The horizontal and the vertical

As I was writing this sermon this week (Nov 2019), my husband and I began our traditional and seasonal debate about the atmosphere:- not extinction rebellion heat but a little verbal heat generated over the lack of heat. My husband, Henryk, is always warm and I am always cold, so as I sat writing this in thermals with the fire on and a woolly jumper, he sat over the other side of the room with a rosy glow saying ‘it’s so hot in here.’

But I am cold.” “But I am hot” and so the traditional, seasonal (because not summer) debate about the atmosphere begins in my house, and will continue til about March. But I had been reading Romans 12 so I switched off the fire at his request – he looked surprised that I had given way so quickly… he didn’t realise I’d been reading Romans 12...

So let us pray, holding a moment of silence, before I read God’s word to us, that we would be so captured by Paul’s words about sacrifice and unity, that Christ, through us and in us, might change the atmosphere of our worship, as we offer ourselves to Him in praise and he offers himself to us through his Word. Pause.

A reading from the New testament and Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, chapter 12: verses 3-8.
3For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. 4 For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, 5 so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. 6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; 7 if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; 8 if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully. This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

And of course, I would say, following on from how I began today, something about a function to keep warm, lacking in me (“more grace, Lord – more of your distribution”!) given in abundance to the person I am married to... and I began today sharing with you a little about the sacrifice I made in switching the heating off for him. 

In Luke’s Gospel (9.23), Jesus talks about how we are to take up our cross and deny ourselves. If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. And then Paul, our writer today, echoes that command in verse one, just before our reading, saying present yourselves to God as living sacrifices (12.1) … this is your spiritual worship.

I wonder what you imagine when you think about self-denial and sacrifice. Perhaps you don’t think about worship. Perhaps you don’t think about switching the heating off. On Monday we commemorated all those who make the ultimate sacrifice – at 11am on the 11th day of the 11th month.

Today, those who sacrifice everything for Christ, are our modern day martyrs for the faith and we hear about them through organisations such as Open Doors.

But ours will more often be a ‘living sacrifice’ - Verse one of chapter 12 of Romans asks that we present ourselves as living sacrifices because this is our spiritual worship.

My children, who are 17 and 15, were deeply moved a couple of years ago at the New Wine summer gathering, hearing from Hea Woo who spoke to them about how whilst she was in a North Korean prison, worshipped God in the toilet block, in a place so foul the guards would never come. The pleasing aroma of spiritual worship, when the place utterly stinks. How good is God that something so beautiful rose up to him? He can see our hearts.

And perhaps we imagine her on her own, in the few moments she is not observed by prison staff, grabbing five minutes on the loo to connect with God; to sing his praises, to cry out to Him in prayer but no – she invited as many people as she could into that toilet block and planted a church there.
You see a problem we have is that when we imagine ourselves caught up in the spiritual heights of worship, sometimes we imagine ourselves alone or think preciously about those moments of real God-centredness, guarding them from being interrupted by other people.

There have been people in Christian history who decided that self-denying, sacrificial worship looked like isolation – looked like not inviting other people into the loo block.

In the 5th century, after Christ, there were individuals like Symeon of Antioch who lived high up on a small platform on a pole in the sky which he would make taller year on year as he further removed himself away from ordinary people, and particularly women, whom he’d shout at from his great height. Ironically, in his attempt to get away, he attracted bigger and bigger crowds and often won after him other pillar saints who thought this the best way they could worship Christ. (5 mins)

Then there is Anthony who took himself off into the desert, washing only at Easter. You see whilst Hea Woo had smelly conditions, the people she welcomed into that small space were a pleasing aroma before God – a living sacrifice but Anthony (well, some write well of him) but in keeping others far away, did not really live out what Paul describes here In Romans 12 as sacrificial, spiritual worship.

