January 12, 2014 First Sunday After Epiphany
Majoring in the Majors
Psalm 72, Proverbs 8:22-36, Romans 12:1-5, St. Luke 2:41-52
Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. This is the first and great commandment, and the second is like unto it, thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.
Or is it the other way around? We shall see.
Our word “adamant” comes to us from an Old English word meaning a “very hard stone.” That word came from the Latin for a “hard metal,” which came in turn from the Greek for a hypothetical hardest substance of all.
We use the word to denote an “utterly unyielding” attitude, often held by a person who is inflexible and even rigid.
You are now prepared to meet the church father Origen. Born in Alexandria, Egypt, of a Greek father and an Egyptian mother, he had the burly build of a Greco-Roman wrestler -- and a personality to match. Thus was he widely known as “Origen Adamantius” – “Origen the Untamed.”
He holds the distinction as the father of those early Bible expositors, identified especially with Alexandria, who found an allegorical interpretation for virtually everything in Scripture. For Origen, the literal meaning of the words of the Bible held little interest. Those like himself on the highest level of understanding could ferret out the true, spiritual meaning behind the words.
Origen explained that the priest of Leviticus 1:6 who skins the carcass of a sacrificial animal “is the one who removes the veil of the letter from God's word and bares the members within, which are the elements of a spiritual understanding.”
In one unfortunate case, however, he took the words in an all-too-literal sense. But more on that in a few.
In the persecution of Christians by the Roman Emperor Septimus Severus in the year 202, the 17-year-old Origen watched his father dragged through the streets. The authorities threw him and other Christian prisoners into the temple of the pagan god Serapis.
A mob had gathered for the show, and Origen slipped into the seething, jeering mass of humanity. In the last light of day he saw his father beheaded. The executioners cast the body nonchalantly to one side, with the others, and added the head tidily to a pyramid they were erecting in the torchlight.
We are hardly surprised to learn that Origen’s life changed forever in that moment. Each man, he would write, “should take each moment and hold it tenderly in his hands to examine what other possible meaning it may hold, what other purpose or end.”
Less obvious is that, as a result, so also would our Lord’s church alter its course.
Origen the Untamed would spend the rest of his earthly existence staring his father’s fate in the face. What amounted to a death sentence hung poised above his head every moment as Roman persecutors staged sporadic pogroms against Christian leaders.
Later, some would question his theology – to this day Rome has not made him a saint – but no one disputed his brilliance. By age 18 he was so fluent in Greek thought, and especially that of the great philosopher Plato, that he took over as head of the school of theology founded by the bishop and scholar Clement of Alexandria.
Origen taught a Platonized Christianity so effectively that he shaped theology more forcefully than any other church father of the era with the possible exception of St. Augustine.
The sudden, hideous end of his father’s life and the constant peril in which he lived forced Origen to confront a question: If I should stand before God in judgment in the next moment, what account would I give of my life?
And so, he reasoned, the job of the church is to prepare each believer for that encounter. Plato’s teacher Socrates had got it right, Origen decided, when he said the unexamined life is not worth living.
For Origen, every man’s master was his conscience. He fused Jesus’ teaching with Plato’s doctrine of thumos, moral outrage, and produced a formula for the church to use to address the evil of the age.
The very purpose of the church was the moral transformation of man and the betterment of society. And so he may be said to be, in addition to the father of allegorical interpretation, the father of Christian humanitarianism. The earth moved under his teaching.
Origen developed, the historian Arthur Herman writes, “a new way of casting the relationship between the church and the faithful.” Until his day, the churches were centers of worship. Christians assembled to pray, to celebrate Holy Communion, to baptize new believers.
Under Origen’s leadership, the sermon emerged as a focus of the service and the vehicle for instruction in morality according to the Bible. So passionate was he regarding moral purity that the passage he chose to take literally was St. Matthew 19:12.
Beset by lust as he taught female students early in his academic career, he read:
“. . . and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He who is able to accept it, let him accept it.”
And to free his soul he took knife in hand and accepted it.
Historians tells us he would come to regret this rash act and teach chastity – without surgery – as a way of sacrificing oneself to God. Origen’s intense urging of moral renovation, Arthur Herman writes, makes him the guiding light of today’s Roman Catholic anti-abortion movement as well as the Quakers and Mennonites and even secular organizations such as PETA and Greenpeace.
The historian might have added the social justice gospel so prominent today in mainline Protestant churches and the liberation theology popular in some minority communities.
And so at last we come to our passage from the 12th chapter of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. It begins:
“I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.”
Or does it begin so? St. Paul follows a pattern in Romans common in his letters. He begins with theology and proceeds to practical application. In this case, he has pounded salvation by grace through faith into us for 11 chapters and begins here to spell out how we are to live.
First, make of your body a sacrifice to God. The substitution of animals as sacrificial victims under the Old Covenant is no more. Therefore, we learn beginning in chapter 12, we who believe must live the life of the redeemed. The mature Christian offers himself on the Lord’s altar.
“I beseech you, therefore, brethren . . .” The Greek word underlying “beseech” is elsewhere translated “urge” or “encourage” or “exhort.” I think the last of those is better here. St. Paul is not begging those for whom Christ died to live in a way worthy of Him.
Neither is he commanding us. He is suggesting in the strongest terms that the sacrifice he proposes for us is the only appropriate response to the sacrifice God made for us.
