the Gentiles I the Church. Sacrifices were not exclusive to Jewish worship but were a part of most common religions of that day. Sacrifices in the pagan religions was about giving to the god what the god demanded to keep the god happy so that the god would act on your behalf. Sacrificing was the way in which a person showed honor and respect to the god. So no matter who you were Jew or Gentile the idea of a sacrifice being offered up to God made sense.
But Paul was calling for the people to be living sacrifices, which were offered up to God. I mentioned earlier that there were several different kinds of offerings or sacrifices the Jews would bring to the temple. Some offerings were to be taken offered up on the alter and then taken home and eaten. Other offerings were given to God and then were used to support the priest and his family. Still other offerings were put on the alter and were completely consumed by the fire have been burnt completely in the process. These later offerings were called whole burnt offerings, they were completely consumed by the fire and in doing so the sacrifice was seen as having been given completely and wholly over to God
Many different things were sacrificed in the Jewish sacrificial system lambs, goats, pigeons, but there was one thing that was never considered an appropriate sacrifice and that was the sacrifice of a human being. From the very beginnings of Jewish history God forbade human sacrifice. God did not want God’s people to sacrifice their children, as so many other deities required. God said that is was an abhorrent practice and was not under any circumstances to be practiced by God’s people.
But then here in this passage we have Paul calling for Human sacrifice, a different kind of human sacrifice but a human sacrifice non-the-less. This is what made what Paul was saying here so radical to the people to whom he was writing. The kind of sacrifice he is calling for them to make was unlike any other kind of sacrifice these people had ever heard. It was not a pagan human sacrifice where human blood was spilled to placate a false god, nor was it like any sacrifice found in the Jewish sacrificial system.
It was a sacrifice but it was completely different from any sacrifice anyone had ever made to God on several levels. First of all, with this kind of sacrifice one did not offer something, or someone else, whether it be a goat, lamb or a pigeon; a slave, a captured enemy or your first born son, on the alter. Paul was talking about offering up one’s self as a sacrifice to God. This was not offering something that was ultimately not yours to offer, like the life of someone or something outside of your self, but this was about putting what is nearest and dearest to you on the alter, giving up what really mattered to you. It was about putting yourself on the alter, not laying anything, or anyone else down as your sacrifice but laying yourself down.
This is about truly following Christ’s example in ALL things. Giving yourself up, just as Christ gave himself up. Jesus did not offer anyone or anything else up on our behalf but offered himself up on our behalf, likewise Paul is calling for us to be Christlike in the extreme, giving up even ourselves to the glory of God. Sacrificing yourself to God
This is different kind of sacrifice on another level as well. The sacrifice Paul is calling for us to make is offered up in a way that is not in anyway like any sacrifice had ever been offered before. Sacrifices were by definition dead, they were either inanimate objects or living things that had been killed. Paul was calling for people to give themselves to God as living sacrifices. He was asking the people of the church at Rome to give themselves as alive sacrifices, to place their own lives on the alter as a sacrifice, but not giving their life up as in ending it, giving up their lived life to God; living life as if they belonged to God. And the thing is was we not just to live any kind of lives but we are to live lives that are holy and acceptable to God.
In the Bible holy has two meanings. First it means, having the attributes of God. Secondly it means, being set aside for use by God. Having the attributes of God means, reflecting who God is in all we do and say, in all our actions, interactions and reactions with every person we encounter each and every day. It means that our words and actions are the words and actions that God would have, if God were in our position each and every moment of every day. In this sense, being holy is being who and what God is in all in all things.
Being set aside for the use by God is the way in which the articles of the temple were holy. Everything in the temple was set aside as holy unto God in that they were not used for common usages but were only for temple use; for use in worship and for the specific purposes in the temple. They were holy, they were set aside for use by God in the temple.
When Paul is calling for the people of the Church of Rome to live lives of living sacrifice, he is saying that they are to reflect both of these usages of the word holy. They were to be set aside for use by God, AND that they were to reflect the very nature of God, they were to reflect the Holiness of God in this world.
