Part VII of “Romans: The Road Less Traveled”
A writer named Shelley Jackson is publishing a short story, but it’s not one you’ll find in a magazine or literary collection. To read it, you’ll have to track down 2,095 people around the world and get them all together.
Jackson’s story is entitled “Skin” and it’s being written – tattooed, actually – on body parts of more than 2,000 volunteers, each of whom has just one word of the story on their bodies. A guy named Rob, for example, has the single lowercase word “back” tattooed on his left wrist. His lit professor, who told him about the project, has the word “pen” tattooed on himself, followed by a question mark.
Jackson calls her project a “mortal work of art” and was the first to get her tattoo, the story’s title, on the underside of her wrist. Interestingly, she had no trouble getting enough people to volunteer to get marked with the story – people from dozens of countries, from Japan to Jordan have taken on words and more are still signing on. The stipulations are that you have to have the word tattooed in black ink in classic book font and large enough to be seen with the naked eye. You don’t get to choose the word that’s tattooed on you—it’s whatever the author assigns.
Interestingly, the only people who will ever be able to read the whole story are the participants themselves. Jackson mails them a copy of the full text after they have demonstrated that they got the tattoo. They are not to share it with anyone else. The story is theirs to know and for the world to find out. Every time someone sees the word that’s tattooed on them, they’ll want to know what it means.
I’ve never gotten a tattoo, but this project intrigues me—a living, breathing story; a community of people who have offered their bodies as a blank sheet upon which that story can be written.
As I read Romans, I can’t help but think that Paul was authoring a similar project—a church tattooed by the story of what God has done in Jesus. “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God,” writes Paul, “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (12:1).
Paul has been telling us a story since the beginning of Romans. Chapters 1-4 are the story of creation, humanity’s sinfulness, and God’s redemptive plan. Chapters 5-8 tells the story of Jesus, who gathers together a new humanity, a new community that is founded on faith in him. Chapters 9-11 express the nature of that new community and its mission. And now, here in Chapter 12, Paul begins to tell us how that new community in Christ is to wear that story into the world. If chapters 1-11 have been a step-by-step argument of the theological underpinnings of Christian faith, chapters 12-16 give us some practical ways we are to live it out within a world that has yet to see the whole story.
Verse 1 and 2 of Romans 12 act as a kind of thesis statement for what comes next. Paul appeals to the church, “by the mercies of God.” Paul has talked about God’s mercy throughout the letter, especially in chapters 9-11, and now Paul outlines our response to that mercy—presenting our bodies as living sacrifices.
It’s important for us to reiterate Paul’s worldview here. For Paul, “body” is not a metaphor, nor is “body” separate from “soul.” Paul uses the specific word “soma” here, which refers to the whole person. We’ve already talked about Paul’s use of the word “flesh” (sarx) as a negative, but “flesh” refers to corruptibility and death. “Soma,” on the other hand, refers to the whole person who has been created and tattooed with God’s image. Rather than suggesting, as some Christians do, that our bodies don’t matter, Paul understands that God’s ultimate goal is not to abandon our bodies, but to redeem them, as Paul reminds us in 8:23. Offering our whole persons to God anticipates God’s promise of resurrection, restoration, and the defeat of death.
But there’s a specific way we offer our bodies to God. The whole system of sacrificing animals in the temple was, for Paul, a temporary placeholder of what God actually intended—for people to offer their whole selves to God in worship. That’s what we were created for and, in Jesus, God has claimed that sacrifice once and for all. The early Christians didn’t do animal sacrifices because they believed that Jesus had already accomplished their purpose and now, as Jesus’ people, they were to offer themselves to God according to his example. “Spiritual worship,” then, isn’t just something we do in church once a week, it’s the daily offering of ourselves to God and God’s purposes. We move about in the world as people who have been marked by Christ through baptism, and carry his redemptive story in what we do with our bodies every day.
This is why Paul says next, “Do not be conformed to this world.” The Greek in verse 3 actually says “Do not be conformed to the present age,” or as he puts it in Galatians 1:4, “the present evil age.” Like many first century Jews, Paul believed that world history was divided into the “present age,” characterized by sin and rebellion against God, along with death as the result, and the “age to come” in which God would renew and redeem the world and humanity. The point of Paul’s gospel is that the “age to come” has already begun in Jesus, particularly in his death and resurrection. And so, he says, we need to be living as though the age to come is already here.
