The book of Romans continues to be fruitful for Sunday messages. As such, we will focus on Paul’s message about living sacrifices, transformation, and spiritual gifts (Romans 12:1-8). Romans is a reflection of the author’s personal faith, a rich expression of a Christian worldview.
To begin, we have the analogy of people likened to living sacrifices. For Paul to exhort his readers as living sacrifices implies that Christians are offerings to God, though we are not so much literally slaughtered as, say, a pig would be for a tasty Roman banquet. The controversy lay in Paul’s language, that believers should be interpreted as sacrifices. Paul goes on to say that we are holy, similar to the way a sacrificial animal might be sanctified, and that seeing ourselves as living sacrifices contributes to our “spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1).
Paul’s use of the term sacrifices is understandable given that he wrote to a world where both Jews and Romans made sacrifices to their God and gods. Judaism was a profoundly sacrificial religion, where only dictated animals were taken to Jerusalem’s Temple to be ritually slaughtered and burned. The thinking at the time was that God wanted people to perform these acts as a way to atone for sins. The Romans made sacrifices of foods primarily but also performed occasional animal sacrifices to please their gods. All this sacrificial background doesn’t mean as much to us today because we realize that drawing close to God doesn’t require animals.
A key verse is found in Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds . . . .” This is a powerful perspective, one that helps us set our priorities. We must strive to not mimic the world but rather to seek renewal through how and what we think. Here, the theme is radical change that occurs as a result of a believer’s transformative faith. Paul exhorts true believers, whom he refers to as his brothers and sisters. He encourages them (and presumably us) to embrace comprehensive change.
Finally, Paul talks about spiritual gifts as received, measured, and enacted in proportion to God’s grace.
Paul turns to a theme common in his other writings, that of perceiving Christians as individual members of a collective body. Paul suggests that each member of a body has a different function. Christians remain divided over this analogy with the human body. Some argue that God’s grace is measured in the quality of a believer’s roles and functions in the church (i.e., spiritual gifts). Other Christians argue that it is dangerous to interpret God’s favor by peoples’ duties.
As always, we are challenged by the stories and teachings in scripture. Whether we believe that the writings use the most productive analogies, the principles and personalities revealed in the Bible’s pages evoke a challenge for us. We can move beyond the issue of living sacrifices, but it seems that the bit about being holy and acceptable to God remains relevant. It’s not that we’re striving for a holier-than-thou attitude, just that we want to please God by doing the right thing for all the right reasons.
Also, what’s wrong with transforming the way you think by renewing your mind? People fall into all sorts of mental traps, and reasoning correctly about life, the universe and everything requires personal faith and critical thinking. Another helpful term in this regard is mindfulness, which points to a way for us to regain control of our thinking and to make better conscious choices. Even more complicated is cultivating the godly conscience that Paul indirectly mentions. Last but not least, it can be helpful to see ourselves as interdependent community members. We gather ourselves for mutual help, sharing our strengths and overcoming our weaknesses. We are not limited arbitrarily limited to a timid role. We can be ready, willing and able to change our attitudes and behaviors as we gain new skills and experiences. In this way, God’s grace can grow with us, and is neither bound nor fixed by who we were in the past.