Living Sacrifices— a Meditation on Romans 12

Living Sacrifices— a Meditation on Romans 12 April 21, 2015


Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to keep on offering your bodies as a living sacrifices, 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. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.

It has been said that the problem with living sacrifices is that they keep crawling off the altar. And in the most narcissistic culture in all of human history, namely our own, self-sacrifice is even spun to be referring to self-fulfillment, self-actualization. Ours is a radically individualistic society, and it is at the root of many of our problems, including the whole issue our sexuality issues.

What do I mean by this? I mean that the Bible, written in collectivist cultures, promotes a collectivist series of identities. Have you ever noticed that the people in the Gospels do not have last names? The cellphone log must have been confusing. This is because their primary identity is their group or social identity, and their secondary identity is what we would call their individual identity, their personal identity. I’m trusting you realize that Jesus’ last name was not Christ, any more than Mary’s last name was Magdalene. In an ancient collectivist culture identity was thought to be fixed at birth by things like gender, geography, and generation— what sex you were, where you came from (i.e. Jesus of Nazareth, Saul of Tarsus), and whose ya daddy. In a patriarchal world you don’t ask ‘whose your mother’.

Identity, personality, character was fixed at birth, and did not develop over time, it was simply revealed over time. The ancients were quite innocent of Freud and Jung. Youth was not idolized, ‘oldth’ was. People turned to ‘the elders’ as role models, not the Pepsi generation. And one more thing, most ancients didn’t believe people could change. They didn’t believe in conversion. Neither do most moderns, and interestingly this is also in part the message of the Gay Christian Network. ‘Can a leopard change its spots’ was the regular refrain in antiquity. Today it is ‘you can’t teach old dogs new tricks’. No wonder when Jesus said to Nicodemus ‘you must be born again’ Nicodemus replied ‘you must be kidding! I can’t crawl into my mother’s womb and call for womb service again can I?’

Part of the problem of reading the NT through late Western highly individualistic eyes is that we assume that Jesus and Paul and other writers of the New Testament were replacing this collectivist understanding of our primary identity, with an emphasis on individual identity. We could not be more wrong! They are arguing for a conversion to a better, more lasting, more important collective identity. When Jesus called his disciples he said ‘if anyone would come after me, he must deny himself (notice he does not say ‘deny himself something’— Jesus is not an early advocate of Lenten limitations), and follow my example’.

If you want to know what real self-sacrifice looks like, real sublimation of individual will and desires look like, look at Jesus. He went around calling himself the ‘son of humanity’ rather than calling himself by his personal name, Yeshua, and he called his disciples to give up their previous social identities, families, businesses, and follow him. Yes he did. I am always amazed at the mistranslations by modern translators of Phil. 2.4-5. It does not read ‘let each of you look not only to your own interests but also to the interests of others’. No. The Greek is clear. It says ‘let each of you look NOT to your own interests but rather to the interests of others, have this mind in yourself that was already in Christ Jesus’– and then Christ is presented as the ultimate example of self-denial, self-sacrifice for the good of others. Paul wasn’t kidding nor was he just offering good preacher’s rhetoric when he says in Galatians of himself ‘I have been co-crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.’

Or consider Paul in 2 Cor. 5.17 where he says this ‘if anyone is ‘in Christ’ he is a new creation. Behold, the old has passed away’. Notice where the change happens—not in isolation, but ‘in Christ’, which doesn’t just mean in my private relationship with Jesus. Paul does not say ‘if anyone makes a personal choice and becomes a Christian’. He says if anyone is ‘in Christ’, which means ‘in the body of Christ’, which means a new social, collective, group identity! And in that new group identity, the individual is simply a hand, or a foot, or even a fingernail. He or she is not a new radical isolated individual. Christianity is the antithesis to Ayn Rand’s radical individualistic and narcissistic credo, laid out in her book The Virtue of Selfishness.

