During today’s sermon I’d like to reflect on church membership, but I’d like to do so in a way that isn’t anachronistic. What I mean by that is I don’t want to try and say our church’s membership practices are exactly what Peter or Paul had in mind when they were establishing the church. When you read the New Testament, its obvious that people were committed to and accountable to the church in which they belonged. But the New Testament doesn’t really tell you what that looked like, except for the fact that you needed to be Baptized. Baptism is pretty much a requirement in every church to be a member. In today’s sermon I’m not going to try and say, “look, Paul expected people to become church members (whatever that means), therefore you should become a member of this church). Instead, I’d like to look at the passage we just read and ask how what Paul says in Chapter 12:1-8 might shape the way that we understand becoming a member of a church. I think there is a lot in this passage that can point to why we might want to become a member of a church, as well as how we can live out that membership.
So let’s look at Romans 12. First we need to remember what has come before. Not for a second am I gong to try to summarize Romans 1-11, but I’ll make a few comments. Paul is writing this letter to the local church in Rome. Paul’s letter explains to the church that God has been faithful to His promises in the Hebrew Scriptures. God has fulfilled His promises in his offer of salvation by grace alone. This salvation is received through faith in Jesus and brought into reality by the power of the Holy Spirit. Having thoroughly and completely explained that it is by God’s mercy and grace that we are saved, Paul shifts gears and begins to talk about how we respond. (Slide 2). That’s where chapter 12 comes in “So, my dear family, this is my appeal to you by the mercies of God: offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God.” In response to God’s inexhaustible mercy and grace, we offer ourselves completely and totally to God as a living sacrifice. Now remember, Paul is talking to the whole church, together. Every time you see the word you, “think y’all.” What Paul says in this passage is for the church together. There is an individual component, but there is a bigger corporate component, as we’ll see. And he explains what he means by offering ourselves as sacrifice in the next verse.
(Slide 3) Paul says, “Don’t let yourselves be squeezed into the shape dictated by the present age. Instead, be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can work out what God’s will is—what is good, acceptable and complete.” Remember, Paul is talking to the whole church. I would argue that this is the job for the whole church to do together. This is what it means to continually offer ourselves as sacrifice. The church lives in the middle of two ages. In the five chapter of Romans, Paul spells out how all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. All are in bondage to sin, Jew and Gentile alike.
Then in chapter six, Paul says, “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into the Messiah, Jesus, were baptized into his death?” That means that we were buried with Jesus, through baptism, into death. Just as the Messiah was raised from the dead, we are also made alive to a new quality of life here and now. Look at this passage for the reason why baptism is the doorway into membership of the church. Baptism the sign that a person has died to the age of sin and death, and risen into the body-life of the Messiah. That’s why Paul says to the local church in Rome, “Don’t let yourselves be squeezed into the shape dictated by the present age, be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” That’s why we come together as a church. Together we move from having a mind darkened by sin, to the place of working out what the will of God is. We die to the old self that old self is sacrificed on the altar, and we learn how to live the life of Jesus. That transformation is the purpose of our coming together.
One scholar suggests that the way we are transformed into the mind of Christ is through simply reading Paul’s letter. By immersing ourselves in Paul’s teaching, we are taken from the darkness of mind he talks about in chapter 1 to the transformed mind he talks about in chapter 12. Which is why we consider teaching to be so important as Christians. Reflecting on the Word of God is transformational. That is one of the ways we undergo the sacrifice, dying to our old self and becoming more like Jesus.
With that, let me take a brief digression and talk about how our church’s Reformed Identity fits into all this. Most of you probably know that our church is a part of the Christian Reformed Church of North America, which has it’s roots in the Reformation of Martin Luther and John Calvin. There are a number of theological markers of a Reformed church. If you are considering joining this church and are thinking, “but I’m not Reformed,” think of it this way. Having the label “Reformed” is our way of laying our cards on the table. You can read our Creeds and Confessions and see exactly what we profess to believe. When you read the Reformed Creeds and Confessions you will see that we are Christian through and through. This is a guarantee for you as you decide whether to make a covenant with our community. You can be guaranteed that our church is committed to Christian Doctrine. You will never hear the divinity of Christ questioned, you will always hear the strong affirmation of the Trinity, you will always the Holy Scripture preached with the conviction that they are the Authoritative Word of God.
The Reformed tradition does have some perspectives that differ from other Christians, as we all do. You don’t need to label yourself “Reformed" to be a member of this particular church, but our Reformed identity guarantees you that the most important parts of the Christian faith will never be deviated from in this church. This is important, because if teaching is a big part of the renewal of the mind, you need to know that this local expression of Christ’s body will be faithful to the Word of God. That transparency helps us trust one another in this project of being transformed together, so that we can know as a church what is Good, acceptable and complete. Together, as we are shaped by the Word of God, the Spirit will shape our lives so that we resemble less and less the world around us, and more and more the body of the Christ.
