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A Spirit of Unity


Passage: Romans 12:1-8

Speaker: Rev. Dr. Michael L. Gregg

From an early age we learn the importance of our bodies. Parents and caregivers ask toddlers questions like, “Where are your eyes? Where are your ears?” We sing songs about heads and shoulders and knees and toes. In childhood, we celebrate our bodies and their strengths. As we age, we begin to talk about how they are changing and deteriorating. Right now, our focus is on keeping our bodies separate from others. Royal Lane is providing a worship service from an empty Sanctuary because it is unsafe to have our bodies close to one another. Yet, ultimately, by staying at home, wearing masks, and remaining physically apart we are caring for one another’s bodies. We are valuing each other and, in turn, worshipping God. And Paul sure does talk a lot about the body in today’s lectionary passage. 

As we’ve discussed before, the body, in many religious faiths is often understood as the host for sin and evil. However, as we’ve seen in previous weeks, Paul says that sarx, or the flesh, is when we actively hurt and condemn the bodies of others. Soma, the body, on the other hand, is where we find uniqueness, joy, gifts, and unity. And we can hear Paul making the case clearly in this text for the body as a place of worship and as a place where we are unified. Paul was calling for early Christian bodies to be a living sacrifice, to give of one’s self and one’s talents, to the furthering of God’s loving purposes in the world. But Paul gave a warning to not be conformed to the things of the world, but to live as if you are the very body of Christ. And we, in turn, live as the body of Christ because we all have different skills and gifts. We all have a part to play and gifts to share so that the body of Christ, the collection of Christian people, is as effective and healthy as possible.

But what does it mean to be a living sacrifice? As progressive Christians, we often find ourselves shying away from the term sacrifice. We read in the biblical text that animals were sacrificed so that God would stay close to God’s people and we feel discomfort around this idea. We are uncomfortable with Christ dying as a sacrifice for our sins because we don’t like the idea of giving up our children for the greater good. Even today, without a lot of that ancient religious ritual language, sacrifice still feels very negative. We sacrifice certain foods for the season for Lent. We sacrifice our free time in order to go after some goal or accomplishment. Soldiers sacrifice their lives to save their fellow soldiers and defend our country. Companies sacrifice employees when hard times come. In this difficult time in our own lives and the lives of everyone in our nation, we might feel tired of sacrificing.

Rochelle Stackhouse thinks that Paul’s vision of sacrifice was different than the 1st century understanding of sacrifice. Paul’s understanding of sacrifice didn’t tear down, separate, and kill. No, Paul’s notion of sacrifice was meant to join us together, to unify us and bring life. She says, “Paul calls on believers to present our bodies as living sacrifices. This does not seem to indicate a ‘take up your cross expectation that we will need to die physically in the course of our discipleship, though it does not rule it out. Paul ties bodily, living sacrifice to discerning and living into the will of God. Connecting the body in this way forces us to go beyond esoteric, emotional, or intellectual assent to God’s will in order to consider what implications there might be for our very bodies as we live out our discipleship to God. Paul indicates that this may mean we need actually to do things that will put us outside the norms of behavior for our society, wrapping our minds around what we do day to day in our lives that expresses God’s will.”

And it seems that Paul was saying that sacrificing our comfort, our understanding, our own experiences was important so that we could listen and learn from others, in order to bring unity, a divine and strong unity. The third verse of this text today says, “For by grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think.” Paul was basically saying for us to get over ourselves. The unity of God’s people is far more important than our own arrogances and biases. The sacrifice that Paul asked of us was for us to admit to ourselves that we aren’t the center of everything and that the world doesn’t revolve around us. It seems that a spirit of unity was what Paul was calling for here.

And this was made clear when Paul talked about the many gifts we possess as members of the body of Christ. Paul mentioned prophecy, ministering, teaching, encouraging, giving, leading, and being compassionate. Would any of those gifts of God have any impact if we were living solitary lives? No, they wouldn’t. Each of the gifts presented here are meant to be lived out through unity and to be practiced in community. We can’t prophesy unless we speak out to help others. We can’t minister unless we are ministering to others. We can’t teach unless we are teaching others. We can’t encourage unless we are encouraging others. We aren’t givers unless someone else receives. We aren’t leading unless people choose to follow. And we aren’t compassionate unless we have grace and mercy for others. The gifts of the spirit are meant to bring unity in community!

