Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

Trinity 9
August 22, 2011, 10:05 am
Filed under: Sermons

A sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, Sunday 21st August 2011

Rather than talk about the Gospel, which is a very familiar one, I should like instead to think aloud with you about the passage from the Epistle to the Romans. Paul was in Corinth when he wrote this letter, planning a journey to Rome when he had visited Jerusalem to take back the money he had been having collected in Greece and elsewhere for the needs of poor Christians in Judaea. Paul had never been to Rome, although he had friends there. He wanted the Roman Church to sponsor him for a missionary expedition to the far west, to Spain. He knew that he was a rather controversial figure among Jewish believers, and so he wrote this letter to introduce himself, as it were, and to explain what it was he taught, which was often misunderstood and misrepresented.

Towards the end of the letter he offers a word of exhortation and encouragement to his readers. Twenty centuries on we can take these words as addressed to us too. Let’s look at them, then. This short reading falls into two parts, and in each of them a key-word is “body”. The Apostle makes an appeal to us to present our bodies to God as a living sacrifice. To the people he was writing to originally, whether Jewish or Gentile, “sacrifice to God” meant the offering of the fruits of the earth, whether animal or vegetable. If it were animal, it was killed, and usually roasted and eaten by the worshippers, a sharing in a meal with God. It was a thanksgiving, a “eucharist” with a small e, an acknowledgement of God’s goodness and of blessings received (also often to back up requests for future blessings). The “holocaust”, the Jewish sacrifice in atonement for sin, on certain occasions when the whole animal was entirely burnt, was exceptional.

When St Paul speaks of us offering our bodies as a living sacrifice, then, he is making two points. First, that the Christian sacrifice is an offering to God of not just something symbolic of ourselves, but of our very selves. In the words of the Book of Common Prayer, we are to “offer and present ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and lively sacrifice.” And, yes, I do know that the Christian sacrifice is the one, true, perfect and sufficient sacrifice that Christ made, once and for all, upon the Cross. The point is that we do not offer Christ instead of ourselves; rather, what he has done is to make it possible for us to offer ourselves in union with him. It is a living sacrifice, because it is our lives and the way we live them that is being offered.

And this is why St Paul emphasises the offering of our bodies. He means our living and concrete selves, in the actual hurly-burly of life. He had had trouble with the Corinthians (from the midst of whom he was writing), because some of them had thought that Christianity has to be terribly, terribly spiritual; so heavenly-minded, as has been said, as to be no earthly use. Paul did not know whether the same attitude existed among the Roman Christians, but he warned against it anyway. There has to be a renewal of our minds, an inner transformation, a “non-conformity” (if I may so put it, with the world and its standards. But this inner change has to be given expression in our outward lives. It has to make a difference. I expect you may have seen the challenging question sometimes seen outside some evangelical churches: “If you were charged with being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” The body is the outward expression of inner reality; it is itself a sort of sacrament.

This brings St Paul to the next stage of his argument. Some of his Corinthian converts were very high-minded, to the extent of thinking very highly of themselves. St Paul hopes the Romans are not like that. He re-uses the analogy of the body, which he had used in writing to the Corinthians some time before. Not only are we bodily creatures as individuals, we also have a “corporate life” as the Church. “As in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another.” Elsewhere (and indeed in today’s Gospel, with its reference to “building the Church”) the Church is seen as God’s Temple, albeit made up of living stones; but here it is seen as an organism, a living entity animated by the Spirit of God, just as the living human body is made up of many parts and cells, each of which is itself alive and animated by the spirit which pervades the whole and is constricted to no one part alone.

Each of us has his or her own special function in the whole (and no-one should think themselves more important than anyone else), and “having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them.” They are talents lent us for the benefit of all, not to be buried. A healthy Christian community recognises what gifts each member has, encourages and fosters them, gives scope for their use.

St Paul saw certain dangers in the communities of Christian believers he wrote to. There is always the temptation to think that because we are believers, we are in some way “better” than those who aren’t. There is the temptation to confuse faith with knowing a lot of things about God; to think that knowing a lot makes us better than those who know less; to value intellectual qualities over moral qualities. A congregation such as we are, very well educated and pretty well-off, must always be watchful about this sort of thing. It’s easy to fall in with the standards of the world about us, to listen to the spirit of the age rather than the Spirit which is ageless.

Both Peter and Paul eventually went to Rome, but neither of them founded the Church there. The faith was taken there first by Jewish believers, some of whom are probably among those named by Paul in the last chapter of this letter, and otherwise unknown. The work of God is not done only by famous people who go down in history, but by little people whom only God remembers. It is not done by talking a lot (so I shall now stop). But I am down to preach again next Sunday, so I will try to take the theme a little further then.


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