In your Christian experience, you may or may not be very familiar with Paul’s New Testament letters outside of hearing sections of them read on Sunday mornings, or you may, like me, have had a lot of exposure to Saint Paul in various and occasionally in some pretty ugly ways. I love Paul’s letters, but this wasn’t always the case; Paul has been, and continues to be, redeemed for me as I continue to study and pray with much of our New Testament. I love Paul’s letters because in them he writes beautifully and directly to specific congregations and contexts. Paul writes with precision, even if he can be verbose; Romans, the longest of Paul’s letters and the first in the New Testament, is actually likely one of the later letters of the one in our scriptures. The passage we heard in our Epistle lesson today begins a section in which Paul writes on what it means to live a holy life.
Here he opens not with a list of things to get perfectly and exactingly right or a list of things you can mess up and get wrong, but rather, Paul begins talking about what it means to live a holy life by talking about discernment in community; within this community we present ourselves and seek to discover the ways in which the Spirit has moved through our lives since our baptism and how we might use the gifts we have been given.
We have the privilege of having our sacred scriptures contained in one book, which allows us to easily put it on our shelves or bedside table, but this makes it a bit hard to remember that Paul in his 1st century letter to the Romans wasn’t writing a generic letter to all Christians across time and space, but to a specific community. This, rather than invalidating Romans’ place in our scriptural canon, makes us question what does Paul says to us here today in this church through this letter?
Paul pleads with the church at Rome to not think of themselves more highly than they ought; here he exhorts us not to let the church be the place where we come and have our backs pat for a good job on generally loving people. If Paul were writing to us today he might say to us, “Don’t be so proud of being a member of Christ Church that you forget to do the work.” Or “Don’t let our joy at being Episcopalian overshadow the fact that we are called to be a living sacrifice in this world.” Paul might encourage us not to be ready to list off ten or more ministries of Christ Church, but to be ready to share the ways in which these ministries are using the gifts we have been given by the Spirit.
Paul sets the stage for those seeking to live a life shaped by the cross: to live a holy and righteous life, we must present ourselves as a living sacrifice. But what does this mean? What is it to present our bodies as a living sacrifice? I think it means that we continually show up; we show up for God and for each other and offer the gifts we have been given to each other and for each other.
The path of discipleship, we have seen especially over the past few weeks as our lectionary takes us through Matthew, is not a path that we walk alone; to be a disciple of Christ is to be in communion with other Christians. This is important for many reasons, but one of them is that it is difficult to discern our own gifts; most of us either over estimate our ability or under estimate our gifts, and it is only within community that we are able to discern what we have to offer the body of Christ. It is within a community of faith that we are able to come, to let our minds be renewed and transformed as we discern the gifts we have been given and then put them to work.
The Spirit does not give gifts to enrich our lives for ourselves; the gifts of the Spirit are not meant to make our individual lives easier, they are meant to make the way for all of us lighter because we walk it together. (In fact, following our gifts often makes our lives more complex.) At our baptism, we were pulled, and are continually pulled every time we come to the altar rail, out of a self-oriented world; as Christians, we are called to be oriented to others, not ourselves. The gifts listed in our passage today: prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhorting, generosity, leadership, and compassion, are not gifts that stand alone; these gifts are intrinsically tied to others. One cannot minister to oneself; to have compassion literally means to “suffer with”. These gifts require those who have been given the gifts and those who are willing to receive the gifts as well.
The turn of phrase that Paul uses here “in Christ,” “we who are many are one body in Christ,” is significant; it creates an understanding that we are not just people that share a community, we are not just a group of people who find their way to this church building on Sundays, but we are a community that is united together by being united to Christ. In our baptism, we were bound to Christ, marked as Christ’s own forever, and through the gifts given by the Spirit, we are bound to serve each other as members of the body of Christ.
Now, for some of you, this, undoubtedly, sounds exciting; the opportunity to be bound to each other and get to spend our time meeting another’s needs, just by living into who God has made us to be is something great. For others, it might be making you anxious even to think of it; I understand this, because to discern and live out our gifts in community requires that we become, even if just a little bit, vulnerable. But whether excited or hesitant, it is important for us to remember that, as Christians, we are not called to solely to come and worship on Sundays, but to go out into the world.
Not only are we changed by following the way of the cross, we change each other by following the way of the cross together. Each of our gifts enriches the body of Christ; your prayers, compassion, ministries, leadership, and generosity lift up all of us. But just as we do not have gifts for the sake of ourselves, but for others, we are not the church solely for ourselves, we are the church for the world. Through the body of Christ, we are empowered to change the world around us because the truth of the resurrection hope that we know to be tangible inside these four walls and at this table is true for the world outside as well.
This resurrection hope is not something that we own; it’s not something that we hold onto waiting for a tragedy to affect us personally. This resurrection hope is something we enact in this world through the gifts given to us by the power of the Spirit. It is something that we are empowered to bring to the world because we have been shaped by this community of believers who sees who we are and knows what the world needs and then calls us to be who God made us to be. This resurrection hope assures us that death and sin will not have the last word in this life; it is not evil that will triumph, but hope. Now is the time to present ourselves as a living sacrifice; now is the time to show up for each other, for our community, and for the world. And if you can’t yet articulate the gifts that you bring to this body of Christ and to those outside of it as we all strive to bring this resurrection hope to the world, now is the time to turn to your neighbor and begin that conversation; go to those whom you know that excel in prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhorting, generosity, leadership, and compassion and ask them how using their gifts shapes how they see this resurrection hope moving in this world. Because the Spirit moves, creates, and gives gifts in abundance, and it is up to us to take them to each other and out into the world.