Scripture: Romans 12:1-8
Eddie Collins is a name that does not really stand out to most people. In fact, only the most ardent baseball fans are probably familiar with him. Collins never earned the star status of a player like Babe Ruth or the notoriety of a player like Shoeless Joe Jackson. However, Collins was a fixture in baseball in the early part of the 20th century. In fact, Collins was part of the White Sox when they won championships and then became involved in the infamous black sox scandal. Collins also took over as manager of the Red Sox after they made the mistake of trading Babe Ruth. Collins was inducted into the baseball hall of fame in 1939, the same year as the better remembered Lou Gehrig. Collins was an accomplished player, and he has left his mark on baseball. In fact, he holds a record in baseball that is considered unbreakable. Eddie Collins hold the career record for the most sacrifice bunts with 512. He was also part of the World Series winning 1917 White Sox that hold the team record for the most sacrifice bunts in a season. In that season the team recorded 310 sacrifice plays.
A sacrifice bunt is where the batter bunts the ball, makes a short hit that does not go far, the batter is thrown out but the other runners on base advance into better scoring position. The reason why both the White Sox season record and Eddie Collin’s career record are considered unbreakable is because the game of baseball has changed. In the current era baseball teams favor swinging for the fences. This all or nothing approach led to an unprecedented number of homeruns, but it has also led to a greater number of strikeouts. Baseball experts see the sacrifice bunt records as unbeatable, because they do not see that style of baseball that focused on advancing bases over getting the ball over the fence, as coming back any time soon.
Now I am not a big enough student of the game to offer any kind of commentary as to whether the loss of the sacrifice bunt is overall the best strategic move in baseball or not, but I personally will miss it. I liked the team-play nature of the sacrifice bunt. A player getting a hit in baseball is not a sure thing, but being able to connect with a bunt is a lot more likely. By making the bunt the player gives up their opportunity for a hit in order to advance team mates and put the team in a better position. It is a selfless move in a game that tends to put a big emphasis on individual achievement. In general sacrifice is not a concept that has a lot of traction in our culture. In a society that values individualism and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, there is not a lot of space to value sacrificially helping those who cannot even reach their boot straps. So I did like that the sacrifice bunt was part of the nation’s pastime. I suppose I am saddened but not surprised to see the play fall to the wayside. Even though it has fallen out of favor in today’s game, I do think the sacrifice bunt can shed light on this morning’s scripture and point us to how we should live out our faith.
This morning’s scripture begins with the topic of sacrifice as Paul wrote “Therefore, I urge you brothers and sisters in view of God’s mercy to offer your bodies as living sacrifices- this is your true and proper worship.” This is a scripture that gets quoted on Christian T-shirts and posters a lot, because it sounds really deep and spiritual. Yet to really understand the spiritual message of this scripture but it requires us to have a fuller cultural context to understand. One of the keys to understanding this passage is understanding the idea of sacrifice. In the ancient world, not just for Jews but for nearly everyone in the Roman Empire, sacrifice was their primary and greatest act of worship. The main way that people expressed their devotion to the divine, and the main way they interacted with their deity was through sacrifice. This was also true for the Roman Empire at large. Every major city had temples, and ritual sacrifices were the primary way that they honored and celebrated their gods. This was also true for the Israelites. That is why they had the temple in Jerusalem. Every Jew was expected to travel there at least once a year during one of the holy festivals, such as Passover, to make a sacrifice. The sacrifice was a way of expressing repentance, a way of asking for forgiveness.
In our modern age, Christianity has been established for so long that we forget how revolutionary it was in the first century. Christians moved away from their culture, and they no longer made sacrifices. In the systematic approach that Paul takes to Romans, he lays out this reasoning earlier in the letter. Elsewhere in Romans, Paul makes the argument that Jesus was essentially the final sacrifice. In Romans 8:3 Paul wrote, “For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering.” Making annual sacrifices was not enough to reunite people with God, it was not enough to get over the gulf of sin, so Jesus being fully human lived the perfect, sinless life. He became the final sacrifice that reunites us with God for all time.
