A Sermon Preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Ralston, AB
Tenth Sunday After Pentecost
Ex 1:8-2:10; Ps 124; Rom 12:1-8, Mt 16:13-20 (Lect Yr A)
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. (Romans 12:1)
If there is any church that might have a gut-level understanding of what Paul says in this verse, then surely it is a military chapel. The congregation of a military chapel may not get all the intricacies of Paul’s theology, but it does get the idea of “present[ing] your bodies as a living sacrifice”. This last week on Wednesday and Thursday there were a lot of soldiers around this base for the change of command ceremony and since they were in their dress uniforms and mess kits, there were a lot of medals on display. Most of those medals say the same thing, namely, “I went somewhere unpleasant because someone else told me to, even though I might have been killed, because it was part of the job.”
During the war in Afghanistan, the Canadian Forces offered a new decoration, the Sacrifice Medal, to honour the many soldiers who were getting killed and wounded while doing their duty.
The military has bureacratic names for everything, including sacrifice. The military calls it “unlimited liability” but it basically means “presenting your bodies as a living sacrifice”. Unlimited liability is tied to the idea of service. During the wars of the last ten years, most soldiers wearing uniform in a public space such as an airport have had people come up to them and say “thank you for your service”. Soldiers put their lives on the line for their country in the abstract sense, but at the sharp end of things, they put themselves on the line for each other. Many decorations for valour, perhaps most of them, are for helping wounded comrades while under fire. So what folks at the airport are saying to soldiers is “thank you for being selfless”.
Selflessness isn’t a highly celebrated quality these days, at least, not outside the army. Two news stories from last week both make the point that selfless behaviour does not equal success in the capitalist world we live in. A study done by a Cornell University business professor published last week apparently found that “nice guys are getting the shaft”. The study found that people who were described by coworkers as “disagreeable”, which usually meant men, got paid more than colleauges described as being “nice guys”. Apparently selfish and assertive people are better at getting raises and promotions. Likewise another university study, this one by a sociologist, found that the rich tend to be more selfish and less empathetic than poorer people. He summed up his findings in a quote by the writer Aynn Rand, that “It is the morality of altruism that men have to reject”. Rand’s idea of selfishness as a guiding life principle has become quite mainstream in society and politics.
Truth be told, there are selfish people in the military too. Some of them wear medals. Some of them are chaplains. I recall a fellow on my Basic course who, after ten days on a field exercise, sprinted off the bus when we got back to quarters to be the first to get his clothes in the laundry. We thought – really, this guy is going to be a padre? But truth be told, I can be as selfish as him in my worst, or sometimes even my normal, moments. It’s part of the human condition, called sin, which is one of Paul’s main themes in Romans. In her excellent commentary on today’s epistle, Mary Hinkle Shore reminds us that sin wars with creation “to such an extent that Paul can speak of our having been ‘enslaved to sin’ (Romans 6:6)”. The trajectory of Romans from then on, as Shore notes, is how we are freed from the bodily slavery of sin through dying and being born into our new identity in Christ.
Selfishness is the opposite of selflessness, and is therefore a good defintion of sin. Anglicans traditionally pray the words of our Lord in the Summary of the Law, “And the second [commandment] is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself“. My identity in Christ is the only way that I can make this prayer meaningful. There may be a self-help book in Chapters on “How to Be Selfless”, but I can’t make that book work for me without Christ. And even with Christ, the only way I can put selflessness into practice is in community with others, which brings us to Paul’s body metaphor in the latter part of today’s lesson.
For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. (Rm 12:4-5)
Churches are excellent places for reminding us of all the ways in which our selfishness can blind us to our interdepence on one another as part of the body of Christ. Early in my ordained career I found myself shovelling the snow from the church entrance one Sunday when there was no one to help me. Arriving home, I whinged to my wife that “I have four university degrees and I’m shovelling snow”. Kay fixed me with a gaze that could cut steel and said “So what’s your point?”. I realized that I really had no point other than selfishness. That day I was the hands part of the body of Christ, called to selflessly shovel snow, with no medal to show for it.
Paul, who lived in a warlike time and who sometimes used military figures of speech himself, would have understood “unlimited liability” as the idea behind medals, but I suspect he would have said that being “transformed by the renewing of [our ]minds” was the best and only medal we would get. As a Jew and a Pharisee, Paul knew that sacrifices occurred outside the temple as well, in the sanctified but ordinary places and tasks of daily life. In going beyong that understanding as a follower of Jesus, Paul realized that our lives and our very persons become the sacrifice. In this new life of the self as sacrifice, there are no uniforms for the adopted children of God and citizens of heaven, except possibly the white robes of our baptism, and no medal except the blood of Christ that buys us from slavery. We did nothing to deserve this medal, but we wear it proudly and gratefully.