There is a reason why Protestantism has been the bastion of radical individualism. It is because our ecclesiology is so weak, so weak that we have over 250 Protestant denominations just in America. And it is precisely because we do not have a strong sense of what it means to be church, what it means to be the body of Christ, what it means to put social identity first, and everything else thereafter, that we are now reaping what we have sowed, when it comes to the issues of human sexuality. Instead, we have put up slogans like ‘accent on the individual’, or when we talked about being a family church, what we meant was a church which nurtured nuclear families, rather than a church which is a family— brothers and sisters in Christ, in a community called Christ’s body.

We have done a horrendous job on nurturing single persons, many of them who do not have the grace gift Paul talks about that is required to be married. Instead, at my own home church in Lexington we used to have a Sunday school class called ‘pairs and spares’. If your theology of singleness is that you are superfluous or incomplete or a spare tire until you get married and pair off, this is just the opposite of what Jesus said about the value of remaining single for the sake of the Kingdom. Our founder was a single man, and no he was not clandestinally married to Mary Magdalene. Mt. 19 yells at us to hold up two valid callings for the followers of Jesus— to be married in the Lord, with marriage defined as heterosexual monogamy, or to remain single for the sake of the kingdom— fidelity in marriage and chastity in singleness. What a concept.

These, and these alone are the two options Jesus gave us, but he also assumed that what would surround these two sorts of personal situations was a dominant social identity, a dominant group identity, of being in Christ, and being like Christ. Jesus was not interested in creating an army of isolated individualists who all love Jesus, and who put their physical families above and before the family of faith. He was interested in creating a new community of faith where both singles and married persons could find their primary identity in what we call the church, the body of Christ. The church has not nurtured or encouraged single persons who do not have the gift of marriage to remain single and serve the Lord, and yet no less of a disciple than Paul says he wishes all of us were like him, single for the sake of the kingdom (1 Cor. 7). When Jesus and Paul talked about ‘focus on the family’ the family they had in mind was the family of faith, not the nuclear family. We must repent, and understand we have failed to be the church Jesus and Paul had in mind, a church made up of both married and single persons who find their primary identity in Christ, and in his body. So what is the prescription of how we get there from here, according to Paul in Romans 12?

Paul urges all of us, yes, all of us, to present ourselves, our whole selves, not just our spiritual or religious selves, as living sacrifices to God. I’m trusting you know the difference between a sacrifice and a mere offering. A sacrifice always requires a death, the death of the old self. Paul talks about this earlier in Romans 6—he says that when a person becomes ‘in Christ’ the old self dies, passes away, is buried with Christ, so that we might rise to newness of life in Christ. What God wants of each of us more than anything else is just us. He wants us to present ourselves to him as no longer belonging to ourselves, or our family heritage, or whatever, but now being God’s property. John Wesley, in his covenanting service knew exactly the cost of real discipleship. Here is what he says, and the commitment he calls us to:

Christ has many services to be done; some are more easy and honorable, others more difficult and menial.
Some are suitable to our inclinations and interest; others are contrary to both. In some we may please Christ and please ourselves, as when he requires us to feed and clothe ourselves.
Indeed, there are some spiritual duties that are more pleasing than others; as to rejoice in the Lord, to be a blessing and praising God.

These are the sweet works of a Christian. But then there are other works, wherein to please Christ is to deny ourselves.
Find what it is that Christ expects of you and then give yourselves totally to his will, without bargaining and without reservation.

All: make us what you will, Lord, and send us where we are to go. Let us be vessels of silver or gold, or vessels of wood or stone; as long as we are vessels of honor we are content.
If we are not the head, or the eye, or the ear, one of the nobler and more honorable instruments, then let us be the hands, or the feet, as one of the lowest and least esteemed of all the servants of our Lord.

