Sermon, August 27, 2017


St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Exodus 1.8 – 2.10; Psalm 124; Romans 12.1-8; Matthew 16.13-20


For ease of division, scholars often break Romans into two parts: Chapters 1-11 set forth the theology behind the gospel while Chapters 12-16 deal with the practical implications of living out the gospel. Let’s recap a few of the major points from Romans 1-11.

  • After the introduction, Paul tells us that he is “not ashamed of the gospel;” the gospel “is the power of salvation to the Jew and to the Greek … in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith” (Romans 1.16-17; NRSV).


  • Paul then sets forth the lack of righteousness among the gentiles and the Jews, noting all “are under the power of sin … ‘There is no one who is righteous, not even one’” (Romans 3.9-10; NRSV).


  • We are unable to attain righteousness through the law; we are justified (made right with God) only through faith; “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5.1; NRSV.


  • Though once slaves to sin, as people of faith, we are to be “slaves to righteousness for sanctification” (Romans 6.19; NRSV). We are to be set apart and transformed that we might grow deeper and deeper into the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.


  • Paul says there is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8.1; NRSV), for the Spirit of God indwells them. We no longer live in the flesh; we live in the Spirit (Romans 8.9).


  • Those led by the Spirit of God are children and heirs of God who have been given a spirit of adoption; when we “cry, ‘Abba! Father! It is that very Spirit bearing witness with our Spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8.15-17; NRSV). Paul tells us “All things work together for good for those who love God” (Romans 8.28; NRSV); nothing can separate us from the love of God.


  • God has not given up on his people, the Israelites. Though many of them have stumbled and rejected Christ, “through their stumbling salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous” (Romans 11.13; NRSV).


  • Although many among the Israelites are enemies of God when it comes to the Gospel, when it comes to election, “they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors” (the recipients of the promise); “the gifts of God and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11.28-29; NRSV).


  • This view of the gospel, of the availability of God’s righteousness through grace, leads Paul to exclaim, “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! … For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11.33, 36; NRSV).

The gospel is cause for celebration. Paul has outlined how God’s promise and plan come to fruition in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As we are made righteous through faith in Christ, Paul now directs our attention to the difference this faith should make in the way we live. It is as though Paul asks, “Since we are justified through faith and have been given the spirit of adoption, how should we live? What should our relationship with God look like?”

Paul pleads with the Roman Christians, and with us, as follows: “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; NRSV).

It helps to remember the prevalence and role of sacrifice in ancient worship practices. The first several chapters of Leviticus set forth the requirements associated with various types of sacrifices. Sin offerings and guilt offerings were for expiation or atonement; burnt offerings and grain offerings were for consecration, i.e., devotion, commitment, and complete surrender to God; and a fellowship offering was an expression of thanksgiving and communion with God. If more than one form of sacrifice were presented, they would begin with sacrifices for atonement, followed by sacrifices for consecration, and ultimately, by sacrifices for fellowship. This practice represents a logical spiritual progression. The guilt offering for atonement) required the sacrifice of a male ram from the flock without blemish or defect; if the people were poor and could not afford a ram, two turtledoves or two pigeons could be substituted; and if too poor for turtledoves or pigeons, a tenth of an ephah choice flour. The system of sacrifices symbolized the mercy of God.

Hence, by the mercy of God, and in response to the mercy of God, we are to present our lives as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God (without blemish or defect), as our spiritual worship to God. In the sacrificial system, the animal was first killed before being placed on the altar. If the sacrificial animal were living, it would be able to crawl off the altar. As living sacrifices, we can crawl off the altar. In the process or sanctification, of transformation, we learn how to remain on the altar as a living sacrifice – remaining on the altar, giving our whole life, is the deepest expression of our love for God just as the giving of Jesus’ life was the deepest expression of God’s love for us. “All that we have, O Lord, is a gift from thee, and of thine own we have given thee.”

I believe Paul recognized our propensity to crawl off the altar, for he said, “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; NRSV). Whenever I read this verse, I chuckle, for it reminds me of one of Garrison Keillor’s stories about a young girl who was celebrating her confirmation. This was the verse on the cake. After he quoted the verse, there was a pregnant pause, then he said, “It was a very large cake!” We all want a very large cake!

In our materiality, we desire the things of this world – the gold and the glitz; the affirmation, approbation, and applause; the means and the meanness to accomplish our own ends. Things of the world appeal to our senses. When we come to know Christ, we continue to be tempted by the things of the world, so Paul cautions, “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.” As we are transformed, we come to know what is good, acceptable, and perfect – it is rarely what we previously thought!

Recognizing that we continue to be tempted by egoistic impulses, Paul further tells us, “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” (Romans 12.3; NRSV). I like Paul’s lead in to this sentence – “For by the grace given to me…” I suspect Paul fought his own demons associated with pride. He might have been the Mac Davis of the Apostles:

Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble
When you’re perfect in every way
I can’t wait to look in the mirror
Cause I get better looking each day
To know me is to love me
I must be a hell of a man
Oh Lord It’s hard to be humble,
But I’m doing the best that I can



In this case, our best is not good enough. God wants to take our best and transform it into something better for the good of the community. Pride in spiritual things can wreak so much havoc in a Christian community; it undermines and erodes true community. The prideful set themselves apart from and above others; they insist on their own way, and in doing so, they get in God’s way.

For this reason, Paul continues, “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 12.4-8; NRSV). Our gifts are given, not for our own aggrandizement, but for the good of the community. We are called to recognize and rejoice in the gifts of others.

In conclusion, Paul reminds us, as living sacrifices, we leave the things of this world behind, we think properly of ourselves and of others, and we dedicate the use of our gifts for the good of the community. When we do these things with the grace of God, as the psalmist says, we “worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” (Psalm 29.2; KJV).



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