A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on August 27, 2023 by Revd Sally Hitchiner
Reading for address: Romans 12: 1-8
Nearly a year ago, at our last Patronal Festival, Sam spoke about three ideals of church. A church can be an institution, living out a beautiful idea that the rest of society can aspire to. A church can be an organisation, mobilising for effective change of its society through social justice, evangelistic engagement or practical support of those in need. And a church can be an association, building a close-knit family of believers where every member is known and loved.
Each of these are not bad ideals for a church. St Martins is each of these things and more. But each of these ideals can be destructive and exclusionary if they are pursued at the exclusion of other definitions of what we are. Different ones of us will gravitate towards different ideals of what we are as St Martins and we sometimes find tensions emerging. Most concerningly, it is easy for any of us to lose sight of Jesus as we build our perfect model of church. It is easy for our ideals to become an idols. So how do we navigate the terrain?
It turns out we’re not the first church to have faced these issues. We can see some of these dynamics playing out in our New Testament reading. But first we need to understand some of the context of St Paul’s letter to the Romans.
The church in Rome was founded by Jewish leaders who developed a way of worship based on Jesus as an extension of Judaism. As non-Jewish people were welcomed into early Christianity, the church in Rome found themselves with a number of gentile converts to as well as Jewish. A few years in, the emperor Claudius became anxious about the presence of minority groups in his capital city. He passed a decree that all Jews should be forced to leave. This included the Jewish Christians. It would have been traumatic for all involved. Remember the first days of the pandemic? Imagine if the folk who had been part of St Martins for more than ten years were all suddenly forced to leave London. It’s an experience many here who have experienced seeking asylum could also tell us about. Overnight the little church in Rome was left in the hands of the newer gentile Christians. Five years passed until the emperor was more secure and let the Jews come back. The Jewish Christians returned to find a very different church to the one they had left. There were a lot of faces they didn’t recognise. What’s more the Gentile Christians had let some of the Jewish customs slip and had brought in a version of Christianity that was less distinct from the pagan ways of life, the pagan way of thinking.
Historically, the Jewish pattern of proper worship was to be the distinct people of God. Sacrifices were offered in Jerusalem to atone for their sins and maintain their position as the holy and set apart people of God, so all the world could look and see how it should be done. You could say they had an institutional understanding of religion.
Historically, the gentile pattern of true worship was to please the gods with sacrifices so that the gods would make their endeavours prosper. Closeness to the gods was measured in how successful your plans were, not just the individual but their whole city. You could say they had an organisational understanding of religion.
While the Jewish Christians were away, the Gentile Christians had stopped keeping kosha and observing all the sabbath rules. They weren’t trying to be distinct and holy in the way the Jewish Christians understood this. To the Jewish Christians it looked like they were in bed with the world. They were certainly more rooted in the wider pagan culture. Jesus was Jewish, the Jewish Christians had established a way of worshipping that took that into account. Who could be against that?
To the Gentile Christians it looked like they had freed themselves of cumbersome rituals and now could have a truer, more heartfelt worship. It wasn’t saying it was a cut above the surrounding culture but instead looking for the good in that culture and discovering that Jesus is present there too. Their Christianity was easier to access and their church had grown through this innovation. Their worship had fewer rituals they didn’t understand and more people were discovering the truth of Jesus Christ. Who could be against that?
You can imagine the Jewish Christians joyfully arriving at their first service in five years, the church they founded, the church they had nurtured to life and finding this. You can see their faces fall and the stunned silence as they looked around. You can imagine the heated conversations, the anxiety on both sides that all they valued was under threat. In such a harsh situation where both sets of Christians depended on this as the only church in town, you can imagine what a mess this left them in.
So, Paul writes to them from where he is staying in Corinth. He sends a letter with Phoebe to read and explain. Phoebe was a church leader from a small port town a few miles from Corinth.
Pheobe stands up and reads out Paul’s letter spelling out the heart of the Gospel that they all share again in ordered detail. She reads that both groups are missing something.
Paul introduces this passage by taking the phrases that both sides used to describe their ideal worship. If you look at verse 1, our worship is to be about pleasing God and being holy. This is about discovering true and proper worship.
But neither the holy and proper worship of the Jewish Christians or the God pleasing and true worship of the Gentile Christians can be achieved by fixing the other.
If we want to find worship that is holy and pleasing to God—true and proper worship, we have to start closer to home.
It is not a horizontal focus on each other that is needed to fix their church. It is a vertical one.
This is free to everyone but it doesn’t come cheap.
They are invited, as we are, to offer our bodies as living sacrifices to God as our true and proper worship.
