On Tuesday morning, I was sipping iced tea at a coffee shop with Leroy when he asked me, “What does Romans 12:3” say? I was a little surprised since he should know that although I have multiple Bible and theology degrees, I can’t recite every verse on demand. I covered my inability to answer, though, by asking my own question: “Why'd you ask?” He nodded toward a young man at the counter who was ordering a latte. I looked closely, and just behind and below his ear was tattooed the Bible reference “Romans 12:3.” Now I was curious, too, and I googled it (sometimes I wonder why I went to seminary, now that Google has all the answers!) I pulled it right up: “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement.” I thought that was sort of interesting. Most tattoos aren’t reference to humility, let alone the epistles. What was more interesting was realizing a bit later that this was the lectionary text previously chosen for this Sunday. I guess God was nudging me to get started on my sermon!
The letters contained in the pages of the New Testament are attributed to various authors, with the Apostle Paul being the most prolific. Much speculation continues about whether Paul and Peter and others actually wrote or dictated the letters themselves or whether their own disciples wrote under the name of their respected teacher. Most Bible scholars seem to agree that the letter to the Roman church is authentically Paul. It was written to the fledgling and much persecuted church there whose persistence and development can be seen in the art and architecture of the Vatican City. Paul was concerned about right doctrine, but he also got to the heart of what it means to live a Christian life under difficult circumstances. One of his themes is “transformation,” a buzz word today in leadership and other circles. He famously wrote, “Do not be conformed, but be transformed.” An early paraphrase of this verse says “Do not let the world press you into its mold.” That’s pretty refreshing, and I find overarching themes like that helpful when trying to slog through the otherwise dense and doctrine-thick words of the Roman epistle.
If we think that differences among Christians today are glaring, it would be helpful to go back the first century of the Common Era and observe the discussions that existed at that time about Jesus. One of the primary movements that resulted in conflict and ultimately censure was that of Gnosticism. The Gnostics were the mystics of that day and they emphasized spirit over matter. They tended to see physical bodies as limited and problematic to the point that bodies were to be shunned as evil. Only the spirit within had value. When considering the life of Jesus and the appearance of Jesus after the resurrection, they did not view his body as real flesh and blood like other humans. Instead, they understood Jesus as a spirit being who only appeared to have a body like ours. Eventually, the Gnostics were branded as heretics, but not before they produced some of their own accounts of the life of Jesus, known collectively as the Gnostic Gospels.
It’s significant, then, that Paul begins this part of Romans with the words, “I appeal to you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” He seems to be saying that our bodies are essential to our worship of God and not just a necessary evil. Even though Gnosticism was official rejected by the Church in the 4th century, there are still ways in which Christians grapple and argue over issues of body and spirit. The discomfort many Christians have over issues of human sexuality points back to the idea that the body is evil, that the body is not to be trusted and sexuality is to be rejected or at least tolerated rather than enjoyed and celebrated.
I’ve been reading some articles lately by Christian writers referencing Gnosticism in regard to the current transgender debates. The point of all of them so far is that to support transgender equality and opportunity is to become modern-day Gnostics. They say that the body is important and therefore the way we came out of the womb (in other words, what’s on our birth certificate) is the way God intended us to be. To alter that is to place the importance of spirit (in other words, our perceived gender identity) over body. I think that’s a cop-out by a whole side of the Christian faith that has previously shown little interest in the importance of the body. I would counter that both spirit and body matter greatly and that bringing one’s body in alignment with one’s spirit does in fact honor the critical value of the human body while recognizing that our “spirits” matter, too.
I attended a conservative seminary and have been somewhat amused that nearly all of the students I befriended there have eventually chosen to identify as progressive Christians. One of them recently released a book through our UCC Pilgrim Press. Her name is Linda Tatro Herzer, and the book is titled “The Bible and the Transgender Experience.” She addresses the objections of many Christians to the idea that transitioning one’s outward gender expression can be an act of faithfulness. She asks, “Does God create our bodies, but not our minds/souls/personalities/spirits/essences?” Her conclusion is that it is not Gnostic to affirm the alignment of body with spirit but is simply an acknowledgement of how we are created in our totality. Paying attention to who we are internally as well as externally matters.
The animus of many toward transgender women and men has mostly been aimed at the use of public restrooms and the perceived danger that poses to the public. There has been utter deafness regarding the danger that is posed to transgender individuals when forced to use restrooms that do not fit their outward gender identification. More recently, though, the debate has shifted to military service and this week some actual policy has been introduced that will harm transgender soldiers and likely weaken our military as new potential recruits are rejected. I can’t help but reflect on the words of Paul who urged us to offer our bodies as living sacrifices. Every person who joins our military is making a living sacrifice, preparing to pay the ultimate price with their own bodies. It is an affront and I believe a sin against our transgender brothers and sisters to dishonor their sacrifice on behalf of our country.
The Buddhist reading we heard earlier is about pride, emphasizing our self-perception in relation to others. The extreme of self-focused pride is the condition of narcissism where everyone else exists to bolster one’s sense of self. The Apostle also addressed this in our text: “I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment.” This is so important that at least one person tattooed its reference on his neck. By the way, did you know that the book of Leviticus expressly forbids marking the body with tattoos? I think of that whenever I see pictures of Jesus stretched across sunburned bodies at the beach. I’m always threatening to get a tattoo, and Leroy is always objecting. If I get one, a message like Romans 12:3 about being humble wouldn’t be a bad choice. I think instead of putting it behind my ear where I can’t see it, I should put it on my forehead so I can see it first thing every morning when I brush my teeth.
Pride and humility are common themes in Scripture, especially in the epistles and in the words of Jesus. Jesus said, “Those who humble themselves will be exalted, and those who exalt themselves will be humbled.” The Scriptures are best understood as a mirror that reveals what is inside the heart of the reader rather than a field guide to be used to identify the sins of others. I acknowledge that whenever I hear the latest news from Washington, I mentally check off the DSM-5 criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder. That kind of armchair analysis of others can be entertaining when it’s not terrifying, but that’s not really what Scripture calls me to do. It says, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but instead with sober judgment.” Sober judgment means an ongoing and realistic assessment of who I am and how I regard myself and how I relate to others as a result. It doesn’t mean looking for opportunities to belittle or to put myself down, but instead to see the good and the bad together and consider how to become my best self.
The Apostle wraps up this part of the Roman epistle by referencing the body again. But instead of the physical human body, he talks about the church body and the many parts that function together to strengthen it. His point is that every part matters. It doesn’t matter if our role is to teach or to preach or to lead or to be generous or be compassionate. All members matter, and all are honored. There is no hierarchy of value within the family of Jesus where some are more important than others. Remembering that is essential to faithfully maintaining humility and service within the church.
How is God calling you to engage the world this week? Will it be through compassionate acts of service? Will it be through careful protest? Will it be through lifting up those who have been cast down? In everything you do, in the words of the Apostle, do so with sober judgment according the measure of faith God has given. Don’t be conformed to this world and its systems that belittle and oppress, but be transformed in the renewal of your minds and work to transform this world so that justice and generosity will prevail. Amen.