[This sermon was preached by me at my farewell service on leaving the Middlesbrough and Eston Methodist Circuit, at Normanby Methodist Church on 31 July 2022]
I think these two verses from Paul’s letter to the Romans might be my favourite verses of scripture. Though if you were to ask me on another day: What’s your favourite verse in scripture? I might come up with ten other verses from different places all over the Bible. But for now these verse of Paul will do. In part I think I like them because the seem to be preachers’ verses. I think I can almost hear the preacher that Paul was speak when he says:
I appeal to you therefore…
That in a sense is what preaching is. Preaching is an appeal. Each time any of us who stand in pulpits begins to preach, we effectively say to our listeners: I appeal to you. The purpose of preaching is not that we might learn more about Jesus, or any other religious topic, though we might do that along the way. The purpose of preaching is that our lives might be changed by what we hear. The completion of a sermon is not when the words have been committed to paper, nor even when the words have been spoken or heard. The end of the sermon is the lives that are lived as a response to those words. Therefore all sermons do what what Paul does here, they make an appeal that the listeners, the first of whom is the preacher themselves, that the listeners are changed are changed by what they hear.
Preaching has a bad press. People who never hear sermon might still say: “Don’t preach at me.” By which they mean: “Don’t tell me what to do.” That negative impression of preaching suggests that when the preacher says, “I appeal to you” it is an attempt to exercise arbitrary or coercive authority over the listeners. That is that picture of preachers standing six feet above contradiction telling people how to live their lives. Whilst it is a caricature, like all caricatures it contains an uncomfortable grain of truth. Preachers can sound bossy. And because preaching can be a model for or a microcosm of the whole ministry of the Church that negative impression creates a really difficult obstacle for us to overcome.
I don’t know about you, but every time a Christian speaks to the larger public, my heart sinks. We are always against something, we are always wagging our finger at someone. Just for once I would like us to be in favour of something. Which is why the next word after “I appeal” is really important. “Therefore” Paul and all preachers speak with authority. But it is not an arbitrary authority. And it is certainly not an authority of their own. The power of their words does not come from themselves. It is not the cleverness of preachers that makes preaching effective. The ingenuity or the beauty of preaching’s language is not what makes it work. Paul himself tries very hard to pretend that he knows nothing about rhetoric, about clever or persuasive speech. And he does because he knows that is not what the authority of his appeal is based upon. “Therefore” is an important word:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sister, by the mercies of God
The power of Paul’s appeal comes from the context in which is made. And that context, which is the same for all preaching is, the grace and mercy of God. Paul doesn’t enumerate here what he means by “the mercies of God.” That is what he has spent the first eleven chapters of his letter explaining.
There are any number of ways which we might summarise what those mercies are. We could say: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” (John 3:16) Or we could use Paul’s own words: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:18) The context of the appeal which Paul and preaching make, and which give them authority is what God has already done for us. It is a response to good news. Those negative connotations of preaching should be false because preaching grows out of what God’s love and mercy have already done for us. What these two verse are doing are making the transition which characteristic of everything Paul says. He makes the move from theology, that is talk of who God is and what God has done, is doing and will do, good news, he makes the move from theology, to ethics, from Good News to Christian living. Again Paul and preaching are a model, a microcosm of the ministry of the church and of discipleship. Since that is the transition we all must make: From what we know and belief to be true about God’s goodness towards us, into an appropriate form of living that responds to that Good News. And this is the appeal which Paul is making.
There is another reason why I love these verse. As I said Paul pretends he knows nothing about rhetoric or clever speech, but here, as in many other place he demonstrates the exact opposite. Paul knows a great deal about rhetoric. His appeal to us takes the form of a metaphor. He says:
Present your bodies as a living sacrifice to God.
Paul appeals to us to make ourselves sacrifice to God. Clearly this is a metaphor. Sacrifice is to give something, to put it beyond our control or use. For Paul and both his Jewish and Pagan contemporaries this was almost always the killing of an animal and burning its remains. The appropriate response to a god or indeed God is sacrifice. The handing over of something of value to God in order to show our loyalty and devotion. Sacrifice is Paul’s metaphor for Christian living.
