A sermon for August 27 on Romans 12:1-8
There is much to wrestle with in this reading from the Gospel according to Matthew, in which Jesus renames Simon as Peter—petra; the rock—and the rock upon which he will build his church. “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus says, “and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” That’s given rise to countless jokes and stories about Peter standing at the gates of heaven, checking through a ledger book and determining who gets in. I promise, I will resist all temptation to tell one of those jokes…
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The thing is, this portion of the story really needs to be heard in conjunction with the portion that follows, in which Jesus rebukes “the rock” with the sternest, most vivid language imaginable. That’s what’s on the plate for next Sunday, so I’m going to hold off on commenting more on this gospel until then, when I’ll work with the two stories as a single, continuous narrative.
For this Sunday, it is back to a reading from Paul’s epistle to the Romans; a reading most suited to a baptism Sunday. Really well suited to a Sunday on which we will baptize a baby not yet six weeks old, both because it speaks powerfully to the nature of the body into which little Merryn is being welcomed, and because it holds before her parents, her wider family, her community, her church, a vision of the kind of life that we will need to share with her.
As this section of the epistle opens, Paul appeals to the Christians in Rome to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Paul is sometimes thought of as being suspicious of the body, and more concerned to nurture things spiritual. But that is a misreading of Paul; one that arises from confusing his use of the Greek words soma—body—and sarx—flesh. This is a point I made early in the summer, when we first began to wind our way through readings from this epistle. When Paul uses the word sarx or flesh, he’s talking about that part of human existence that can so easily get disordered and out of alignment, becoming selfish, self-serving, and self-destructive rather than self-aware and self-giving. When it comes to the word soma or body, Paul is rather positive. He is, after all, steeped in a thoroughly Jewish way of understanding human life; one in which body and spirit are fully intertwined.
As the biblical scholar Frank Crouch puts it,
Paul never forgets that we are embodied creatures. Everything we think, say, or do, we do in a body. Presenting our bodies means staying aware each day that our body is the primary location in which we actually express our heart, soul, strength, and mind. If we want to know our inmost motives and values, we can look at what we do each day in our bodies. Every day in all the places we go, all the things we do, and all the decisions and recommendations we make, we are presenting our bodies.
And so, Paul is essentially saying, in all the places you go, in all the things you do, in all the decisions you make—big and small—present your body, your self, as something acceptable to God. And if the places you go, the things you do, the decisions you make are leaving you touched by a guilty conscience or some serious self-justifying entitlement—if they’re things you’d rather others not know about or things you’d just as soon not pray about—chances are pretty good that they’re not quite hitting that acceptability mark… and you probably know it.
Here’s something else. We know that these bodies through which we express our heart, soul, strength, and mind can be fragile. When I take Merryn into my arms at the font, I will cradle her head very carefully and hold her wee body both tenderly and firmly, because at six weeks of age a body is vulnerable and fragile. We all begin there, and in a very real sense we all end there. Over these past few weeks I’ve been in and out of the palliative care wing at Riverview Health Centre, to visit with a man whose body was being weakened unto death by cancer. He’d been strong, active, fit, determined, but on each visit I could see that he was losing ground to that cancer, and by last Wednesday—the day he died—you could see that for all his body was trying to rally every ounce of its strength to stave off the effects of that cancer, he was simply too weak.
We are all embodied creatures, and yet we all age, and some of us will find our bodies marked by some disease or condition that will really lay us low and make us as dependent on others as Merryn is on her mom and dad. That’s a daunting thing—a humbling thing—and something most of us don’t much want to think about. We like independence, we like to have some self-determination and control; in fact, one of the great underlying assumptions of modernity is that first and foremost we are meant to be independent, self-determining individuals. The ancients would have looked askance at this; what about family, tribe, clan, community, village? Not only the ancients, of course, but cultures and societies from around our current world would ask the same things.
And Paul, as he speaks to us across the centuries, says something of the same when he artfully moves from writing about being embodied creatures to writing of the church as a kind of embodied community.
For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.
It is one of his greatest images; the body of Christ. In other places he puts more emphasis on the interdependence of all of the parts or members of the body. In 1st Corinthians 12, for instance, he writes, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you,’” adding, “On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable…” Here in Romans his focus is more on what he calls the “gifts that differ according to the grace given to us,” but his point remains: we need all of these things, together, to be whole; to be fully human together, in fact. It is by no means an exhaustive inventory of gifts, and elsewhere he does include other things. This list in Romans begins with things that seem particularly “churchy”—prophecy, teaching, and exhortation—but then he adds three more: generosity, diligence, and—this one is my favourite—cheerfulness. You might have a learned teacher, or someone who can see with piercing and challenging insight, but if you don’t have someone who can make you laugh? Well, wouldn’t that be an off-kilter body?
Merryn, though you can’t possibly understand this yet, we are marking you this evening as one with us in the body. No one knows what gifts you will bring, beyond the ones you bring tonight; your vulnerability, need, and dependence. That reminds us of some important things, of course. Our need to make room for the littlest ones, our need to learn again our own vulnerabilities and dependence, and our need to embody hope as your life is just beginning. You are one of us in the Body of Christ, and while surely there will be times when the church will fail you or fall short, this night let us embrace and enfold you and dare to say that you are Christ’s own forever.