Being a Transformed Nonconformist
Romans 12:1-10, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, August 24, 2014
How are we supposed to live that is different from the way we lived before we became Christians? That’s the question Paul is answering in the second half of the Letter to the Romans. The first half is mostly theology, big ideas about how God saved us. The second half is mostly “now what?” Paul begins this discussion with a big metaphor: offering yourself to God as a living sacrifice. “A living sacrifice” is an oxymoron, like “The Walking Dead.” Sacrifices—at least after they’ve been offered—are dead. But we who are now alive in Christ are being urged to offer our bodies and our new lives back to God on an altar of sacrifice as an act of worship. Live your everyday life—your life in the real world—as an act of worship.
The basis of Paul’s appeal is “the mercies of God.” I like the NIV translation which says “Therefore…in view of God’s mercy…” this is what you need to do. The starting point for thinking about God is not his requirements of us, but his mercy. We live not in order to earn God’s mercy, but as a response to God’s mercy.
When Paul says “I appeal to you therefore,” you know he is referring back to the argument of what he has just said in the previous chapter. We don’t often read chapters 9-11 of Romans because they are quite difficult and even controversial; they have to do with how God chose the Jews and how they rejected Jesus as Messiah, and whether that means that God now rejects the Jews. The answer to that is no, but Paul is confident that someday the Jews as an ethnic group will come to accept Jesus as Messiah.
As he wraps up that section, Paul stresses the word mercy. He’s writing to Gentile Romans. In 11:30 he says, “You [Gentiles] were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience [Israel’s unbelief]…” If the Jews had received Jesus as Messiah there would have been no need for a cross and no expansion of God’s mercy to all nations. If you Gentiles received mercy because the Jews disobeyed, it is also true that the Jews became disobedient in order that they too might receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you [v. 31]. That’s a little confusing. One consequence of the Jews rejecting Jesus was that God’s mercy was extended to Gentiles through the cross; a second consequence was that the Jews also receive mercy as a result of the Gentiles sharing the message of the cross with them. So everybody wins. Everybody gets mercy. That’s what Paul says in 11:32: God imprisoned everybody in disobedience—God made all of us knowing that we would sin. And why did he do that? “In order that he may show mercy to all.” God’s crazy logic: he made us sinners so that he could forgive us and show his love. God’s basic purpose was that he wanted to show mercy to everyone.
So following that, Paul begins chapter 12 “in view of God’s mercies.” If you are going to start to think about how to live your life, that’s a good place to start: do it in view of God’s mercy to you. Think of what you actually deserve. Think of where you would be without God. Because we are modern people, our first instinct is to think about how God has been merciful to us individually. Paul and his readers would have been more tuned in to how God has been merciful to the whole human race and to ethnic groups within that world.
So the first big concept is that we live as a response to the mercy of God. The second big concept is that we live as sacrifices. The relationship between those two concepts is critical. The way the world had operated before Christ was that you offered sacrifices to the gods in order to obtain mercy. The new way Paul preaches is that God has unilaterally given us mercy, and we offer ourselves as sacrifices in response.
We can hardly imagine the way that Paul’s readers would have heard that word “sacrifice.” We use that term whenever we give up something in order to obtain something more important: “We all have to make sacrifices in order to use less carbon fuels.” “My mother sacrificed a lot to put me through school; she worked nights to pay my tuition.”
But when people in the first century heard the word “sacrifice” they thought of blood. Sacrifice was almost universal in the ancient world. The Greeks and Romans and the older religions of Egypt and Mesopotamia all practiced animal sacrifices to the gods. It was a way of acknowledging that the gods owned everything, so that if you were going to eat meat you had to offer some to the gods. But it was also a way of buying favor with the gods, a way of keeping the gods from getting angry with you. The basic assumption was that the gods are angry with humans, which is why the world is such a mess. Some have said that the ancient world was awash in the blood of sacrifices. The priests were butchers, which is why Paul had to discuss the question of whether to offer meat that had been “processed” by a pagan temple.
This was also the practice of ancient Israel as well. In the Jerusalem Temple there were grain offerings and other offerings of thanksgiving, but the main event was the slaughtering of bulls and goats on the altar, with the smoke from the barbecue carrying the sacrifice from the earthly realm up to the heavens. It might surprise some people that the Old Testament did not invent the idea of sacrifice; the people surrounding Israel already practiced offering animals to mollify their deities. One scholar has noted, “God often spoke to his people in customs that they already understood, but then modified them to say something different about himself” [Lois Tverburg, “The Universal Language of Sacrifice”]. But both Jews and Gentiles assumed that humans needed to offer sacrifices to approach God.
So imagine the shock when they heard Paul say that they were to offer not bulls or goats but their own bodies as sacrifices, and that they were to offer them as living sacrifices. What do Christians place on the altar? There is no longer any need to bring animals or their blood to placate an angry God. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross reconciled us to God once and for all, and no further sacrifice is required. Jesus revealed that God’s heart is not anger but compassion. So what do we bring to such a God? Surely the God of mercy deserves something from us. What he wants, Paul says, is you—your whole self, set aside for his purposes. That is your “reasonable service” as the King James renders it. The word the NRSV translates “spiritual” is the Greek logikos, which is close in meaning to logical, reasonable. Would it be reasonable to offer less than ourselves and our lives to God in view of his mercy?