But he makes it in a way that shows that he knows more about rhetoric than he lets on. Because of course his metaphor is also an oxymoron. He appeals for us to become “living sacrifices” That is an oxymoron, an apparently self-contradicting statement for rhetorical effect. We perhaps come across them as satire, in a phrase like “military intelligence.” But in the minds of Paul’s first hearers the idea of a living sacrifice is oxymoronic. Sacrifices are meant to end up dead, that’s how you make sure what you have given up stays given up. You dedicate it to God, and put it beyond your use, by destroying it. A living sacrifice, at first sight makes no sense. But this is more than rhetorical flourish. Actually we (those of us who are Methodists) know what Paul means. The place where we most often read these verses is during the Covenant service (which is another reason for my fondness for them). In that service we say: “I am no longer my own but yours.” That is what Paul means by living sacrifice. He appeals to us, in view of what God has done for us, to live lives given up to God rather than to our own wilfulness.
Paul’s rhetorical ingenuity doesn’t stop there. He also presents us with a paradox, yet another apparently contradictory idea. He says:
Present your bodies as a living sacrifice to God which is your spiritual worship
The juxtaposition of “bodies” and “spiritual” is striking. The religion we have inherited from Paul, via the Reformers and Wesley, is one that emphasises faith. It is not what we do that is decisive but what we believe. It is very easy for a religion like that to become spiritualised or intellectualised. So that Christian living becomes a matter of having the right feelings or holding the right opinions. But our faith implicates our bodies. Paul appeals to us to remembers that it is our bodies, that is the whole of our living selves which we present to God as sacrifice. What we do as embodied beings is not indifferent. We express our devotion to God in what we do with our bodies, how we use them, the choices we make for them and the way they interact with other bodies. Whilst Christianity is about putting our trust in the mercies of God, that trust has practical real world consequences in our lives which Paul and preachers must point us to. The word which Paul actual uses that gets translated as “spiritual” actually means something like “rational” or “reasonable.” Whilst we may respond to what God does with our minds or perhaps our hearts, it is not “reasonable” that our response remains there. We are embodied beings our worship, our sacrifice, is how we live and what we do.
With those practical and real world consequences in mind it is easy to see why preaching can begin to sound like telling people what to do. Paul’s appeal is ultimately that we should live according to live according to God’s will for us. And that will is far more easily stated in the negative than the positive. Methodists have been as guilty as anybody of doing this. What starts out as a joyful response to the grace that we have been offered in Christ is quickly turned into opposition to certain commonplace behaviours. We were against drinking. And we were against gambling. It was suspected we might be against dancing. And perhaps even against having fun. Many things are wrong and there are many things that need opposing. But God’s will cannot be helpfully reduced to such negatives. It is easier to state what God is against. That was the whole point of the Law given to Israel. But is also why Christians are always against something. Yet Paul also knows that the will of God stated negatively doesn’t in the end help. Again that is what he has spent much of the first eleven chapters of his Letter to the Romans demonstrating. He offers us something positive instead, as the consequence of living sacrificial lives for God. He says:
Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.
Here is another reason why I love these verses. I guess I am just a natural nonconformist. But here again is Paul’s ingenious rhetoric, in the elegant juxtaposition of “conform” and “transform.” They are two rather similar words, the first narrow and oppressing, the second expansive and liberating. It is not the will of God which is negative or constricting. It is the way in which the world would shape us for itself. There is so much pressure on us to fit into the expectations of the world as it is currently organised. Which might be now that we are told that our lives only have value or meaning insofar as we are consumers or producers within the economy. And we are constantly being told that there is no alternative to the way things are. If the negative connotations of preaching belongs to anything it is the constant message of despair which our society and culture feeds us. Instead Paul says by living lives handed over to God we will be transformed. In particular our minds will be renewed. Not least to see the ways in which we are being conformed by the powers of this world, but also to see that the mercies of God are offering as genuine and good alternative.
Christian life and discipleship then cannot be reduced to negatives that preachers tell us to avoid on the basis of who knows what authority. Instead Paul appeals for us see and to respond to what God has done. Letting our lives be shaped God in a way that enables us to grasp the will of God positively stated and therefore to experience the mercies of God on which all of this has been built.
I Appeal to You by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0