Lectionary Commentaries for August 21, 2011
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 16:13-20

James Boyce

Living the Questions

Questions have a way of marking important moments and events.

So it is with today’s lesson. Matthew’s story has from the beginning drawn us in with the good news announcement of salvation that is to be for us in this one who as “Immanuel — God with us” will “save his people from their sins” (1:21-22). Yet central questions haunt the reader. The Sermon on the Mount has been delivered and Jesus’ ministry of teaching and healing is well underway when John the Baptist still asks that question at issue for every hearer of the good news today, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” And Jesus’ reply is pointed, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (11:3-6).

Even foreigners as in last Sunday’s lesson have expressed “great faith” in their acknowledging of this “Lord” as the agent of God’s mercy (15:21-28).  Now it is time for Jesus’ disciples who have followed him in his Galilean ministry to come clean and acknowledge the identity of this one who has called them and led them in this mission to the world.

Today’s lesson has fittingly been acknowledged as pivotal and climactic in Matthew’s narrative of Jesus’ Galilean ministry. The stories to this point have repeatedly pressed the issue of faith and discipleship as the many stories of Jesus’ teaching and healing have led these disciples and ourselves to expect some things about this one called the Son of Man.

And now these stories are focused in Jesus’ intensely direct and personal question and in Peter’s response. “But who do you say that I am?” There is no escape and this is no time for evasion.  Peter speaks for the disciples, for Matthew’s gospel and the community to which it is first addressed, and certainly for us, announcing that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God (16:15-16). Jesus confirms this “confession” by Peter as a mark of God’s blessing and as the “rock” upon which he will build his church (16:17-18).

Signs of Blessing

Several features of this story, so well-known and established in churchly tradition, are noteworthy for the preacher and hearer of Matthew’s message.  For one of the first times in this gospel Jesus does not criticize or qualify Peter’s disciple response as one of “little faith” but instead commends it for its revelatory power.

Consistent with a unique and major theme in Matthew it is described as a mark of God’s “blessing,” a blessing that so often defines and accompanies what it means to be a righteous disciple of the kingdom. It is the repeated promise of “blessing” that initiates Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (5:1-12) and so grounds the message of the kingdom and its call for righteousness as a key sign of God’s people (5:17-20).  As a key signifier of the promises of God, this blessing is repeated at key points in Matthew’s narrative (cf. 11:6; 13:16; 16:17; 24:46). It is a mark of God’s blessing when those who respond in faith are contrasted with those who take offense at Jesus’ preaching (11:6).

A New Identity

Secondly, this story recognizes Peter’s central role as a representative of the disciple community blessed in its confession of faith. Here for the first time in Matthew’s gospel the titles of Messiah (announced in the opening line, 1:1) and Son of God are joined together in acknowledgement of Jesus’ identity (ironically in the only other occurrence, at Jesus trial before the high priest, this identity will occasion his being found guilty of death! 26:63-66). 

Names are significant for Matthew. At his birth Jesus’ name is interpreted as signifying that “he will save his people from their sins (1:21). Now in parallel manner the confessor’s name is given significance. His name is Peter, Jesus says, and it is on this “rock” that he will build his church (16:18). Discipleship is named, founded, and commissioned in this confession. In contrast to Mark, in Matthew’s narrative the disciples “understand” the teaching of Jesus (cf. Mark 8:21 with Matthew 16:12; see also 13:51). Master and disciples are bound together in identity. At the end of the gospel Jesus will commission these disciples as representatives of a new community to go in his name and make disciples of all nations (28:18-20; 13:52).

A Community in Mission

Thirdly, it is precisely to that new community that Matthew now uniquely calls attention. On this “rock” I will build my “church.” Matthew alone of the gospel writers uses the word translated here as “church” (see also 18:17) and links it with talk of the kingdom (16:19). Church as the community of disciples and the kingdom of God are intimately bound in Matthew’s conception of Jesus’ mission, which from this point on in the story is linked to Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection.

