This past weekend, a wonderful group of folks gathered at Russet House Farm for our first Generous Space CampOUT. LGBTQ+ folks, parents, and allies were beautifully hosted by the Keesmaat-Walsh family. Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat are in the final stages of writing their commentary on the book of Romans – and many of us who have read their other published works are eagerly awaiting its release! We were so blessed to have them share at the CampOUT some of their work. Brian has given us permission to share this reflection with our broader community so that those who couldn’t come camping will have the opportunity to engage.
Bodies, Membership and Generous Spaciousness
A reflection on Romans 12.1-8 for the Generous Spaciousness Camp Out.
August 1, 2015
by Brian Walsh
Tomorrow is my 46th birthday.
Yea, I know that I look a lot older, but its true.
Tomorrow is my 46th birthday.
You see, on August 2, 1969, I was baptized in Lake Chandos, north of Peterborough, near the town of Apsley.
And I mark that day, as something of a birthday.
That day, I engaged in a very bodily act of being immersed in a cool lake on a very cold and windy day.
And this evening – the eve of my birthday – we read St. Paul appealing to all Christians to do something with their bodies.
“I urge you, therefore, by the mercies of God to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”
Here we are, ¾’s of the way through this 16 chapter letter, and Paul sets up his appeal with a “therefore.”
“Therefore” I urge you …
Therefore. What’s the therefore, there for?
Well here the apostle is saying that if everything that he has written thus far is true,
if this magnificent, though admittedly complex, story of God’s mercy to Jews first and then to Gentiles is true;
if it is true that when we were yet sinners Christ died for us;
if it is true that this mercy extends to all of creation, waiting in eager longing for the revelation of the children of God;
if it is true that we ourselves, in concert with the Holy Spirit await our adoption, the redemption of our very bodies;
if it true that the depths and riches and wisdom and knowledge of God is unsearchable;
if it is true that from him, through him, and to him are all things, and that all glory is his forever;
if all of this is true … then what?
If all of this is true then I urge you, the apostle writes,
I appeal to you with all that I’ve got,
to offer your bodies as living sacrifices,
holy and pleasing to God.
Now he could have made it more simple.
He could have said, “Therefore I urge you, in view of God’s mercy to offer up your spiritual worship.”
He could have just called them to worship.
And that would have been the right response, wouldn’t it?
After all, this is God we are talking about. And if God has done great things in our lives, then isn’t worship the only appropriate response?
But Paul doesn’t just call us to worship, he unpacks what the heart of such worship is – bodies, offered up as living sacrifices, bodies that are holy and acceptable – that is spiritual worship.
Bodies. Why bodies?
If what we are looking for is a renewed spirituality, a spiritual worship, then what do bodies have to do with it?
This might well have been the question that some of the Gentiles in his audience would have asked.
Bodies and spirit were, for many of them, separate categories.
Indeed, for many in Rome, influenced by Greek philosophy, the body would have been seen as a prison house for the spirit, something which inhibited the soaring spirituality of the soul.
Bodies held you down.
Bodies constantly got in the way of true spirituality.
But not for Paul.
No, for Paul – and few of his Jewish listeners would have been surprised by this – worship is about offering up all of life as a living sacrifice.
Because the mercies of God extended to all of creation, that’s why.
Because the mercies of God have to do with the redemption of our bodies, that’s why.
If all that we offered to God was a so-called ‘spiritual worship’ that was unrelated to our day to day lives in the world of work, family, school and community;
if all that we offered to God was a so-called ‘spiritual worship’ full of spiritual enthusiasm but not grounded – literally grounded – in lives of justice and compassion, hospitality and generosity;
if all that we offered to God was a so-called ‘spiritual worship’ that had nothing to do with our real embodied lives in this world and in this place;
then we would make a mockery of the cross,
we would reject the redemption on offer in Jesus Christ,
we would cheapen the riches and depths of God’s mercy,
we would fling the gifts of God back into his face in all of our pious enthusiasm,
and we would have tragically missed the meaning of the ‘therefore’ at the beginning of our passage.
“Therefore, I urge you, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – which is your spiritual worship.”
If you want spiritual worship, then you must have bodies offered up as living sacrifices.
Anything less than that is a cheap imitation at best, and a terrible betrayal at worst.