This is a key aspect of Paul’s thought that we often miss. Christians often spend their time and energy pointing out everything that’s wrong with the present age, rather than investing their lives in the way of the age to come. On the flip side are those who think the present world is just fine. I love how Christian writer Tom Sine once said that what many Christians want is just the American Dream with a little Jesus overlay. They believe in human progress and that the church should just go along with whatever the present age dictates to be acceptable. We let Hollywood determine our sexual ethics, we let parties and pundits determine our politics, and we let consumerism determine how we spend our money, for example. But Paul says no—you left that age behind the minute you put your faith in Christ. Don’t be conformed to the world’s way of thinking. As the J.B. Phillips translation puts it, “Don’t let the world squeeze you into its mould.” You need to change your worldview, and that leads us to one of the key phrases in all of Romans: “Do not be conformed to the present age, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (v. 2).
Remember how our study of Romans began. In 1:18-32, Paul says that human rebellion and sin is the result of a great deal of wrong thinking—“they became futile their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened” (1:21). Idolatry, immorality, and human immaturity stem from a distorted worldview—a worldview that causes us to behave and use our bodies in ways that are less than human. Paul says, “be transformed by the renewing of your minds”—set your minds on Christ, set your minds on things above, allow the Holy Spirit to have its way in you. Then you will begin to see the world not as it is, but as God intends it to be. You will begin to see the whole story come together and, knowing how it ends, you can live in the present as if God’s future is already here.
The beginning of Genesis tells us that God designed humans to be in charge of the world, not to allow the world to be in charge of them. Paul invites us to turn our minds toward taking on that God-given vocation again in advance of God’s future. “Christian” is not just a status, it’s a vocation—it’s a call to begin taking responsibility for God’s world.
And how do we do that? Well, Paul says, it involves embodying the story of Christ within the community of faith called the church. Paul is clear that God has not called us to be a collection of individuals who think of ourselves “more highly that [we] ought” (v. 3), but “to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” In other words, we not only have bodies as individuals, we are a body—one body in Christ.
Most often when we hear the church referred to as “the Body of Christ” we think of that metaphorically—that we are like a body. But, actually, Paul’s word choice here is intentional. As he has been telling us throughout Romans, the church is a new humanity, reflecting the image of God to the world. In Christ, the many, therefore, have become the one “body in Christ, and individually… are members of one another” (v. 5). Paul believes that there can be no Christianity apart from the body, that individuals find their meaning, purpose, and transformation within relationship to the body. John Wesley agreed when he wrote that “the Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.”
To put it another way, in order for the full story of Jesus to be told to the world, it requires a body to tell it—a body with many different members, each carrying a piece of that story within their persons. We find our purpose when we’re part of that body and that story!
We don’t all carry the same word, the same testimony, the same gift. In verses 6-8, Paul gives us a sample of the different gifts that have been assigned to us by the Holy Spirit: prophecy, or speaking God’s truth; ministry, teaching, exhortation, generosity, leadership, compassion. Paul offers a longer list in I Corinthians 12, but even that’s not fully complete. God has tattooed into our lives the unique gifts, talents, abilities, and passions that make up our part of the body. None of us has all of those gifts—it takes all of us to make them function fully, like the words that make up a story. And when we use our gifts within the body, God’s new humanity, then we find that our lives actually begin to make sense; we begin to see our minds transformed and the work of our bodies offered as living sacrifices to the purposes of God. We begin to see that our lives, individually and together, are equipped to live in the age to come, which is already breaking in on the present.
In addition to gifts, however, Paul says the body is also marked by character that reflects Jesus. Look at the list, beginning at verse 9:
“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour.Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.”
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
These are things that Jesus himself taught and lived out. Those who are part of his body must do the same.
At the end of the contract that Shelly Jackson has her story participants sign, there is this little clause: “From this time on, participants will be known as ‘words.’ They are not understood as carriers or agents of the words they bear, but as their embodiments.” It’s a fascinating concept–whatever word is tattooed on you is the word that you embody with your life.
I think Paul would approve—maybe not of the ink but of the indelible mark of Christ, and the story that is carried by those who make up his body. It’s not a story we keep to ourselves, but one to be shared with the world.
In 2 Corinthians 3:3, Paul says to the church—“You are a letter from Christ…written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” With every action, every word, we are showing forth an open book about the story of the gospel – whether we believe it or not, whether we live it or not. It’s important for us to get real and start seeing our lives as God’s word, God’s story of good news, to the rest of the world.
So, what word is tattooed on you?