While we’re watching and critiquing others, the call invariably comes to suit up and get on the field ourselves. It’s a moment of truth. What will you say?
The Experts Have Spoken—From Their Recliners
You can watch sports to the point you actually start thinking you can do what you see done. Great athletes make it all look so easy. I used to be a boxing fan, and I remember hollering at the guy I was rooting for, telling him to, “Get up! Get outta there!” I gave him technical directions, too, like, “Uppercut! Right cross! Jab, jab, jab!” I’ve never thrown any of those punches in my life. Other than the time I got into a brawl with a bully in high school and clocked him with one wild roundhouse. That ended the fight, but it wasn’t boxing. It was more like going crazy on a dude and hoping for the best.
Still, I could get mad at a professional on my television screen as he was exhausted in the eighth round, and hurting all over, and sweating like a geyser. All while I sat in my recliner, working my way through a whole plate of wings.
I’m pretty sure I know where the fighter went wrong. And why the quarterback blew that last pass. Or how the Olympic runner could have gone faster. I know, because I’ve watched the best.
Just as some of the most uncharitable art critics aren’t artists, and the most unkind film critics aren’t producers, some of the worst sports critics are those who never played. We call them armchair quarterbacks. For sure, there’s no substitute for being on the field. That’s where you find out how little you know. That’s where you develop a hunger to learn.
In the Christian life, those who get on the field are those who serve. Trust me when I say these people are rare. The Apostle Paul certainly knew it. People should have been jumping at the opportunity to work alongside him in Ministry endeavors. But he writes in Philippians, “I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I too may be cheered by news of you. I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. They all seek their own interest, not those of Jesus Christ. But you know Timothy’s proven worth, how has a son with the father he has served with me in the gospel (2:19-22). Apparently even first century Christians weren’t above acting like pew potatoes.
But Paul was onto something. Service in the body of Christ puts us on the field, in the center of the will of God.
A Reasonable Request and an Unreasonable Response
After Paul delivered a protracted, powerhouse case for Gentile inclusion into the membership of God’s people (Rom. 11)—an honor of inestimable worth—he appealed to the Roman Christians to do the most obvious and reasonable thing—to present their bodies a living sacrifice (12:1). Christ’s gift of grace had made those undeserving, non-people into the people of God (c.f. 9:25-26). Paul didn’t want such favor to fall flat upon their hearts.
Therefore, he appeals to them, hoping to continue his tone of grace. Anything less, like a command, would seem in this context like so much crass coercion. And yet, one of the first words we’ve all learned was “No.” We’ve become well-practiced in saying it, rehearsing it toward everything from spinach to prostate exams, and we’re often the poorer for it. “No” might be said literally, or dressed up under layers of reason. But one thing is for sure, “No” and sacrifice often don’t go together. In fact, a “no” to Paul’s appeal short circuits the whole process that he describes coming after it.
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
The sequence begins with presenting our bodies. Physical presence is not everything, but it is undeniably important. We can’t simply say our heart is in the right place while our bodies are elsewhere. This is everyone’s struggle. We’d like to offer almost anything other than physical commitments. But the bottom line is that being on the field isn’t about intentions first, it’s about who can be counted on to show up.
No Sacrifice in a Vacuum
Before we think of this challenge solely as an individual discipline, Paul specifies our bodies ought to be presented as a living sacrifice. Catch the nuance. Our bodies, plural, should be offered a living sacrifice, singular. So we aren’t being told to make an isolated personal commitment, as though to forge some type of cubicle Christian life. The apostle’s vision relates to individuals offering themselves in a communal context.
Perhaps this doesn’t resonate with our contemporary, disconnected selves, but to Paul, the church is the locus of our sacrifice, the setting of our consecration. His emphasis may come as less than exciting, if not jarring, since in some quarters, church virtually summons images of inauthentic, performance-driven dynamics. Though Paul would certainly be dismayed at the top-heavy extras the church has accumulated today, he would no doubt be distressed as well by our nonchalant dismissal of group commitment.
In the eyes of God, the church is a sacrificial entity—a living sacrifice—a collective that puts aside its own welfare for the need and blessings of others.
The sacrificial spirit which had begun in the Old Testament with animal sacrifices, and had been fulfilled in the New Testament through the body of the Lord Jesus himself (Heb. 10:5), now encompassed those Romans believers. They possessed a sacrificial reality that sprung from being in Christ.
Short-circuiting the Good Stuff
Paul appealed to them to behave according to their new reality. Refusal of his appeal would constipate the normal Christian life, that is, result not in presenting their bodies, but withholding themselves in stingy self-preservation. Instead of holiness, there would be commonness. Instead of worship, disregard. Rather than new, transformed ways of thinking, conformation to the narcissistic thought patterns of the world.
Never is a Christian more cloudy about the will of God than when his or her service is benched. Paul said the only reliable way of clarifying that will is to test it by presenting oneself together with others as a living sacrifice. We’d all like to know divine secrets from the safety and comfort of the bleachers.
It isn’t going to happen.
Invitations to Deeper Places
The inherent lesson in all this reminds us to pay attention to appeals unto service, not only from Paul, but any spiritual person. Appeals have come to me many times over the years, such as broad entreaties to mission fields or volunteer work in specific ministry areas. I didn’t answer all of them, but I seriously considered them, praying and weighing and fellowshipping with others, because (ala Star Wars), “The ‘No’ is strong with this one.”
I am a selfish person, and find it easy to stay in comfort zones of my own choosing. Because of this, I run the risk of inadvertently refusing the Master who bought my soul—a bad idea—because when He beckons, it is not only for the needs of others, but for my own good. Appeals are like doorways into further places. Every responsible ‘yes’ takes us more deeply into transformation and greater understanding of the mind and will of God.
Nor do these appeals always relate to world travel or vocational ministry. In fact, we may never receive one of those invitations. Appeals occur far more regularly in localized, regular church life. Like when someone appealed to me to serve college ministry, kids’ church, high school meetings, or to clean bathrooms, lead small groups, cut grass, and help rehab some old church-owned housing. Some of it I deeply disliked. Some of it I found inspiring. All of it was an invitation to new, slowly deepening vistas. Every time I “presented,” something at least incrementally happened.
And the latest appeal coming in my direction? After thirty-some years of ministry, you’d think it would be an invitation to join a celebrity pastor preaching circuit.
But, no. I’m going to assist our roadie team, in setting up chairs.
I trust something will happen.