(Editor’s note: This was a sermon based on Romans 12:1–9.)
In middle school during black history month we would watch these videos called Eyes On the Prize and make posters lauding black achievement. There were posters about George Washington Carver and his varied uses of the peanut. Alongside Carver, one might find Harriet Tubman and her underground railroad or Frederick Douglas and poignant question: What to a slave is the fourth of July?
But it is the videos that I remember. They mostly consisted of interviews interspersed with footage that told the story of events like the Montgomery bus boycott or the integration of the lunch counters throughout the United States. Many (but not all) of the leaders of were Christian laity and pastors. But strangely enough many (but not all) of their opponents also professed the Christian faith. This was my picture of the church, a body in violent and bloody disagreement with itself. But I was hopeful because a knew what side God was on. I knew that he loved his beleaguered people of God drawn from every nation.
But it was hard to erase the images of the dogs and the Billy clubs and the water hoses.
Anyone who has watched the news over the last few weeks in which White Supremacists marched in the largest number that we have seen in living memory cannot help but wonder what is happening to our country. better yet we wonder what the church can do in a time when hatred is on the rise and the civil discourse seems to be falling away? How do we respond?
I want to posit Romans 12 as the beginning of an answer to this question. I want to argue that Paul calls the church in his age and in every age to be an alternative society whose holiness and mutual dependence on one another testifies to a different way of being human. What then is the role of the church in the present moment? The role of the church is to be what God calls us to be: the one people of God saved by the blood of Jesus, who empowered by the Spirit, bear witness to his present and coming kingdom.
Romans 12 as the turning point in the letter
Romans 12:1 represents a turning point in the letter. In Romans 1–11 Paul argues that both Jews and Gentiles are under the power of Sin and Death. All this changed with the coming of the promised Messiah Jesus whose death atones for our sins. Now those who believe are called into his beloved kingdom. Do not miss this: at the center of Romans is the creation of the one people of God under the one king. Therefore, statements such as I do not see race are simply misunderstandings of the gospel. You can’t understand Romans without recognizing the role that ethnicity plays in Paul’s presentation of the gospel. It is precisely through the community of Gentiles (black, white, Latino, and Asian) and believing Jews that the universal saving power of the Gospel is made clear. God has called all of us into his kingdom. But then the question becomes what comes next. We are the one people of God, but how should be live? What does the Christian life look like? How is this kingdom to function if we are no longer under the law? And what does any of this have to do with events like Charlottesville?
Our Minds and Bodies as Instruments of Protest: A Plea to Take the Gospel seriously
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. (Romans 12:1–2)
Romans 12:1 begins with a plea. He urges his people to present their bodies as living sacrifices. A plea means that such sacrifices are not natural. We must decide to pursue Christ. The call of God in Christ challenges us. How important is this Jesus stuff? Is the gospel an urgent matter that has changed us or is something that we turn to when we are depressed? What role does Christianity play in how we spend our money? How we raise our kids if we have them? How does our faith impact how we view white supremacy? Do we believe that the creator of the universe loved us and sent his Son to save and transform the world into the arena of the manifestation of his glory? That all creation longs with eager expectation of the revealing of the sons and daughters of God?
Paul tells you what God wants of us in the aftermath of the gospel. God asks for our bodies and our minds. Present our bodies as living sacrifices holy and pleasing to him. Our worship of God is not simply the songs that we sing, but the embodied lives that we live in the world. What does this mean?
Everybody wants our body. But who do we trust? The culture tells us how to dress, how to eat, when and how to have sex. It wants us and we offer our bodies up to that which we love the most. But does the world, which wants our bodies, love us back or does it enslave us to expectations that lead only to despair? Instagram, brothers and sisters, is a liar. It does not represent the lives that we live. God’s call on our body then is not a limitation but an opportunity for freedom. We trust God with our body because we believe that he loves us. His love calls us to life of sacrificial holiness. It is sacrificial because it is hard to trust God to give up our instinct to cling to our own self-sufficiency
In the ancient world giving an animal to God meant giving up some of your income, what you relied up to eat and live. It hurt a little bit because although they knew that God made all the sheep in the world there was tendency to hold on to the one sheep that they had as if he could not give another.
We too are tempted to hold on to our small sins because we believe that God can’t give us anything better. Racism then deep down is a fear that if my whiteness or blackness isn’t what makes special and better than others then nothing is. That if we are forced to sit with ourselves we might find nothing worthy of love, but the gospel tells us a different story.
So we offer our bodies to God as a sacrifice to him because we trust him with it.