This linking of this community’s existence to Peter’s confession would be significant enough. But in addition Matthew uniquely calls attention to the signal and central mission of this community.  This community is endowed with the promise of a rich gift, the “keys” of the kingdom, which both here and especially in 18:10-35 is identified as this community’s invitation and mission to exercise the power of forgiveness in the binding and loosing of sin in the name of God.  One cannot emphasize that invitation and mission too strongly in Matthew’s conception of the continuing call and responsibility of discipleship.

An Unfailing Task and Promise

The questions remain. What would it look like for us to claim such a blessing and to have such imagination as to join in this confession and community — as Peter speaks on our behalf? What if we were to see ourselves, too, as called and blessed in our encounter with God’s Messiah?  What if we were to then know ourselves to be called by this promise and given a new identity as disciples and ambassadors of the kingdom? And what if we could then catch even a glimpse of what it means to be part of this new community authorized and empowered as agents to exercise the task of forgiving and welcoming in the name of a God who desires “mercy and not sacrifice” (9:13; 12:6)? And what if our hope should be constantly to be part of that vision that to the ends of the earth the will of God might indeed be realized — that not one of these little ones should be lost to the saving love of God (1:21; 18:14)?

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 51:1-6

Ingrid Lilly

Large transitions disorient us. Moving, changing jobs, personal transitions…all of these mix up our lives by taking us out of our patterns.

Such transitions are all the more disorienting when they are forced upon us. When we have no say in the sudden disruptions that life can bring, disorientation is worsened by loss, remorse, confusion, or anger. The Israelite exile is a forced change. Forced mass migration to Babylon brought disorientation.

Second Isaiah’s Sermon for Disorientation

Isaiah 51 falls within Second Isaiah’s powerful pastoral sermon to bring comfort and hope to a community struggling to recover from mass exile (chapters 40-55). The prophet’s job is to heal the wounds of unwanted disorientation. Strikingly, his is no pulpit sermon to a bunch of passive listeners. Instead, his poetry is filled with voices, urging listeners to emerge from the invisible edges of social and theological ruin, encouraging listeners to become speakers.

Some scholars have even compared Second Isaiah to a dramatic liturgical performance. This innovative way of understanding the preaching of Second Isaiah invites reflection on the role of performance and drama in communal healing. With his pastoral sermon, the disoriented become active; the exiles give voice to their experiences.   

Not only do the exiles give voice, but they are also challenged to open their eyes and ears again. The prophet demands imagination and new perspective. Startling imperatives: “listen!” and “look!” pepper the lectionary passage, (51:1-6). Those who seek are rewarded (51:1-3). All of these features of Second Isaiah’s sermon activate the disoriented. 

Disorientation Specifically from the Loss of Zion

Second Isaiah’s sermon deals with Israel’s specific disorientation at the loss of Zion. Zion is God’s dwelling in Jerusalem. Zion is a physical place, a material temple, an Israelite mountain. But Zion is also a sacred space that marks the heartbeat of Yahwism. Zion is God’s presence with Israel. The destruction of the temple destroyed this sacred space and eradicated the presence of God. For the exiles living in Babylon, the ruined Zion must have seemed worthless.

It represented a fading past made irrelevant by thousands of miles of distance and the conditions of forced migration. Israel held only fragments of Zion in its memory. These fragments were of no use to anyone. Indeed, the fragmented memory of Zion may have only caused more pain and disorientation as exiles sought to rebuild their lives under new conditions.

Second Isaiah does not let Israel forget Zion. Isaiah chapters 49-52 are known as the Zion poems. While the Zion of Israel’s memory is broken and failed, Second Isaiah brings renewal to Zion’s power. Indeed, Zion comes to hold trans-historical meaning as a powerful visionary homeland. 

Poetry with the Fragments of Zion

How does Second Isaiah renew the power of Zion for the disoriented? At least in 51:1-6, the prophet makes poetry of Israel’s fragmented traditions. In six short verses, a barrage of specific Israelite traditions is referenced: Exodus, the ancestral traditions, Eden, Mosaic instruction, and creation. The preacher is hardly presenting a sustained and well-developed argument.

