There is something grotesque about the image St. Paul uses in Romans 12:1: a living sacrifice. Paul uses three adjectives to describe the sacrifice he is talking about: living, holy, and acceptable. A sacrifice is acceptable to God when we offer it in a spirit of pure devotion and obedience. A sacrifice becomes holy as it is offered. Ultimate holiness requires the ultimate offering: to be completely consumed in flame. The problematic adjective is living. A sacrifice is living when — well, that just does not happen in the levitical code. The first step in a sacrifice is always to slaughter the animal. By definition, a sacrifice on the altar never consists of a living being.
So what does it mean to offer our bodies as living sacrifices? Paul’s image is conditioned by the experience of a person offering sacrifice at the Temple. We may imagine the slaughtered animal burning on the altar, being made holy by death and fire, and the living physical body of the worshiper standing by. A Christian is to identify not with the living worshiper but with the burning sacrifice: our bodies are like that of a sheep, goat, ox, or bird, fleetingly glimpsed through writhing yellow flames — yet somehow also still alive.
A Christian is to understand the physical body as already having been offered, slaughtered, and kindled — in short, as already belonging to God in holiness. Whether we will it is irrelevant: our bodies belong to him who bought them with his own bodily sacrifice. We live a post-redemption existence. We have been bought, redeemed, and made God’s own. This past-tense understanding is fundamental to Paul’s ethical method: how then ought we to live? What God has done for us and in us demands a certain character of embodied life in a physical world. We cannot conform to the sinful world around us but must be transformed in our bodily, physical, worldly existence as it expresses the spiritual truth of redemption. Christian bodies cannot play host to sinful activities because they have already been taken for holy use and are being consumed.
A living sacrifice is one that is not yet wholly consumed. It has not yet surrendered to the flames of suffering that are designed to carry it to heaven. The only remaining task of a living sacrifice is to die fully. As we offer our bodies as living sacrifices, our one remaining spiritual task is to die to self and live to God. All our physical, worldly, embodied existence continues only to serve this holy process. As Paul says of himself, twice (Phil. 2:17 and 2 Tim. 4:6), we should pray to be poured out as a drink offering.
Look It Up
Charles Spurgeon, in his sermon “Jesus Known by Personal Revelation” (1888), says of today’s Gospel: “Error is multiform. Truth is one. A thousand lies will live together and tolerate each other. … A thousand false gods will stand together in the Pantheon. But if the ark of the true God enters Dagon’s temple, Dagon must come down on his face and be dashed to pieces.”
Think About It
How might Peter’s confession provide an opportunity to offer ourselves as a living sacrifice?