The professor stood in the front with a knowing smile on his face and continued in his typically soft-spoken voice:
Of course, when Paul speaks of “living sacrifices” in Romans 12, he can’t possibly mean that everything we do is worship. That would be nonsense, thereby making all worship as worthless as the least thing we do. There have to be some things we do that are worth more, that are special, otherwise nothing is. If mowing the lawn is as meaningful in my relationship with my wife as sex, then doesn’t that lessen the importance of sex? None of us at least would say that it is love in the same sense.
Now I generally found myself fairly receptive to professorial announcements in school. I wanted to believe that these men (because it’s always men) knew what they were talking about; that through study and reflection, they were authorities on their topics. Yet whether because I was beginning to finally think for myself or (let’s be honest) probably because he had given me a bad grade on a research paper, I had trouble with his interpretation. Sure, he had the word “doctor” before his name and was teaching a class on the history of Judeo-Christian worship, but something just didn’t quite ring true.1
Yes, there was something special about sex (I assumed: I was still a chubby virgin at the time), something that elevated that act as the supreme moment of re-attachment between two people, but what about the rest of your marriage? A childhood of watching my dad tirelessly serve my family through banal tasks like mowing the lawn or fixing the cars or repairing literally everything had driven home the point that an act of service was an act of love. He wasn’t serving purely from a place of duty, or hoping to win affection, but actively showing his wife and children that he was willing to offer all of himself, sacrificing time and other hobbies, to make the sort of home that promotes the thriving and general well-being of those he loved.
The time I first heard the good doctor express his views on Romans 12, I felt a general unease about his conclusions but had no language with which to express my reservations. I was in the very early stages of a “eucharistic awakening” that would lead me to begin holding a more sacramental view of the world – which we’ll get to in a minute – but had not yet seen a connection between that cardinal act of the Church’s worship and the daily life of Christ.
Hold that thought.
In our Gospel this week, we heard Jesus asking his followers whom they believed him to be. As usual, it is Peter who speaks up first and, for once, says the right thing. (I’ve always thought of Peter’s approach to social interaction as the “spaghetti way”: he throws everything against the wall all the time and, though generally it just leaves a mess, occasionally something brilliant sticks.) Anyway, he makes the right response, calling Jesus “the Christ (or Messiah), the Son of the living God!” and Jesus rewards his insight with the revelation of his “true self” – no longer Simon, he was Peter, the rock, who will stand firm against the hells created by the powers of this world. Jesus finishes his blessing by promising the newly-christened Peter (and ostensibly, the rest of the disciples), the power of “binding and loosing.”
Now stay with me here.
Having not grown up in the Jewish tradition, it took me a long time to understand what Jesus was talking about here, but the long and short of it is that “binding and loosing” is a rabbinical concept with a long tradition in the Hebrew scriptures. A person would “bind” themselves to a certain set of actions or abstention from actions and commit themselves to a certain path. Later, it essentially became the way for different rabbis to impose their “yoke” or “way” or “teaching” or “justice” upon their followers. To follow a particular rabbi was to accept what he (because it was always men) saw as the true path of the Torah: the things that rabbi believed would add shalom into the world.
Clear on that? Now watch what Jesus does here: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven (vv19-20, emph. mine).”
He, the esteemed rabbi with authority to determine the requirements of his yoke, is entrusting that authority to his disciples.
To receive the yoke of Jesus is to receive his authority. To follow the Christ is to continue the incarnation of the Christ, in all its power and efficacy to bring release for the captives and open the path to Life. The authority to bind the peoples of the world to shalom-bringing, to require certain actions of them, and the authority to loose the world, to free them from that which enslaves them and defy the hell-making powers to which we have all been enslaved.
The kind of life that begins to see the Christ in all things – even yourself, even others, even in the smallest acts that bring wholeness to the world. As the prophet said,
A teaching will go out from me,
and my justice for a light to the peoples.
I will bring near my deliverance swiftly,
my salvation has gone out
and my arms will rule the peoples;
the coastlands wait for me,
and for my arm they hope (Isa. 51:4-5).
The world waits for Divine justice to radiate from its source. Jesus’ contemporaries would have seen that source as the temple of Jerusalem, but the authority granted by the Christ has democratized the presence of God into all people who accept His yoke. We are all called to push back against the powers of hell that seek to overcome the shalom-bringing Kingdom: the powers that seek to separate us by our political leanings or teach us to fear the Other – the refugee, immigrant, and alien – or to shame us into accepting war or poverty or mass incarceration or any other modern injustice.
Or even those powers of hell that come from within the church, such as when groups of well-known teachers come together and write declarations de-legitimizing the lives and Christ-filled relationships of entire communities.
We have been called to be different. To be the living, breathing, scattered epicenter of the presence of God bringing justice and hope to the farthest coastlands. To bind them to the path of peace and loose them from unnecessary weights. To set people free.
We have been “hewn from the same rock” as Abraham and Sarah, people mysteriously chosen by God to bring light and wholeness into the world. The mysterious call to make our every action a reflection of the Divine. We have been charged with making our very lives active, “living sacrifices” – moment by moment choosing to reverse the Fall by seeing the world as “charged with the grandeur of God” and therefore offering it and ourselves as offerings of thanksgiving – as Eucharists – to God. That is our “spiritual act of worship,” one that far outweighs anything we might say or do on a Sunday morning.
That day in class so many years ago, I had not yet awakened to this pervasive, sacramental understanding, or perhaps I might have gently pushed back against my professor’s words. Perhaps, I might have said that the very purpose of acts like sex in marriage or Eucharist in the Church is not to separate them from the rest of life and make them somehow more true or meaningful or special, but rather to raise the rest of life up to their level. The act of physical intimacy allows me to see this person I love when they are at their worst or most boring as brimming over with depths of beauty and love, just barely concealed under the surface. And the act of the eucharist – that preeminent moment of Christian remembrance and sacrifice – allows us to see the rest of life, even at its worst and most boring, as brimming over with the same living presence; to see God in this bread and this wine so that we can see God in all bread and wine – and each other.
1. To be fair, he is a kind, thoughtful man and I’m likely not representing his full statement or views (then or now), but that’s what I remember.↩