Rather, the prophet shapes these fragments of Zion with poetic urgency. The end result is a poem of rapidly successive fragments meant to overwhelm grief and disorientation. Hence, as a whole, the poem in Isaiah 51 is about overpowering Israel with her emotional ties to Zion.

Any one of the traditions could be a sermon unto itself. Each fragment really is its own image with its own meaning. Fragments of Zion come across as broken shards, with little thematic glue. Nevertheless, each is worth some time.

First Fragment of Zion:  Look to the Rock (verses 1 and 2)

“Look to the rock, …to the quarry, …to Abraham, …and to Sarah.” These directives focus on Israel’s original call to follow God. Sarah and Abraham remind the Israelites of the lonely position of being called from the known to the unknown (cf. Genesis 12:1). Abraham’s “Patriarchal narrative” achieved new significance in the exile. Abraham’s call models the confidence to follow God even in the midst of disorientation. 

Sarah is the wife of Abraham, of course. But her appearance in the poem is not simply an afterthought. Sarah’s story offers another angle on disorientation. In Genesis, the story of Sarah focuses on her experiences of barrenness. Hence, her womb becomes a powerful symbol. Even though her body was tired and aged, Sarah gave birth to the seed of Israel. In a sense, her aged body sprung forth the Israelite people. Second Isaiah directs Sarah’s exiled children to remember the wandering, powerless, and barren womb that sprung them forth.

The metaphors of the rock and the quarry offer a parallel reflection on Israel’s origins. Like Abraham’s call, the rock emphasizes the power of Israel’s origin. God called Abraham with a solid and sure promise, just as the rock is solid and sure. Indeed, the “rock” is frequently nomenclature for God (especially Psalms and Deuteronomy 32). Hence, Israel’s origin in the rock provides the basis for her confidence.

The second metaphor, “the quarry” literally means “the hole of the pit.” Like Sarah’s barren womb, this image is empty. Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, the “pit” refers to a place of suffering and distance from God. For example, Psalm 28 places the “rock” and the “pit” in juxtaposition, showing that the pit is the place to which one descends during periods of divine silence. 

Hence the rock and the pit recall both the firm presence and the empty absence of God in Israel’s past. God’s power is to be trusted, like a rock and like Abraham’s call. However, God’s absence, like Sarah’s barren womb and like the hole in the pit, is an impossible chasm. But the hole is not the end of the story. From the impossible, from the disoriented, from suffering…a great people can be born. 

Second Fragment of Zion: A Future Eden (verse 3)

In this fragment, Second Isaiah plays with time. The prophet folds time back upon itself to create a supra-temporal reality. Notice that the verbs in these six verses seamlessly move between past and future. In verse 3, a past Eden is summoned as a future place. Second Isaiah interrupts Israel’s story of destruction, desertification, and forced migration with the supra-temporal. In doing so, the poet slays the tyranny of a tragic narrative that ends in exile. The poet defies the seeming inevitability of tragic time by pushing the past into the future.

Drawing on the theme from verses 1-2, an impossible waste-place becomes the setting for new growth. Eden is possible once again. 

One startling detail must be noted. While the phrase “garden of God” is used, Eden is not a garden of plants. Instead of vegetative growth, this Eden is vocal — it is filled with “the voice of song.” Instead of trees of life, this waste-place will be filled with blooms of joy and buds of thanksgiving. Voices of expression will comprise Zion’s new Eden.

Third Fragment of Zion:  The Light of Mosaic Teaching (verses 4 and 5)

Moses’ teaching is the third fragment of the poem. Indeed, Mosaic teaching saturates the immediate literary context of 51:1-6. Chapter 50 describes the servant who teaches like Moses. Isaiah 51:7 speaks of those who have “my teaching in your hearts,” characteristic of Mosaic instruction. Isaiah 51:1-3 sets up Moses’ understanding of God as a rock. Indeed, God is called the “rock” in Deuteronomy 32, Moses drew water from the “rock of Horeb” that the people would have water to drink (Exodus 17:6), and God provided the wandering people oil from flinty rock (Deuteronomy 32:13).

