Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
(Proper 16)

Text: Romans 12:1
So then, my brothers, because of God's great mercy to us I appeal to you: Offer yourselves as a living sacrifice to God, dedicated to his service and pleasing to him.

A living sacrifice

Bertoldo de Giovanni is a name that probably means nothing to most of people. To be truthful it meant nothing to me until I read about his connection to the greatest sculptor of all time, Michelangelo.

Michelangelo was only 14 years old when he came to Bertoldo to learn more about the fine art of sculpting.  Instantly, Bertoldo saw that Michelangelo already was enormously gifted, however, Bertoldo was wise enough to realize that gifted people are often tempted to be lazy and coast along and rely only on their natural talent rather than to grow and become even better.  So he kept trying to pressure his young prodigy to work seriously at his art.  

One day he came into the studio to find Michelangelo toying with a piece of sculpture far beneath his abilities.  Bertoldo grabbed a hammer, stomped across the room, and smashed the work into tiny pieces, shouting this unforgettable message, “Michelangelo, talent is cheap; dedication is costly!” What he meant is that to be talented – that’s easy because it comes naturally, but to be dedicated to learn new ways and follow new paths – that requires commitment and perseverance.  He was telling Michelangelo that to be truly great he had to take the harder path.

Would we be able to use Bertoldo’s words to summarise what Paul is telling us today in his letter to the Romans, especially today’s reading?  There is the easy more normal path that comes to us naturally but to follow God’s ways requires commitment, dedication and sacrifice – the harder path.

Let’s try to understand Paul’s strong emphasis here when he says, Don't be like the people of this world, but let God change the way you think. Then you will know how to do everything that is good and pleasing to him” (Romans 12:2). 

In the first chapter, Paul is excited that “the gospel is God's power to save all who believe”.  It “reveals how God puts people right with himself …” (Rom 1:16,17).

This is exceptionally good news.  In spite of the guilt of every human being and in spite of the fact that God's holiness and justice condemns all sin, he has done some wonderful things for us through his Son, Jesus.  Paul tells us how “everyone has sinned and is far away from God's saving presence” and yet “by the free gift of God's grace all are put right with him through Christ Jesus, who sets them free.”  (Rom 3:23, 24). 
“I am excited”, says Paul. “God lavishes on us so much love even though we are helplessly lost in sin”.  In chapter 5 he writes,
God has shown us how much he loves us—it was while we were still sinners that Christ died for us! By his blood we are now put right with God; how much more, then, will we be saved by him from God's anger!  We were God's enemies, but he made us his friends through the death of his Son” (Rom 5:8-10). 
This is thrilling stuff.  Enthusiastically Paul tells how we become one with Jesus in his death and resurrection through baptism and how we shall be raised from death just as he was (Rom 6:2-4).

Paul goes on to say that even the worst things that can possibly happen to us will not stop God loving us.  “Nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:39). 

Then he sums up everything with a song of praise saying, “How great are God's riches!  How deep are his wisdom and knowledge!  Who can explain his decisions?  Who can understand his ways?  … For all things were created by him, and all things exist through him and for him.  To God be the glory forever! Amen” (Rom 11:33-36).

There can be no doubt that when Paul writes to the early Christians his message about being made right with God through Christ, he gets excited.  He has every reason to be enthusiastic because this is good news to those who are so unsure of where they stand with God.  On this high point, Paul could have finished his letter.  But he doesn’t. 

He goes on.  This good news is not stuff you receive and say, “Thank you very much.  I’ll be on my way now”.  You are now under new management.  You have been made new and you have been changed.  This good news now affects everything you do and say.  There is a flow on effect.  Jesus changes you and you will never be the same again.

So Paul starts chapter 12 with “so then” or “therefore”. 
Jesus gave his life for you even when you were hopelessly caught up in sin and couldn’t do anything to avoid God's punishment so then it follows as Paul says to the Ephesians,
live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (4:1) or to the Colossians, “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him” (2:6) or to the Thessalonians, “Live the kind of life that pleases God who calls you to share in his own kingdom and glory” (1 Thess 2:12). 