In living lives as Living sacrifices one becomes what a person could never be on their own. When a Christian lives a life of holiness then their life is pleasing to God. When one who belongs to God’s Church place themselves on the alter, giving themselves wholly and completely over to God, God transforms forms them into what they could never be on their own.
As humans with the tendency to live in self-serving ways as opposed to the in the loving ways God calls us to live, we are NOT holy; we are NOT pleasing to God. But a life given completely and entirely over to God, sacrificed and gift freely given, then we as Christians become through the power and transformation of God, holy AND pleasing to God.
When we as Christians we live these kinds of lives we are transformed, not conformed. Conformation is a power from the outside changing who you are. When something is conformed is it more like being pressed into a mold, or shaped and crafted by something on the outside. Being conformed is being shaped and formed by the world in which we live. It is easy to allow our environment or something outside of ourselves to determine who we are and what we are becoming.
Transformation is something coming from within changing who you are. Christians are changed by a power that resides within. Christians are changed by a power greater than any power on the outside, changed by the power of Jesus Christ. Changes by the one we have allowed to dwell within us, allowing God to shape us and transform us into the people God created us to be, who we were meant to be in the first place. As Christians we are shaped and formed by the one who dwells within and are not to be conformed by the world that is fallen and given over to destruction.
Once we as followers of Jesus Christ are living sacrifices, being transformed into the holy Godly people we were created to be, Paul give us a warning to not think too highly of ourselves, to use sober judgment and for each of us to work on the faith given to us. This is Paul’s quick way of saying to not be all up in each others’ business, that each of us should not always be looking at those around us and be critical of everyone else thinking our faith and our relationship with God is better, stronger, deeper, more spiritual than so in so’s who sits in that pew on the other side of the sanctuary. Working on the faith walk that God has given to you should be enough of a worry for you, and if you have time to be thinking that you are better than someone else, you are not spending enough time on your own faith.
But even as we are not suppose to be worrying about the other person and how much better we are than them we are to be working together. As believers we are all one body, one Church, all apart of Jesus Christ we are to work together as a living body works together. By giving ourselves as sacrifices we become parts of a unified Body. The Church is the Body of Christ that remains in this world even as he has returned to the Father. We make up the physical presence of Christ in this world. As the Church we are the body of Christ alive and working the will of the Father here.
As different parts of the same body we all have different gifts, different functions. But we are all essential parts of God’s Church and Christ’s body. We are all good at different things and because of that have different functions in the body; feet, walk; hands clap; voices sing, eyes see. We all are different parts fulfilling different functions all working together to make the body work. Paul says the sign of a healthy body is that we are all working together; working to together; unified to do the work and the will of God in this world
Ultimately this is what it means to be living sacrifices to God. Being holy, acceptably, pleasing sacrifices to God means that we are living in community with the Body, the Church of God, living, working, together to do the work that God has called us to do; loving God, loving one another, loving the people in the world around us, striving and working together to bring the light and love of God to those who as of yet do not know what it means to be loved by God, to love God and to love as God loves.
Sometimes we get confused and we think that being a Christian is about just Jesus and me, sometimes we get confused and we think that Holiness is about me and my life alone, but truly living a life that is lived a Christ would life it, living a holy life, a life set apart to God, a life that is lived loving as God would love, is a life that is lived working together in the community of faith, as the Church, as the body, all fulfilling our different roles but working together for the common goal of reaching the world around us with the love of God, so that not only can we be transformed but that they (who ever “they” may be) may also know the love and transformative power of God in their lives. Holiness begins with me, it begins with you, but from there it extends to us, and we and ends with us and we extending God’s holy love to the world around us, to the people I come in contact with each and everyday, to the people you come in contact with each and everyday and by allowing our community and the world around us to come in contact with us in great and small ways through you and me and through what we do together as we are living in community as the body of Christ.