When I was younger, my mind was full of the idea of noble sacrifice (often against enormous odds). There were parts of my life which I did not like that I desperately wanted to cut away and other parts that I wanted magnificently enobled. (Yes, I was a dramatic child, why do you ask?)
Growing up meant leaving those ideas behind but they still echo so upon once again hearing Paul talk about being “a living sacrifice” and offering our bodies up to God as a noble gift, those old ideas bleed through and I want to grab verses 1&2 up into some noble call to personal, bodily perfection. Give your life as a sacrifice! Delight in all the bad things that happen because you are a sacrifice! Your life only has meaning as sacrifice! Be perfect because you are a sacrifice!
Those and other maudlin bits of perfectionist stupidity ran through my head at the first re-reading of this text before preaching but hearing them again reminded me of their foolishness and in-humane-ness. And then I got into the Greek and the whole silly model of sacrificing my life for a great and noble cause was flushed out by the power of the actual text. This, ultimately, is why growth in faith requires a constant re-formation of our thinking. We have to take our deepest thoughts and most cherished notions out on a regular basis to test them against the truth revealed in Scripture (but now I’m wandering away from the text).
So the Greek reveals something else about the text then pastor, what is it?
Let’s start with an expanded translation: [text insertions], alternate/meanings, (underlying Greek words)
V. 1 I appeal to you brothers [and sisters], through the compassion/compassionate pity/mercy of God to present your bodies as a living offering/sacrifice acceptable/pleasing/delightful to God, [as is] your obvious (logical) worship/service.
V.2 and do not allow your being to be shaped anymore by the model (schema) of this era but be transformed (metamorphosed) by the making new (renewal) of your thoughtfulness (noos) into the understanding (testing and approving of) the will of God: The Good, the acceptable/pleasing/delightful, and the goal.
Yes, this is a very wordy passage and shows again how complicated making a translation can really be. While there are a number of points to draw from this, and brilliantly fun rabbit holes down which we can wander, here are a few important points”
All this happens through the compassion of God it is not entirely clear if Paul is appealing through God’s compassion or if it is through God’s compassion that we present ourselves but both meanings are there and God’s compassion is not just a rhetorical flourish.
This offering is not just an “oh well, I’ll accept it” for God, it is pleasing and delightful The Greek word means all three things and it shows up again at the end of verse 2. What we are called upon to do here is something which passionately delights God. Gone forever therefore, is the notion that God looks at what we do and, rather regretfully accepts our life work with a deep sigh and an “oh well, I guess that’s the best you can do”
There is a contrast between the schema (scheme?) of this era in which we live and the being-made-new (“I make all things new”) of our mind/thoughtfulness/thinking processes This implies that the schema (model) of this era is a thing and that it, and the underlying assumptions it carries about girls and boys, what makes success, and the proper understanding of power (among so many other things) are in direct contrast to what God seeks our mental thought-life to be. This is a topic worthy of serious study and is part of the long practice of spiritual growth.
The key part however is that of understanding this bit about becoming a living offering because that’s what takes our life out of the juvenile and ‘oh so noble’ idea of ‘putting myself upon a cross for Jesus’ and singing “we are an offering.” To understand this, we need to make one last stop, and this time it is with an early writer of the church.
Origen of Alexandria (182-254) was one of the earliest commentators on Scripture and a lot of the things he did continue to profoundly affect the way we do interpretation to this day. He was eccentric, at times flat out wrong, and yet for a ‘making it up as we’re going along’ theologian, he was pretty good. In his commentary on verse 1, he makes this (slightly edited) point. “[Paul] calls a living sacrifice one which carries life in itself, that is, it bears Christ.”
In other words, a living sacrifice, a living offering, is an offering which brings life and the life that it brings is Jesus Christ. Far from the compassion of God demanding that we somehow become etherially perfect bodies without spot or blemish, or instead that our sacrifice be along the lines of a noble renunciation of our living in order to give our life for another, the living offering Paul is pointing to is an offering of Christ through us.
What we are called to offer is Jesus, real, alive, and living in (and through) us. We are not asked to suffer for the sake of nobility but to offer life for the sake of those (including ourselves) whose faith light is flickering. We offer the power and life of Jesus through our very lives instead of some noble (and bloodless) principle of being.
We bear Christ in ourselves, we bear the life of Christ to the heathen in our own heart, the unconverted, confused and sometimes quite frightened part of us that still hasn’t gotten it that God’s love really is unconditional. We bear Christ to our neighbors, and in this way become in truth what Martin Luther called us in hope “little Christs.”