You see what Paul tries to teach us is that worship is as much about the horizontal axis (the one another) of the cross, as it is the vertical (and God). We need to restore our understanding of the word spiritual because the culture these days also tells us that being spiritual also looks like removing yourself from the ordinary things and ordinary people of your life. I would even put it to you that mindfulness, very popular, is less about Paul’s renewal of the mind and overly focussed on what’s on our minds – not as ‘other focussed’ as it might be in terms of Paul’s teaching here about our focus on God and our focus on others.

Paul comes to tell us today that our sacrifice of praise; our spiritual worship is all about other people and far less about any solitary, though well-meaning spiritual pursuit. Sacrificial worship, truly spiritual worship is about the local church and coming together with the smelly and the lovely; the ordinary and the glamorous; the pained and the painful and worshipping together. And that calls for self-denial and sacrifice.

And that is what we find so hard; I find hard.
This (points up) is not so hard, after all. He accepts me completely, loves me so much he sent his Son to die for me, like the father in the parable, runs after me, hitching up his robes to come and get me when I am prodigal, even before I say sorry. He leaves the 99 to find me – but you – will you do that for me? And will I do that for you? Will I give up my preferences, my taste in worship music, my means of encounter. And will you give up that for me?

Because, brothers and sisters, this is what the Lord asks us to do and it is not easy. This is worship.

The first 11 chapters of Romans teach you your doctrine, but you know, you can learn that from books and podcasts and study; you can learn a lot of that on your own but when Paul talks to us about worship – how we please God; how we worship God - it’s all about how we relate to Him and to others in relationship. And relationship with others in the local church at worship.

And yet how many times, do we go home muttering: “The band – I wasn’t sure this morning – and the sermon – too long, too short, too serious, not serious enough... the biscuits - soggy, the coffee luke-warm and there were crumbs on the seat I was sitting…”

But the biscuit meant a lot to the mum of a toddler. It was an act of mercy. The coffee less hot because a significant conversation took place before it got to the counter; a much needed word of encouragement. And the preacher’s message at that meh moment for you, spoke in ways to another, the weight of which the preacher could never have seen coming; in fact was prophetic in a way only God and that person knew.

Paul wants us to understand, as he writes to the Corinthians too (with a simple sentence that has spoken hugely to me over the years (1 Cor 11:33) :- “Brothers and sisters, when you come together….wait for one another” because we know we need each other really, deep, deep down, we know it and so Paul writes to teach us how to worship with one another, alongside one another, giving thanks for one another as the local church at worship and waiting, being patient with one another; waiting because we wait to encounter God in one another; waiting because we have grace for one another; waiting because we have learnt not to think more highly of ourselves – waiting because it’s God altogether we are worshipping and God knows our hearts.

Paul has spoken to us before this passage today about the renewal of our minds; the renewal of our thinking and, as we know, we have to welcome the Holy Spirit for our thinking to get changed – the Holy Spirit even the medics will confess, with their studies of the brain in prayer, God can literally change the synapses– not just your heart and your character but your mind. This is the true mindfulness we are to cultivate (10 mins) that’s what helps us to welcome one another.

Paul’s words to us rewire us if we let the Holy Spirit teach us. Everything begins at the level of your thought-life and that is what makes the Gospel such very good news – God can change our very hardware and make us new. And so Paul begins at verse 3 talking about our thinking. How we are to think of ourselves and really he says with much repetition of the word “think”, as if to underline the point – think of yourself not more highly than you ought to think but think of yourself with sober thinking.

Think, think, thinking because Paul prays our thinking is renewed – our minds our renewed – and to what is our thinking to be aligned – one another! As well as God. Paul reminds us that we belong to the body of Christ but shocking, I think, because I don’t think it had dawned on me til now -in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.

In our liturgy after breaking bread at the table we say: We break this bread to share in the body of Christ and the congregation reply. Though we are many, we are one body but I think we are all imagining, still, that body that is Christ’s and being one with him rather than being one with each other. And this again, is difficult, Christ’s perfect body, sacrificed for you and for me, brought to radiant life in resurrection on the third day but your body and my body and perhaps you, like Anthony, or I, only have an annual bath and being part of that one body with you and you with me and caring for the health of that body, that means for me and for you a little self-denial and sacrifice, right? It means my acknowledging your gifting and you acknowledging mine, your measure of grace and my measure of grace and thanking God for it even when it doesn’t suit my preferences and taste.

