Seward United Methodist Church
Friday, May 25, 2018
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A Non-Conformist Life

Romans 12:1-8

 We live in a society that values non-conformity.  Sort of.  Often, it seems to me, that people who pride themselves on being non-conformists end up non-conforming in the same ways.  They may be “non-conformists,” but they conform to each other.  

 At one time, conformity was more valued than it is today.  If you ever see a photo of people going to church or other social functions in the 1950s, you can’t help but notice that they all look alike.  All the men wore suits and ties, and all the women wore dresses and hats.  But any time culture goes strongly in one direction, you always have a counter-cultural move.  The conformity-loving 50s gave way to the counter-culture 60s.   

 Often, the non-conformity we see in the world is only superficial.  People want to look different, but they often still share the same basic values, beliefs, and behaviors of the world around them.  What are the basic values of our society?  Success and achievement, certainly.  Individuality.  Freedom of self-expression.  Desire for meaningful relationships.  The pursuit of wealth, fame, pleasure, and power, I’d say.  And I think most people, conformist or non-conformist, basically live by those values.  

 As Christians, we are called to be non-conformists.  We are called to be different from the world.  We are not to copy the behavior and customs of the world.  Instead, we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.  

 Transformation and renewal are the work of God’s Spirit.  God is in the business of renewing people and changing them.  And in this case, the transformation is not simply a matter of how we look or other external characteristics.  We are called to be transformed according to the image of Jesus Christ.  We are to have a fundamental transformation of our beliefs, behaviors, and values.  

 This renewed life is the sacrifice God wants from us.  We are to “give our bodies to the Lord.”  The Greek word for body is SOMA, and it meant the totality of a person.  It’s not just the physical body, but everything a person is; body, mind, and spirit.  

 In Greek thought, the emphasis was on the mind.  As long as your mind was right with God, you were right with God.  The physical body was inconsequential.  The extreme example of this was the group known as the Gnostics who said that the way of salvation was to have the right knowledge.  As long as you had the right knowledge, it didn’t matter at all what you did with your body.  It was a popular philosophy because

its adherents could say “I’m right with God,” even as they were engaging in the most cravenly of things like gluttony, drunkenness, and sexual promiscuity of every kind.  

 Others have fallen into this same basic way of thinking.  In the 17th century, there was a movement in Christian thought toward rationalism.  As long as you knew the proper doctrine, as long as you knew the truth, then your personal conduct and your relationship with God were rather inconsequential.  

 And of course, there was a counter-cultural reaction against rationalism, called romanticism.  Romantic Christians said that all that theology stuff was garbage; all you really needed was to “feel” close to God, to have an emotional connection with him.  

 Along came John Wesley, and others as well, but of course, I like Wesley.  Wesley was great at bringing together opposing ideas and finding the best of each of them and rejecting the worst.  Wesley said it’s important to know God intellectually, to know the truth, but also to know God personally, to have a meaningful relationship with him.  The seminary I attended was in the Wesleyan tradition, and our seminary motto was “A sharp mind and a warm heart.”  As in, both matter.  Both are important.  

 Well, I do declare that Paul would agree with that motto, based on what he says here.  “Give your bodies, your SOMA, the whole of your being, to God.”  The acceptable sacrifice to God is not some small part of your life, not just your mind or just your heart or just your actions, but all of yourself.  As Jesus said, “The first and greatest command is to love the God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.”  

 This is our holy and living sacrifice.  Sacrifice has always been a major part of almost every religious system.  But of course, as Christians, we believe blood sacrifice is no longer necessary.  Jesus offered himself as the true and final sacrifice.  But the sacrifice God has always desired most is the sacrifice of our will.  Obedience is the sacrifice God truly wants.

 We can find that idea running all through Scripture.  In 1st Samuel 15, the prophet told King Saul that “Obedience is better than sacrifice, and submission is better than offering the fat of a ram.”  In Isaiah chapter one, as God railed against the empty ceremonialism of his day:  “I am sick of your burnt offerings.  I get no pleasure from them.  I hate your celebrations and festivals… for your hands are covered in the blood of the innocent.”  In the prophet Jeremiah, God said, “I didn’t want sacrifices when I led your ancestors out of Egypt.  I told them, ‘Obey me, and I will be your God.’”  In the

prophet Hosea, God said, “I want you to show love, not offer sacrifices.”  The prophet Micah declared, “What can we bring to the Lord?  He has told us what is good and what he requires of us:  To do right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.”  Finally, Jesus declared, “To love God with all your being and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices.”  

 The self-sacrificial life is pleasing to God.  It pleases God when we deny ourselves, put others first, and carry our cross.  God is pleased when we obey his will, even when it costs us.

 This is PLEASING to God.  In the 16th century, the Protestant Reformers, quite rightly, reacted against a church that had placed too much emphasis on salvation by our works.  They tried to restore an understanding of salvation by God’s grace.  But in so doing, they may have gone too far and taken away from our understanding that some things are pleasing to God, that God is happy when we do them.  God is pleased, most of all, when we deny ourselves, sacrifice our own selfish desires, and do his will.  

 That is the counter-culture we are called to be.  And it’s based on what God has done for us.  Because of the sacrificial death of Christ and the new life available in him, we are called to deny self, take up the cross, and follow Jesus.  

 True worship of God is offering to him all of our daily lives, not just the little things we would think of as “acts of worship,” like going to a church service, or prayer, or reading the Bible.  Real worship is the complete offering of self to God at all times, in all places, and in all ways.  Our work, our play and recreation, our relationships, our daily living should all be offered to God.  And whatever we do, we should do it differently because we belong to God and have been renewed and transformed by his Spirit.  

 This is a different from what most other religious systems of Paul’s day expected.  Most of these Roman believers came out of pagan religions that divided people into priests and laity.  If you were a priest, your whole life belonged to a god.  But if you were a lay person, all you had to do make the occasional sacrifices, and you were good.  

 That doesn’t apply to us, because we are called a Kingdom of priests.  We belong to the priesthood of all believers.  Together we are the Body of Christ.  Just as in the human body, in the Body of Christ, each member has a role within that Body.  We belong to each other and we each need all the others, as Paul says in verse 5.  The image

of the Body only works if each member is doing its part; carrying out the role it has been given.  

 Whatever God has given you to do, do it with all your strength.  At the conclusion of this passage, Paul lists some of the gifts of the Spirit that are given to each member of the Body.  And he encourages all believers, “Whatever your gift is, use it to the best of your ability for the glory of God and the building up of the Body.  If your gift is teaching, then teach as best as you can.  If it’s proclaiming the word, do it boldly.  If it’s leadership, take that responsibility seriously.  If it’s generosity, then give gladly.”  

 That is our pleasing sacrifice to God; to do what God has enabled us to do with all our being.  And we do it to honor God and serve others, not for personal gain, because we have been renewed and transformed.  That’s what it means for the Church to be non-conformist, a counter-culture.  We live differently in all that we do because we know Jesus.

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