What Does True Worship Look Like?

(Romans 12:1-8)

One morning many years ago, as Mary Grace—who was about 3 at the time—and I sat at the table eating our breakfast, she asked me a question out of the blue.

Now, this wasn’t the sort of question she typically asked at 7:30 in the morning. This wasn’t, “Would you eat them in a box? Would you eat them with a fox?” No, this question caught me off guard.

I mean, there I was listening to Morning Edition and the plight of left-handed Prairie Dogs in the New Mexico desert, or something like that, when my daughter said, “Daddy, why did they want to kill Jesus?”

You see what I’m talking about. What are you supposed to say to a three-year-old who asks you over a bowl of Cocoa Puffs why people wanted to kill Jesus?

I didn’t know what to say. Did I feel dumb—this being my job and all. But I rebounded quickly from my initial befuddlement and launched a pretty slick reply of my own—I don’t mind telling you.

I said what every self-respecting tongue-tied father would say in the face of such theological complexity. I said, “Honey, Mary Grace has a question for you.”

Susan, of course, said something intelligent that satisfied her. But what got to me was the question: Why did they want to kill Jesus?

Think about Jesus for a moment. Usually, when popular Christianity pictures Jesus, it imagines him in a pastoral setting, bouncing toddlers on his knees, or kicking around the Judean outback with his scruffy, but rather lovable sidekicks; or it presents him as puckishly getting the best of those ham-fisted religious leaders—kind of a romantic, slightly daring rogue, always ready with a snappy comeback—sort of a Harrison Ford in sandals and a sheet.

Obviously, Jesus is often pictured dying dramatically on the cross. But for the most part, when he’s portrayed, Jesus is a rather soft-spoken, reasonable, wandering teacher type.

And if that’s all Jesus was, Mary Grace was right to ask, “Why did they want to kill him?”

Why kill a sweet, unthreatening big-brother type, who only wants to talk about love?

The answer, of course, is that he wasn’t that—or at least, he was much more than that. Clearly, the powers-that-be didn’t kill Jesus because he was nice.

Why did they want to kill him? Mary Grace, honey, they killed Jesus because he was honest. He told people the truth about God, about themselves, about their power arrangements, about their attachment to money, about their misplaced religious priorities. And, that just doesn’t play well.

Honesty is always threatening. The world prefers the casual lies it tells itself about what’s important, what’s valuable.

Our world needs those lies to maintain the illusion that everything’s all right, that there’s nothing seriously at stake in how we treat the poor, in how we devour our environment, in how we behave in front of our children, in whether we maintain racist systems, in whether or not we feed the hungry, house the homeless, and welcome the stranger.

But most people prefer not to have their weaknesses and blind spots brought to their attention—by Jesus or anyone else.

But Jesus is pushy. He’s not content to let things slip by just to keep the peace. He couldn’t just look at those in poverty and say, “You know, those are the breaks.”

He couldn’t look at the outcast and the foreigner and say, “Too bad you weren’t born in the right place to the right people.”

When the sick and despairing approached him, he couldn’t just turn his face and say, “Healthcare, food, a place to sleep, someone to love . . . those are privileges—not rights.”

He couldn’t abide a system designed intentionally to disadvantage people because of the color of their skin or their immigration status.

He couldn’t say to those standing on the outside looking in, “Until you get it right, you’re really not welcome in here.”

He’s announcing God’s new reign—so he had no choice but to tell the truth to the world. And the world killed him for it.

So, let’s be honest: things aren’t especially harmonious in the world just now.

Paul says, “I appeal to you therefore, my family, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (12:1-2).

Those who follow Jesus are called, according to Paul, to see the world through God’s eyes, not through the eyes of Madison Avenue, or Wall Street, or Pennsylvania Avenue.

Tough work. That’s what worship is about: bringing us into the presence of God, so that we can go back into the world looking more like God than when we came in.

That’s a big part of my job here—to help us understand the radical notion that what goes on in here is crucial to what goes on out there.

For instance, the world spares no expense to convince me that what’s most important in my life is me. Self-improvement in our culture is an end in itself. Improving the self in the service of some greater good isn’t as important as feeling good about the self I’ve improved.

So now, the most important question in our culture, it seems, is, “What’s in it for me? What do I get out of it?”

But the job of worship, at least according to Paul, is to get us to offer our “bodies as a living sacrifice” and “not to think of [ourselves] more highly than [we] ought to think.”

And why not?

Why is Paul so concerned to move our gaze off of our navels?

Because what’s important is not just the me that inhabits my body, but the me that inhabits the body—the body of Christ: “For as in one body, we have many members . . .”

Popular Christianity plays into the modern penchant for individualizing behavior and morality. Many Christians have been preoccupied with the belief that what’s important in the Christian life is fine-tuning the individual soul so that people can get their heavenly bus passes stamped.

