In April 2002 it was reported in the BBC the followers of a Hindu cult have revived the practice of human sacrifice. They had been using animals but had been heavily attacked by animal rights groups for their use—so they decided to go the traditional route of human sacrifice.
I’m glad they drew the line somewhere.
As you can imagine, this too had some challenges. After all, as Dr. Sharmah—a cultural expert noted, “A willing human being is difficult to find these days.” So the worshippers of the Mother Goddess Shakti have opted to sacrifice human effigies made of flour. They figured there are no wheat-rights groups around to protest, I suppose—no organizations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Bread to raise a ruckus.
Human sacrifice had been utilized by ancient cultures like the Mayans, Aztecs, Greeks, Canaanites, and Romans for centuries. The practice may not have been wide spread among the Greeks, but it was known. The Romans finally abandoned it as barbaric, although they showed vestiges of it in the ritual execution of prisoners of war following a Roman General’s Triumph or during gladiatorial games. The Jews have most always viewed it as an abomination (except during times of apostasy—or whenever it appeared like the thing to do by some leader in a crisis mode). So when Paul begins Romans 12 with the words: Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—you figure it probably had to raise some eyebrows.
However, the sacrifice Paul has in mind is not a bloody sacrifice to appease some angry god. The sacrifice Paul has in mind is one that lives, not dies. But the fact the sacrifice is not dying but living doesn’t make it any easier. Sometimes dying for a cause can be viewed as a little easier than actually living for the cause and giving your life up in service. Again, as Dr. Sharmah says, “A willing human being is difficult to find these days.”
Throughout the book of Romans Paul has been arguing how God has worked out a plan to redeem all of his creation. Mankind had the chance to embrace God but had walked away from him. First the Gentiles and then the Jews. The entire creation was subjected to frustration and decay. But God worked to create a way in which mankind and creation could be reconciled to God. And through Jesus—the Jewish Messiah—God created the way for Jew and Gentile to come together and to be one new man under the rule of the Messiah.
Because of God’s amazing work and because of such great mercy Paul urges the Romans to offer their bodies as living sacrifices.
But what does it mean to offer one’s body as a living sacrifice? When Paul calls this a spiritual act of worship does he mean going to church? Not at all. This is something more demanding than changing what you do on one day a week. Paul says being a living sacrifice involves something called avoiding being conformed to the prevalent culture and being transformed into something else. Some scholars refer to this as renunciation and renewal.
The New International Version words verse two this way: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Eugene Peterson captures the meaning beautifully in The Message when he translates it this way: “Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out.” If we are going to offer ourselves every day to God in the way we live we must come to grips with the fact that this is not about changing one or two little habits. So often people think being a Christian is wrapped up in the phrase: “We don’t smoke, we don’t chew and we don’t go with the girls that do!”
Being a living sacrifice involves a total reorientation of one’s mind. Paul has already explored this territory earlier in Romans 6 and Romans 8. We’ve been co-crucified with Christ. When we went through baptism it was like being killed and buried with Christ—and rising up to live a totally changed life-style. We are no longer operating from the mindset of a self-centered culture. Instead, we are setting our minds on the desires of the Holy Spirit. Do you see the connection? Renewing the mind involves setting our minds on God’s priorities. We are dedicating our day-to-day lives to living after what the Spirit dictates—to be, as Paul says in Romans 8:29, “conformed to the likeness of [God’s] son.” And when we find ourselves focusing all of our heart, mind and soul on Jesus and dedicating our energies to reflecting his glory in our lives—then we will know exactly what is God’s will.
Note carefully this is a body, soul, and spirit thing. The Greeks and Romans tended to view the body as merely a dish or a jar that holds the soul. Jews and Christians see body, soul, and spirit as an integrated whole. What you focus your heart on is played out in your body. There is no separation between body and spirit, Sunday and Monday. This is our vocation—to live our lives totally dedicated to God day in and day out.
Paul then points out the most obvious place where this spiritual sacrifice is lived out: in relationship with each other (vv.3-5). This has been the issue for most of the letter, hasn’t it? All theology is practical theology. All doctrine, all teaching is lived out in how we treat people—especially the family of God. To be formed into the image of God’s son is to take on humility: to consider others more important, to find your place in the family of God and to serve. Paul compares God’s family to the human body with all its various body parts working in harmony with each other. Rather than giving us an exhaustive list of spiritual gifts Paul is merely giving some examples. His point is not that we should take gift inventories to discover our spiritual gift, but that we should devote ourselves to doing our part to make this family a healthy and loving family.
For the rest of the chapter Paul spells it out further. We need to love one another sincerely—to actually be devoted to one another and to honor each other above ourselves. The church that is filled with living sacrifices is a church where people bless each other. It is a group of people who care of each others’ needs. It is a group of people who feel so much at home with each other you can always find them in and out of each others’ home drinking coffee and tea and eating meals. They celebrate each others’ victories and they weep through each others’ tragedies. Rather than cursing each other and holding grudges and making lists of offenses—they readily forgive. They give up their pride and conceit.
This is what it means to offer your bodies as living sacrifices. This is what it means to renew your minds and avoid conformity with the world. It is merely getting into the mind of Christ—it is to become literally the body of Christ: an unselfish, loving, and joyful demonstration of God’s character.
Someone once said: “The problem with living sacrifices is they tend to crawl off the altar.” Or as Dr. Sharmah said, “A willing human being is difficult to find these days.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad the cult of Shakti hasn’t been able to offer real human sacrifices! But it seems par for the course that they have to resort to using effigies. Maybe that is what we’ve done. Rather than offer ourselves we’ve created suit-and-tie effigies of ourselves that only dedicate a few hours a week to engage in “God talk” and to act polite. Listen carefully: our call is not to dress nicely, act polite, and engage in some religious practices. Our calling is to dedicate our very lives every day in complete service to God’s mission of redeeming the world—of bringing his justice and mercy into the lives of those around us.
May you accept the God’s challenge to be a living sacrifice. May you devote your life to the imitation of Christ. May you demonstrate you have received God’s mercy by the love you show to those around you. Do not allow a self-centered world force you into its mold. Rather be one of the few willing ones who will die to yourself and live for God.
 “Indian temple revives ‘human sacrifice’, BBC News April 3, 2002.
 Romans 12:1, New International Version
 Eugene Peterson, The Message (Romans 12:2). NavPress, 2004.