Formations 03.31.2019: A Living Sacrifice

Romans 12:1-5, 9-21

Andrei Rublev’s Icon of Paul

The poet Donald Hall, in a documentary for The Atlantic, describes aging as “a ceremony of losses.” The remark follows the observation of losing balance and falling more often. Along with these is the loneliness accompanying the death of his wife, poet Jane Kenyon. Hall, here, unflinchingly accepts the indignities in life. And yet, he recognizes these betrayals as deeply connected to our living.

Whether or not time brings this into clearer view, I do not know. Even from an early age, sickness and injury and naptimes impose their limits. In a season of Lent, how do these center our reflection on the “living sacrifice” we become (v. 1)? The scars and blemishes of living are, Paul has us imagine, “holy and acceptable to God” (v. 1). Transformation, not conformity, marks the sacrifice.

After the call for each person’s body to be presented as sacrifice, Paul suggests that our sacrificial bodies may only be offered in the common body of Christ. As in the letter to Corinth, this body comes from many members, each contributing to the health of the whole.

I often imagine the true body of Christ as perfect. All parts work together efficiently. There would be no room for the dysfunction that Paul saw, and that we’ve seen, in Christ’s body. As a perfect body, best chiseled from marble or photoshopped for newsstands, limitations would disappear.

This season of reading brings new light for Paul’s question. How can our dysfunctional body be transformed, not conformed to the ideal, but glorified in frailty? This week, Paul answers: humility, patience, hope, hospitality, and peace.

These postures do not hide the pain of living, nor do they silence the violence others have faced. But they have us imagine that such losses might not be final. They also press us to carry these betrayals together, by the example of the one who revealed new life by asking followers to touch his scars.

Discussion

• What parts of our physical lives, and of our communal lives, are we most likely to hide? Why?

• What can the fullness of our physical lives bring to our experience of the body of Christ?

• What practices, that Paul identifies, seem most helpful in honoring ourselves, others, and the body of Christ as “holy and acceptable” (v. 1)? Why?

Reference Shelf

Paul and the Body

The Pauline literature provides the most frequent and significant NT use of body (ninety-one times). The majority of occurrences of the term in Paul’s writings is associated with Corinth (fifty-six times in 1 and 2 Corinthians and thirteen times in Romans, which was probably written white at Corinth) and possibly reflects his reaction to aberrant views of the body held by certain Corinthian Christians.

Paul’s anthropological use of body is generally aspective, not partitive: body describes the person from a certain perspective, not in terms of component parts. For Paul, human existence is necessarily somatic, or bodily, existence. It is always through the body that one relates to others and to God (Rom 6:12; 12:1-2; 1 Cor 6:12-20). The body is the person as that person lives and is known by other persons (Phil 1:20; 2 Cor 4:7, 10). There is no “essence” (in the Greek sense) apart from the body. Even the resurrected state will consist of a “spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:44). When Paul departs from this holistic perspective of the person as body, it appears to be in response to opponents’ views. Thus, Paul can refer to being “out of the body” (2 Cor 12:1-3) or of longing to be “away from the body” to be at home with the Lord (2 Cor 5:6-10).

While Paul’s anthropological perspective is basically consistent with the predominant biblical view, his ecclesiological and christological uses of “body are novel. Paul refers to the church as the body of Christ (Rom 12:5; 1 Cor 12:12-27). The imagery may reflect Stoicism or rabbinical speculation about the embryonic presence of every person in the body of Adam. For Paul, the imagery expresses the idea that the resurrected body of Jesus Christ constitutes the sphere in which the church exists. Through baptism into Christ (1 Cor 12:13) the members of the church become members of the one body of Christ (1 Cor 12:27).

Bruce T. Dahlberg, “Body in the New Testament,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990) 120.

Dying to Idols

We see also that in contrast to the arrogance and boasting that were characteristic of life under sin, Paul here stresses a profound spirit of humility. They are to “outdo each other in showing honor” (12:10). Paul also picks up the warning to the Gentiles in 11:25 not to think above themselves by exhorting, “think the same toward each other, not being haughty [literally: not thinking high things] but associating with the lowly. Do not think above yourselves” (12:16). Although he does not use the noun tapeinophrosynē (“lowly-mindedness”) here as he does in Phil 2:3, Col 3:12, and Eph 4:2, the combination of tapeinois and phronimoi creates the same effect. Such “lowly-mindedness” was emphatically not a virtue for Greek philosophers, who associated it with a lack of nobility; it was to be “slaveminded” (Epictetus, Discourses 1.9.10; 3.24.56). Thus, such “humility” is a genuinely and distinctively “Christian” virtue that takes on its positive valence from the “mind” of one who “took the form of a slave” (Phil 2:5-11).

Having humility means placing oneself appropriately within the life of the community. Indeed, it begins with a sense of otherness, a sensitivity to what is different from oneself. The same sort of mutuality pervades the other virtues that Paul recommends. In contrast to the extreme competitiveness expressed by idolatry’s vice list, living with a mind renewed according to the mind of Christ means being in solidarity with others. I have already noted that the only “competition” is to outdo each other in showing honor (12:10)! Most of all, Christians are to identify with the feelings and conditions of others: “rejoice with those who are rejoicing, weep with those who are weeping” (12:15); “love one another with fraternal affection” (12:10). Such instructions are much rarer in Greco-Roman moral instruction, where true virtue was associated with apatheia and lack of involvement with the cares of others; for Epictetus, such involvement makes the philosopher much too vulnerable (Discourses 3.22.68-76). This interconnectedness of consciousness that we call compassion (feeling/suffering together) is inherited from the family sense of Judaism—not, obviously, as a feeling (for the Romans and Greeks had such feelings as much as anyone) but as a moral ideal. Mutuality and commonality are not simply matters of emotion. They involve as well the real sharing of one’s possessions with others. Paul exhorts them to “share in the needs of the saints and pursue hospitality” (12:12-13). In the present circumstances, Paul may have urged this with special concern, since he was at that moment involved in the “collection for the saints in Jerusalem” and expected hospitality from the Roman church! But he is also reinforcing the early Christian ideal of sharing that was radical and unequivocal (see L. T. Johnson, Sharing Possessions: Mandate and Symbol of Faith [Overtures to Biblical Theology; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981]).

Luke Timothy Johnson, Reading Romans: A Literary and Theological Commentary, Reading the New Testament (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2001) 195–96.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.

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Comments

  1. Why can’t I get this issue on other platforms? Only get to 3/24/2019 on explorer

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