Romans 12 /Proper 16A / 24 August 2014

What does the Christian life look like? What does it mean to be baptized, to be forensically dead to Sin but alive to God in Christ? What does this life of being at once sinner and saint look like in day to day life in what we call the “real world?” In a word: priesthood. That’s what the life of a Christian is. A priesthood. And you are priests, priests in the royal priesthood of Jesus Christ, born and anointed in Baptism to offer your bodies as living, spiritual sacrifices.

“I appeal to you therefore, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” The apostle Paul builds his appear on everything that has come before in the first eleven chapters of Romans: universal condemnation under the Law of Jew, Gentile, pagan, everyone. The justification of humanity in the atoning death of Jesus. Your Baptism into that death by which you are buried with Christ and declared dead to the lordship of Sin but alive to the lordship of Christ. Your being at once a sinner in Adam and a saint in Christ with two wills warring within you, Flesh and Spirit contending with each other even as the Flesh goes to Death and the Spirit goes to life. All of this feeds in to Paul’s “therefore” and his appeal to be the priestly people that you are.

It is by the mercies of God that he makes this appeal. This is a not a law or a commandment, but an exhortation to be who you are in Christ. Christ offered His body as a bloody sacrifice. Now you as a baptized priest, offer your bodies as unbloody, living sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving.

It calls for a new way of thinking. The world’s way of looking at things won’t get you there. The world of science won’t get you there. The rhetoric of this age won’t instruct you. These are the unseen and hidden things that must be revealed by the Word. So don’t be conformed to this world and the way it thinks. You are in the world but you are not of the world. Rather be transformed by the renewal of your mind. That’s what the word “repentance” actually means. It means come to a new mind, a re-cognition, a transformation of that mind of yours which is in Christ Jesus, the mind which serves the Law of God, as St. Paul says in Romans 7, even as the flesh serves the Law of Sin.

No priest is holy in himself. He must be washed before he takes up priestly service. He must be vested, covered in a robe that hides himself. In the OT, a priest had to first sacrifice for his own sin before he could deal with the sins of the people. The blood that he sprinkled first had to fall on him. You were washed in Baptism. You were clothed with Christ’s perfect righteousness. You were bloodied with His Word and His Supper. He makes you holy. He anoints you. He washes you. He clothes you. He atones for your sin with His blood so that you can serve as His priest.

It was one of the great insights of the Reformation, not new to Luther but long forgotten, that every baptized, believing Christian is a priest before God. The word “priest” came to be synonymous with “minister” or “pastor,” with the notion that only an ordained priest can offer a proper sacrifice. But ordination doesn’t make a priest; it authorizes a pastor to speak on Christ’s behalf. Baptism makes a priest. Priests are born in Baptism, ministers are made by call and ordination. The ministry is temporal. It lasts only to the last day. Priesthood is eternal. You are priests forever in the priesthood of Jesus Christ.

A priest never serves alone. You are priests in a royal priesthood. Just as you are members of one body. There is no such thing as an individual, isolated believer in the Scriptures. No matter which image of the church you choose – citizens of a kingdom, stones in a temple, members of a body, priests in a priesthood, the biblical view of the believer is always as a part of a larger whole. Even when you pray by yourself, with the doors locked and its just you and your Father in heaven, you say as Jesus taught, “Our Father.” “Give us this day our daily bread.” Even alone, you always pray in the plural “us” and “we” because as a baptized priest you are always in the spiritual company of your fellow priests in Christ the High Priest.

This is the great mistake that we’re seeing in the church today: the individualization of Christianity. It’s all about me and my personal walk with Jesus. Well, the fact is, that’s the old Adam talking, not the new man. The old Adam is the me first narcissist who’s always looking at “what in it for me.” This is what drive all the church shopping and spiritual restless you see. It’s this self-oriented, self-centered spirituality that puts me at the center. You need to recognize that as the heart curved inward, the very condition we call “original sin.” And so much today that goes on in the name of religion actually panders to the sinner rather than the saint.

