Looking Across the Aisle . . . in Church

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 16, August 23, 2020

Jesus, Savior, may I know your love and make it known. Amen.

It was about 25 years ago. That Sunday morning in Richmond, Virginia, my alarm clock went off in the darkness. I was Bishop’s Clerk in the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, and part of my job was to travel with the Bishop of Virginia on his parish visitations. So we drove to Northern Virginia in time to arrive well before the 8:00 a.m. worship service at St. John’s Church in McLean. I was sitting in one of the pews near the back, as always, probably on the verge of dozing off by that point, hours after waking before sunrise.

It was the traditional liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer, a spoken service, simple and beautiful. Everyone else was sitting closer to the front of the church, at least that’s what I thought. Only as we knelt that morning to confess our sins, admitting the burden of our misdoings and asking for mercy, did I realize that sitting directly across the aisle from me, or kneeling rather, was General Colin Powell. We were the only two people in the back of the church, and in that moment we were equal — two sinners in the presence of the God who had redeemed each of us. And that was also true for everyone else — the Bishop, the priest, the person who always sat in the front row, Republicans, Democrats, and those who check “other.”

Then as we gathered at the Lord’s Table, and the Bishop prayed with and for all of us, we were reminded that Jesus Christ, having taken away the sin of the world, brought an end to sacrifice as we usually think of it. But that word “sacrifice” comes back in that traditional liturgy, used in a new way. The prayer says we offer a sacrifice not of animals but of “praise and thanksgiving” and ultimately present our whole selves, “our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto [the Lord].” That language of being a “living sacrifice” echoes from the pages of St. Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome, which we heard read today.

But what does Paul really mean when he writes these words:

I appeal to you . . . by the mercies of God to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.[1]

Is he asking us to sell all of our possessions or perhaps to try to be perfect Christians because we’ve now heard about Jesus? Is it some kind of psychological sleight of hand, in which Paul simply declares success, hoping we’ll work harder to be holier? What’s going on here?

Some of the most amusing things I’ve discovered while researching and reading old wills have nothing to do with houses and furniture and bank accounts. No, these curiosities have everything to do with relationships, not as they are in that moment but as someone wants them to become later.

In 1862, for example, a man named Thomas Powell said in his will,

I wish my Daughter Donna Versa to be respectful, obedient & Kind to her Mother . . .[2]

That was apparently meant to draw a contrast with how he perceived the past behavior of his older children.

And forty years before that, in 1822, a man named John Flintham threw into his will, as a last resort, an outright bribe to try to guide someone’s choices. Referring to a woman who was probably his step-daughter, he said,

I give unto Nancy Carr the sum of twenty-five dollars if she will come into this county & visit her relations, if she will not come in, then she is to receive nothing.[3]

I somehow doubt that fixed whatever was broken there.

Those are silly examples, somehow funny and not funny at the same time because there is clearly a lot of sadness behind them. But how do you move people to a place where they can flourish? How do you create a new future that will replace a shattered present?

Well, first of all, Paul isn’t trying to bribe us with heavenly rewards or to coerce us into being something we’re not. He’s not saying that it’s up to us to be holy in order for God to accept us, as if we’re just constantly putting quarters into a vending machine. That quickly becomes exhausting.

Secondly, there’s one little word that I left out earlier when I quoted the beginning of our reading from Romans. Paul writes to us, his siblings in Christ, and says, “I appeal to you therefore . . .” And it’s always good to stop when you hear that last word, asking yourself, “What’s the word ‘therefore’ there for in this passage?” And, of course, it’s pointing you back to something that came previously, something that you didn’t hear today.

In earlier chapters, Paul described what God is doing through Christ for the whole creation, which is groaning in labor pains for something new to be born. He described what God is doing through Christ for you, what God has done for you. You’ve been saved, accepted, forgiven, not in your strength but in your weakness. And you’re not alone. God is very near to you.

The Spirit intercedes for you with sighs too deep for words when you don’t know what to say, when you don’t know how to pray, when you’re kneeling in a church beside a general, or when you are the general. And nothing in the whole universe, not even a pandemic, “will be able to separate [you] from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[4]

Each time we gather together in worship, we’re brought back to that deep well of mercy. But what does Paul mean when he talks about spiritual worship? I mean, did he just throw “spiritual” into that sentence to make the word count come out right? No, not at all.

After the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman Empire, only two streams of Jewish life emerged from the ruins and survived. One became rabbinic Judaism. The other is what we of course know as Christianity.

The rabbis believed that studying God’s commandments about sacrifices and reflecting on their meaning was the equivalent of offering them in real life.[5] It was a form of “spiritual worship.” Communal prayer in the synagogue was also described in this same kind of way. It was the best God’s people could do in light of the harsh realities of the world — the world not as they wished it to be, but as it actually was, as it actually is still today.

And if you think about it, there’s a shadow of that in how we’ve been worshiping over the last several months. We’ve continued to recall the story of salvation at the Lord’s Table, blessing the bread and the wine as Jesus commanded us to do. But in this moment, we can only participate in that ritual as a community through a prayer for what’s called spiritual communion, asking God to make real in our hearts what we’re missing.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul uses this same language, the language of his own tradition, the language of our theological cousins, to describe our offering as Christians in light of our belief that Jesus Christ has ended atoning sacrifices, once and for all. In other words, our sacrifices don’t wash away sin because Jesus has already done that for you and for me.

As Christians in the Anglican tradition, we can only offer a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. We offer that not only with our lips but also in our lives. What we say and what we do can become our “spiritual worship,” our own expression of gratitude for what God has already done for us.

So we don’t have to think only about ourselves, only about our relationship with God and how we’re going to climb up a ladder to reach God. Instead, we can live for the sake of our neighbor. We can offer our whole selves to God in worship, thankful for the love that surrounds us and overflows from our hearts. And the liturgy of worship can become for us a liturgy of life as we’re sent out into the world. That’s what it means to be a living sacrifice, not because we bear perfection but because we bear forgiveness and mercy.

That’s what we take with us. That’s what we have to offer other people. That’s what they need, what we all need, whether we have no stars on our clothing or four of them. All of those distinctions fade away when we kneel at the foot of the cross and see a beloved child of God, whether looking at someone across the aisle or just looking in the mirror. This I believe.


BACK TO POST Romans 12:1.

BACK TO POST Thomas B. Powell is my third great-grandfather and signed his will on April 2, 1862, in Caswell County, North Carolina.

BACK TO POST John Flintham is my fourth great-grandfather and signed his will on August 20, 1822, in Orange County, North Carolina.

BACK TO POST Romans 8:39.

BACK TO POST Luke Timothy Johnson, Reading Romans: A Literary and Theological Commentary (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys, 2001) 190.

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