Two times Jesus quoted the prophet Hosea to the Pharisees: “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” You find the same theme in Isaiah and Amos. God is not really interested in blood and animals. God is not hungry. Those things were not necessary for God to be merciful; they were an accommodation to the human need to see something concrete and an accommodation to the culture of the time. What God wants as true worship is not animal sacrifices but mercy and steadfast love, justice and righteousness. It’s not the ritual that God is interested in, it’s the ethical. God cares about how you live your life.
That’s very close to what Paul says in Romans 12:1. The old notion of making a sacrifice to obtain mercy is gone. The new model is to understand that you have already received mercy—you have been accepted!—in order that you might live for God in this world. What God wants is your life characterized by the same mercy he has shown you. That’s real worship. That’s spiritual worship: obeying Jesus, not just singing about him.
Being that person whose whole life can be considered holy, a life set apart for God, being offered back to God as a gift—requires transformation. Don’t be conformed to this materialistic, violent, selfish world. Don’t be shaped by the age you live in, by what the Germans call the zeitgeist. J. B. Phillips famously translated that phrase “Don’t let the world squeeze you into its mold.” The alternative to being conformed is being transformed.
Martin Luther King Jr. published a sermon in 1963 with the title “Transformed Nonconformist” [in Strength to Love, 8-15]. That is the definition of a Christian. We are the followers of Jesus Christ, King said, “the world’s most dedicated nonconformist, whose ethical nonconformity still challenges the conscience of mankind.” The church, on the other hand, “is an institution that has often served to crystallize, conserve, and even bless the pattern of majority opinion.” If you are going to offer your life to God as something holy—something set apart for God—your life is going to have to be defined by Jesus and not by the status quo. King said, “Most people, and Christians in particular, are thermometers that record or register the temperature of majority opinion, not thermostats that transform and regulate the temperature of society.” Which are you: a thermometer or a thermostat? One who goes along with the culture or one who works for change?
Be transformed, Paul says, by the renewing of your mind. How do you get a new mind? Paul is thinking of the new mind we develop when we are “in Christ.” Whenever anyone is in Christ, he is a completely new animal, he says in 2 Corinthians. And in Philippians he tells the Christians to have the same mind that Jesus had—one what did not value power or status but humbled himself and became a servant. When we get that new mind—which operates with a different GPS—we can discern what God really wants, what is really good and acceptable to God.
I would say that the rest of Romans 12 is a spelling out of the renewed mind and the life offered back to God. In the verses we read (through verse 10) I see three basic features of the transformed nonconformist life.
The first is humility. Just as Paul emphasized with the Philippians, the starting point is humility. Don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought. (I’m preaching to myself, believe me.) Be sober in your judgment of yourself. How different that is from today’s Christian message that we all need to work on loving ourselves and improving our sense of self-worth. I think Paul would say that stuff is the world squeezing you into its own narcissistic consumer mentality. Humble yourselves—not only before the Lord but before one another. One of my favorite poems is T. S. Eliot’s mature Christian poem “East Coker,” which says
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.
Paul is talking here about life in the church. The church is like a body with many different body parts. Don’t think you are better than anyone else in the church. We are all different because we have different functions. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else in the church—whether you feel better or worse. As the old proverb says, “Comparisons are odious.” Or, as one of Shakespeare’s comic characters twists the proverb, “Comparisons are odorous.” Pride involves comparing yourself to others and ranking yourself higher. But there can be no comparison. It’s apples and oranges.
The second feature of the renewed mind is using your gifts—or, we might say, being yourself. Do the thing you are gifted in, not the thing the world wants you to do. Don’t live a life of meeting the expectations of others, but only seeking to please your Master, Jesus. If you find out you are really, really good at something, it’s not a source of pride because you are only being yourself, who you were created to be, and you cannot compare yourself to anyone else who has different gifts and a different reason for being.
The third feature of the renewed mind is love. It has to be genuine love, not fake love stirred up to meet the expectations of others, or love in order to fit in. Real love is tied to humility, because it involves, Paul says, honoring the other person. I ought to ask myself before a sentence leaves my mouth, “Does this honor the person to whom I am speaking? Am I honoring the elders? Am I honoring the children? Am I honoring those whose gifts and temperament are radically different than mine?” That is the kind of love that builds up the church as Christ’s body—what Paul calls “mutual affection.” I honestly value you not because you are like me but because you are not, and because you belong to Christ.
Most of the trouble we see in the world around us—in Ferguson, Missouri; in Gaza, in Iraq, and in Ukraine—is due to the “old mind” that has not been renewed. The old mind—the mind of this age and this world—says “My tribe is better than your tribe.” Romans is about how God loves Jew and Gentile alike. Racism and nationalism are just forms of the old pride of clan. What would it mean to the world if people shared the mind of Christ and approached the other person with humility, if they respected difference as difference in function in this world, and if they lived out of genuine love? May it be so. May it start with me as I offer my whole self to God as a living sacrifice who refuses to conform to this world but is transformed by the renewing of my mind as it becomes, by osmosis, the mind of Christ.
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