You can test that with something as simple as worship. Why come to church when you can hear the Word at your leisure at home? Why force yourself to get up on the one day you can sleep in when you can find something religious on TV or on the internet any time of day you please? Why not have church on the internet instead of bothering with all this getting together? And the answer is: You are priests in a priesthood.

When you come together with your fellow priests to hear and receive and to pray, praise and give thanks, you are offering your bodies as a living sacrifice. Priests pray. The offer sacrifices. They give thanks. And when you are not here, one of the priests is missing. Everyone has to sing just a bit louder to make up for the loss. And your absence discourages rather than encourages your fellow priests in their priesthood. It’s like a rower missing on the crew. Everyone has to pull a little harder when one is absent.

Congregations are built one member at a time, and congregations die one member at a time. Every member that checks out sets the stage and example for the next one to do the same. One by one, the church shuts down because the priests are not at their station. They’re AWOL priests and that doesn’t make for much of a priesthood.

And you have gifts. God does not leave His priests empty handed. Each of us is gifted in some way for the common good of the congregation. The thing about gifts is that it’s better to have others tell you about how you are gifted than to decide this for yourself. Ever run into someone who thinks they have a nice singing voice but really don’t? Or who think they are really good at speaking when they really aren’t? It’s like your voice as you hear it.

Remember the first time you ever heard your voice recorded? It sounded weird. It didn’t sound like you. You asked people, “Do I sound like that?” And they shook their head and said, “Yes, that’s exactly how you sound.” And you were mortified. You always hear your voice through the bones in your head. You’re the only one who hears you that way. Everyone else hears you like that recorded voice.

It’s hard, if not impossible to be objective about yourself. St. Paul says when you consider your gifts, think soberly and humbly, with the measure of faith God has given you. But know this. You are gifted by God as a member of Christ’s priesthood. You have a gift to offer to God by giving to your neighbor, some way to offer your body as a living sacrifice.

Do you know what started me on the road to the holy ministry? It wasn’t some divine dream or avision or voice from God. It wasn’t some life altering moment like Luther’s thunderstorm or Wesley’s Aldersgate moment. It was teaching junior high Sunday school when no one else would go near it. I got volunteered against my will. My pastor didn’t ask me but told me that he thought I had the ability to teach a junior high bible class. He didn’t say that God told him to tell me. He was smarter and more orthodox than to try that. I’m not sure he wasn’t bluffing. But the rest, as they say, is history. I learned more about the faith struggling with those junior highers, the pastor’s own daughter included, than I ever would have simply sitting in the pew or in Bible class. Not that these aren’t important. You can’t exhale unless you inhale first. But I learned something about myself teaching that Bible class, and how God gifts us all to serve one another as the body of Christ.

President John Kennedy said famously, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” The apostle Paul might have put it this way: Ask not what the body of Christ can do for you, but ask what you, as a member of the body, as a priest in the priesthood, can do for the body of Christ. The church is where you learn to receive and be nothing but given to, and where you learn to give yourself away, because in Christ you have nothing to lose.

The gifts may look rather mundane, ordinary, not terribly “spiritual” in the way we think of spiritual things. Prophesying, teaching, exhorting, contributing, leading, doing works of mercy. While “prophesying” may sound kind of “spiritual” (it’s really a rather dangerous activity, just ask the prophets who were stoned to death or sawed in half or thrown into dry wells). But serving on a board or placing your treasure in an offering plate or teaching a Sunday school class don’t seem so terribly “spiritual.” But these are your spiritual worship, and they are the exercise of your gifts for the common good of the body of Christ.

This all happens “in view of the mercies of God.” We speak because we have been spoken to by God. We teach as we are taught. We give as we have been given to. We show mercy because we have been mercied by God. Jesus, the High Priest, offered His body on the cross as an atoning sacrifice. Christ the Victim, Christ the Priest. Your bodies are His, redeemed by His blood. “You were bought with a price.” You are holy and acceptable in Christ. Now present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God. This is your spiritual worship.”

In the Name of Jesus,
Amen.

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