August 27, 2017 12th Sunday of Pentecost
Exodus 1:8–2:10 Romans 12:1–8 Matthew 16:13–20
The New Testament is divided into four sections. The Gospels, which tell the story of Christ; The Book of Acts, the story of how the early church started; The 21 books of letters, in which various authors debate how to be a good Christian, and how to build God’s Kingdom; And then the final book of Revelations, the prophesy of how Christ will return to complete the Kingdom. Out of 27 books, three-fourths of them are discussions about how to apply Christ’s message to become a better Christian and make the world into God’s Kingdom.
One of the reasons why I was drawn to Wesley’s writings and his approach is because he was primarily concerned with that application. He came up with this great applied process of salvation where we exist unknowingly inside of God’s Grace; then we have that psychological moment of confrontation when we realize how small and imperfect we are compared to the universe and God; then we realize that we need God’s help to make it through the universe; then we experience the feeling of God’s love and Grace and know that God is in our lives, and in our corner; then we accept God’s and Christ salvific power; and then we dedicate ourselves to living inside the universe with God and His love, through the teachings of Christ, because we realize that God wants us to live that way: Devoting our lives to being expressions of God’s love in the world.
Devoting our lives to being expressions of God’s love in the world is what Paul is trying to get people to do when he says: 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.
Of course Paul didn’t mean that we should throw ourselves physically on an altar like one of those Aztec sacrifices. Sometimes it’s hard for us to get the imagery of the word sacrifice because our culture is so removed from preforming sacrifices. In Paul’s day most of the religions preformed regular, if not daily, sacrifices to their deities. The Hebrew religion had sacrifices that everyone did for the high-holy days, but the Temple was always preforming sacrifices because there was always someone who was atoning for something. The concept of holy sacrifice was something that surrounded people; you saw it all the time when you were going to the market.
So let’s back up and look at the concept of sacrifice. Our modern word sacrifice comes from the Latin word sacer, which means holy, and the old French and Middle English root word fice which means to make. But the old Greek and Latin words had the same meanings with their root words: to make something holy. Paul’s readers would have understood that when he says to present our bodies to God as a living sacrifice that we are supposed to be working on making ourselves, while we live in these bodies, holier people. It isn’t by dragging animals to altars that we do this; it’s by offering our own lives, to work with the love of God, and the actions of Christ, to present God’s love to the world.
Paul knew that this isn’t always an easy thing to do and that it’s something that we need to practice daily. A disciple practices a discipline to make their life a habit of Christian actions. But have you ever tried to install a new habit in your life? Sometimes it’s really hard, and everyone who coaches people in habit forming says that it isn’t enough to just do something over and over again – you’ve got to get yourself in the right frame of mind to keep doing the habit or you’ll stop doing it. That’s why Paul says we need to be transformed by the renewing of your minds; we have to give ourselves new valid reasons to do new things, or we stop doing them, no matter how good they might be for us.
For instance, right now I’m trying to instill in myself something called the four base habits, suggested by the habit coach, Gretchen Rubin, for a healthier happier life. They are: Get enough sleep, eat healthy, exercise daily, and organize daily. They sound simple and easy enough to apply, but it has meant that I have to consciously apply myself to doing certain actions to attain them, and I’ve had to change old habits, like going to bed at 10:30 pm instead of going to bed after 11:00.
I’ve done pretty well at applying this new habit, despite my occasional setbacks. The valid reason I started with was: I needed to do this because I often felt very tired in the middle of the day (this has also caused me to push my lunch forward). But once I started to go to bed earlier I suddenly found three more valid reasons to keep up with this habit: I was sleeping sounder, I was waking up earlier, and I was getting more done in the morning.
This is a great thing about a good practice, often the benefits multiply beyond what you thought you would get. This ties into the concept of producing good fruit in your life.
So first of all, as Christians, we have to understand that we are going to work on making ourselves holier. Then we give ourselves positive reasons connected to positive Christian actions, which, as we discipline and apply them to our lives, will give us more reasons to continue and more benefits that we can enjoy in Christ’s love.
But I’m sure a lot of people asked Paul: Well, Christian action and practice is great, but where do I start? Paul says to start with your own gifts and use them for God’s grace and love. Are you gifted with a croquet hook and yarn? Then maybe your action is to make baby blankets for mothers in need, or blankets or hats for a homeless shelter. Are you a good cook? Then maybe your action is to make dinners for meals-on-wheels. Do you like to garden? Then maybe your action is to help a very elderly couple take care of their garden. Do you like to drive? Then maybe you can transport people.
When I was teaching students how to find a job I would have them make a list of all the things they could do. One student said that she liked to play the piano, but that she didn’t want to put it on her list because she wasn’t good enough to be a professional. I told her she was right, but she could work for a music school as a secretary or a manager. Sometimes our talents can be used as an end-run rather than as a forward drive. Sometimes we don’t have to be a professional to get something done, we just need to know enough to get the job done, that needs to be done, in the moment.
Instead, of thinking: I’m not a professional so I can’t do it, we should value our gifts and experience, and trust that what we have been given by God is exactly what is needed for us, and from us, for the common good. What God has given is enough, and is often more than enough. That’s a way of not conforming to what the world thinks we should be.
The other way we don’t need to conform to the world is to buy into the expectations of success in life. There’s a lot of pressure in life to be successful and often that success is measured by social-conformity, with being wealthy high on that list. Now social conformity can be good, but remember the rich young man? He was wealthy, but not happy because he didn’t feel successful. He wasn’t a bad greedy person, he had followed all the rules of being a good person and he still wasn’t happy. What was lacking in his life was following Christ and helping others. If your gift or talent is making or managing wealth that’s okay – as long as you are using those talents to help others. Helping others is being a successful Christian.
The reward that we get from being a successful Christian is a greater awareness of God, and how He is moving in the world. As we transform our minds to God through our actions we will discern what God’s will is for us, and what is good and acceptable and perfect for us with God.
Growing into God is a process. The more we practice being Christian, in both thought and action, the more experience we get doing it, and better we get at it. And eventually our experience (both our victories in Christ, and our mistakes in Christ) are going to give us a lot of wisdom, and definite knowledge, and assurance about God. And when we have wisdom, knowledge, and assurance about God in our lives, then we have a deep solid faith to live and work with.
So start with your gifts and talents. Every day, when you wake up, ask the question: Today how can I use my gifts and talents to be an expression of God’s love in the world? That can become our daily goal. Maybe you will find one, or two, or three, or maybe even ten things that expressed God’s love in the world. When you go to bed at night say: What did I do today that was an expression of God’s love in the world? Maybe even keep a diary of it. I bet after a few weeks or even days you’ll read it through and really be able to see how God is functioning in your life.
And then you’ll know, with certainty, that you are growing into a holy and living being for God.