Romans 12:1-8 - New Patterns For the World

When I was in high school, Romans 12 was my very favorite chapter of the whole bible. I tried to memorize the whole thing and had it taped up all over my room. I was delighted and surprised to be asked to preach about a passage that was so central to my faith development as a teenager. I was even more surprised at how much trouble I had with it. I realized I’ve become much more comfortable around stories from the Old Testament that initially seem forgotten or irrelevant to my listeners. I feel at home between the pages of ancient stories. It’s odd to find myself back in the New Testament, absorbing Paul’s exhortations for the church in Rome, and the church in Seattle. I spent the last week asking, “Lord, what do I do with this?” and then learning to ask, “Lord, what are you saying through this text today?” Please stand as we read from Romans 12:1-8. I will be reading from the NIV, which has slightly different wording than the pew bibles.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual worship. 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 —God’s 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. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.

The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

The book of Romans is the first epistle in the New Testament, beginning Paul’s long series of letters to early churches and leaders. Paul hasn’t yet been to Rome, but he desperately wants to go and has used the first 11 chapters of his letter to make an impassioned plea for readers’ hearts and minds. Romans 12 begins with, “Therefore brothers and sisters” and as a theology professor once taught me, we must always ask, “What is the Therefore there for?” Romans 11 ends with Paul’s song:

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
 “Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?”
 “Who has ever given to God,
that God should repay them?”
 For from him and through him and for him are all things.
To God be the glory forever! Amen.

Until we are moved by the majesty of God, as Paul has been, we will not be able to understand and live out the effects of God’s love for us. So after 11 chapters of theology, Paul begins to give us instructions on how to live, how to be in community. His instructions are written to the Church in Rome, but they are for Bethany as well.

            Paul urges us to give our bodies as living sacrifices, which is language we don’t often hear in our Church. We don’t have an altar in our church, we have a table, and we believe Jesus has given himself as the sacrifice for our sins. So what does it mean to be a living sacrifice? I think being a living sacrifice is where the traffic of everyday life and spirituality meet. It’s offering God the totality of our lives, our plans, our activities, and our bodies. Spirituality is not something that is separated from the physical space we inhabit. Everyday life is where our sanctification is worked out.  Sanctification is the process of being made holy and it’s a lifelong journey.

“Do not conform to the patterns of this world” has always stuck out to me because when I was a teenager there was a Christian clothing company called “Not of This World.” Whether it was intentional or not, it somehow gave me the impression that the world is bad and Christians have nothing to do with it. But that goes against the very narrative of creation. Genesis 1 loudly shouts the opposite: That the world was made good, that we were made in it. We are of this world. But the story doesn’t end with creation, because sin enters the world. And the patterns of good that God had created get destroyed and new patterns emerge instead: cycles of violence, betrayal, mistrust, and greed. It is not difficult to look around and see the patterns of this world: slanderous and hateful talk from everyone from political leaders to strangers on the internet, rapists like Brock Turner getting little to no punishment while 1 in 6 American women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime, families fleeing war-torn countries finding every door slammed in their face, more mass shootings than days in our year, with the death in our history happening just last night. The patterns of the world tell us that we are most important, that the only thing that matters is getting ahead, that equality is actually injustice, that violence against others is justified, that privilege is actually our right. The patterns of the world will turn us against each other, will lead us to abandon justice and refuse mercy for those who need it.

But this world is our Father’s World. Let us never forget. It is the world that we inhabit each and every day, the one where our bodies, those living sacrifices, belong. So how can we live in a world with its patterns of destruction? We must be transformed by the renewing of our minds.

Sanctification is the transformation that Paul speaks about—renewing our minds so we can know what God’s good, perfect, and pleasing will is. Now let me be clear-- this is not the work that we do, this is not something we “earn.” This is the work that Jesus Christ does in us through the Holy Spirit. Sanctification makes us more of who we were truly meant to be. How do we know what God wants us to do with our lives? We are transformed by the renewing of our lives. How can we be good in the face of evil? How can we give our bodies as living sacrifices? How do change the patterns of this world? We enter into the process of sanctification.  