Mosaic teaching distinguished Israel as an ideal community. In Moses’ teaching, the community lived righteously, morally, and justly. However, the Israelite state could not achieve the Mosaic community. With the loss of Zion, Mosaic teaching lost her community. 

Defying logic, verses 4-5 extends Moses’ teachings to the far-reaches of the world. Instead of the shrinking of the Mosaic community, Isaiah claims that it grows!  Just as verse 3 forged a supra-temporal power, verses 4-5 forge a supra-spatial sphere with the Mosaic community at the heart of Zion’s power. 

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 1:8—2:10

Amy Merrill Willis

These first verses of Exodus use concise prose to set a tragic scene of oppression.

The systematic mistreatment of the Hebrews by Pharaoh escalates from enslavement (1:11, 13) to ethnic cleansing as Pharaoh commands that the Hebrew boys be killed at birth (verse 16) or drowned in the Nile (verse 22).  These verses give us keen insight into the kind of psychology of hate that, driven by fear, can move whole societies to engage in genocidal acts. And yet these verses also capture the ironies of human psychology and planning.

Pharaoh, who does not know Joseph or recognize how Joseph helped save Egypt from famine, seeks to be shrewd and wise, even as others around him show him to be a fool. The very things that Pharaoh fears and seeks to avoid nevertheless happen, as a result, in part, of his own efforts. His attempts to control the Hebrew population lead to its exponential increase instead! His plan to keep the Hebrews from escaping the land (‘alah) moves God to commission Moses (3:8) to bring the people out (‘alah).1 Pharaoh’s desire to kill the boys spurs the women to action. With gracious defiance, the women of Exodus 1-2 shelter and nurture the boys, among them the one boy who will become the future rescuer of the people.

It would not be out of line to ask where God is to be found in this story of hate, oppression, death, and defiance. The first mention of God in this story is not until 1:17, which speaks of the midwives’ fear of God. Already, the story of oppression is well underway. But God’s first explicit action does not come until 1:20, close to the end of the chapter, and God remains in the background as abuse and oppression grow. When God does act, these chapters depict it in ironic ways. It is through God’s providence that the Israelites are “fruitful and prolific” (Exodus 1:7), something God had promised to Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 15:5; 17:2). But this same blessing and promise of multiplication has become the source of Pharaoh’s fear and the Hebrews’ oppression. Indeed, the more God multiplies the Israelites, the more Pharaoh opposes them with abuse and death (Exodus 1:10, 12, 20-22).  

Unlike the later chapters of Exodus, in which God takes direct action against Israel’s opponents, this story reveals God’s workings to be more subtle and indirect. In the work of the midwives, Pharaoh’s daughter, and Moses’ mother and sister, God’s agency aligns and intertwines with human agency to accomplish salvation.

The story highlights the cleverness and understated bravado of the women agents who defy Pharaoh. The midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, commanded by the king to kill the boys in stealth when they see one being born, protect the babies and disguise their life-saving actions. In the ruse, they appeal to Pharaoh’s own prejudices.  The Hebrew women are like animals (khayot) and give birth too quickly, the midwives say to Pharaoh (1:19). Indeed, Pharaoh’s genocidal plan indicates that he has ceased to regard the Hebrews as fully human, and the midwives use this to satisfy Pharaoh’s inquiries. At the same time, the midwives contrast the Hebrew women’s animalistic vigor with the delicate constitution of the Egyptian mothers who are forced to labor harder and longer during childbirth. Apparently, the midwives intend Pharaoh to hear such a statement as echoing his own loathing of the Hebrews and his own positive valuation of the Egyptian women and their delicacy.2

While the midwives’ ruse works initially, it does not prevent further deaths, as Pharaoh publically commands all Egyptian people to participate in the infanticide. Once again, the story highlights the resourceful irony of one mother who is determined to save her son after seeing that he was ki tov, a beautiful or good baby (the same Hebrew phrase describes God’s own evaluation of creation in Genesis 1:4,10,12,18,21,25,31). Like Noah building the ark (tevah, Genesis 6:14), Moses’ mother carefully builds a small basket (tevah) for her infant son, so that even as she casts him into the river–in compliance with the command–the infant will survive the deadly waters.

