A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by Graham Low on 27th August 2023
Some of you will know an anthem composed by John Ireland in 1912, called “Greater Love” for choir and organ. The text is woven from several parts of the Bible including today’s letter of Paul. It expresses many moods, with a variety of keys and tempi. It begins slowly with the words that ‘many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it.’ The firm assertion that ‘love is strong as death; greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’ is followed by narrative solo passages. The anthem ends quietly with an exhortation towards noble self-sacrifice. Even though it pre-dates the 1914-18 war, ‘Greater Love was prophetic of that terrible conflict. It is a core part of the Choral Music repertoire, and is regularly sung at Armistice Day commemorations.
The text of this anthem delves profoundly into the way of Christian life. The last and quietly sung line “I beseech you, brethren, by the mercies of God that ye present your bodies, a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service” is the opening of today’s second reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. I can remember this passage being the theme of a Sunday address at my Quaker school, where there was a pacifist perspective. It made an impact on me and I discussed it with my friends as well as parents. I was not sure what I thought afterwards but I felt that it was a defining vocational moment in some mysterious way for me. Years later I sang the anthem in a choir and was stirred once again to remember that defining moment, about the way of the Christian life, and how the anthem expressed it.
I am sure that Simon Peter never forgot the defining moment we heard about in the gospel. To Jesus’ question “But who do you say that I am?” his reply “You are the messiah, the Son of the living God” may have been made with little sense of its consequences for him. He will have known that he loved his friend. He will have known that there was far more to this Galilean carpenter who was now a rabbi than he had originally thought. In the same way, we can be sure that Paul never forgot his defining moment on the way to Damascus, when his life was turned upside down by Jesus.
Let us return to the opening of today’s reading from Paul. Paul has previously made it clear that we are all called to belong to Jesus Christ, called to sanctity. Jesus has broken down the barriers between Jew and Gentile. And now we are called to present our bodies as a living sacrifice. It seems very likely that Paul is speaking here about the possibility of martyrdom. It may be helpful at this point to be reminded that from its earliest days the Celtic tradition has held that there are three categories of martyrs. Firstly, red martyrdom is when blood is spilt violently for Christ and death follows. Secondly, many who are thought of as saints have followed a life of separation for Christ’s sake, renouncing the property and comforts that to which they may have held dear. This is white martyrdom. It approximates to a form of exile for the sake of Christ. In Anglo-Saxon times this would have amounted to leaving one’s tribe, with its identity and protection, and becoming a hermit. In today’s world, those who choose to live in a religious community working out a monastic or missionary vocation, would broadly be the equivalent of white martyrs. Meanwhile, those living in green martyrdom are those who are called to live an unspectacular and self-sacrificial lives of simplicity, self-control, discipline, and avoiding being ruled by their desires, but living in their own homes and community. They too seek to follow the priorities of Christ rather than their own.
In today’s passage from the Letter to the Romans, Paul writes about presenting our bodies as a living and holy sacrifice. He is not only speaking about our spiritual state. He is speaking about the whole of our being, including our bodies and what we do with them. Paul has said earlier that sin shall not dominate our mortal bodies, and elsewhere he accepts that there may be tension between our desires and our actions.
A key word in this passage is transformed. Our faith is not simply a practice to be followed alongside other parts of life. If we are conformed to this world we see ourselves through the eyes of the world. By contrast believers are to be transformed, by a gift of God, rather than as a result of any human accomplishment. Furthermore, this transformation involves renewal of our minds. This is not just about having apparently appropriate thoughts or intellectual frameworks. Rather it si about being open to God’s influence on the way we think, the way we perceive life, which we pray may lead to transformation. Thus transformed we may begin to discern what is the will of God. Paul understands that believers may occasionally be granted a glimpse of the will of God, sometimes with consequent dramatic change, and empowerment to discern God’s will.
Today’s Christians, who see both in history and in themselves the continuing failings of believers, may easily think that Paul is being rather naïve here. But there is much in Paul’s writing to show that he did understand the limitations of Christians. Paul expected the gospel to transform people’s lives. This is something which much of the Christian Church has ceased to share. It is something that the church needs to rediscover.
The call here to present ourselves to God, and the call for transformation is linked by Paul with making use of our different gifts for the benefit of the community. May we have the grace to identify and use our God-given skills and talents, and may we expect that God may use them for the transformation of our community and world. Amen.