“More than Just Lip Service”

“More than Just Lip Service”

Matthew 16: 13-20, Romans 12: 1-8 ~ Northwood UC ~ August 27, 2023


The gospel text before us presents us with quite the dilemma. Jesus asks Peter the central question of faith. People had been guessing on the identity of Jesus: Perhaps he was John the Baptist or Moses or Eliah. Forget what others say about me, the important thing is what YOU say about me. So Jesus asks the central faith question: “who do you say that I am?” Peter’s correct response: “you are the Messiah. The Son of the Living God” then prompts the most curious of responses. Jesus sternly commands Peter NOT to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. So, what do we make of this text? Why was Peter not to tell anyone Jesus’ identity? Is this a call to silent faith? Tell no one! And if the generations before us had told no one, then how did the faith spread through the last two thousand years? And, to make matters worse, if we are to be silent on the matter of proclaiming our faith, then what am I doing up in front of you speaking? And what are you to do when asked about your faith? Is faith more than just “lip service?” It appears that we, indeed, have a challenge of language and faith expression before us.


With this challenge in mind, the lectionary informs our considerations by spending some time with Paul’s thoughtful letter to the Roman church. Paul, throughout his letters, informs and guides his growing churches on how to go about being the body of Christ as the first generations of followers.  And in this section of the letter, he is helping them understand the shifting nature of a faith practice. Paul explains what sacrifice means as they now begin to faithfully follow Jesus. Paul explains the shift from animal sacrifice to human. At the time, the sacrifice of an animal was something that was offered for a few reasons: animal sacrifice was offered to God to atone for one’s sin; alternatively, animal sacrifice was offered as a gift of thanksgiving. Animals were offered up to a gift to God for the gift of God’s faithfulness and forgiveness. What Paul is helping the early followers to understand was the shifting from animal sacrifice to a new form of sacrifice…the sacrifice of a human nature: presenting one’s body as a living sacrifice.


For Paul, he calls on the followers to present their bodies as “living sacrifices”. Now, to be clear, this is not a ‘take up your cross and die for Jesus’ kind of expectation. Though it might have been for some. For Paul, a living sacrifice was to consider one’s life as a living sacrifice to God. Sacrificial living was a call to discipleship; it was a positive term of dedication; it was a consecration to the will and work of God; it was an offering of one’s body in service of God. And I would suggest that this is something that we can all relate to in one way or another. We might think of: the parent who sacrifices so much for their children; the employee who sacrifices so much for their company going through hard times; the athlete who tirelessly trains and sacrifices for their sport; or the soldier who sacrifices so much in their service, sometimes even their life, for their country. So, we understand what living sacrifices can be. We are doing them in various facets of our lives.


Here in the church, we can also see this shift Paul is encouraging in the way we name parts of our space. One central feature in the church is the Communion Table. Yet, it is interesting, sometimes people also refer to this as an “altar”. For, at one time in history, the altar was the place where animals were sacrificed to God. Now, we more commonly think of the altar as the place where Jesus’ gifts of bread and wine are blessed before we share around the Communion Table/ Altar. This place is still a place of sacrifice, as we remember Jesus’ sacrifice. So, we come to the Communion table / Altar, and we think back to the long history of sacrifice: sacrifice that shifted from animal sacrifice to sacrifice of a living nature.


And the way that we offer our living sacrifices is through the discernment and offering of the gifts planted in each of us. The sharing of our gifts in ministry are our unique expressions of living sacrifice made in glory of God. If Angus’ reading of this section seemed familiar, it should. Paul shared this core expression of faith with many of his communities. There are similar versions of gifts found in Paul’s letters to the Corinthian community as well as to the Ephesians. And as we hear the list of gifts again, I wonder what gifts we see in ourselves (and in others). “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


In the first gift, Paul writes: “we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; have you considered the times you spoke words that were not yours, but rather were God’s? That is the function of a prophet… speaking God’s words of hope, of healing, of guidance. When you spoken those words, did it feel ‘surreal / odd’? Where did those words come from, you ask? I’m not normally that brave? Or caring? Or wise? The words just seemed to roll off my tongue and be right for the moment. Those are God’s words of prophecy that you let flow from you to others. This might seem like a grand question to ask; however, it really shouldn’t be. How are I a living sacrifice to others around me?