(Slide 4). If verse 1 and 2 lay out the goal of our life together as a church, the next six verses talk about how that’s supposed to happen. Transformation cannot happen alone, in isolation. Paul talked about not being squeezed into the shape dictated by the present age, well it could be argued that this present age prizes the individual above all else. Individualism. Individualism has come dangerously close to squeezing Christians into a very unchristian shape. It is fairly common to hear people who profess to be Christians act as though being part of a local Christian Community is optional. “I don’t need to go to church, I meet with God just by walking in the woods.” “I’m spiritual, I just don’t do church.” Have you ever heard that sort of thing? These views are an example of how the present age is trying to squeeze you into the shape of glorified individualism. Our faith is not reduced to a personal relationship with Christ. It is a personal relationship, but it is also a personal relationship with His body.
(Slide 5) Listen to what he says to the local church: “As in one body we have many limbs and organs, you see, and all the parts have different functions, so we, many as we are, are one body in the Messiah, and individually we belong together.” Think of all the passages where Paul talks about being in the messiah, or in Christ. In 2 Corinthians 5 Paul says, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” Or think of Colossians 3 when Paul talks about after dying to self “your life is hidden with Christ in God." We become part of the Messiah’s body. When Paul talks about each of us as part of Christ’s body, he is saying we are no longer complete as individuals. We can no longer think of our selves as autonomous entities. Each of us has become a part of a body that is so much bigger than ourselves.
This is actually an idea that most of us are familiar with. Often when I marry a couple, I will open the ceremony with these words: (Slide 6) "The Scriptures teach us that marriage is a gift of God, a holy mystery in which man and woman become one flesh, an image of the union of Christ and the Church, and a sign of God’s Kingdom love.” When it comes to marriage, we easily understand the idea of the two becoming one flesh. We know that we’re not talking about a couple becoming a weird siamese twin, but we know that language about the two becoming one flesh indicates the significance and power of the marriage bond. These two people are forever changed because they become one flesh. The wedding ceremony is to signify that they are united as long as they both shall live. The pain that is experienced when marriages fall apart shows just how extremely powerful that bond is. A person is forever changed when they get married, they are no longer their own. A similar thing happens after a person is baptized. As the marriage liturgy says, marriage is a picture of the union between Christ and His Church. When you are baptized and place your faith in Christ Jesus, you are forever changed. You become incomplete when you are not part of the body of Christ.
And if you are wondering if this is just an abstract idea, and not a local reality, look at the verses 7-8. Paul tells us how we live out our membership in the body of Christ. (Slide 7) “We have gifts that differ in accordance accordance with the grace that has been given to us, and we must use them appropriately. (Slide 8) If it is prophecy, we must prophecy according to the pattern of the faith. If it is serving, we must work at our serving; if teaching, at our teaching; if exhorting, at our exhortation; if giving, with generosity; if leading, with energy; if doing acts of kindness, with cheerfulness.” We are part of the universal body of Christ, and we live this out by our membership in the local body. Some of us prophecy. Some of us serve. Some of us teach. Some of us exhort. Some of us give. Some of us lead. Of course we’re not talking about rigid boundaries where we don’t interact with other Christians or other churches. But as Paul is writing to the Church in Rome, he has an expectation that they are going to use their particular gifts to build one another up. He has the same expectation of the church in Corinth when he talks about being a part of Christ’s body, and he has the same expectation of virtually all the other churches he writes to.
We are part of the Universal body of Christ, but we practically live this out as a member of the local body to which we belong. Membership names that reality. When we become a member of a local body, we are committing to being discipled in that local body, we commit to submitting to its leadership, we commit to offering our gifts, we commit to caring for one another, sitting under teaching, engaging in dialogue, having difficult conversations… We commit to sticking with each other even when we’re annoyed, helping with the dishes, listening to each other, attending meetings, caring for and teaching our little ones, tithing, forgiving, making coffee, studying Scripture, protesting, celebrating. When you become a member, you are committing to doing your part of living into the local body of Christ. Membership sort of solemnizes that. That’s why we have a little ceremony to welcome someone into membership. Some might say all its not necessary, just as some would argue that a marriage ceremony isn’t necessary to validate a relationship. Membership becomes a way we can communicate to the local body we’re apart of that we want to be apart of this body, we want to commit to the body, we want to celebrate with the body, and grow with the body.
Remember, the goal of us covenanting to be members of this local body is so that we can live into the challenge we read at the beginning of the chapter. We offer our gifts so that we can continue in the celebration of offering our lives as a sacrifice to God. We journey together so that together we can resist become squeezed into the shape of this present age. We walk together so that together we can have our minds brought into line with God’s. We become part of each other, members of the same body so that together we can grow into what is good, acceptable and complete. And of course, when we as a body are functioning well together, each one doing his or her part, it isn’t only a joyful and beautiful thing to be a part of, but it is also a powerful way that God chooses to reveal himself in his world. Committing to a Christian community is a way of naming your commitment to grow and be discipled and serve in one particular, local expression of the body of Christ. That’s how we become the church, and it’s through this body that God chooses to change the world.