Sermon by Rachel Noel, St Mary’s Fordingbridge, 27th August 2017

“Come Holy Spirit, bring us light, teach us, heal us, give us life. Come, Lord, O let our hearts flow with love and all that is true.” Amen (Hymn 408, v2, Margaret Rizza)

I’m really excited by our readings this morning, there is so much to think about from within these two short passages. (I will try not to get over excited and talk all morning!)

In our reading from Romans, we’re at the transition point in the book of Romans. Very crudely, the first 11 chapters address doctrine, and the next few chapters relate to ethics… how we put this into practice.

The first two verses of our Romans reading are really rich, dense Paul writing – and they set out a theme that Paul will unpack in various ways.

“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. 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.”

There’s something really tangible about this… we are to present our bodies as a living sacrifice…. and that is our worship… This isn’t just about thinking holy thoughts, or turning up to our holy club on a Sunday morning… he’s talking about sacrifice.

We are to present our whole persons to God, living real people, in a particular place and time… presenting ourselves to God, our whole selves.

And Paul tells us that this offering of ourselves is holy and acceptable to God… in other translations it puts this even more positively, not just acceptable, but pleasing, or well-pleasing to God.

And Paul repeats this in the next verse too, that our renewal, our offering of ourselves actually brings pleasure to God…. in earlier chapters he reminds us that as we are remade, restored in God’s image, that is pleasing to God.

Wow, how amazing is that! As we come together today, as we offer our whole physical selves in worship to God, that brings pleasure to our almighty God.

And that’s just verse 1!

Verse 2 is also packed, helping to start off this new section of Romans, with verse 1 emphasising the body, the physical; here in verse 2 it focuses on the renewal of the mind.

JB Philips translated this as – “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould.”

But this isn’t just about putting up barriers and resisting the pressure from outside… we’re not called to find some unsullied world within… that would echo various strands of gnosticism, the discovery of a hidden spark that just needs to be uncovered…

Paul is stronger here

In chapter 1, he reminds us that the natural state of the mind & heart are rebellious.

We are not called to simply live authentically and resist external pressure… there is far more action here, we are called to be renewed, to be transformed

so that what proceeds from the transformed mind does indeed reflect the image of God. (New INterpreters Bible Commentary, p705)

Paul is offering us hope, hope of a renewed mind, able to think for itself what will please God.

These two verses walk a fine balance between sacrifice and fulfillment, between an ethic of self-denial and one of self-discovery… we are invited to walk this path, of transformation and discovery of the new self that we are called to become in Christ.

We have the whole gospel in a nutshell, as grace fulfills nature… – but only by putting it to death – the living sacrifice… and then by bringing it to life again – the renewing of the mind. It is the pattern of death and resurrection laid out for us throughout scripture…

taking up the cross is the way to life

 

and no matter how long we’ve been following Jesus, for a day or a lifetime…. this is never easy… we keep having to make the choices, to offer ourselves before God, to give up ourselves, to give ourselves away, to be transformed in body, mind and spirit… knowing that God is at the heart of everything.

We’re reminded of the command to love God with all our heart, our mind, our soul and our strength… and that as we do this, it brings delight to our loving Creator.

 

(Jane Williams, Lectionary Reflections) Karl Barth, the great twentieth century theologian, in his commentary on Romans describes Christian ethics as – ‘the great  disturbance.’

This isn’t meant to be some nice, cosy advice from Paul, that allows us to continue living our lives unchanged – and perhaps just point the finger at others…

Discipleship is about presenting our real, physical selves to God… Present your bodies…

Paul isn’t asking us to present some idealised version of ourselves, with all the weaknesses hidden away…

He goes on to remind us that we all have strengths and weaknesses, and that they need to come together in Christian community. We don’t each have to have all these virtues… thank God!

Paul is saying that the whole community is to be shaped by the Messiah himself

We are called together, to help each other out. No one is called to be more important than any other, there is a unity in believers – and he then goes on to show how this may work itself out with some different gifts.

 

I wonder if this theme of Great Disturbance also applies to what is going on in our reading from Matthew.

Peter and the other disciples have been constantly having to revise their opinions of themselves, of others and of God… as they live in the unsettling presence of Jesus.

And now Jesus is putting them to the test..

He starts with the easy question… – what are other people saying…

Everyone’s always happy to chip in with that one – what do other people think… and the disciples all join in with the theories that they’ve heard about Jesus.

But then comes the crunch question

Who do you say I am?

(Jane Williams – Lectionary Reflections) It isn’t really a fair question. After all, the disciples are demonstrating, by their very presence, by all that they have given up, what they believe about Jesus.

Why is he pressing them now to formulate it? Jesus response to Peter gives the answer.

To know who Jesus is is vital…. that question is still just as important to us today… who do you say Jesus is?

It is not enough to believe that he is very important. It is not enough to believe that he is like the other prophets and messengers of God.

When Peter declares “You are the Messiah”, he is saying what has to be said. Jesus is the key to the whole of God’s relationship with what he has made.

And it is on the basis of that confession, that Peter is made the rock on whom the Church is built.

That’s huge… this is to be our defining characteristic – our knowledge of Jesus Christ.

Does that seem an adequate foundation for the church? Don’t we need more rules?

How odd that Peter’s sole qualification for the job – apart from the gift of a big mouth! – is that he can recognize the activity of God when he sees it.

And funnily enough, that’s what Paul is working for too… his call to the Romans… his call to us.

Be transformed, – body, mind, heart and soul –  so that you may discern what is the will of God.

Be transformed, so that you may discern what is the will of God. Amen

 

(Many references from New Interpreters Bible Commentary and Jane Williams Lectionary Reflections)