For much of the summer, we have been making our way, Sunday-by-Sunday, through Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans, the longest and historically most influential of his letters. Having begun by denouncing the sins and vices of pagan society, Paul now [Romans 12:1-2] invites us to behave differently. Well, I suppose that’s where we would naturally expect him to go. But we may be surprised by how he introduces the topic: I urge you, by the mercies of God to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.
So far, Paul has been stressing mainly what God has done for us. Thanks to God’s mercy, we can now be different people from who we would otherwise have been, living differently from how we would otherwise have lived. And so our bodies – in other words, who we actually are in the lived reality of our day-to-day lives – should serve as our sacrifice to God. Often, when we hear religious words like sacrifice and worship, we imagine some special place and time apart from the ordinary activities of life – an hour spent in church on Sunday morning, for example. But Paul’s invitation to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, our spiritual worship suggests that my entire life needs to be understood in those terms - as a life lived entirely as an act of worship.
That may be an especially apt reminder this weekend when we celebrate the significance of human labor. Our work is, after all, where most of our daily life is lived, where we make moral choices and develop human social relationships that directly define the persons we become and wider world in which we live and move as parts of an inter-related and inter-dependent society.
Of course, religion was everywhere in the pagan world, which Paul knew and which the Christians Paul was writing to had themselves been a part of. Paul spoke so harshly about that society and its religious assumptions because he wanted his hearers to understand just how different was the way of life Paul was proposing to them. Just watch some episodes of the HBO-TV series Rome that first aired a decade ago to get some sense of the culture clash the coming of Christianity must have created in Rome!
In contrast to all the negative models he saw all around, Paul pointed out as the alternative something completely new and different – Jesus Christ himself, whose death on the cross revealed a life lived as the most perfect worship of God his Father.
That this alternative was really new and really different is evident in today’s Gospel [Matthew 16:21-27], in Peter’s negative reaction to Jesus’ initial prediction of his passion and death. Peter's reaction really ought not to surprise us. If the path to be followed conformed to common expectations, Paul would not have presented it as such a contrast to what he saw around him, nor would Peter have objected, nor would Jesus have rebuked Peter so sternly. In Peter’s resistance, Jesus could hear the echo of Satan’s temptation in the desert – the perennial challenge (not just to Jesus but to all of us) not to be let ourselves be changed and certainly not to change the world.
Our own society has developed in a very different direction from ancient Rome. Among other things, our modern world is less social, more self-centered, more focused on feelings. And also (after 2000 years) the Christian alternative Paul proposes no longer seems so new. Paul challenges us today – as he challenged his contemporaries - not to conform ourselves to this age. But, unlike his Roman converts who were discovering a new and different way of life, our challenge becomes to rediscover how to let our lives be changed by faith - not being defined and directed by the world’s agenda but instead changing that world by our faith.
So, despite Peter’s discomfort, it is no accident that the cross is the central symbol of our Christian faith. Jesus’ death was not, after all, just some back luck that happened to him one day. It was the direct – and predictable – consequence of a life lived in total obedience to his Father. Such is the life that Jesus commands us in turn to take up and follow him.
Homily for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 31, 2014.