For the first century people who heard this for the first time, this could have caused a bit of a worship crisis for them. Remember, their primary way of worship, the highest way they could show devotion and reverence to God was through a sacrifice. They were now being told that the final sacrifice had been made, and more over God made the sacrifice on their behalf. The letter of Romans contains the great news of the gospel, but for these early Christians it leaves them without knowing how to express their devotion to God, their gratitude for saving grace, and their commitment to living transformed lives. This is where this morning’s scripture comes in because Paul reintroduces the idea of sacrifice. For the people of the first century the primary way they could express their devotion to God was through offering up an animal. As a replacement to this, Paul is suggesting that people now offer up their very lives to God. In a traditional sacrifice the event ended with the death of the animal, but Paul suggest that we are living sacrifices. This means the act of sacrifice is carried out through the very act of living. In essence our day in, day out lives become an act of worship to God.
How we actually do that though, is what Paul gets to in the second part of this morning’s scripture. In verse 6, “We have different gifts according to the grace given to us.” He then goes on to list different gifts such as serving, teaching, and giving. In all instance Paul’s message is simple: If this is your gift, then go do it. Church has always been a team sport. If our involvement with church and primary faith engagement is sitting, observing, and focusing on what we get out of it, then we are not part of the team. We are just showing up to sit in the stands and be a spectator. Our involvement in church and our engagement with our faith should be one of expectation. No one who plays a sport shows up to the game looking forward to sitting on the bench the whole time. They show up with the expectation they will play and fulfill their role on the team. We should have the same expectation with our faith practice, because we have different gifts according to the grace given to us. Make no mistake there is no asterisk or disqualifying addition to that statement. All of us have been gifted by God and there is some way that we can join with the body of Christ to share God’s love, to make disciples, and to transform this world. If we truly consider ourselves to be followers of Jesus, then we need not act like spectator and treat the church like the stands. Rather, we need to claim that we are players, we are part of the team, and we need treat church like the dugout.
We all have a role to play and we are all called to serve. We should use our gifts to make disciples and transform the world, but we should be very clear as to why we are doing these things in the first place. Because when it comes to using our God-given gifts we can end up doing it for a lot of the wrong reasons. We should not serve others because we want accolades, recognition, or be thought of as the star player. Paul himself said this in verse 3 then he wrote, “I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgement in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.”
We also should not use our gifts because we are trying to earn God’s favor. No amount of good deeds or hours of service earns us our spot in God’s heavenly kingdom. There is an old story about this. The story goes that after a good and long life a man dies and finds himself before the pearly gates of heaven. An angel greets him and explains that heaven uses a points system to enter. It takes 100 points to enter heaven, so the angel ask him what did he do on earth to earn points that would count to a heavenly reward. This man had been a faithful believer his entire life, and he was a little taken back. He grasped for what he might have done. He said, “Well, I attended church all my life and I only missed a couple of Sundays each year. From a young age I volunteered as an usher, I read scripture, and I sung in the choir.” The angel consulted his records and agreed before informing the man, “yes that is worth 1 point.” Exasperated the man said, “Well I also spent a number of years teaching Sunday school to children. I even taught a couple years after my own kids aged out, surely that is worth something?” The angel nodded in agreement, “Yes that is all worth one point.” Getting nervous the man then added, “Well what about the times I called and sent cards to the shut-ins or visited people in nursing homes.” Once again, the angel confirmed that was worth one point. As the man took stock of his life, he knew that there is no way he had accomplished enough in his life to get to the 100 point total. Frustrated he cried out, “Well then I have nothing else, other than claiming the forgiveness and new life offered by Jesus Christ.” At that, the gates swung open and heaven laid before the man. “That” the angel said, “Is worth 100 points.”
We cannot earn our way into heaven, and that should not be our motivator for serving God and loving others. When a batter makes a sacrifice bunt they give up their opportunity for personal glory, their chance to increase their stats, and the pride of earning accolades. They make the sacrifice to advance the position of the team. In the same way, our lives should be a living sacrifice where we use what God has given us to advance the kingdom by making disciples and making this world a more kind and loving place. We should not be doing this because of how we think it might benefit us, but we do it as an act of worship. May we not worship God just as spectators, but may we be players in the game. May we worship God as a living sacrifice. May we truly be willing to proclaim to God, “take my life and let it be consecrated Lord to thee.” May that be the prayer that defines our lives, and may our lives be worship.