The Body as Evidence
In Matthew 9, a paralytic was brought to Jesus. Rather than immediately heal the man (which we assume the hope of the paralytic’s friends), Jesus says, “Take heart my son; your sins are forgiven.” Matt. 9:2.
This immediately provokes outrage in the scribes. How could Jesus claim to forgive sins?
Jesus then asks them a question, “For which is easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’?”
It all depends. If Jesus is a charlatan, then it is easier to say, “Your sins are forgiven.” That spiritual status does not produce a bodily state which is immediately visible to all. Thus, if he is lying, the lie cannot be seen.
However, if Jesus is telling the truth, then the forgiveness is the more difficult status. God alone can forgive sins; and such forgiveness will be purchased by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (“Jesus our Lord, who delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” Rom. 4:24-25)
Jesus heals the man, as a demonstration of his power over the effects of sin (since death and disease are the result of sin’s influence in the world). He does so without a prayer that God would work at his request, but upon his own command.
From that display of over the body, one can infer Jesus’ power over the unseen spiritual status of sin.
That parallel exists in the case our life in the church. We Christians so easily profess our love for one-another. Our pastors speak of the “beloved,” when addressing the congregation. We speak of the unmerited and free forgiveness of others, just as we have received ourselves. We say we believe that we will, “forgiv[e] each other, as the Lord has forgiven” us. Col. 3:13
But those ideas which we so praise so often fail to materialize in the body. We say these things, but we do another. We praise humility and say that we would never blow a trumpet that others would see our righteousness, and then proceed to make the world knows our pious intentions and thoughts.
It is easier to be a hypocrite in practice, to profess an unseeable spiritual state, than it is to enact in the body humility and love and forgiveness.
Actual life in the body, both our own bodies, and the Body of Christ is what Paul requires here in Romans 12. We are to enact and embody this humility and love and forgiveness in the most flesh-crossing manner.
The world will stand by like the scribes seeing the paralytic before Jesus. They will say, this is crazy, you do not really love your enemy. You can say that, but unless I see love in action, embodied love, blessing given against your best personal interest, we will not believe you.
But Romans says, your body must be the visible place of this work.
By fully considering the depth of what is meant by the “body,” we will see just how rich a display of God’s glorious work is meant here in Romans.
The Body as a Physical Location
The connection between “body” and “sacrifice” would be immediately known by any First Century reader in a visceral manner that eludes a modern reader. I have known gone to a temple with a garlanded goat and watched a priest slaughter the animal and then divide its body.
I one was taken on a tour of a then-empty slaughterhouse. The steps in dispatching the dismembering the animal were explained and the implements for each task were displayed, but the actual “rendering” of an animal I did not see.
My experience goes no further than cleaning a fish. But there is a fundamentally different experience in slaughtering a large mammal. And that is an experience which all people in Paul’s time would have immediate knowledge.
A sacrifice entails the presentation of a body for slaughter. And so, when Paul says we must “present our bodies,” it would come not with a metaphorical distance but with an immediate revulsion. The sensation to be understood is the ransacking of my skin and bones.
Paul qualifies his instruction with the oxymoronic “living”, a “living sacrifice”. But whatever else Paul is demanding of the Romans, it is a matter not of metaphor or idea, it is a matter of flesh and bones.
What does this matter for us? Whatever Paul commands in this passage is not something we can hold at arms-length. He is commanding that we be physically present in some painful process. The emphasis on the body is a recognition that this will entail more than just thought, but will entail the visceral reactions of the body, the churning of emotion. And when we think of the circumstances which Paul will present in these few verses, we can see this may be a disturbing thing.
In short, I am calling you to be there at the place of potential conflict, at the place of humility, in the place of these other believers. This is not a matter of idea, it is a matter of life.