So my friends, if the good news of Jesus is true, then we are called to present our whole lives – our embodies lives;
– our bodies – in all of their beauty and brokenness,
– our bodies – in all of their ecstasy and confusion,
– our bodies – in their gendered wonder and complexity,
– our bodies – gently loved and deeply bruised,
we are called to present our bodies as living sacrifices.
But here’s the problem.
Bodies that are conformed to the pattern of this world cannot be living sacrifices.
The issue is spiritual worship, but the question becomes, ‘which spirit?’
Bodies conformed to the pattern of this world,
bodies held in the grip of the spirit of this age,
bodies shaped by the advertising agencies,
bodies preoccupied with the images of success and beauty of the dominant culture,
bodies that take their cue from the fashion magazines,
bodies that make all the wrong sacrifices to the wrong gods,
are not bodies that are holy and pleasing to God,
and they are not bodies that are very good candidates for being living sacrifices.
So don’t be conformed, says Paul, but be transformed.
Do you want to experience the true and deeply spiritual worship
of full-bodied life responding in gratitude
to the creation redeeming mercy of God?
Then “be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”
Allow this story of God’s mercy to transform your mind,
reshape your imagination,
give you a new perspective on all of life.
set new priorities,
give you a new vision,
provide you with a generously spacious worldview:
then you will be able to discern God’s will in your life,
then you will have a perspective that will allow you to test and approve God’s will,
then you will know what is the good, pleasing and perfect will for these bodies offered as living sacrifices to God that are pleasing and holy.
We are called to be living sacrifices, transformed not conformed.
We are called to present our bodies
– every dimension of our lives in these bodies –
in gratitude to the Creator and Redeemer of these bodies.
But not alone.
No … not alone.
This call to living sacrifices and transformed imaginations is not to individuals.
This call to bodies offered up in gratitude is a call to a body.
There are no bodies offered as living sacrifices,
without the body of Christ;
there is no spiritual worship,
without a renewed community in Christ;
there are no transformed minds,
without a faithful community rooted in the Word of God;
there is no discernment of God’s good, pleasing and perfect will,
without the church.
And you have to remember that when Paul talks about the body of Christ, he does so in contrast with another ‘body’ – the body politic of Rome. The Roman empire is, itself, a body,
and would have used the same word – soma – to describe itself.
So when Paul speaks of the body of Christ, that is, a body in which Christ is the saviour and Lord, then he is deliberately being provocative in the face of the empire.
We are members of the body of Christ, not the body of the empire,
and Jesus is our Lord and Saviour, not Caesar.
This stuff is not about ‘me and Jesus.’
This is not to be limited to ‘my personal relationship to Jesus.’
This is not about a solitary spirituality.
This is not to be limited to individual salvation.
Paul’s view of the mercies of God extends to all of creation,
and that’s why he calls for bodies as living sacrifices.
Paul’s view of the transformation of our minds calls for discernment of God’s will,
and that’s why he calls us to be a body.
In a context of Jewish and Gentile tension,
Paul calls the Romans to be a community rooted in the Messiah.
In the face of a monolithic culture that demands conformity,
Paul calls for communal transformation rooted in Jesus.
In the face of emperor Nero’s arrogant proclamation of a “new age” Paul calls his readers to not be conformed to this age.
In the face of the overwhelmingly powerful body politic of the emperor
Paul calls this little community to be members of the body of Christ.
And today … In the face of rampant individualism and narrowly personalistic piety,
Paul calls us to be a body.
“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.”
“Members, one of another.”
Tied and bound to each other as intimately and as necessarily as the various members of our own bodies.
You see, you may well be at this camp out this weekend of your own free will,
and you may also have freely chosen to hang out with the New Direction community,
but your membership in the church of Jesus Christ,
your membership in the body of Christ,
is about as voluntary as your liver’s membership is in your own body.
Do you see Paul’s point?
Membership in this body – the body of Christ,
is not like membership in a club, or a political party,
or a professional association,
or any other kind of organization.
All of these are memberships that you choose and that you can resign.
Membership in the body of Christ isn’t like that.
You can live without being a member of a political party,
you can live without being a member of a fitness club,
you can even live without being a member of this New Direction community,
but you cannot live without a vibrant, growing membership in the body of Christ.