Our logical worship of the one true God involves our presenting ourselves to God daily, as living sacrifices. And part and parcel of this commitment is that we refuse to let the world squeeze us into its mold (J.B. Philips translation), on whatever presenting issue we may choose to think of. We are to be transformed through the renewal of our minds, so that we will not be conformed to the zeitgeist of this or that age of history. And it just happens that Paul is talking about the Greco-Roman world where any and all sorts of sexual expression were common and where the discussion about ‘sexual orientation’ had already been had, beginning with Plato! It is absolutely historically false to say that the ancients did not know about consenting adults having same sex partners in an ongoing committed relationship. Wrong. It was not just pederasty that early Judaism found to be a violation of God’s law when they were swimming in the ocean of Greco-Roman culture.

Notice the end of the passage in Romans 12—Paul says if we have indeed presented ourselves as living sacrifices belonging no longer to ourselves and our little individual agendas and identities, and he have therefore experienced the transformation of the renewal of our minds, then and then only will we be able to discern the will of God, the good, and pleasing and perfect will of God, when it comes to issues like what we should think about homosexuality and lesbianism.

Then we will realize that to be welcoming and loving of all persons does not mean to be accepting of all personal choices and behaviors. Then we will realize that Christ invites all of us to come as we are to him, but he expects all of us to change, he expects none of us to stay as we are. Then we will realize that fallen human beings, by which I mean all of us, have an infinite capacity to rationalize our sin, and unfortunately the heart cry of all sinners is this ‘please dear God, tell me I am alright just like I am, so I won’t have to change. Please can’t we just sing a few more choruses of ‘Just as I Am’ and then I can return to being just what I am inclined to be. Please dear God tell me that I was even born this way, so I can say ‘God made me this way’, and blame you for my flaws and foibles, and stop wrestling with the troubling possibility that I was born with innate tendencies to self-centered, self-indulgent desires and behaviors.’

Then we will realize that while God’s love is unconditional in the sense that it is given to all as they are, God’s love is also transformational. God wants us to be conformed to the image of that ultimately chaste and holy person for the sake of the kingdom person— Jesus. When we present ourselves as living sacrifices, it becomes clear that the church must never baptize someone’s sin and call it good, must never break the analogy between Christ and his bride the church, as the model for the relationship of husband and wife in Ephes. 5. And if in our heart of hearts we have given up on the notion that God’s grace can change human nature, can purify us from sin, then we need to repent, and once more present ourselves as living sacrifices to God.

What is being offered to us by the Gay Christian Network is a faulty theology of creation, coupled with either a faulty theology of human fallenness or no theology of the Fall at all, followed by a vision of redemption which involves self-actualization and commendation of what we already are, quite apart from God’s call for transformation.

In short, the sad truth is the gay Christian community has bought, and affirmed the message of Protestantism about radical individuality being a good thing. Be like Christ has morphed into be who you already are. Honesty about one’s inclinations has replaced truth about fallen human nature. In the end, it is not a loving thing to encourage people to go on sinning, because sin is not only ultimately irrational, it is self-destructive behavior. The cure for self-loathing is not self-loving in a narcissistic sense. The cure is being conformed to the image of Christ, the model of what celibacy in singleness should look like.

Let us admit we have failed our children who have same-sex inclinations and proclivities and behaviors. We have failed them by pointing fingers at them rather than holding out a hand and loving them beyond their sinful inclinations to a state of grace. We have failed them by failing to be a warm family of faith, a body of Christ, that embraces both married people and single people, equally grace gifted to be who they are. We have failed them by pretending that somehow heterosexual sin is a less serious matter than homosexual sin. If the family of faith was truly family, single persons wouldn’t feel so lonely, so lost, so bereft of human companionship. We, perhaps especially we Protestants with a weak ecclesiology, have failed to be a family to one and all and we are paying the price. Actually, the Catholics and Orthodox have less problems created by narcissism and individualism precisely because they have a stronger ecclesiology. They know that group identity is primary, and do not have “I’ve Got to Be Me” or I Did it My Way” in their hymnals.

My hope and prayer, is not merely that it is not too late for gays and lesbians to be rescued from a false Gospel. My hope and prayer is also that it is not too late for the Evangelical church also to be rescued from the false Gospel of radical individualism and self-actualization masquerading as the message of Jesus.

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