We love to say to our children or our spouses or our dearest friends: I would do anything for you. I would die for you. But will we live a whole life? Being a martyr for the Christian faith will not be the reality for most of us. We will not be called to give our lives in a momentary dramatic act for Jesus. But we can live for him with our bodies in the way we speak, in the way we treat other people, with how we spend our time. With a consistent costly decision to believe the gospel more than desires. Christian sexual ethics, therefore, isn’t some rule imposed from the outside; it is a manifestation of the transforming power of the gospel.
But it is not just our body that God wants but our minds: Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Paul knew that the “world” tries to shape our thinking and that it is hard to let the gospel define how we interpret the times. America is defined by political parties: we are Republican, Democrat, or Independent. These labels tempt us to view all news through the lens of our parties. But we are Christians first and the Christian faith has a word to say to all political parties because none of them are the kingdom. None of them fully embody the gospel because none of them are led by king Jesus whose reign was established by an act of sacrificial love which was vindicated by his resurrection. When can recite party talking points with more ease that we can articulate the good news we are in real danger. This does not mean that they are all equally wrong on all issues. I am not claiming that the churches job is to say a pox on all houses in response to every event. There is a right and a wrong and in any given circumstance different groups will need a word from the Lord. But we have to get beyond the simplistic notion all Democrats are godless liberals and all Republicans are racists who hate the poor. We must begin by asking the question what does the gospel demand of me in this moment? How should the church speak and act? What is the mind of Christ?
In Romans 12:1–2 Paul urges us to take seriously the call of the gospel on our minds and our bodies to live as those totally committed to him whose gospel has a word of critique to those on the right and the left and to us when we fall short of his glory.
The Call to Self-Assessment: Romans 12:3
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. (Romans 12:3)
How do we do that? How do we give our minds and bodies over to God? We make an honest assessment of ourselves. It is hard to recognize our own human failings and limitations. My brother in recent years has taking up boxing and before that he did MMA. When we were younger I was confident that I could beat him in any fight, but that is not reality. He has long since surpassed me. And part of me has a hard time believing that even now. But it is true. We have limitations and these limitations are good because it reminds us our need for God and each other. We need the whole church to be the church.
But what about the harder truths about our limitations? Here is one: historically in the United States conservative white Christianity has followed rather than led when it comes to issues of race and justice. These facts that should breed a little humility in that it should remind us to listen to the whole church to help us overcome our blind spots as Christians. I am consistently shocked, for example, when the same tradition that refused to aid Martin Luther King Jr now sees itself as the proper interpreter of his words. Paul is asking us to stop and think about who we as individuals and a body. This self-assessment will allow to be of real service to one another.
The One Body
But the church is not simply a community in constant reflection on its own limitations. It is a functioning body that has different gifts that all serve the good of the whole. He says:
For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. (Romans 12:4–5)
Do not miss how radically we dependent we are. We need each other to be the body of Christ. To say that you love Jesus but hate the church is an oxymoron. I get it. The church has failed. but God could no more quit us than he could cut off his arm. We are his body whom he has gifted.
Paul mentions seven gifts: prophecy, service, teaching, exhorting, giving, leading, mercy. We do not have time to discuss each of these here, but this much is clear. Not all of these are organized “ministries” of the church. Giving is something that we do. Encourage or exhorting is something that we do. Together alongside strong teaching and leadership they create the Spirit of the community. The church needs all types of people working together and not valuing one over the over for the body to be the body
But how do the spiritual gifts touch on the politics of the day? What do the spiritual gifts have to say about Charlottesville? The church as a unified community across class and race serving one another is itself a testimony. People should look at us and say see how they love each other. See how they serve each other, not by ignoring race or denying that we see it, but in loving in spite of our cultural differences and our different gifts. Those of us who have been gifted in leadership or teaching serve the church by explaining to us and the world what exactly God has to say to the oppressed people of the world, namely that God loves them and calls them into the beloved kingdom. Those who have the gift of mercy show that mercy inside the church and outside as an act of evangelism. The church as the church is a socio-political force if we would just wake up!
I think that I am right because look at how Paul closes this section:
Let love be genuine. Hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good. (Romans 12:9)
Let holdfast to and love the good while hating what is evil. This is a political statement. The church is the community that hates the evil within ourselves. We are always acknowledging our brokenness and our failure to follow Christ as we should. It also hates what sin has done in the world and stands in opposition to it.
So what then does the church do when faced with a society at enmity with itself? We offer our minds and bodies to God as an act of worship to the God who saves us. We remain aware that society is in different ways trying to seduce our minds and bodies with a false gospel that cannot save. We serve one other and testify through our service to a new and better way of being human. And we love, we love, we love. So we have a choice. We can be the church or we can come here to sing a few songs, receive the Eucharist, and empty out after the last stanza. The choice is yours. God and the world are watching. Amen.