We hear the word “sacrifice” as a metaphor but in the first century, Christianity would have been the only faith in town that had worship that didn’t smell of fire and blood and carcasses roasting. The Jewish synagogues were becoming more focussed on the Torah but the Temple in Jerusalem was still very much about animal sacrifices. If you’ve studied Classics in school, you’ll know that popular Roman myths involve a lot of human sacrifice.
In the context of all this Paul says that Christianity isn’t so different. The only difference is that instead of grabbing an animal by the neck for proper worship, Christians are invited to present themselves for sacrifice. Not a sacrifice that will end our lives but a sacrifice of living each day of our lives for God.
Church is to be a higher ideal than anyone is imagining. We settle for institutions and organisations and associations. We reduce our ambition to something we can achieve. If you were writing a strategic plan for how we, at St Martin-in-the-Fields was to be the body of Christ, where would you start?
We are used to the phrase “the body of Christ” being used about us but, if you stop and think about it, that’s a very bold thing to say. Think about it more literally. The body of Christ was so committed to loving the people God loves that it was vulnerable to death. No institution, no organisation, no association would have a risk assessment that permitted that.
It’s also a brave, perhaps foolhardy commitment from God to entrust all that to us.
One of the challenges with social media is that once you upload an image onto a social media platform you give the rights to that image to them. I read about a family who uploaded some holiday snaps to a social media platform to share with a small number of friends and family, only to find that this image had been sold on and was being used on billboards to advertise toothpaste in Malaysia.
Many people are careful about where they want their image used. And yet God is remarkably cavalier in saying that we are the body of Christ. If people look long enough at us worshiping or sharing coffee after the service, meeting in our various groups, building community that overcomes exclusion in Sunday International Group, listening to our Autumn Lectures, if people look long enough at us being church, they will see what God is like. The wise men at Christmas time looked for God in the impressive places but found God as a baby born in the ordinary. Today if people are looking for Christ, they can find his body expressed imperfectly by us, ordinary people. Occasionally the Bishop of London retweets something that we do and I feel it’s such an honour. She’s saying “if you want to see what the church is like, look to them”. How much more of an honour is it that Christ points to us and says “that is my body”. It’s an honour and it’s a big calling. As any recovering addict or aspiring athlete knows, to see real transformation, you need the support of others.
Even imagining what it could mean in reality, is bigger than any of our minds can cope with. Each person has a different experience of life, if we are to discover something that is meaningful for all humanity, we need to factor in as many of those experiences as possible. But we don’t just need each other to achieve a goal. We need each other by design. Each member belongs to the other. Each person is the gift of the body of Christ to the other.
St Paul says to the church in Rome that they are invited to present their bodies (plural) as one living sacrifice to God. This is the only way to true and proper worship.
It’s as if the image of Christ has been broken into a million tiny pieces and each person has been offered one piece. One glimpse of what Christ is really like from the perspective of their particular character, their particular experiences. If we define church by any other definition we have to exclude those who are less useful for our model. If we define church as an institution, we exclude the broken and ugly. If we define church as an organisation, we exclude those whose lives are chaotic or exhausted. If we define church as an association, we exclude those we don’t want to be friends with. But excluding anyone from the body of Christ means that we all have less of Christ in view.
Instead of fixing other people’s worship, those who are ruining the proper worship as understood by the Jewish Christians or the true worship as understood by the gentile believers, Paul tells us to each focus on giving what we each have to God. That way we’ll all fall into place.
More than just needing each person to make this dream happen, we need each person’s differences, each person’s distinct passions, even when they clash, each person’s gifts.
Paul lists examples. If your gift is speaking God’s truth then do that, if your gift is service then do that, if your gift is sitting with the desolate then do that cheerfully. If your gift is leading or giving money or encouraging others then put your full energies into doing those for others in the church and for God.
If you think about this passage long enough you’re left with a question.
What sort of God would set things up like this? Only a God who is more committed to us, all of us, than to any other use for church.
Surely the most important part of church, is what Jesus said about church elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus said “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in the midst of them.”
Two or three people are useless if we are trying to build an institution or an organisation or even an sustaining association of friendships.
But with Christ at the centre we can, and do, discover love even with those we would never associate with as friends.
With Christ in the centre we can discover we have something so beautiful that it has space for the ugly and the broken and the wrong.
With Christ at the centre we can have a fearless approach to our organisation and take decisions that are based not on expediency alone but on love.
Just as with the first body of Christ, we can throw ourselves wholeheartedly into discovering what it means to be the body of Christ, confident that even if the worst happens, even if our association or organisation or institution are utterly destroyed, that God will raise us up.
Look around with God’s eyes at what we are doing here. When God looks at us, he sees through all our failures and sees a group of people who look like his son. And if almighty God is committed to us becoming the best expression of church, you can relax. It’ll happen.