But Paul tells us here that the reason we focus on our lives as individual Christians is not just for their own sake, but for sake of others. He says that true worship is being presented as a “living sacrifice,” being “transformed by the renewing of your mind” in the service of Christ.

Because we’ve got work to do. This isn’t just about us and our personal relationships with Jesus; this is about a world dying for love and justice, and a little bit of peace, a glimpse of grace. And we’ve been given the job of helping to bring it to them.

The truth, contrary to the conforming power of the world’s account of existence, is that what’s most important is not just me as a stand-alone entity—but me as I participate in the body of Christ—me as I’m related to a world dying for the mercy present in God.

To be truly transformed is to see myself as a member of something larger than me. “So we, who are many are one body in Christ.”

And, according to Paul, it’s when we begin to understand ourselves as part of the work God is doing in the world, instead of the focus of it, that we can be truly freed up to understand our uniqueness as individuals.

Only when we see ourselves as part of a larger body are we given the grace to discern the distinctive gifts given to us for service to others. That is to say, we can only truly be individuals when we understand ourselves as part of a larger whole—in our case being a part of that ragtag group of people who stubbornly persist in following Jesus (crazy as that sometimes seems).

As a part of the body of Christ, Paul tells us, “We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us” (8:7). God fits the blessed community for the work of God’s new reign: “prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate in cheerfulness” (8:8).

God is the giver of all gifts, but God didn’t give all the gifts to any one person. God made us special according to God’s purposes.

Do you see?

God is busy creating individuals by bestowing upon each of them different gifts; but the gifts as well as the individual are to be set apart for others—not for self-aggrandizement.

Try selling that one in a Super Bowl ad.

You see, worship involves conflict with the way the powers and principalities attempt to rule this world, which too often centers on keeping the powers and principalities in charge, and everyone else scrambling to hold it together.

Worship is about reimagining the world the way God does—a place of peace and justice where no one has to go to bed at night fearing a knock on the door, the collection agent on the other end of the line, the bully at the end of the hall, or the sheriff and his “tent city.”

But let’s not kid ourselves, the world is busy trying to reimagine itself too.

Think about all the time and money being spent to convince us that we won’t be complete unless we find the right zit cream, or mutual fund, or new SUV—until we’re completely focused on ourselves and our own worries and desires. Don’t think that the world doesn’t have a vested interest in keeping us from being honest about what’s truly important, about who we’re really here for.

If the powers and principalities can continue to define us solely as individuals, beholden to no one or nothing larger than our own goals and projects, if they can continue to outline the range of our problems and desires, then they can offer us solutions that can be picked up from the store on the way home from work.

Don’t be fooled into believing that the system doesn’t have a financial stake in defining reality—with the well-financed individual at the center of it.

Under that scenario, gifts are things upon which we should capitalize for our own benefit. If you have a gift, take advantage of it. Cash in. Don’t sell yourself short.

But true worship requires of us to present our gifts, our lives, as living sacrifices for the upbuilding of the community. Under Paul’s conception of God’s new reign, God gave us gifts—not in order to help us achieve self-actualization, but so that we might present them as an offering to the work of God’s great purpose.

True worship stands against the dishonesty and lies of this world, which purport to tell us that the highest aim of our lives is to find personal satisfaction, while the satisfaction of everyone else is their own responsibility.

True worship stands against the duplicity of this present age, which proclaims that my needs are of paramount importance, while the needs of my neighbors is their problem—largely created by their own bad choices.

True worship calls into question the conviction that the popular account of reality is true in its ceaseless desire for violence, conquest, power, sexual fulfillment, and vocational attainment.

Conforming to this world is easy. The current is strong. All you have to do is let go, and before you know it, you’ll wake up to find that you’ve been converted without even knowing it.

Transformation, on the other hand, takes some intentionality. If you want to speak the truth in this world, if you want to follow Jesus, as Daniel Berrigan said, “you’d better look good on wood.”

God seeks constant transformation—both of the individual and of the community. As followers of Jesus, we’re tirelessly attempting to listen to God, to hear where God desires to lead us.

Even to speak of our future is presumptuous—because it’s God’s future in which we seek only to participate. As followers of Jesus at Douglass Blvd Christian Church, as the body of Christ, our humble prayer is that wherever God is moving in our community, we might be there in the middle of it, with our backs tired and our hands dirty.

Telling the truth to a world that is bent on ignoring it is a matter of laying our lives in sacrifice on this altar for God to lead and use to realize God’s future.

It’s not easy. Ask Jesus; they killed him for telling the truth. But true transformation, true worship requires nothing less than the truth.

It’s kind of tough to make sense of over Cocoa Puffs, but just break out a little bread and wine, and all the sudden things become much clearer.