You know what Jesus said was most important: “‘The most important one,’ answered Jesus, ‘is this: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” The second is this: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no commandment greater than these’” (Mark 12:29–31 NIV).
My longtime friend Mark Dance is great about reminding me and others to focus on Jesus’ Great Commandments more than we focus on Jesus’ Great Commission to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).
Both are hugely important.
They are the essence of life and ongoing ministry. Both of these mountain-peak passages form the heart of why we are still on the planet and not in heaven.
But if we focus on the Great Commission more than the Great Commandments, we will likely find ourselves building an organization or institution with goals, plans, and objectives but not a community of people who care deeply about each other. (For more, see Eugene Peterson’s discussion of Psalm 133 in A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.)
My first sermon
I am a middle-aged white guy. Seems strange to feel the need to say that, but it forms a bit of context for what’s next.
I sensed a call to preach when I was eighteen. When I shared my calling with an African American friend where I worked, he immediately invited me to preach one night at the upcoming spring revival at his church. I wondered how he could make this happen, but he did.
So, I began my preaching ministry at the Antioch Baptist Church in East Texas in 1982—an open country, African American congregation full of vigor. When my twenty-two-minute sermon ended, the pastor asked me straight out in front of the congregation, “Is that all you got?”
Sadly, it was.
Our “true and proper worship”
The text for my inaugural sermon was Romans 12:1–2: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
If you need an outline, you can preach this text as:
- A motivation: “God’s mercy”
- A presentation: “Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice”
- A transformation: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world”
- A celebration: “to test and approve . . . his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
Reflecting on this passage recently, I noticed how Jesus’ Great Commandments are woven into Paul’s inspired writing. His urging is to “brothers and sisters” who have been made a family through the shared fatherhood of God. In the first statement, he is setting us up to “love your neighbor as yourself.” He comes back to that in Romans 12:3. Chapters 12–14 spell out what loving God “with all your heart” by loving others looks like in daily life.
But first, we need to receive the love of God to empower our love for others.
We are to love God with all our souls in response to his love. Mercy, offer, sacrifice, and worship are soul words. God’s mercy is what our sinful souls long for most. The first eleven chapters of Romans reveal how God pours it out on us. His mercy can and must become the motive for all we do.
His mercy overflowing on us causes us “to offer [our] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is [our] true and proper worship.” Offering is the best word in the Bible for real worship. Our “bodies” are a reference to loving God with “all our strength,” our everyday, sometimes mundane, regular life. We offer our lives because he offered his first. He offered his in death so we could offer ours in life. We get to be living sacrifices because Jesus was a dying sacrifice in our place.
Jesus also said to love God with “all your mind.” Paul is inspired to explain that as a transformation in how we think. Christianity is a thinking person’s faith. It is a faith of wonder that asks big questions of a big God who loves in a big way. Philosophy, science, and faith are not enemies. They are friends that lead into closer and deeper relationship with our Father and each other. True faith carries us into the grandest discoveries of the infinite God who created all truth and all beauty.
John said of Jesus that he and others “beheld His glory, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14 NKJV).
Is there anything more beautiful than perfect grace and truth in Christ Jesus?