St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 1st Sunday after Epiphany, January 12, 2020
“I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind”
WHAT’S important to you? If a real crisis were to disrupt all our daily lives—like the Camp Fire or an earthquake, a war on this continent, a total collapse of our economy, peace and way of life. And you have enough time to pack some things: what things would you keep when life became very basic, fleeting and uncertain? You face an enemy and know that it’s fight or flight, your old life is gone: what is important, truly essential for you? It is your jewelry? things precious and small enough to carry? Is it your loved ones? clinging to those who make life worth living? Is it culture—music, art, literature: those things that distinguish us from the beasts? What is most important to you that, were you on the run, you’d stop and make sure you didn’t lose it or leave it behind?
We assume here that you could save your life. Few people are given the challenge of saving someone else’s life at the cost of their own, rather than survive and let another perish. But occasionally, a brave soul gives up his or her life just to save that of another. We honor such sacrifice. The fire fighters going up the twin towers made just such a gift of their lives for those who were streaming down. Your own life might be that most important possession. For most people, that’s what they would save.
That most important thing changes as we go from childhood to adulthood, and on into middle and later years. A thing that is desperately necessary to a child or teenager seems silly to one who’s seen much more of life. It’s good, therefore, not to make ultimate decisions when you’re young. Like a tattoo. You impregnate your arm with ink and crazy words and images as a nineteen-year-old and at thirty you wish you could get that decision back.
Some years ago we began to see a proliferation of self-storage lots across America. Our houses and apartments weren’t big enough to hold all our stuff, so we rented lockers and padlocked the things we once bought or inherited, and though we can’t live with it, we paid to have it kept safe somewhere.
Or we face moving, and must take all our possessions out of that closet where we’d stuffed them, having deferred the decision to keep or give them up. It’s amazing what you can save over the course of twenty or so years. And how much time you will spend mulling memories wondering what this could have meant to you, never giving it a thought all the while you stored it in the dark.
What’s most important? Listen to St. Paul as he writes to the Philippians from his prison in Rome. “But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. I count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him… that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.” Phil 3:7-11
St. Paul’s world has changed. At one time going to Damascus to arrest Christians gave meaning to his life. He prided himself on his zeal. But the blinding light and goodness of Jesus turned him around, making him the Apostle to the Gentile world. Everything he once valued he sacrificed, and his own life was now in the crucible. He didn’t mourn the loss, but cast it off as worthless. He did so because he’d experienced the deep love of Jesus, and he knew that true life, eternal joy, and the resurrection was his in exchange for the loss of all he had before.
Paul was executed for his faith while in Rome. We are told he was beheaded. Peter was crucified upside down. Some of the Apostles were flayed alive, boiled in oil, drawn and quartered, or burned at the stake. In the moment of decision, when each man was put to the test, he would not relent, would not give up the faith or comply with demands made to give up this Christ and live. That was unthinkable. To live without Jesus? He had become their very life. Nothing this world could offer would be enough to give up this core truth. They had seen and touched and heard the Resurrected Man, and they knew that nothing is more important, nothing more valuable than everlasting life. “You can have this world and all that’s in it. I will take the next world—that’s my choice.”
Not all of us are asked to choose between living and dying, Christ being the question put to us at the threat of sword or cross or flame. Sacrifice has always held the pang of loss, the loss of a lamb or valuables. The offered thing went up in smoke upon an altar of fire. God took it and you lost it, but God was pleased with your sacrifice. Jesus gave the ultimate sacrifice by offering His own life up on a Roman cross. Few people among the millions of Christians are asked this favor by God—that they’d willingly die for Jesus - today. So Paul wrote the Roman church the wonderful words that start our Epistle.
“I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” Romans 12:1-2 Many of Paul’s words speak of dying: to sin, dying with Christ in Baptism, the old man dying, and so forth. But for him these little deaths are coupled with rising in new life to serve Christ and to live a new way.
A “living sacrifice” sounds like a contradiction, like having your cake and eating it too. But it’s the greatest wisdom. The martyr has one moment of ultimate decision, to survive yet fail the test, or to die in faith knowing Christ is awaiting him or her at the end of one brief ordeal. But a living sacrifice must go on making that decision, choosing Christ every day over the world and its ways, the urgings of our flesh, taunts of spiritual deception.
Israel’s first king, Saul, was insecure in his position as king and often sought to win the favor of his people instead of doing the right thing and obeying God. When God ordered the annihilation of a certain tribe, he went to war but kept livestock trophies and captured the enemy king. The old prophet, Samuel, heard the bleating of sheep and saw a live enemy, and he was irate. Saul made the excuse that these animals were to be offered as sacrifices to God - later. Samuel turned on him, “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, As in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, And to heed than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, And stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, He also has rejected you...” 1 Sam 15:22-23
The point was that sacrifice and obedience are not separate issues. You can’t ignore the way you live, how your values lead to your decisions, but you follow the crowd and waste your time, substance and opportunities. Then cover yourself through a little act of devotion, another general confession, a gift to the church, or you warm a pew for an hour. Sacrifice without obedience is empty. It is, as Samuel said, just like witchcraft or idolatry. If we live like pagans, then our rituals at the Lord’s table are mere superstitions and empty words.
A living sacrifice joins obedience to our offerings, and is always acceptable to God. This sacrifice is a living faith, an example to others, a testimony of the power of a redeemed life.
It is in our bodies, which is not mere thought or private meditation, but a faith lived out in your clothes, walked out in shoe leather.
It is holy, which means that it’s cut out from the fabric of this world, washed and pressed and offered up solely for the service of Christ, never to be used for profane things again.
It is acceptable because Christ died in your place and now sits on high as both man and God, perfect humanity, with the honor of His Father. He is acceptable, and you are acceptable because you are in Him.
And it is reasonable because, once we have realized the things that are truly at stake, our true peril is set aside, yet only if we are willing to give up this world for Him. Then choosing Jesus makes the only sense there is. Denying Him is insane.
The world demands conformance. I remember the 70s and how my generation rebelled by growing long hair, wearing bell bottoms, beads and stinky patchouli oil. We broke old cultural rules—and yet our rebellious image became a new standard and our rebellion merely another compliance, the uniform of just another army.
Rather than accept some new or old worldly standard, we need new minds. A living sacrifice is the proof that God’s will is good, perfect, and fitting.
The twelve-year-old Jesus knew that His true Father’s cause was ultimate, and his earthly parent’s worries for Him unfounded. He must be about His Father’s business, and on that day His Father’s business was an exchange of questions and answers with the priests and scribes of the Temple. He knew where He belonged, and who His Father was.
What is important to you? Politics, entertainment, food, social relations, money, power, pleasure, status: these things are transitory. We debate them, buy them, spend time with them, and in the end find them empty and void when our very lives are in the balance.
Our very lives are not, today, being ask of us in any act of dying, literally, for the truth. But living the truth is, in fact, a greater sacrifice and more acceptable in heaven. So: live Him, breath Him, know Him, love Him. There is nothing more important in all this world than He.