He reminds the Romans that they have received a new life through Jesus’ death and resurrection, thereforeoffer yourselves as a living sacrifice to God, dedicated to his service and pleasing to him.” 

Note Paul’s use of words - “a living sacrifice”.  The word sacrifice indicates total commitment.  There are no half measures with a sacrifice.  If there were, then it would no longer be a sacrifice. 
When soldiers sacrifice their lives for their country, they give everything. 
When Jesus gave himself as a sacrifice for our sins, it was a total commitment.
So when Paul talks about a living sacrifice, he means that our whole lives should demonstrate the same kind of commitment that God has given to us. 

You have been made new through the death of Christ,
you have been given a new relationship with God,
you are now one of his special and holy people,
so then (therefore) let all this change everything in your life.
As Paul says, “Don't be like the people of this world, but let God change the way you think. Then you will know how to do everything that is good and pleasing to him” (Romans 12:2). 

Let God change you.
Instead of being ruled by selfishness, generosity is now a characteristic of our new life. 
Instead of coldness and unkindness governing our relationships with others, love and compassion are now central. 
Instead of serving grudgingly, always complaining or criticising, encouragement, willingness to help, showing understanding and contributing cheerfully and humbly are characteristic of our lives.
Instead of putting God in a box that we pull out when it’s convenient, God rules every part of our lives –
our time, our energy, our skills are at his disposal and passing on his love, care and hope to other people is a priority.

And because the church is made up of many different people, the variety of talents is enormous.  Paul uses one of his favourite pictures to describe the church – the human body. 
The body has many different parts all with their own unique characteristics and functions.
Some parts are more obvious than others but all are equally important when it comes to the health and well-being of the body.

In the same way, the church is made up of all different kinds of people with all kinds of gifts.  All are important if the church is to be healthy and happy.
Paul concludes,
There are many of us, but we each are part of the body of Christ, as well as part of one another.  God has also given each of us different gifts to use.” 

Note that last sentence.  God has given each of us different gifts to use.”  Everyone has a gift, if not numerous gifts.  Everyone’s gift is important, after all, it comes from God and God doesn’t deal in trivialities that have no purpose.  The gifts that God has given to you are to be used in some way to bring some kind of benefit to other people. 

We usually have a pretty good idea what gifts God has given us, but every now and then we are surprised at what unused gifts we have.  When we are challenged to give something a go, something we have never done before, we may find that we have a gift that had been left unused for so long. 

God has put you and me here in this congregation for a purpose.  There is no such thing as luck or chance when it comes to God.  It is no accident that we are in this family together.  Every single one of us are his body in this community called to accomplish his purpose of bringing lost men, women and children to their full potential in Christ.
God is calling every member of this congregation to a new way of thinking about the church and your role in it.  Paul says, Let God change the way you think. Then you will know how to do everything that is good and pleasing to him.” (Rom 12:2 CEV).  

This kind of sacrifice and dedication to Christ and the church is unpopular to the world.  Christians have been called crazy since the time of Christ for this kind of commitment that Paul is talking about here.  And it is much easier and more natural to think, “I’ll fit Jesus and his church into my life when I have the time and when it’s convenient”. 

The Holy Spirit knows that this will be our constant struggle right throughout our lives.  Michelangelo’s teacher was right.  It is easier to take the easier path; to be lazy and just do what we feel like doing.  Michelangelo had Bertoldo to keep him focussed; we have the Holy Spirit who encourages us when we don’t want to make the hard decisions and he refocuses us when we get side-tracked. 
He is ready to coach us every day to be the living sacrifice that he wants us to be and to comfort us with his love and forgive us when we fail. 
The Holy Spirit is ready to make real in our everyday lives that Jesus has saved us; he makes us new and fills us with his love. 
He is ready to make us into his craftsmen and women who are able to make a difference in our world. 

“Let God change the way you think. Then you will know how to do everything that is good and pleasing to him”.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
24th August 2014

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