While the midwives are motivated by their fear of the Lord, and the mother by her attachment to the beautiful baby, the actions of Pharaohs’ daughter emerge from her pity. But whatever their motivations, the actions of the women align with God’s own life-giving work. The princess is not intentionally serving the Hebrew God when she rescues Moses. She sees the baby and hears his cries and she is able to acknowledge his vulnerability. By virtue of her own humaneness, she recognizes his humanity and need and acts on it. While many readers mistakenly think that Moses is adopted immediately and raised by Pharaohs’ daughter, in fact, Moses is returned to his mother through the quick intervention of his sister, Miriam. Nevertheless, he will grow up under the protection of the princess even before he is officially adopted. Defiance of Pharaohs’ commands comes from within his own house at the hands of his own daughter.

The work of these agents counteracts the psychology of hatred and fear that motivates Pharaoh.  Moreover, their collective work is a gracious defiance because of the way it embraces life and blurs Pharaoh’s attempts to draw lines of distinction between “us” and “them,” between Egyptian and Hebrew, between dominating and dominated. 3 As a result, Moses grows up to be a child of two worlds. Though raised by his Hebrew mother (2:9-10) and identifying the Hebrews as his people (2:11), he becomes the adopted son of the Egyptian princess who gives him an Egyptian name. “Moses” is, in fact, an Egyptian name meaning “son”–a name connected with other rulers of Egypt (i.e. Thutmose).  A child such as this is surely destined for great things.

1Terence Fretheim, Exodus (Interpretation; Louisville: John Knox, 1991), 31-40.
2 Jacqueline Lapsley, Whispering the Word: Hearing Women’s Stories in the Old Testament (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2005),72-79.
3Renita Weems, “The Hebrew Women Are Not Like the Egyptian Women: The Ideology of Race, Gender and Sexual Reproduction in Exodus 1,” Semeia 59 (1992), 28-30.


Commentary on Psalm 138:1-8

Rolf Jacobson

This psalm of thanksgiving — one of those songs that was composed after its author had come through a rather tight scrape — offers praise to the Lord in response to an experience of deliverance.

The poet had experienced what the psalms call “a day of trouble” (see Psalms 20:1, 27:5; 41:1), a “day of disaster” (see Psalm 18:19), or a “day of distress” (see 59:17) — some really tough times.

The term “day of trouble” is intentionally vague. It can refer to times of physical illness, spiritual struggle, financial peril, military threat, and the like. The psalms also call these times of crisis a “day when I call” (56:10; also a more literal translation of 20:9), because times of crisis are also times of prayer — moments when a suffering person or people “cry out” to the Lord in despair. 

On the day I called …

And that is the point that is made in this psalm. The singer says, “On the day I called, you answered me.” Having come through the time of trouble — or, more correctly, having been brought through the time of trouble by the grace of God — the singer now thinks of the dark valley through which he walked no longer as the time of trouble, but as the time when he called out and when God answered. The time when “you increased my strength of soul.” 

[The phrase that is translated “my strength of soul” in the NRSV is likely to be misinterpreted by modern audiences. We often think of “the soul” as the spiritual part of our being. The Hebrew term that is usually translated as “soul” is nephesh. The term literally means “throat” and more figuratively means one’s “true self” or “inmost being.” The NIV (“you made me bold and stouthearted”) and NJPS (“you inspired me with courage”) take the term to refer to a spiritual or moral strengthening. But the phrase more likely refers to a literal bodily recovery. The psalmist’s point might be paraphrased: “I once was weak, but now I’m strong.”

