“Transformed by the Renewing of our Minds”
Very often I find myself drawn to the Gospel text for the focus of my preaching. After all, it’s in the Gospels that we find the stories of Jesus’ life and ministry, and where we hear Jesus’ own teaching and preaching. As people who have been called to his “way of life” and committed ourselves to being his disciples, the Gospel texts may seem like they are the most important part of the Bible.
But if, with Peter, we have already grappled with Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” And if, in faith, we have answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Then the next question for us concerns how we will live as followers of that Christ, how we will live as people of faith in the church which he established.
So, this week I found myself turning again and again to the text from Paul’s letter to the Romans. The first part of Romans 12 is not so much about Jesus himself, as it is about us. It is advice and instruction from an early leader in the Christian Church about how to live as the People of God and members of the Body of Christ.
Paul begins, “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.” And I am reminded of something that my friend, Blair Bertrand, once did during a sermon he was preaching up at the Presbyterian Church Camp in Quebec. He went over to the Communion table at the front of the outdoor chapel, and he hopped up onto the table and sat on it.
And I remember him saying something like this: “This is my offering to God. I’m not just giving some change from my pocket. I’m not just giving the sermon I preach, or the song I sing, or my ears listening at worship for an hour or so on Sunday mornings. I am putting myself up on this table – on this altar – because I want to offer my whole self (body, mind, and spirit) as a living sacrifice to God and for God’s purposes in the world.”
It makes sense, in this context, to talk about an altar rather than the usual Reformed language of a Communion Table. Because an altar is a place where sacrifice takes place. It is designed to receive offerings.
Just like we place our financial offerings on our table every Sunday, in times past, God’s People Israel made thanksgiving offerings of grain, wine, and oil. They offered vegetables and fruits and animals that were ready for slaughter. They gave thanks for the blessings of God, and asked forgiveness for their sins, and they gave their gifts for God’s glory.
But here, in Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians, he suggests that Jesus is asking them to offer something more… not just a portion of their produce, or a percentage of their money. Jesus is calling them (and calling us) to offer up ourselves as a living sacrifice, so that not only our gifts, but also our lives may be dedicated to God’s purposes.
Have you ever given yourself to God in that kind of way? Even if you haven’t marched yourself up to the front of the church during offering time to plunk yourself down on the Communion Table, can you identify a moment when you gave yourself to God?
I am grateful for the memory of the first time I remember offering myself to God. I was fifteen. And I was being baptized. I could feel the love of God surrounding me through the presence and care of the congregation around me. And as I professed my faith for the first time in public, I gave my life over to following the way of Jesus.
Years later, I did it again, when I kneeled in almost the same spot on the day of my ordination. Although there would still be choices and decisions to be made after that, I made the big decision that day… the decision to respond to God’s call to the Ministry of Word and Sacraments.
My friend Blair was just a young university student the day he hopped up onto the Communion Table at camp. Now he’s a Presbyterian minister too, listening day-by-day and year-by-year for what God is calling him to do and be. And next month he and his family are moving to Africa. They’ve sold their house and their car, and put precious things into storage, packed up what they think they need into 12 suitcases, and they’re off to do mission in Africa for the next five years.
Of course, Blair is a pretty special person with some pretty special gifts from God. And you may be thinking, “That’s just not me! I’m not going to be a preacher or a missionary.” And that’s okay. What I think Paul is encouraging us to do, is to think about, consider, and discern what God is calling each one of us to do with our lives.
He writes, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
It is so easy to let the world make choices for us… to be led by the media, the entertainment industry, or the world of fashion or pop culture… and to let the world determine how we spend our time and money, what we pay attention to, and what our priorities are.
As Christ-followers, we are called instead to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. What a perfect verse for Presbyterians!… we, who are sometimes accused of being led by our heads more than our hearts… Paul suggests that we need our minds involved to help us figure out what is God’s will – what is good and pleasing and perfect. And then, of course, we have to get out of our heads and start using our bodies to live according to that will of God by serving, and helping, and loving, and ministering.
But Paul recognizes that our “thinking” has a lot to do with our “living.” He warns that we shouldn’t think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think. Don’t be too proud or arrogant, believing ourselves to be capable of almost anything! Instead, be reasonable, using sober judgement, recognizing that we are each given some gifts, but not ALL the gifts!
I told my husband last week that I needed to be careful, since moving to Regina and First Church… I needed to be careful not to get a “big head.” Because I’ve been finding that everyone is so grateful and happy and encouraging because of the ministry I’ve been doing so far, that I could easily slip into thinking that I am “All That!” and I can do everything!
As he does in 1 Corinthians 12, Paul tells us here in Romans that the church is like the Body of Christ. It has many members, with each member having a different gift and a different function to fulfill in the coordinated effort of the body working together.
It’s as if the hand, for example, got to thinking that it could take care of most things all on its own. After all, hands are very skilled and versatile and adaptive to different situations. So, instead of allowing the eyes to guide the body around some obstacles, the hand reaches out to feel it’s way along instead, only to trip and fall over a low barrier that the hand did not find.
Or instead of allowing the feet and legs to take care of the walking, the hand presses the arms into service so that the body can walk on its hands for a while, before teetering and coming crashing down in a heap.
So, we should not think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think. Or maybe it’s a matter of thinking of others a little more highly than we usually do… looking for the gifts and skills that they might have to offer, and supporting and encouraging them as they begin to give their lives also, as a living sacrifice to God.
Paul says, “We have different gifts that are consistent with God’s grace that has been given to us. If your gift is prophecy, you should prophesy… If your gift is service, devote yourself to serving. If your gift is teaching, devote yourself to teaching. If your gift is encouragement, devote yourself to encouraging.”
This act of offering our whole selves and our whole lives as a living sacrifice to God is not something that we do only once when we are baptized, or make our first profession of faith, or get ordained as an elder or minister… but it can be at least a weekly occurrence when we come together in worship to listen for God’s Word, and discern what is God’s will. It can be at least a weekly occurrence when we sing the doxology and present our tithes and offerings to God, that we also present ourselves – our bodies, our minds, and our hearts for full service and commitment.
We call it a Communion Table, because it is the place where we celebrate the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, where we taste and see God’s goodness and love for us in Jesus Christ. But maybe we can think of it as an altar too, because it is here that we experience Jesus offering his whole self (body and blood, life and ministry, time and energy, heart and spirit, and everything that he was) for the sake of the world God loved, and for us, God’s children.
It’s not that radical, when you think about it… the idea that we might hop up onto the altar too, to give ourselves fully for God’s purposes in the world. After all, we are followers of Jesus, learning to live like him more and more every day, and that’s what he did for us.