You can listen to the audio on the Saint Paul’s website, or read on.
The past couple of weeks here at Saint Paul’s have sounded like a non-denominational staff meeting as we’ve talked about praise and worship, praise and worship, praise and worship. You might recall a couple of weeks ago, with the story of Jesus walking on the water, how what struck me wasn’t that Jesus or Peter was able to defy gravity, but that it was the first time in Matthew’s Gospel that the disciples worshipped Jesus and called him “the Son of God.” Last week, Keith invited us to look at the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman through a new lens. Focusing less on the interaction between the two, Keith probed into the meaning behind her words, “Lord, Son of David!” Seeing them not as a prayer of supplication, he wondered instead if they could be words of praise to Jesus the Christ. They were both good sermons, if I do say so myself, coming at fairly well known gospel stories from a different angle. If you haven’t heard them yet, you really should check them out on the website under the “Reaching Up” tab.
Where we both fell short, however, was that we didn’t really take the time to talk about what it means for us, as 21st century American Christians to do the work of praise and worship. As I alluded to in my opening sentence, I think these words have been co-opted over the past 20 or so years to mean one particular thing: a rock band on a big stage leading songs with questionable theology that repeat their chorus no less than nine thousand times or for forty-five minutes, whichever comes first. As you might have guessed, I’m not a fan of that particular understanding of “praise and worship,” and so, I am grateful for this week’s lesson from Paul’s letter to the Romans as it opens for us a deeper and richer understanding of praise and worship.
Even though we’ve been hearing excerpts from it all summer long, we haven’t talked much about the Epistle to the Romans. This really is a shame because Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome is one of the highlights of the New Testament. My favorite Biblical scholar, N.T. Wright says that Romans is
… neither a systematic theology nor a summary of Paul’s lifework, but it is by common consent his masterpiece. It dwarfs most of his other writings, an Alpine peak towering over hills and villages… Not all climbers have taken the same route up its sheer sides, and there is frequent disagreement on the best approach. What nobody doubts is that we are here dealing with a work of massive substance, presenting a formidable intellectual challenge while offering a breathtaking theological and spiritual vision.
This morning, we find ourselves at the turning point in Romans. Paul has spent eleven chapters dealing with the theological issues that are at play in the Roman Church. Just ask our lectors about the Mobius strip like prose that Paul has used, folding word upon word, phrase upon phrase, to try to lay out a theology of the grace of God that fits the worldviews of two very different types of Christians. The first Christians in Rome, like everywhere else, were Jewish converts. They had been raised with the Torah, followed the sacrificial rules of the Temple, and knew their Hebrew Scriptures inside and out. As time went on, others became interested in this new religion, and so Gentiles, non-Jews, started joining the ranks. These Christians had been brought up in the pagan cult of Rome, worshipping a pantheon of gods.
The Jewish Christians were highly incarnational people. The Torah is full of rules that deal with real life: how to plant and harvest; what to eat and how to do the dishes; what to wear and with whom to do business; and so on. Their religious system was designed, in part, to keep God’s chosen people alive in a world where life was extremely fragile. There were constant threats against one’s body in the first century: infant mortality was near 25% and roughly 50% of children died before age ten. For the Jewish people, an oppressed minority for almost their entire history, life was so full of death that their religious system necessarily worked to protect them as best it could. It makes sense, then, that these Jewish Christians focused on Jesus’ humanity as a living, breathing, first century Jew.
The Roman Christians, on the other hand, had been raised on Plato, and saw the body as nothing more than “an embarrassing encumbrance.” They thought of the body as the tomb of the soul, which waited to finally escape the filthiness of this world for the glory of the afterlife. Their focus would have been Jesus’ divinity and the call to give their hearts over to God rather than to focus on the nitty-gritty of Jesus’ life and ministry. After eleven chapters of working to reconcile these two disparate worldviews, Paul turns his attention to what he sees as the only proper response to God’s grace.
“Therefore, in light of all that I’ve said and in view of the mercy of God, I urge you brothers and sisters to present your bodies, fragile and corrupted as they might be, to God as a living, breathing sacrifice, which is your only reasonable act of worship.” He then goes on to describe just what that living sacrifice of worship looks like: being transformed by the will of God; living in humility, serving as members of the body, and exercising the gifts of the Spirit for the building of the Kingdom of God. You’ll note that there is nothing in there about music on Sunday morning. The worship, to which Paul calls the Church in Rome and us, is about living from Sunday afternoon to Saturday night as disciples of Jesus Christ. True worship is about being here on Sunday only insofar as it equips and empowers us to go forth from this place to “love and serve the Lord.”
From there, our worship becomes about building the Kingdom of God. We worship God when our lives align with his will. We worship God when we treat others with the dignity and respect we all deserve. We worship God when we put aside our own selfish desires to seek after the greater good. We worship God when we use the gifts he has given us to build up the body. Those who are called to be prophets worship God by calling people to abundance of life with conviction. Those who are called to ministries of service worship God by reaching out in care and love to those in need in their communities and in the world. Those who are called to be teachers worship God by being students of the faith who are then able to help others grow in their knowledge and love of the Lord. Those we are called to exhortation worship God by encouraging others in their life and faith. Those who are called to be givers worship God by giving of themselves and their resources sacrificially. Those who are called to be leaders worship God by leading in the Church and in the world with grace and humility. Those who are called to be merciful worship God through cheerful compassion.
We spend an hour each week worshipping God in song, scripture reading, prayer, and communion here on Sunday morning, but more important is the 167 hours a week we spend worshipping God by exercising our gifts, showing forth God’s power among all peoples, and building his Kingdom here on earth. That is our living sacrifice, our reasonable response to God’s grace. That is a truly spiritual act of worship. Amen.
 Leander E. Keck and others, eds., The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002) 395
 John Stott, “The Message of Romans” The Bible Speaks Today p. 322