“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.”—Romans 12:1-2
Chapter 12 of Paul’s letter to the Romans begins with a series of exhortations based upon the points Paul has made in chapters 1-11.
Paul begins by urging us to present our bodies as a sacrifice—a living sacrifice, an offering not made in a single moment to be burned upon an altar, but an ongoing offering of all that we are from that moment forward, an offering of our time and potential and talent to be put to the use of the kingdom of God for the life of the world.
Through our faith in Christ, we are called to transform our thinking and our way of life, so that what is pleasing to God is more important to us than the values of this world. Too often, we think of worship as a set-apart few moments in our busy lives, a respite from our ongoing engagement with the world. That is exactly what Paul calls us to reconsider. Instead, by unifying our whole selves with Christ, in aligning ourselves with his example of how to live a fully human, fully devoted life, our entire life becomes worship and honor and praise to God.
Our bodies and the way we use them and where we place them are a living witness to God and our understanding of God. We offer our entire self to God—all of us—as a “living sacrifice,” and that in itself is indeed counter to the norms and standards of the world. This is not a sacrifice of dead animals, as was common during biblical times. This is a “living” sacrifice, and of course sacrifice means both “to make holy” and “to give something up.” From the time we give ourselves to God, our lives change by this very real commitment. But what do we give up? Only that which would not be “good and acceptable and perfect (v.2).” As the body of Christ, our community is described by Paul as an alternative to the world, not conforming to it.
It was not too long into this pandemic that some Christians here in the US began to complain about the closing of in-person services at their churches, and some went so far as to claim that government mandates to limit gatherings of people infringed upon their freedom to worship. Yet if we take seriously what Paul is saying here, we are assured that worship is not just bound up in rites, no matter how beautiful; or communal singing of praise songs, no matter how uplifting; or even in sermons, no matter how illuminating. Of course worship online can feel isolating, but it also can be a powerful tool of evangelism. So long as people of faith set their hearts and minds on living a life dedicated to following the Way of Jesus in the mundane moments of our lives, true worship can never be halted.
When we worship, we unite the bodily and the spiritual planes of our existence. As members of faith communities, we devote precious time from our lives within the liturgy, and even in this time of online worship we nonetheless form communities online with the insistence that the liturgy can only exist with the work of the people. That is literally what the word “liturgy” means- the work of the people. It’s not a show or a performance, but a group endeavor and offering. This is why the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer insist on the active participation of the laity in the worship service- as readers, as lay Eucharistic ministers, as leaders of the prayers, as acolytes, and so on—and they are to be represented at the altar, along with deacons and of course priests and bishops. But the goal of worship is not to check off a box within the week’s activities. The goal of worship is to transform the way we live the rest of the week so that, in the words of a hymn of my childhood, “they will know we are Christians by our love.”
Beyond the shelter of the doors of the church, worship as daily living is a generous, mindful sacrifice, a worthy response to the grace of a God who offers us all that we are in the first place. Our lives, from our impulses to our actions, become a fully-realized testimony to the ethic of compassion and healing which lies at the heart of Jesus’s message. This offering of embodied worship is more precious and costly, as that way of being is lived out as a quiet yet forceful testimony before the sight and judgment of those unfamiliar with the beauty and value of living a life dedicated to something greater than themselves.
How can you live more deeply into the embodied worship to which Christ calls you today?
The photo is of a sculpture called “Tree of Life” by Brother Mel Meyer, S.M., a religious artist famous in the St. Louis area, who designed many of the liturgical pieces in my parish.