Paul’s words also help me take my place in this body to which I am joined as a member – this body that is the local church that is also the body of Christ – it calls me to acknowledge that God knows exactly what he has done with us all – he has given us all gifts, every single one of us - and the gifts are neither something to boast about, as if they came up from within us somehow independently of Him, nor are they something to hide in a kind of mock humility because each of these attitudes takes glory away from the giver.

God gave you your gifts – and you are not to hide them or you hide him - you are to use them for the benefit of the whole body - prophesying in relation to your faith; ministry in all sorts of ways; teaching and preaching and encouraging and counselling and guiding and giving and helping, each in your own unique way. Everyone here has a grace given; faith given to serve the church. God has assigned you your gifts – measuring them out as he sees fit.

Tim spoke a while back about how everything you have been given belongs to the Lord and took you to the image of the field and how a margin was to be kept around it because produce grown there belonged to God to give away. Out of your farmland, your income, your abundance (for we all have something) God, through each of us, gets to give away – ‘blessed to be a blessing’ your strapline – is about this giving of yourself away.

With our worship, the stakes get even higher – it’s not just a margin – it’s the whole of you offered to Christ and offered to your neighbour too – both axes of the cross.

And this can happen as we welcome the renewal of the mind and think right – think about the body to which we belong and give up some of our preferences for the sake of our neighbour and remember that our worship is as much about the horizontal axis and one another as it is about the vertical and God.

It is about coming together and honouring our neighbour and speaking well of one another and our leaders and those who serve because each person does so with the sincerity of their function being gift, grace, a measure of faith given them by God. When we dishonour them, we dishonour God.

CS Lewis, in his essay The Weight of Glory’ writes about how ‘The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it...’

In the church where I worship, as in yours, are we carrying that burden of our neighbour’s glory, in our worship of God? Are we able to lay down our own preferences so that our neighbour might meet with God? (15 mins).

C S Lewis goes on to say, ‘Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses.’ And so, it is striking because it has to be, that Paul should underline for us, that we are members one of another. You might not worry too much about sharing the body that is Christ’s but are you making room, am I making room, for every member to play its part in the body that lives when we come together – are we comfortable being a body?

Are we waiting; are we prepared to wait for grace to continually change us and change our neighbour, are we at peace that it is God who should so measure out his grace that some serve in one way and some serve in another and not everything is always to our taste?

B B Warfield, an American theologian and academic helps me to communicate this paradox at the heart of Romans 12:3-8 – yes, we are to make room for our neighbour but this is not at the detriment of ourself and our gifts. I often speak of the image of a candle lit, which when lighting another, doesn’t cause the first candle to be put out – both can burn together.

Warfield writes to correct any strange notion we might have attached to our offering a living sacrifice: ‘it is not to mere self-denial that Christ calls us… not to unselfing ourselves (you get to be you, don’t hide), but to unselfishing ourselves. (Let me read that again: it is not to mere self-denial that Christ calls us… not to unselfing ourselves, but to unselfishing ourselves.) Warfield goes on to say, “Self-denial for its own sake… narrows and contracts… may make monks and stoics (like my Symeon of Antioch on his precarious pole and Anthony in the desert) - it cannot make Christians’ Warfield says.
I think then this American theologian of the last century helps. The body of Christ when offering spiritual worship offers worship attentive to God and attentive to neighbour and so reflects the greatest commandment of all to love God with heart, soul, strength and mind and our neighbour as ourself.

May we be those so carefully attentive to the atmosphere of worship, renewed in our thinking, so we might not think too highly of ourselves; may we give thanks to God for the gift and gifts of one another and trust that God is pleased by this, our spiritual worship. Amen. 

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A little background reading so we might mutually flourish when there are different opinions