And, as a member of a body, you only have life in so far as you have a place of service in that body.
A liver that no longer serves the body will die.
A leg that is not exercised in carrying a body will atrophy and die.
A lung that no longer can receive oxygen for the body will die.
And, dear friends, I know that this is a hard word for some of you.
How can I be a member of a body that doesn’t want me?
How can I offer up my body as a thanks sacrifice to God, when my body is held in scorn by the rest of the body of Christ?
How can I thrive and flourish as a part of the body, when that body sees me as a cancer, as something that needs to be healed or surgically removed?
And I know, dear friends, I know, that for some of us, something like the
generous spaciousness of New Direction is pretty much our last shot
at staying in the body at all.
But the body that will reject you, is a body that will die without you.
And, this is hard, I know, but without that body, we too will die.
And it all comes down to grace.
It is all rooted in those ‘mercies of God’ with which Paul began this passage . “In view of God’s mercy, offer your bodies as living sacrifices.”
“By the grace given to me I say to you,” Paul now writes.
In light of the way in which those mercies have come to me,
in light of the deep gift of grace that is our inheritance in Christ,
and in light of the discernment of God’s will that comes from transformed minds,
I say to every one of you,
I say to each of these living sacrificed bodies,
I say to all of us who have experienced the renewal and transformation of our minds,
“Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.”
Knowing that you are a recipient of mercy,
knowing that while you were yet a sinner, Christ died for you,
knowing that it all hangs on grace,
it all hangs on gift,
then recognize that arrogance has no place in this renewal,
and find your place as a member,
an indispensable member,
a servant member,
but a member nonetheless,
of the body.
In sober judgement, not haughtiness,
in sober judgement,
neither prideful over-estimation,
nor the false humility of low self-esteem,
in sober judgement
and in the midst of the community,
as members one of another,
discern the gifts that you have received
from the God of grace,
the God of gift.
These gifts are gifts of grace.
They are gifts to a body,
for the health of the body,
for the growth of the body,
for the body to fulfill its calling in the world
as nothing less than the body of Christ.
And Paul offers us a list of seven:
and showing mercy.
These are body building gifts, mind transforming gifts, gifts that sustain a community of non-conformity, gifts that shape an alternative body,
gifts that engender a generous spaciousness, gifts that equip us to be subversives in the empire.
There are no transformed minds without
the prophetic ministry of discerning God’s Word
addressing our ever changing situation.
There is no living sacrifice without
a sense of serving ministry in our midst and in our world.
There is no antidote to the deceit and lies of the empire without
the teaching of the faith to young and old alike.
There is no sustaining of a community of generous spaciousness without
a ministry of encouragement in the face of discouragement,
anxiety and despair.
There is no sense of an generousness in generous spaciousness without
folks gifted with that kind of radical generosity.
There is no subversive and liberating direction for your community without
diligent and visionary leadership.
There is no hope for this body against violent persecution without
a joyful ministry of compassion in the face of the deepest and most painful trials that the body might face.
service in the community,
teaching the faith,
These are the gifts of this body,
and without these gifts this body doesn’t have a chance in hell.
And without these gifts, there will be no generous spaciousness.
In the face of Scripture used as a club of condemnation,
we need a prophetic imagination that liberates.
In the face of a culture of self-protection,
we are called to be people of generous service.
Bearing the burden of teaching that has stigmatized,
despised and rejected so many of us,
we need deeper teaching that sets us free.
And Lord knows, we need the gift of encouragement,
the gift of the Spirit who casts out all fear,
the gift of holding each other in our confusion and hurt.
Generosity, real profound and deep generosity,
has been in such short supply in the church.
This is a gift that will transform the body of Christ.
We are called to be a people who exercise the gift of leadership,
in the church, in our schools, in our workplace,
forging a path of embrace and inclusion.
And while we will be a people who will laugh a lot,
who know deep joy together,
we invariably find that joy on the other side of pain.
And so we are called to be a people who exercise the gift of compassion,
a people who will not avert our gaze from the shit,
a people who will embrace the pain and share the sorrow,
so that we can be agents of hope.
With these gifts, exercised in this body, by people who have offered up their own bodies as living sacrifices in gratitude and worship, we can be a community of transformation, hope and generous spaciousness.