Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20
12th Sunday after Trinity
St Barbara’s 27.08.2023
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Come with me, if you will, for a walk through the ancient streets of Rome. Like the vast majority of the city’s residents, you will have woken from a cramped and smelly room in one of the upper floors of a five or six storey tenement block. You make your way down into the dusty, crowded narrow streets of the slum called the Subura, a cacophony of shouts and smells assaulting your senses. You head down the hill to the Forum, the heart of the city, maybe to buy something at the market or to listen in on a political speech. Though just a few minutes walk away, the Forum feels like a different world. Everywhere, gleaming marble, and sparkling gold-painted statues, and extraordinary buildings, soaring into the sky or palaces protruding out from the Palatine Hill on 50 meter high foundations. And everywhere, you see temples – temples to Jupiter, Venus, Castor and Pollux, Concord. Wherever you look, a temple – whether from ancient antiquity or brand new and wowing with the latest architectural design. And in those temples there would be the sight and smell of sacrifices – the smell of burning meat drifting across the forum.
Now imagine receiving a letter from the apostle Paul, and two-thirds into his long letter, read out to a group of you gathered in someone’s home, you hear these words: “Therefore, I appeal to you brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of of worship.” What would that have meant to you? Temples and sacrifices were such a part of daily life, how would you have understood what Paul was saying? Because to understand what it meant for them, may help us understand what it means for us today.
For people living in ancient Rome their attitude to worshipping gods and making sacrifices was in many ways quite different from us today.
For them, offering sacrifices was essentially about following the right formulas, performing the correct procedures, to keep the distant gods happy and on their side. If they followed the traditions of those who had gone before them, if they perfectly performed the religious ceremonies that had been practised for hundreds of years, then the gods would be appeased and they would be granted success.
At one level this was more about superstition than religious faith. It wasn’t really important if one believed that the gods existed or not – and indeed even some of the high priests conducting the sacrifices, often the top political leaders in the land, were highly sceptical – but there was a belief if we don’t do this in the right way, bad things will happen. A bit like a footballer who has the superstition that they always put their left boot on before their right before a match.
The point is that although there were temples everywhere the impact on daily living was pretty small. As long as you did the relevant sacrifice on the appointed day, you could forget about the gods the rest of the time. There was certainly no sense of any divine encounter, or ongoing accountability. To talk about a personal belief or a personal encounter with God would have been met with a blank stare. This was about performing rituals, and then getting on with the rest of life.
So Paul’s words would have come as bolt out the blue. “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, for this is your spiritual worship.” In other words, the Christians in Rome were not to act like everyone else who simply offered a sacrifice of an animal or bird, and then just lived however they wanted. Christians’ sacrifice was to be their bodies, their very selves. This was a call to full-on commitment, to a faith that touched every aspect of life. Our bodies go with us everywhere – for those Roman Christians it meant not just when they gathered together in one another’s homes to break bread and worship, but when they were out in the marketplace haggling over the price of fish, or when they were in their workshop fixing a broken chair, or when they were down the tavern eating their one meal of the day, or when they were coping with the neighbour’s shouting from the room next door. In all those circumstances, they were to offer their bodies, their tangible, physical lives as worship to God. Worship wasn’t something to be ticked off a list and forgotten about until next time. It was what one did with every act and in every place.
What does that mean for us? Paul’s words encourage us not to compartmentalise our faith, not to put it in a box that we open up on particular occasions in the week. But instead to see every aspect of our lives as an opportunity for worship, as an opportunity to show our love for God. Our lives can be transformed as we ask, how in this moment, how in what I am doing at this time, can I express my love for God, whether it is gardening, reading, chatting, working, watching TV, running, eating. The opportunities for worship are endless.
A second thing that would have struck the Christians in Rome from Paul’s words would have been the motivation, the reason, for offering worship and sacrifice.
For the people of Rome, the reason for offering sacrifices was simple – it was what guaranteed them success. If they offered sacrifices in the correct manner and at the correct time, the gods would be on their side and military victory, especially, would be guaranteed. Thus sacrifices would always be offered at the great temple of Jupiter on top of the Capitoline Hill, a temple that towered over the whole of Rome, before any army marched out on campaign. And if the campaign went badly, if the armies were defeated, then it would be put down to some failing in their dealing with the gods – perhaps they had ignored bad omens or wrongly conducted a religious ritual. The purpose of sacrifices in Rome was simple – to get the favour of the gods, to guarantee success.
Paul turns this on its head. He writes, “in view of God’s mercy, offer your bodies as living sacrifices.” In response to all that God has done for you already, offer him your worship. The first 11 chapters of Paul’s letter that lead up to this verse has already expounded the incredible grace and mercy of God’s love, the gift of salvation that he offers, the gift of His Holy Spirit, the hope and joy and peace that we can experience in God. Our worship, our service of God, comes not from anxiety about the future, but from gratitude about the past and present. In a first-century world where mortality rates were high, where health-care for the majority was non-existent, where earning enough to live was a constant struggle, and where there were no pensions or provision for those in their old age, this was a radical message. Worship is to be offered not because of what we might get, but because of what we have already received.
For us too, our worship, whether here in church or during the other 167 hours of our week, is to be offered from a place of gratitude, from a place of recognising the goodness of God. I am often humbled by members of our own congregation, who may face some of the greatest health or family or work challenges but are also some of the most grateful and thankful people I know. In response to God’s incredible goodness, we can do none other than to offer our lives in worship in response.
There is a third aspect to Paul’s words that would have proved a challenge to his hearers. In the previous hundred years in Rome something had begun to change. New temples were built, new priesthoods were instituted, new sacrifices were offered, but not to the ancient gods, but to recently deceased political leaders. In the very heart of the forum, within a couple of years of his death, a temple was built to the Divine Julius, to Julius Caesar. Temples to the emperors Augustus and Claudius followed suit. And within a decade of Paul’s letter, a temple to two more emperors, Titus and Vespasian, was to be squeezed in on the slopes of the Capitoline Hill between the temples of Concord and Venus.
And these temples formed a different purpose. They were there to provide a stamp of legitimacy to a family dynasty that otherwise may have little claim to rule Rome. Even if there was nothing other than the strength of your legions to justify your hold on power, how could you be opposed if you were, after all, the son of a god? Sacrificing at these temples was a sign of loyalty to the regime, an acknowledgement that no one was greater, no one more important, than the ruling emperor.
And here is Paul, writing to the poor, vulnerable Christian community in Rome, and telling them that the only sacrifice they need make is the offering of their lives, the declaring of their loyalty and allegiance, to Christ. Their actions, their behaviours, were not to be controlled by Emperor Nero or those who would follow him. Instead Christ alone was to be their guide, their lord, their God. Paul was urging the Roman Christians to join in with the declaration of Peter in today’s gospel reading: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
That had challenging implications for the Christians in Rome – ostracism, being cutting adrift from political influence, the loss of status and respect, and occasionally, outright persecution – and it can have implications for us too. Worshipping Christ, offering our bodies as sacrifices, in every aspect of life, can mean for us standing up to power, resisting the abuse of power and authority, declaring and living out Christ’s way of love and grace, despite the cost. For that is worship too.
And thus Paul’s words, 2000 years on, still have tremendous resonance for us: we are to give our whole lives, every act, every moment, as worship to God, loving him and loving the world around us, even when that involves standing up against the prevailing forces of our culture or politics. And we are to do so because of the incredible love and grace we have received from him.