A Living Sacrifice

The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 16), Year A.

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.

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

Romans 12:1-8

“Some of you may die…but that is a sacrifice I’m willing to make.” It is sad to say that these words, spoken by the cartoonishly villainous Lord Farquaad in the first great deconstruction of the fairy tale genre in the 21st century, the film Shrek, have become less of a joke and instead the apparent sentiment among those in positions of power. This of course is not new (which is the precise reason a throwaway joke from a nearly twenty-year-old children’s film is still funny), it has always been the case in history, regardless of party, policy, or ideology that the powerful and most protected call upon the most vulnerable to offer themselves up for the “greater good”. Too many have been sacrificed throughout the ages to the false gods of “honor”, aristocratic nobility, divine right of kings, imperialism, nationalism, and economy.

It is this long and sordid history of calling upon others to sacrifice that leaves a bad taste in our modern sensibilities. Sacrifice is not seen as something inherently noble, rather it is seen as questionable at best, naïve at worst. In a way, we have become so suspicious of sacrifices, that as a society, when we are all called to make sacrifices, even seemingly small acts, we bristle and some rebel. In our cultural memory there has always been a disparity from the party who sacrifices and the party that receives the sacrifice: Peasants and serfs paying tribute to a lord or king, soldiers their lives for economic interests, a fledgling and poor people offering the best food and gifts to an immortal, infinite God.

The seeming injustice that comes with sacrifice, especially in religious contexts, is why the practice appears to us as barbaric; something to be quietly ignored as coming from a time before enlightened and rational sensibilities. Our common usage and perception of sacrifice has been so warped by millennia of abuse that when we are called at various points to be a “living sacrifice” we are rendered confused, offended, or it is simply filtered out of our consciousness due to the sheer absurdity.

In our common life as Christians, we are called to offer “our selves, our souls, our bodies” as a sacrifice to God. Though we hear this appeal in several places in our worship and in Scripture, the phrase in its most iconic form comes from Paul’s letter to the Romans:

“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.”

Romans 12:1

Paul’s appeal is rather odd, at least in our common understanding of sacrifice, and especially in our stereotypes of religious sacrifices in Paul’s lifetime. How can one be a “living sacrifice”? Isn’t a sacrifice something that is killed, or at the most basic, something that has been given up? There are further questions about the basic premise of sacrifice, especially a sacrifice designated for God. Why does God need, want, or demand sacrifices? What does God want with the blood, fat, and choice cuts of a goat? How is it just that an all-powerful being with no physical needs would take precious resources from us, when He cannot even use them? Is it merely cruelty? Is it a twisted loyalty test?

The implicit concern of these questions is that the “Living Sacrifice” that God is calling us to make is no different than the countless examples of the comfortable and powerful demanding exploitive sacrifice of the weak and vulnerable. All are weak and vulnerable compared to God, so the concern is even greater, and even more justified.

Thankfully, the concern about God’s call for us to become a “Living Sacrifice” rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of what sacrifice means. In our common usage, to sacrifice is to give up something precious, usually for a higher good, and not necessarily expecting anything in return. In essence, it is a one-way transaction, those who make the sacrifice give up something great and receive nothing in return, other than perhaps the admiration of onlookers. This understanding carries over to our common understanding of religious sacrifice, especially in the rituals of our Old Testament ancestors. We think of sacrifice as an animal being slaughtered as a gift, appeasement, or substitution of ourselves to God.

Yet at the heart of it, sacrifice is not about giving something up, it is fundamentally about communing with God. This theology of unity with God is embedded in the very word: “Sacrifice” comes from the Latin prefix “Sacre-” meaning “Holy”. “Holy” refers to God’s essence, the immense creative power of the universe, the boundless Love and Goodness that is God, and the spiritual realm that God inhabits. Holiness is what we are describing when we sing “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty!” (which in Latin is “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus”). Though we have been taught sacrifice is about giving something up, sacrifice is better defined as “Making holy”. Another way to understand it is to think of sacrifice as “giving to God’s realm” or more simply, “belonging to God”. It is the same “Sacre-” prefix and theology shared by words such as “Sacred”, “Sacrament”, and even “Saint”, broadly meaning “holy”, “set-apart for God”, and “one who belongs to God” respectively.

Because sacrifice is not about giving up something, but about holiness, the purpose of rituals that involve sacrifice become clear. The materials, whether it be animals, food, or other gifts, are incidental. They are a means to commune with God, to make oneself holy and enter into God’s realm. In the case of the animal sacrifices practiced in Ancient Israel, and even in the Temple in Paul’s lifetime, they understood that God doesn’t need food, it was a gesture of giving a gift, something of monetary, symbolic, and cultural value to express Love for God and seek to grow closer to God. The only part of the animal that literally “went to God”, was the smoke and pleasing smell of the cooked fat, like the heavenly aroma of a summer barbeque. Almost nothing of the animal was wasted, a portion of the meat was designated for the priests and their families (this was to feed them since they had no farms themselves), a portion designated for the poor and other charitable means, and the rest for other practical uses.

In this context of sacrifice related to holiness, that it is not a self-harming one-sided transaction, Paul’s appeal for all Christians to become a “Living Sacrifice” makes perfect sense. He explains what it means to be a “Living Sacrifice” immediately following his appeal:

“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 12:2

To be a Living Sacrifice is to be made holy, being someone who belongs to God and who seeks to commune with God in all aspects of life. It is to discern God’s will for the world and in your life. It is to see through the false idols and calls to give up the personal and common good for the sake of preserving the status quo. Fundamentally, it is a mindset and a means of living: to flourish and be transformed by the love of God.

Paul follows this appeal with an explanation of spiritual gifts. Much has been made of the rank and supposed prestige of the spiritual gifts, but that is ultimately foolishness, as Paul leads his explanation of the spiritual gifts with a reminder that all are members of the Body of Christ, that we should use “sober judgement” when assessing how we can become a living sacrifice.

“For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.”

Romans 12:3-8

The spiritual gifts are Paul’s practical explanation of what it means to be a living sacrifice. We are to use our talents, our interests, our creativity, and our worldly means to make the world holy. Whether it be teaching, compassion, or generosity, no act done out of love is too great or too small to be made holy. In living holy we shall be made whole, living in the healing grace of God the world shall be healed, and in giving our selves, our souls, and our bodies, we will find our true self, soul, and body.

“And we earnestly desire thy fatherly goodness mercifully to

accept this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving; most

humbly beseeching thee to grant that, by the merits and

death of thy Son Jesus Christ, and through faith in his blood,

we, and all thy whole Church, may obtain remission of our

sins, and all other benefits of his passion.

And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves,

our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living

sacrifice unto thee; humbly beseeching thee that we, and all

others who shall be partakers of this Holy Communion, may

worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son

Jesus Christ, be filled with thy grace and heavenly benediction,

and made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and

we in him…”

Holy Eucharist Rite I (pg. 335-336)

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