Friday, September 26, 2008

New Life in a Fallen World

Rom. 12:1-8[1]

Almost thirty years ago I went off to college as a very young “ministerial student.” I didn’t really know much of anything about anything, but I wanted to study the Bible. One of the things the college I attended did with young ministerial students like me was to have us undergo pretty extensive testing. And one of the “tests” was to rank the activities of the church in order of importance. At the ripe age of 18, I think I ranked worship pretty close to last!

In fact, one of great principles of the Reformed Faith is that our “chief duty” before God is to worship. Now if by “worship” we mean going to church services, that might sound pretty ridiculous. But I think what I failed to grasp as a young man—and what many still fail to grasp—is that “worship” includes much more than what we do on Sunday! In a very real sense, when we truly understand what God is about in our lives, we cannot escape the realization that all of life is our “worship.”[2]

That’s Paul’s point in our lesson for today from Romans. Paul has covered a lot of ground explaining his gospel—a gospel that consists of the promise that because of Jesus’ death and resurrection we all have new life, a life that truly is life.[3] Paul has gone to great lengths to elaborate the good news that God has determined from all eternity to be the God who has mercy on us all.[4] Was all that really just to give us something to talk about in church? Was it all just to inspire great poets to compose beautiful hymns? Don’t get me wrong—I love the beauty of worship. But that’s not all there is to it. In fact, as Paul presents it, that’s not even the primary point!

Paul insists that the wonderful Good News of God’s grace and love carries with it a summons, a call, a claim on our lives—everything about our lives.[5] The primary point of worship, according to St. Paul, is to make all of life worship. Paul says it this way: “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship”[6] (Rom. 12:1). Again, I like The Message translation: “So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering.” I think the point is that when we truly grasp the depth of God’s love and the extent of God’s grace, we will respond in humble and joyful worship—with everything we are and do![7]

Paul goes on to explain what this looks like: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God” (Rom. 12:2). On the surface of things, it’s relatively easy to understand what Paul is talking about. We live in a world that is a fallen place, a society that operates based on principles that are not only contrary to God’s grace but in fact positively resist a life defined by God’s grace. It doesn’t take a Ph. D. to recognize that!

But the difficulty comes in the doing of it! So what makes the difference between “conforming” and being “transformed”? I think Karl Barth is right when he suggests that it’s a humble recognition that we are all fallen—and we are fallen in every aspect of our lives. And the word he uses for it is repentance.[8] I think we will have to agree that one of the fruits of a genuine encounter with God is the humble recognition that we share all the same problems that we see in everyone around us. And when we humbly recognize that, it has to make a difference in the way we live.

But I think there’s another factor here. Humble repentance is important, but if that’s the only distinction to the Christian faith it seems a bit gloomy! I think it’s essential to recognize that the message of God’s unconditional love, God’s all-inclusive grace, and God’s irrevocable acceptance inspires in us a deep sense of joy![9] Yes, I said joy. I realize that we may not be used to associating the words “joy” and “worship.” But joy is one of the most important sources of the kind of worship in all of life that Paul is talking about.

Joy comes from recognizing that, already in this fallen world, we experience at least a taste of the new creation that God is working toward.[10] And I think that we are fooling ourselves if we fail to recognize that joy is one of the most important ways in which we can live our faith, we can practice our worship, in this fallen world. While humble repentance is important, the kind of transformation of all of life that Paul has in mind here can only be motivated by joy!

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/24/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Karl Barth, Epistle to the Romans, 426-36.

[3] See Hans Küng, The Christian Challenge: A Shortened Version of On Being a Christian, 146, 285-86, 312.

[4] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.2: 28-29, 53-54, 218-19, 221, 223, 232, 259; cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 53, 151.

[5] Barth, Romans, 207-8: “Grace … is the indicative which carries with it a categorical imperative” that we should live our entire lives to fulfill the prayer, “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”; cf. ibid., 211, 220-22, 234; see further, Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3, 510.

[6] See David Peterson, “Worship and Ethics in Romans 12,” Tyndale Bulletin 44 (1993): 271-88; cf. especially 275, where he says that “spiritual worship” should be translated “understanding worship,” meaning “the worship which is consonant with the truth of the gospel.”

[7] Barth, Romans, 431: “The problem of ‘ethics’ is … identical with the problem of ‘dogmatics’: Soli Deo Gloria!”

[8] Barth, Romans, 436-37: he defines repentance as the “affirmation of the full ambiguity of our temporal existence.”

[9] Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 109, says that new life in Christ is to be “celebrated as the feast of freedom, as joy in existence and as the ecstasy of bliss.”

[10] Cf. Moltmann, Church in the Power, 279.

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