I give you thanks, O Lord …

The psalmist’s passage through the time of crisis had quite literally, in the words of Psalm 40:3, put a new song in his mouth. Or, in the words of Psalm 51:15, the Lord had opened his lips so that his mouth could declare God’s praise. And so the psalmist does so. He begins his song with what are classic words of praise: “I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart.” The Hebrew word (a hiphil of the verb yadah) that is translated “give you thanks” does not properly equate to our English word “thanks.” The verb yadah means “to know.” So in the hiphil, which here has a causative sense, the verb means “to cause someone else to know.” In other words, the verb should probably be translated as “teach” or “make known.” Or, as the Old Testament theologian John Goldingay has translated the term, “to confess.”1 

In other words, “giving thanks” Old Testament-style, has less to do with some internal feeling of gratitude and more about sending God a thank you note. And the thank you note that God desires is to tell others what God has done. To proclaim the good news of God’s gracious actions to the assembly of believers, to the surrounding neighborhood, and to the world. The scope that the Lord has in mind for our confessing of the good news, for our making the Lord known, is the entire world, even the entire universe. The psalm says “all the kings of the earth” shall know and shall join in praise. And the psalm in verse 1 says “before the gods I sing” — meaning that psalmist imagines the vaults of heaven themselves resounding with his “confession” about what God had done for him.

Your name and your steadfast love

There are two things that the psalm confesses. The first has already been mentioned — that the psalmist experienced God’s help in the midst of some crisis. The psalmist called out in the day of trouble, the day of calling, and the Lord answered. Or, as the psalmist describes it in verse 7, the Lord preserved him from the wrath of enemies: “you stretched out your hand, and your right hand” delivered me. In other words, the psalmist confesses a particular experience of God’s grace.

The second thing that the psalmist proclaims is more abstract — she proclaims the character of God.  Notice the following confessions:

“I. . . [confess] your steadfast love and your faithfulness, for you have exalted your name and your word above everything” (verse 2)
“great is the glory of the Lord” (verse 4)
“Your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever” (verse 8)

The psalm uses a group terms, which together describe the character of God — “glory” and “your name” and, most importantly, “steadfast love” and “faithfulness.” The reference to God’s name can be confusing for modern audiences. In Old Testament thought, God’s “name” is more than just the “handle” that God goes by. It is God’s very identity — and, by extension, God’s very presence. To praise the Lord’s name is both to acknowledge who one trusts, but it is also claim God’s presence. When one speaks the name of the Lord, one claims the relationship that one has with God — and, indeed, when one speaks God’s name one makes known that one is in God’s presence.

An even more important concept in the psalms is that of the Lord’s “steadfast love” and “faithfulness.” If one were to boil down the theological witness of the Book of Psalms to one phrase, it would be this: The Lord is faithful. The two terms — steadfast love (Hebrew, hesed) and faithfulness (Hebrew, ’emet) — describe God’s character. It is a character that is trustworthy, which means that the promises God makes can be trusted. Which means that the laws that God ordains are good. Which means that the guidance and providence that the Lord offers are better for us in the long run than our own wills for our own lives. 

One final note. The psalmist’s experience of God’s help has reminded her that she is not the captain of her own soul, that he is not the master of his own fate — and that this is a good thing! Some people reject the offer of help from outside themselves, because they do not want to be weak, to need help, or to admit their limits. Biblical faith starts with admitting our own weakness, our own sin, our own limits — and of accepting the gracious mercy and fidelity of the Savior who comes among us to serve rather than to be served. The psalm ends with a request for continued help: Do not forsake the work of your hands. Each of us is the work of God’s hands. And to be a follower of the Lord means to know that we cannot and need not do it all on our own.


1 See John Goldingay, Psalms, Vol. 3: 90-150 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 753.  Here Goldingay writes that “confession is a matter of words” (617).

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 12:1-8

Mary Hinkle Shore

We Belong Together

Sin, in the singular, is a power in Paul’s thought. It is the bully on the playground that enthralls everyone, gathering devotees, terrorizing would-be opponents into silence, enslaving all. Sin vies with the Creator for control of humanity and the rest of creation to such an extent that Paul can speak of our having been “enslaved to sin” (Romans 6:6).

Isaiah had mocked the worship of idols, speaking of someone planting a tree, then cutting it down: “Half of it he burns in the fire; over this half he roasts meat, eats it and is satisfied. He also warms himself and says, ‘Ah, I am warm, I can feel the fire!’ The rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, bows down to it and worships it; he prays to it and says, ‘Save me, for you are my god!'” (Isaiah 44:16-17).