“I exhort you, therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God . . .” Not by divine fiat but because of and in response to God’s mercies, we must act in this way.
“I exhort you, therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies . . .” For “present,” the apostle uses a technical word that referred to the sacrifice of the temple. The worshipper positioned his sacrifice facing the Holy of Holies to present it to God.
The Greek word for body is “soma,” from which we get “somatic” – pertaining to the body. It does not refer here to flesh and bones but to the whole person.
The word was also used to refer to a slave, whose value was in his body, and St. Paul is probably using it in that sense as well because he now begins to bring forward a theme he surfaced in chapter 6: Each of us will be either a slave to sin or a slave to righteousness.
“I exhort you, therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present all of you as a slave to righteousness, a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God . . .” The three modifiers – living, holy, acceptable to God – are not separated in the original.
St. Paul continues to refer to the temple sacrifices of the Jews. The worshipper brought a living animal to die in his place, a holy offering set apart for this purpose, a sacrifice acceptable to God because it was without spot or blemish.
The first of the sacrifices listed in the Book of Leviticus is the whole burnt offering. By God’s commandment, the priest reserved none of it to be eaten but sent it all up in smoke to represent all of the one who offered it. It remained on the altar overnight and the next morning the priest removed the ashes, all that remained.
“I exhort you, therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present all of you as a slave to righteousness, a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.” This last phrase sums up all that has preceded it . . . but how?
The New King James translators follow the earlier version with the words “reasonable service.” Modern versions, including the New American Standard, ESV and NIV, render the Greek as “spiritual worship” or something similar.
So, what does our Lord want from us, “reasonable service” or “spiritual worship”?
In English, the adjective our text renders as “reasonable” comes from the Greek word describing the “reason” or “spirit” or “true nature” of a thing as opposed to its outward form. And so its meaning can be “spiritual,” and so the majority of versions translate it.
The noun “service” comes from “latreia,” which is sometimes translated “service” and sometimes “worship.” “Latreia” was service done in worship of God, such as the priests of Israel performed at the altar, and so the word “worship” in the newer translations. Worship was not a passive concept.
The true nature of Christian service, then, is to offer all of oneself as a spiritual sacrifice in worship of God in gratitude for Christ’s saving life and death. The Christian brings to the altar, in contrast to the animal sacrifice of the Jew, his unstinting devotion and praise.
Our Prayer Book captures this thought brilliantly in the thanksgiving in the daily office: “. . . give us that due sense of all thy mercies, that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful; and that we show forth thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to thy service, and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord . . .”
If that’s too much to gulp down in one swallow and you don’t have $19.95 for the transcript, think of it this way: Sacrifice that is not commensurate with God’s gift is not sacrifice, and worship without sacrifice is not worship.
Let’s dial it back just a bit more. Did God create all of you and provide for all of you and redeem all of you from the curse of eternal damnation? Then offer all of you to Him in thanksgiving.
Oh, but Preacher, now you’ve got me good and confused. Does God want my worship on Sunday morning, as the church understood its role before Origen, or does He want my labor in changing lives and making the world a better place as Origen taught?
And my answer is “yes.”
In my own Christian life, I have worked in a number of parachurch organizations. The prefix is from the Greek para, same spelling, meaning “alongside.” These groups are not under the control of the church but perform Christian service in addition to what the church does.
Through them I have participated in overseas missions, inner-city ministry, prison ministry, a Christian school and, now, jail ministry. I am a great believer in them and the work they do – but I am a greater believer in the church.
Question No. 1: “What is the chief end of man?” Answer No. 1: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”
Oh, but Preacher, are you saying I do not glorify God when I invest my sweat in the soup kitchen, the jail, the Salvation Army?
Indeed I am not. God gets glory when His people serve those He has created in His image, whether within the church or without.
We are not confronting an either/or but a both/and. And God has given us the order of priority: The first and great commandment is to love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind. The second, which is like unto it, is to love thy neighbor as thyself.
Church must come before parachurch because God must come before man and God’s glory must come before my glory. Over the years, a number of people have registered admiration when they learned of my service in prison; no one has ever gushed over my participation in worship.
A friend, a pastor of many decades’ experience, said to me a few years ago, “You and I have probably never done anything out of a pure motive in our entire lives.” He was right. But we come closest in worship.
I suspect no one has ever gotten dewy-eyed over your involvement in it, either.. Some may have gone so far as to suggest you’re a bit odd, even backward. When we worship, only God gets glory. We do well if we escape without ridicule.
In the end, Origen did not die a martyr’s death. In the year 250, 48 years after his father’s ghastly demise, still another persecution of Christians began. Each dawn announced a new round of torments for Origen. Jailers dragged him from his cell and beat him with chains and whips.
Chained to the rack for months, he suffered injuries that left him permanently crippled; still he would not renounce his faith. He made it through. With a change of emperors the onslaught finally, mercifully ceased. Origen spent months in recuperation and finally managed to walk, with the help of a cane, 100 yards before stopping to rest.
About four years after his release from prison he died broken in body but untamed in spirit, proclaiming his faith in Jesus Christ as boldly as ever. He was still Origen Adamantius.
We can ache for him, we can salute him, we can even emulate him in Christian service . . . but we must still resist his reversal of God’s priorities. The first commandment must remain first and the second second. Church is where we worship, and worship is what we are built to do. Amen.