The first strategy for our consideration is that of sacrificial service. To do that we need to look at Romans 12:1&2
12:1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Chapter 12 is the beginning of a new section in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. He begins with the word ‘therefore’. What he’s about to write doesn’t come out of left field. It’s the natural consequence of everything that he’s written in chapters 1-11. I won’t rehearse that material in any great depth. Paul’s summary statement will do. He describes the teaching in chapters 1-11 as ‘the mercies of God’. That section has been a sustained exploration of God’s undeserved kindness to rebellious humanity through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In chapters 1-3 Paul argued that the human race is united in its common desire to reassert its sinful independence and replace God as our rightful ruler.
In chapter 4 Paul explained that God had intervened and not left us in our sinful predicament. Through the death and resurrection of His son Jesus Christ a great exchange had taken place. He has taken our unrighteousness upon himself and suffered the punishment we deserve. And he has given to us his righteous life so that when God looks at us He sees the perfect life of Jesus Christ.
In chapters 5-8 Paul explored the implications of that great salvation as he recognises that those who have faith in Christ are free from the wrath to come on the great day of judgement, free from the penalty of sin, the power of the law and presence of death.
In chapters 9-11 Paul explored and praised God’s unfathomably wise intent to bring salvation to both Jew and Gentile.
None of this has been deserved, quite the opposite. But in the light of the mercies of God the great Apostle thinks that there’s now an obligation placed upon us. He’ll explore this in Chapters 12-16. But 12:1&2 function as an essential thematic headline for what follows. They’re the general principle from which everything else flows. Paul makes two fundamental points.
1. Christians should present their bodies as living sacrifices (1)
This is only for those who know and appreciate the mercies of God. This is something only for Christians. And it’s something that ought to be characteristic of every Christian. We should present our bodies as living sacrifices. The only appropriate response to God’s kindness is to pursue a way of life described here as holy and acceptable to God. Now that we’re set apart to belong to God it’s His assessment of our life that ultimately matters. The way of life that He impresses upon us is one in which we’re supposed to be offering our bodies as living sacrifices. That’s an oxymoron, like military intelligence or rap music. Sacrifices are supposed to be dead things, but this one is living. What does Paul mean by this? He frames our response in terms of the Old Testament practice of sacrifice. Essentially the sacrificial offering of an unblemished animal to God was an act of wholehearted devotion to Him. The offering of a sacrifice demonstrated that the worshipper was holding nothing back from the Lord. What we’re to offer is not dead animals but our living bodies. We’re to take our bodies in hand and put them to the use of God. What we do with our flesh and blood matters. It’s not enough to simply worship good with my heart, my mind and my soul. No longer are we to use our bodies and serve ourselves and fulfil our ambitions but we’re to commit ourselves to serving God and fulfilling His ambitions. This is ‘spiritual worship’. There’s some debate amongst the commentators about the exact nuance of the word ‘spiritual’ and whether it might be better translated ‘reasonable’. But this much is clear, Paul’s point is that offering ourselves to God is the entirely appropriate response to who God is and what He has done. It’s not mindless conformity to religious or cultish expectation. Though it may be an unusual response and though many in our culture may find it an unfamiliar or even uncomfortable response, there’s nothing unreasonable about it. We don’t stop being rational simply because we’ve become a Christian.
2. Christians should be transformed by the renewal of their minds (2)
Paul now explains how we’re to offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God. He explains it in terms of a negative and a positive. Negatively we’re not to be conformed to the world. In other words we mustn’t allow ourselves to be shaped by the world’s expectations and ambitions. We don’t do things simply because everyone else around us is doing them. We’re not lemmings, we’re Christians. And so we won’t do some of the things that others think are normal. For example, it’s commonly assumed that at some stage most middle class families move out of London and the father commutes into work. That’s an option; it may be a sensible one. But Christians shouldn’t do it simply because everyone else does. We mustn’t be conformed to the world. It will also mean that some of the things that we’ll do will be incomprehensible to our unbelieving friends. We’ll do things with our time, our money and our families that they’ll just think are absolutely bonkers. So for example, we may decide to stay put in London because we recognise what a massive contribution we can make to church life. Positively we’re to be transformed by the renewal of our minds. The emphasis is not so much on our minds being renewed but on our behaviour being transformed. The point is that since we now belong to Jesus Christ and he is the one that ultimately governs our decision making we already think differently. Our minds have been renewed. But the effects need to filter through. Our behaviour should reflect that. The result of this change will be that as we allow ourselves to be transformed by our new minds.
