In the last five chapters of Romans, Paul draws some practical conclusions from the dense doctrinal considerations of the first half of his letter. It all begins with a statement which could be described as a manifesto for Christian living: I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship (Rmns 12:1).
In the ancient world, the primary expressino of worship (whether you were a Jew or a pagan) was sacrifice. All sacrifice involves violence. (Anthropologically, the purpose of sacrifice is to stop a community's descent into violence and chaos by channeling all that violence onto one victim.) Here Paul turns the ancient concept on its head. He has already made it clear enough that Christ is the one sacrifice necessary; there is no need to repeat that. Now he draws a conclusion similar to the one David came to many hundred years before: My sacrifice is a contrite heart (Ps. 51:17). Much more than the killing of animals, it is the willingness to repent and forgive that prevents a community from falling apart. To lead sacrificial lives means living in a way that doesn’t require sacrificial structures. It means to accomplish by living faithfully in Christ what was accomplished by sacrifices, bringing about reconciliation and build community without scapegoating.
Presenting our bodies as sacrifice is not primarily what we used to call “mortifying the flesh”. In a different context, Paul tells us to glorify God in your body, but even there he uses liturgical imagery, with the body seen as the locus of sacrifice: do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? (See 1 Cor 6:19-20.)
It’s very easy for Christianity to be theoretical, to exist largely in the mind while the way the Christian lives is virtually no different to the people around him. It’s very easy to say “I love Jesus and put my Christianity into practice in many ways,” while our bodies remain firmly in bed on a Sunday morning. People have a great tendency not to put their money where their mouth is, so Paul exhorts them rather to put their bodies where their mouths are. Paradoxically, “true spiritual worship” means being physically involved! I cannot give my life over to God in any meaningful way unless I give him my minutes and my hours. Because we are finite we may sometimes experience conflicting needs and desires; it is always from the perspective of Christ that the Christian decides which needs are to be fulfilled. Once again we see here the sobriety and practicality of the Christian message. In Ch. 8 of Romans Paul waxes eloquent about our high calling. As beautiful and inspiring as this is, all too often devout people can be tempted to keep their heads safely in the clouds. Paul makes it clear that this high vocation cannot be realised without some very humdrum, practical decisions.
List the various ways in your parish in which people make living sacrifices of themselves.
© Fr. John Hemer, used with permission.