In Romans 1, Paul extends the prophet’s theme: “Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for an image resembling mortal human beings or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the desires of their hearts to impurity, to dishonor their bodies among themselves. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served the creation rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen” (Romans 1:22-24, NET).

One of the hallmarks of slavery, ancient or modern, is that slaves do not have control over their own bodies. By definition, a master may force a slave into labor, inflict corporal punishment at will, and assault slaves sexually with no fear of prosecution for a crime. To be enslaved to sin is to have one’s body commandeered every bit as much as one’s soul.

The message of Romans is that sin’s mastery over humankind has been broken in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The opening verses of Romans 6 are a helpful summary of the new state of things. Former slaves of sin have been buried with Christ in baptism. While it is a drastic form of escape, it is an effective one: a dead slave is a free slave. Paul says simply, “whoever has died is freed from sin” (Romans 6:7).

Paul goes on, “But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:8-11).

Just as being enslaved to sin was an embodied existence, so is being alive to God. We bring our bodies to the new life, and so Paul writes in Romans 12, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1). Notice plural bodies, singular sacrifice.

Members of the body of Christ (cf. Romans 12:5) offer living, holy and spiritual worship, not by sacrificing the carcass of an animal, not by bowing down to a block of wood, and not even by working as individuals to resist being conformed to this world. We worship by practicing the kind of embodied gifts-sharing in community that Paul outlines in verses 3-8. To repeat, embodied community in Christ in which the gifts of others are valued, and each member uses one’s gifts on behalf of the body as a whole: this is worship; this is a sacrifice that is alive, holy and acceptable to God.

My colleague, David Fredrickson, describes the kind of thinking (phroneō) Paul commends to the Romans 12:3 (and to the Philippians in Philippians 2:5) as combining action and imagination. Paul says that it involves both body (Romans 12:1) and mind (Romans 12:2). As the sacrifice had been shared, and a singular noun, in Romans 12:1, so the mind is shared and singular in Romans 12:2.

Imagine working with someone to move one of those large racks of folding chairs that populate church basements and school gymnasiums. It takes a theory (“I think this will work if you’re on one side and I’m on the other”); you have to share at least elements of a vision, to be of “one mind” on the nature of the task and its execution.

Even so, as vital as it is, imagination does not move the chairs. Action — walking, pushing, pulling, steadying — is required, too, as are mid-course communication and correction. The whole thing is common work in which people with different functions share, if only for a few moments, the same mind.

Such shared imagination-in-action does not ignore the difficulties of living with others. Chairs fall off of racks and tempers flare (to say nothing of what can happen when church people set up a few of those chairs and sit down for a meeting!). Paul knows the difficulties of living in community, and yet he refuses to try to solve them by ranking some in the church basement as more important than others, or by imagining that “gifted” in such a context means the same thing for everyone. In fact, it does not; by design, the body includes members with different gifts.

Clergy have a habit of paying lip service to this idea of different gifts equally valued and then walking into every interaction as if we are the smartest ones in the room (except possibly during the first couple of years of ministry, when we know we are not the smartest ones in the room and worry about it!). Parents have the same habit with children. Managers can be this way with direct reports. Big givers and old-time church members can fall into the same trap when they interact with new members or those who are not so apparently generous.

To all of this, Paul says, “You used to belong to Sin the way a slave belongs to a master. Body, mind, and spirit: you were captive. Now, you belong to one another, with bodies that belong to the body of Christ, whom God raised from the dead.”
The one who designed the body of which we are a now a part did not make a “smartest one in the room.” Even the idea of such a one is a holdover from an old age. Ranking like that relies on that bully Sin’s appeal to our playground insecurities. It belongs to a mindset conformed to this world.

By contrast, as those in Christ imagine and enact prophecy, exhortation, generosity, compassion and other such things together, we bear witness that our head is in a different game. By such imagining and acting, our bodies declare what is true about us, that we belong to Christ, and we belong together.