“Heads and Tails?”

Romans 12:1-8

August 25, 2002


In my hand, I am holding a quarter, just a regular quarter.  You can't do much with a quarter these days, maybe buy a gumball or make a phone call with it.  But one of the funniest things we do with a quarter is use it to decide things.  You know what I'm talking about.  When you and someone else are trying to make a decision about something, and one of you says, "Hey, let's flip a coin for it."  Then you dig a coin out of your pocket and say, "Okay, call it, heads or tails."  It's pretty simple isn't it, but there is one rule: you have to pick only one side.  You have to make a choice between the two, you can't have it both ways, you have to call either heads or tails.

          For many Christians, especially in today's world, there is a tendency to believe that there is a choice to be made over faith and obedience just as there is a choice to be made between heads or tails on a coin.  Certainly for us in the Reformed tradition, we have emphasized justification by grace alone so much that we are hesitant to even talk about our works or our obedience, and anytime anyone starts talking about doing good works or being obedient, many of us run to the nearest Bible to find the passages that say we are saved by grace and not by works.  But, let us be very clear that this isn't about how we are saved, it is about what it means to be a Christian, and that is not always a clear-cut issue.  

          We all know that the church is in a constant struggle between those who want to promote Christian theology and those who want to promote Christian ethics, between a focus on the cross and resurrection and a focus on the social gospel.  There is no place where this is more true than on a seminary campus. 

For my three years of seminary, I constantly had to contend with two groups of people.  One group would say that the most important thing about being a Christian was what you believed and confessed.  For them, Christian faith meant believing in the right things.  Then there was the other group, who would say that it didn't matter so much what you believed, because being a faithful Christian meant following the example of Jesus, it meant working for justice, peace, and liberation. 

          Now I will tell you, and it's no secret, I lean toward the first group.  For me, theology matters, because theology had a huge influence on my calling to the ministry.  When I was in college, I worked on a golf course during the summer, and I worked with a man named Gerald, who was a southern Baptist pastor, and we all called him "Preacher".  I'll never forget my many discussions I had with "Preacher."  We would just about always be assigned to do the same job, which meant we usually spent the day together out on the golf course, and it never failed that just as soon as we would leave the maintenance shop on the golf cart, he would start in on me. 

          You see, "Preacher" knew that I was a Presbyterian, and it just got him all worked up, so he would start questioning me about what Presbyterians believe and why I'm a Presbyterian.  No sooner would I start trying to make some feeble explanation than he would start quoting Bible passages to me to show me how I was wrong or at least didn't know what I was talking about. 

But, you know what?  He was right.  I didn't know what I was talking about.  I had no idea what it meant to be a Reformed Christian or even a Presbyterian, so I set out to find out what we believed, and the more I learned about Christian theology and the Reformed tradition the more I wanted to teach it and preach it. 

What "Preacher" helped me realize was that saying the right words wasn't enough, I had to be able to give a reason for the hope that I had to anyone who asked, I had to be able to not only say what I believe but also why I believe it.  Saying Jesus is Lord is one thing, but knowing what it means to say Jesus is Lord and why Jesus is my Lord is another.  So, yes, theology is very important to me.  I love to think about who God is and what God is doing in the world.  I love the pursuit of knowledge and the challenge in finding new ways to articulate my faith to others.  But the question remains, is this enough?  Is faith the only thing that matters in being a Christian?  Is our choice going to always be faith over obedience, heads over tails?   

My friends, the great truth about being a Christian is that it is not something in which we must choose between two sides.  It is not something in which we have to decide whether or not we are going to be on the side of theology or on the side of ethics, whether or not we are going to be on the side of faith or on the side of obedience.  Christianity is not an either/or proposition; it is always, always, a both/and conviction.  Faith and obedience must go hand in hand, without one you cannot have the other.  This is why Paul's words in our text today are so very important for our Christian lives, because the other side of the coin matters, obedience and ethics cannot be ignored.   

Let us remind ourselves that what we do in our Christian livers is always based on our theology, based on who we believe God is and what God has already done for us in Jesus Christ.  Especially, for our text today, it is important to keep in mind that all that Paul has said up to this point still matters.  There is a risk we always run when talking about grace, and that is then believing that if our salvation is assured, we can just sit back and relax and don't have to do anything, but in reality the very opposite is true.  The assurance of our salvation is a call to Christian action. 

Paul's words remind us that Christianity is much more than a theological pursuit of the mind, it is the giving of our very bodies, our whole being, that what we do matters just as much as what we believe.  In fact, Paul reminds us that we are to be a living sacrifice and offering to God.  We are to give our body, soul, mind and strength in the worship God in all that we do.  Not just on Sunday morning, but in every minute of our lives, not just in our service to the church, but in our homes and in our work.  It means that tomorrow morning you are not just going to work or doing your daily chores, you are actually going to worship, actually doing worship.

          Christianity is nothing short of a complete transformation of who we are, a completely new mindset, a completely new way of being.  It's the ability to look out into the world with a God-centered perspective, the ability to actually look and see God and know what the will of God is. 

When you look up into the night sky what do you see, do you see just a bunch of stars, or do you see God's amazing work of creation?  When you look out over the mountains what do you see, do you see the natural process of nature, or do you see the beauty of God's creation?  When you look into the eyes of someone else whom do you see, do you see just another person, or do you see a child of God?  Be careful how you answer, for your answer will dictate your actions. 

I wonder how different the world might be if we would look at another, not as someone who is different, but as someone who is the same.  I wonder how different the world might be if we looked upon the land of the earth not as areas to be conquered, but as areas in which we live together, and work together. 

Maybe that is the point Paul is trying to get across when he talks about the one body.  Christian faith and Christian obedience must go hand in hand because there cannot be a private Christianity; Christianity by its very nature is communal.  We have conformed too much to this world when we take our faith and make it individualistic in nature.  We have conformed too much to this world when we take our faith and say that I don't need to go to church or be around other Christians in order to be a Christian.

Yes, my friends, faith and obedience must go hand and hand.  We cannot have one without the other.  If we say Jesus is Lord, then we must live our lives of faith as a witness to the fact that not only is Jesus Lord, but he is also our Lord, that we are obedient to him and servants of others, that we are both at the same time and faith-filled Christian and an faithfully obedient Christian.

So the next time someone says to you that it doesn’t matter what you do as a Christian as long as you believe, pull a coin out of your pocket, look at the two sides of the coin, and flip it the person, and say, “Yes, it does, and let me tell you why.”  Amen.