Paul also speaks about ministry: offering “ministry, in ministering.” One of the unfortunate things that the church did (in my opinion) was in designating some people as “ministers”; whereas, here we discover that we ALL have a ministry. We are all ministers in the way we live our lives. Paul’s addition of ministry to this grouping calls us to each ask the question: ‘what is my ministry? As a member of my church, my community, my world, my family…what is my ministry and how am I using my gifts in this way? This might seem like a grand question to ask; however, it really shouldn’t be. You are a minister of Christ’s gospel…how are you a living sacrifice to others around you?


Paul’s next gift is “the teacher, in teaching” A few of us are trained as teachers, and what an awesome responsibility you hold in the world. Yet, like ministry, we are all teachers. We all are an example in the world that many others are watching. How we conduct ourselves shapes the world in one way or another, and it influences the many who are watching. How we contribute to a group dynamic, adding care and love and understanding or contributing negativity and hatred. Have you considered the awesome role you hold as a teacher in the world? The teacher…how are you a living sacrifice to others around you?


Paul’s next expression of gifts is “the exhorter, in exhortation.” This, of course, is a rarely used term for how we use our words to encourage others to do the right thing. As we are beginning to see, Paul’s list of gifts are not mutually exclusive, and begin to overlap. Exhortation is the teaching, ministry function of verbally encouraging others in the right path when there are many competing ways ahead. How do we encourage moral behaviour when we balance the considerations of the gentle environment, those in dire need, and the cost of inflation? How do we uphold and encourage moral behaviour within our communities of influence? Exhorter…encouraging others…how are you a living sacrifice to others around you?


Paul’s next consideration is what he calls “the giver, in generosity”. This component should, almost, have been listed first. Are we generous in the giving of the unique gifts that God has bestowed upon us? Are we a half-empty person who holds on to things we believe are all too few? Or do we have faith in the abundance of gifts and generously share this abundance with many? Generosity in giving…how are you a living sacrifice to others around you?


Paul next describes the gifts of “the leader, in diligence”. For the Romans, they would need to guide knowing that the Kingdom would not unfold overnight. The following of Jesus Way amidst the dominant Roman Imperialism would, indeed, be a long-term battle. The kind of encouragement that strengthens people for the long journey that brings justice is truly needed. The ongoing type of encouragement that buoys strength for the battle towards justice and reconciliation is so critical in Jesus’ community. Leadership and diligence…how are you a living sacrifice to others around you?


There is one final gift Paul offers in this section of Romans. Though, we should not view this list as exhaustive because his other lists in Ephesians and 1st Corinthians differ from this one. Here, Paul speaks about “the compassionate, in cheerfulness.” I love this concluding addition of compassion and cheer. What would a community be without compassion and cheer? Most churches have a specific ministry devoted to this area. And, some of you are on the various extensions of the Pastoral Care Committee. And beyond the formalized committee, there are all the informal parts of care that are so essential to transform an assembly of people into a group of people we call ‘a church’. I wonder if Paul might be asking us the question: ‘how will I bring compassion to those I am with today? How will I bring cheer to others?’ This is not a ‘Hallmark calling’, but rather a faith calling as we express the love we have for Jesus towards others whom we meet. Compassion and cheerfulness…How are you a living sacrifice to others around you?


We began with Jesus’ question ‘who do you say that I am’ and we have been answering this through Paul’s teaching that our response is more than just “lip service”, but rather a service of offering ourselves as a “living sacrifice” through the varied gifts we have been given. “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.”

I would like to close with the powerful words from a sermon from Martin Luther King Jr: “human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability; It comes through the tireless efforts of [those] willing to be Co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively in the knowledge that the time is always right to do what is right”. (From Why We Can't Wait)   Amen.