Stackhouse further notices that Paul expanded that body metaphor to describe the gathered and organized church and how it worked in the first-century world and for us today. She continues, “Now the metaphor becomes less literal, as Paul asks us to consider ourselves parts of a human body in which each part has different functions, each part has value, and each part is as intimately connected to the other as the head, neck, and torso of a human body are. Each part of the body works, not to bring glory to itself or to meet only its needs, but to ensure the healthy functioning of the whole system. The gifts of each member are to be used for the common good.”

The gifts of each member are to be used for the common good. It seems many people in the world today have moved away from that biblical idea. We look out for what is ours while sacrificing the good of the community. We value our individuality and our freedoms rather than our concern and care for the delicate and delightful ecosystem of connection that God created from the beginning of the world. The littlest bird and the biggest tree, the highest star and the deepest ocean, the wealthiest human and the family living in poverty, all have a place and purpose and position in the unified body, the creation of God. And so, we would do well to remember that even those who are left out of the current power structures, are still, and even more so, beloved and blessed by God. We, as people of faith, could help to show the belovedness and blessings of God when we choose to live into a spirit of unity.

Legendary dancer, Judith Jamison, once spoke about the relationship between dance and the spirit of community. She said, “Dance is bigger than the physical body. Think bigger than that. When you extend your arm, it doesn’t stop at the end of your fingers, because you’re dancing bigger than that; you’re dancing spirit.” Surely, we are learning how to lean into our dancing spirits when we all practice and participate in our differing and unique gifts of service, love, and unity.

And if we do act out of a spirit of unity, then we will do what is good and acceptable to God. And this means that we might actually need to present our bodies as living sacrifices, living barricades, to get in the way of injustice and to protect all of the parts of the body, the people in our community who aren’t loved and celebrated. We might have to present our bodies as living sacrifices when others claim to be better or superior to other people in the community. And that if we are truly following the words of Paul and the hope of the Bible then we might have to be transformed and to renew our minds in order to create, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called it, the Beloved Community.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led a nonviolent movement to unify and transform the United States. He knew that we were and are all tied together in this life, connected to one another and to God’s created world. Although he says the word ‘man’ in this quote, let’s think of it as humankind. King said, “When we look at modern man, we have to face the fact that modern man suffers from a kind of poverty of the spirit, which stands in glaring contrast with a scientific and technological abundance. We’ve learned to fly the air as birds, we’ve learned to swim the seas as fish, yet we haven’t learned to walk the Earth as brothers and sisters.”

Friends, a Spirit of Unity is needed in our world today. It doesn’t feel as if we are walking this earth as brothers and sisters. We seem to be combative and angry, flailing through life as if everyone were an enemy. It hurts our own spirits and our own bodies when we consider that every act, every deed, every kind word, every helping hand connects us to each other and to God. We are beckoned by God to seek unity not only for others, but for the health of ourselves, as we are the living temples, the walking, talking, sanctuaries of God.

A quote from Pope Francis has been making the rounds on social media recently: “Rivers do not drink their own water; trees do not eat their own fruit; the sun does not shine on itself; and flowers do not spread their fragrance for themselves. Living for others is a rule of nature. We are all born to help each other. No matter how difficult it is… Life is good when you are happy, but much better when others are happy because of you.”

What might it look like in our world if we began to have a spirit of unity in all that we do? What if we valued community and connection, listening and learning, as ways to live fully into our roles as members of the body of Christ? God asks you and me to function as the members of the body that we were created to be. If not, the body becomes dysfunctional and diseased. The body no longer lives but dies. I think Paul pointed out that we are to be living sacrifices, leaning into our divine purposes and passions, in order to bring a vibrant and hopeful unity to the world. I think that is the will of God, and as Paul said, “it is good and acceptable and perfect.”