What might be implicated in a life of wholehearted sacrificial service? Here are three areas worthy of our prayerful consideration.
Sacrificial service means that we can respond financially as we give our money
The subject of money can be an awkward one. And it requires time for the careful treatment that it deserves. CCB is entirely self-funded. That’s as it should be, we don’t want to scrounge from anyone else. We need to keep paying our own way. But the encouragement to financial sacrifice could hardly come at a worse time. Many of us are facing pressures and uncertainties that seemed unimaginable a few months ago. But we need to know that our glad and generous sacrificial contribution to the church finances is a very significant way of serving others. Much of our church life and programme costs money. And we’d like to keep both going. Like any volunteer organisation, without that money we won’t be able to function. If we’re in a position where God has given us financial resources with which we can be generous, then we’re very privileged.
Sacrificial service means that we can respond relationally as we give our time
Within any church there ought to be a network of relationships that provide the encouragement and support that we need in our Christian lives. Those relationships need time to develop and flourish. But if we’re so busy with other things that we never have time for people then it shouldn’t surprise us if we feel disconnected from church and others aren’t as involved as we’d like them to be. We may feel as though we’ve got those relationships already and that we’re sorted, but what about other people? What about the newcomers that God keeps bringing to us? With whom are they going to find the friendships that they need if we’re not willing to engage with and involve them? If we’re either too busy, too self interested or just insular then it shouldn’t surprise us if people come, perhaps even for a term or two, but then drift away over time. But we can make a massive contribution to church life by setting aside some time in the diary and meeting up with others. And so it may be that some of us need to regain control of our diaries. We can live such busy and hectic lives that they run our lives. We need to learn to refuse some things so that we can do others. Some may feel that there’s no slack in the system and you may be right. But can I commend to you the delight of multi tasking! Do what you normally do but do it with others. If you go running then go with someone else, if Saturday morning involves taking the kids to the pool then drag along another family. If Thursday night is ironing then get someone else round to watch you, join you with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc and chew the fat!
Sacrificial service means that we can respond practically as we give our energy
It’s often said that 90% of activity in a church is performed by 10% of the people. In other words there’s usually an overworked core group who do the vast majority of the work and could do with some help and an underused fringe that observe the vast majority of the work and could do with getting stuck in. I don’t think it’s as bad as that at CCB. One of the strengths of being a small church plant is that we can’t carry people for long. Sooner or later someone will ask you to be on a rota. I think that’s healthy. We all need some spiritual exercise. But I rejoice that we’re a church full of people who come along not simply to consume but who come to contribute. The consumer mentality won’t wash. We can’t come to church and commit to church activities simply because of what we think we’ll get out of it. Of course, running a young family can take it out of us. Sleepless nights and early morning starts followed by days spent chasing non-compliant children leave little in the tank. This will place limitations on what we’re able to do. I recognise that. Wonderfully this won’t last forever. The gloom will lift.
So it’s worth asking how you spend your cash, your time and your energy. Where do they go? Do you give those things as a sacrificial service in response to the gospel?
The Christian’s direction and focus is principally a response to the mercies of God in sacrificial service. This is the most fundamental of all our strategies. Everything else flows from this. Unless we’re a congregation committed to sacrificial service we’ll lose our direction and focus. That would be dreadful. Of course, the thing about being a living sacrifice is that it hurts. And so in we’ll find the implications of this principle very uncomfortable. But we know why we do it. We may find it hard but the really hard bit was done by Christ. And what we do is in response to that.