(These are some notes from the message shared last Sunday when we gathered as a church.)
"I appeal to you, brothers, in light of the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship." (Romans 12v1)
Last week, we recognised that Jesus is now alive in heaven, acting as our high priest. In the presence of God, he is always presenting the sacrifice for our sins, and praying for his people's salvation. If you have trusted him as your lord and saviour, you are alive in him. In him, therefore, you are always in the presence of God.
In light of this, I asked a question: If, in Christ, I am always in the presence of God, when should worship stop? The answer is obvious: never! Paul makes this point in a different way at the start of Romans 12. He writes that "in light of God's mercies" we should present ourselves as "a living sacrifice".
In other words, I am to place and keep my life on the altar as an offering to God. Worship, Paul tells us, is a whole-of-life response to the mercy of God revealed in the gospel.
So, for example, I am not to think that I have a church life, a work life, a home life, and so on, and worship takes place in my church life, but nowhere else. Nor am I to think that even within my church life, worship only really happens when I'm singing or praying, or using certain gifts, and it doesn't happen when I'm listening, reading or encouraging.
Worship is a response to God that only makes sense if it involves the whole life of a person. But here, Paul doesn't present his view of worship as the unconnected responses of a group of individuals. Instead he presents it as the corporate response of a body of believers. We present "our bodies" together as a single "living sacrifice". Corporate worship, therefore, does not begin and end at the door to a church's building. It is a community's whole-of-life response to God's mercy revealed in the gospel.
So what does a worshipping community look like? Paul goes on to describe elements of this community as he gives guidance and instruction in the rest of the letter. We'll look only at chapter 12 in this post.
1. In a worshipping community, everyone is important, but nobody acts like it (12v3-8). The church is like a human body, where individuals are like different parts of the body. We therefore do not all have the same role or function (v4). As the Lord builds the church, the Holy Spirit distributes gifts and abilities according to his will (1 Cor 12v11).
What is his will? His will is that everyone joins in! The church is like a boat, on which everyone is a member of the crew. That means there will be participation - each person should seek to use their gifts (v6). And if the Holy Spirit is the one who distributes gifts, we must be careful not to pigeonhole people into particular areas of ministry because of their age, appearance, where they live etc. Instead, we should enjoy being surprised as God uses people in ministries we would never have anticipated.
This type of participation encourages humility. No individual can do everything (v4-5): no single person keeps the boat afloat. Just as the parts of a body must work together to be most effective, so we must work together within a church. I must learn that I am not always the answer. God has designed the church so that we must always rely on the gifts of others if we are to function most effectively.
So Paul says I am not to think of myself more highly than I ought (v3). I can always learn from others, because they are gifted in ways I'm not. I can always anticipate that you will have something to teach me - and vice versa.
This approach towards each other will encourage humility and gratitude. Everyone will be important, but no one will act like it.
2. In a worshipping community, we are committed to loving each other (v9-13). There are some ways in which we will all be different because of our gifts. But there are other ways in which we will all be the same. A body of believers will have a certain character, and at the core of that character will be love - a compassion that circulates throughout the body.
What will that love look like? Paul offers some examples in this passage.
There will be genuine affection between believers (v9). Within this context of loving relationships, there will be a rejection of what is sinful, and instead we will seek to embrace and encourage that which is good and pure (v9). There will be a feeling of family, and in humility we will think of others more than ourselves (v10).
We will aim to be excited about Jesus. That excitement will be particularly visible in the use of our gifts as we serve the Lord (v11). We'll be joyful that we have a home in heaven. We'll need patience, because there'll be hard times now, but we won't forget that our Father in heaven is able to help us all the time. So we'll seek His help all the time in prayer (v12).
We will support Christian brothers and sisters when they're in need, and our homes and timetables will make room for each other (v13).
We won't look for excuses to not love each other, but instead, as a community, we will express sincere, widespread compassion. Love is not a gift, but a fruit of the Spirit. If the Spirit lives within a community, then love must also live there.
3. In a worshipping community, we treat all kinds of people with kindness (v14-21). Paul writes that we must show kindness even to those who persecute us (v14, 17-20). That doesn't mean we shouldn't report crime - God provides such authorities as a way of revealing His anger against wrongdoing (13v4). However, we are to strive to be kind to all, and not to "repay evil for evil". We should seek peace, and do what is honourable.
As an example, do you think about that when you post on social media? Do you think about how your comments on Facebook are part of your worship? When someone writes a post that offends you, do you remember your online life is part of your whole-of-life response to God's mercy? Do you still strive to seek peace and do what is honourable as you write your response to that post?
Paul also repeats his call for humility and compassion. We are to share in each other's joys and sorrows - God has designed the church body in such a way that when a limb breaks, the heart breaks (v15). We are to seek harmony, and not be deliberately disruptive (v16). I mustn't think that I am "too good" for certain kinds of people (v16).
In summary, then, Paul writes that a worshipping community has these characteristics:
Everyone is important, but nobody acts like it.
We are committed to loving each other.
We treat all kinds of people with kindness.
The noticeable thing is that, while all of this will feel wonderful, it will probably look unspectacular. This type of community will rarely hit the headlines. If we want the world to notice this kind of corporate worship, we mustn't hide it within a building. It has to leave the building, and be visible as part of a church's whole-of-life response to the gospel.
In fact, that is the only kind of corporate worship that makes sense. If, in Christ, we as a church are always in the presence of God, our corporate worship should never stop. It has to leave the building and become the lifestyle of an uncontained community of believers as we use our gifts to serve; as we demonstrate love to our church family; and as we show kindness to all kinds of people.