When I think of transformation, I think of the fields of milkweed plants that used to grow along the side of the road by my grandparents' farm. Milkweed is the sole food source for monarch butterflies and when I was a child, we used to love finding caterpillars on their leaves. We would always take a few caterpillars on plants and put them in large glass jars. Then we would take them on the long drive from California back to our home in Oregon to watch them grow. For weeks we would watch them crawl over the plants and chew their way as they got bigger and bigger. Finally one day they would find a sturdy spot underneath a big branch and attach themselves. They then would molt into a chrysalis and the waiting period began. Every day my little brother and I would go over and look to see if there had been any signs of change. The chrysalis changes colors from bright green to dark, to transparent so you can see the orange and black inside. We had to keep waiting and waiting until one day, the shell started to open up and a butterfly crawled out. When the butterfly has hatched, it hangs on for a bit longer as it builds strength and tests its wings. Finally, we would take the jar outside and the butterfly would be ready to spread its wings and fly away. As a child, it was an exciting, magical process to watch. Even though I knew what would happen, what the chubby little caterpillar would eventually turn into, it was thrilling to watch the process happen.

            When Paul speaks of transformation, I think of the monarch butterflies that fluttered through my childhood summers. It’s still hard to believe that the caterpillar and butterfly is the same creature. It’s not a new creature; it’s the same one that has been radically transformed. The monarch does it without thinking; it is just the cycle of their lives. For Christians, transformation is not so simple. It’s a choice to enter in the process of sanctification. It’s a difficult thing to relinquish control of our lives and let God mold and shape us into something new, even when we know how beautiful the end product will be.

            Have you ever been around someone farther down the path of sanctification than you? No one’s perfect, but there are those that exude Christ’s love and goodness in a powerful way. Often they’re older than us, although sometimes they’re younger, and when you interact with them, it’s like standing by a warm fire on a cold night. It warms you to the depths of the hidden places in your heart that you thought no one could touch. It gives you a glimpse of maybe, just maybe, the holiness that God wants for you. Because you can see how much better that life can be. Encounters with people ahead of us on the road of transformational sanctification give us hope that maybe God might be able to sanctify even sinners like us. Maybe we will someday be the ones giving others hope, maybe one day we will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—God’s good, pleasing, and perfect will.

            Sanctification requires all of us—our bodies as sacrifices, our minds to be renewed. This is not one or the other, this is both. Because we are both. We are not just bodies that can be used however we want, and we are not just minds unattached from physical reality.

So what is this all for? As Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message, “The only accurate way to understand ourselves is by what God is and by what he does for us, not by what we are and what we do for him. In this way, we are like the various parts of a human body. Each part gets its meaning from the body as a whole, not the other way around.”

Those bodies that we are to give as a living sacrifice? They become a part of the Body of Christ, and they are desperately needed there. You are needed in the Body of Christ. Yes, you. You bring something to the Church that no one else does and we need you. We are like a body without eyes, or without bones—we are not whole without you. As people of the Spirit, we all have spiritual gifts given to use for the benefit of the Body of Christ. All of us—from our youngest member to our oldest. One of my favorite things in worship is hearing a baby cry, laugh, or babble. It captures my attention and reminds me of the miracle of life, the innocence of infants, of the God that created them and knows them full well. These little, tiny children have gifts that they bring to the church.

            And what of the children at Bethany? The ones who live with wonder and excitement, who have boundless energy? The middle school students who experience rapid change and growth in their lives? What about our elderly members who live in nursing homes and can’t make it to worship on Sundays? The ones who lived through world wars? What gifts do they have? Is there a 3rd grader who is gifted in teaching? A 90-year-old who is gifted in encouraging? A middle schooler in giving? A toddler in compassion? Have we taken the time to notice? How could they use those for the benefit of the church? How could Bethany be transformed by all of our members fully using their gifts?

            Paul encourages the Christians in Rome to use their gifts well, to not let them be wasted. If you are gifted in serving, we need you to serve. If it is in prophesy, we need you to share God’s prophetic word with us. If you are a gifted teacher, we need you to teach. If you love to encourage, there are people desperately in need of your encouraging words. If you are gifted in mercy, give it lavishly and generously. If you do not think you have gifts, then we need you to find out who God has created you to be. Because you do have gifts and we need you to use them.

            You are all a part of the Body of Christ. Unity in Christ does not mean homogeneity, it means diversity. Unity in Christ means that everyone brings their own stories, gifts, and abilities to the table and somehow it is enough. Somehow, with Kerry Dearborn’s gift of listening to people’s stories, Maia Degatano’s gift of music, Scott Cummins’ gift of inspiring leaders, Zach Hertel’s gift of working with children, Gil Ward’s gift of caring for refugees, Jack Ireton’s gift of giving, and my gift organizing, we can create new patterns for this world. The gifts that you have—no matter how exciting or how ordinary they may seem, are needed. We can form patterns of loving our neighbor as ourselves, of standing up for justice, of radical inclusion and love. Not because on our own we are anything spectacular, and not because we have worked so hard. We can be a part of creating new patterns in this world because of the transformational, sanctifying power of Jesus Christ in lives. How will you bring your gifts to the Body of Christ?