Friday, July 9, 2010

Rethinking Living Sacrifices: "Obedience to God's Law" as the Pattern of This World

We are taking a break from our series in the book of Hebrews, namely because it is heady stuff, and I believe that it needs to be doled out in increments that are digestible. So during that break, I have preached on giving for two Sundays, from texts in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9. This has caused me to consider life in the church and has drawn me to another way that we are involved in worshiping God--the use of our gifts in worship.

As a pastor, I am keenly aware that Paul's criticism of the Corinthians and Romans for thinking of themselves too highly in the church because of their gifts describes a problem that is alive and well in today's church. I could give many illustrations, but they would spotlight situations and individuals that I have no business calling out publicly at this point in my ministry (why is it not my business right now? Because wisdom tells me it is not. I am in this for the long haul, D.V., and wisdom tells me that some things must be doled out in increments, or else one's ability to dole out anything at all will be cut off before it can be doled out effectively.). But even if I did not know specific examples, common knowledge proves my point. We all know that not all are treated equally in the church, because some act as if others have less to contribute than themselves. Or perhaps some believe others should be contributing something they are not, and when they are not, some think ill of them.

So looking at passages regarding the use of spiritual gifts in the church takes me to Romans 12, where we read,

"I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer 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—his good, pleasing and perfect will."
The passage continues on to encourage unity in the church vis-a-vis the use of and mutual respect for others spiritual gifts. Paul very much mirrors his comments in Corinthians--Value other's spiritual gifts and love one another. But the introduction to these thoughts in the verse above provides me with a context that I was never taught in my Fundamentalist education. I was taught that the offering of bodies makes this a very material command, i.e., it has to do with the proper interaction of Christians in a material world. Our bodies are not to be tainted by the material world around us. Instead, they are to be holy and pleasing to God. In Fundamentalist terms, this means separating ourselves physically from anything "worldly" that could contaminate us. The Fundamentalist takes support for this from the next sentence--Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world.

Dozens of sermons in my Fundamentalist heritage made applications like--Separate yourself from worldly music. Do not go to places that the world values, like the movie theater or a bar. Do not wear clothes that the world wears. Avoid fads that are common in the culture around you. These defined for me, when I was growing up, what it meant to be a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, unconformed to the world.

Yet today, I see something in these words far simpler and more radical than I was ever taught. Holiness is not a material property, because the locus of evil is within the hearts of humans and devils. Holiness does not exist apart from the opportunity to love or the failure to love. Holiness is primarily defined by our obedience to God's laws, which we know to be, at their core, nothing more nor less than loving God and loving our neighbors. If we love as we ought to love, we will be holy. Holiness is relational. This love is the radical difference from the world that God expects. It is so radical, that even the most gloriously separated and "righteous" among us can live what they believe to be incredibly spiritual lives and still fail miserably at the command to be holy. We tend to be blind to what it means to love people, and instead satisfy ourselves with traditions and commandments that separate us from the material "worldliness."

Christ gave an example of the radicalness of Christian love in the Sermon on the Mount. One of his statements was the following:

"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
Here Christ tells us what is the pattern of this world. It is to love only those who love you. Radical Christianity loves those who do not love you. It loves those who hate you. Yet, I have heard many Christians champion their ungodly treatment of those who are their enemies. They rejoice when enemies fall. They mock them. They look for opportunities to contribute to their demise. They are proud of their "Stand up for myself because I am just that kind of person" mentality.

This of course, is only one example. There are many others that Christ gives. It is interesting that his descriptions of the pattern of the world in the Sermon on the Mount mostly concern self-righteous people who abuse the Law of God. Christ expects a radical difference from the world--And Christians, even in their legalistic adherence to God's law, can be the best example of exactly what it means to pattern themselves after this world. In doing so, they entirely miss the point of being a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God.

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