Today we move from one my most daunting passages to understand to one of my favorites. Paul is known for structuring his letters with long theological sections about beliefs followed by much more practical sections about ethics. Romans 12:1 is that pivot point in this book.
We use the word “worship” in many ways. I have to wonder if most of the time we don’t reduce that word down to far less than what God intended worship to be. Worship is that thing that happens at the church building. It is singing and praying and preaching (and dancing and rocking a guitar or drum kit, if you church does that sort of thing). Worship is what some person “leads.” Worship has a set soundtrack. There is a “worship hour.” Worship has an “order” of set events. Sure, you can worship anywhere — on a mountain top, down by the lake, in a hospital room, in a flash mob at the local mall — but still we are talking about the same action: singing songs and praying prayers.
The Roman church Paul was writing had also reduced the idea of worship down to far less than what God intended. For them it was about religious activities and rituals and sacred days. It was about symbolic acts like circumcision. It was about what food was eaten or not. Worship was a cultural expression and both the Jewish and Gentile Christians wanted to stamp their own ideals onto that expression. In short, worship was what took place when “the saints meet.”
The word “worship” comes from an Old English word “worth-ship.” The connotation of this word is to show honor to the inherent worth of the person being worshipped. It is tied to the ancient practice of “kissing the feet of” the person being honored. Worship is saying to another you are the one, not me. You are the focus of life, not me. You matter. I adore you and want to do your will. Can you sing that in a song? Of course. Can you pray those sentiments? Definitely. But it is so much more than that.
Paul reminds the Roman Christians of this point:
So, my dear family, this is my appeal to you by the mercies of God: offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. Worship like this brings your mind into line with God’s. (12:1)
Worship is not a religious activity that takes place in a sacred place at a sacred time. Worship is to happen everywhere all of the time. God is not looking for some sacrifice of an animal or a sacrifice of discomfort in circumcision or a sacrifice of diet by avoiding pork or a sacrifice of time by observing the Sabbath. Or let’s update that today: God is not looking for a sacrifice of time on a Sunday morning or a sacrifice of money put in an offering plate or a sacrifice of career by being an inner-city social worker or a sacrifice of zip code by living frugally and denying our comfort and status. God wants us — all of us — as the sacrifice. God wants us to tie our worship to how we live each day, as “living sacrifices.” God wants acts of worship that are tied deeply to our “mind” and that shape how that mind thinks. Everything we are and everything we do is intended to be worship.
For the ancient Roman Christians that meant that the most worshipful actions they could take would be to love (12:9-21). They needed to worry less about what they did to their bodies and more about what they did with their bodies. They needed to worry less about what food they ate and more about with whom they ate or refused to eat. They needed to try less to get others to become like them and more so to become like others so they together might become like Christ. And they most needed to do this with the people they disagreed with most. Love is the act of worship God wants most.