Monday, 19 September 2016

An Acceptable Offering

I contributed today’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship.
Romans 12:1

I have written to you quite boldly on some points to remind you of them again, because of the grace God gave me to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles. He gave me the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.
Romans 15:15-16

As Paul moves beyond what we know as chapter 12 of his letter to the Christians at Rome, he continues to write about their relationships with others – in submitting to the governing authorities (13:1-7) and in loving neighbours (13:8-14). Such submission and love is forged in the community of faith where Jews and Gentiles learn – in spite of ethnic and cultural differences – to ‘accept one another... in order to bring praise to God’ (15:7).

Then, as he moves towards the end of the letter, Paul discloses something of his own role as ‘a minister of Christ Jesus’. Even without the phrase ‘priestly duty’, he uses several words which carry priestly associations – ‘minister’, ‘offering’, ‘acceptable’, ‘sanctified’ – taking us back to the ‘living sacrifice’ of 12:1. Paul pictures himself as a priest presiding over the offering of the Gentiles. Through his proclamation of the gospel, he seeks to ensure they are ‘acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit’.

The language might remind us of the constitution of Israel as God’s covenant people in Exodus 19:4-6. It’s there that Israel’s identity as ‘a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ is established. Amazingly, Gentiles too can now be included as members of God’s people – through the preaching of the gospel and the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. It would be an unusual mixture of people gathering together in first-century Rome – Jews and Gentiles, men and women, elites and non-elites, children and slaves. Yet, strange though it would seem to anyone looking in, these are the ones in whom God’s age-old purpose for all things has come to pass.

But their existence, like that of Israel, is for the sake of others.

That mandate remains ours today. As Paul lays it out in Romans 12, sacrifice is now relocated in offered bodies and renewed minds which bear witness to the transforming work of the Spirit. Our life together and our love for each other testify to God’s desire to reconcile all people in Christ. How we’re shaped in our relationships within the community of faith then spills out in our interactions with others – in counter-cultural ways, in love which overcomes evil with good.

In all these ways, we are not merely passive recipients of the gospel but those who embody it and proclaim it, extending to others the mercies of our great God.

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