Waving to God

There was a recent conversation where someone asked why a pastor elevates the host during the Words of Institution. There are a number of practical reasons for doing this, which are perfectly valid. A pastor may lift it up so that the congregation can see what he’s talking about. He might do it to make sure there’s no doubt it came from the altar. Practical reasons are worth exploring and understanding. Just because something has always been done a certain way doesn’t mean it still accomplishes the goal it was created to do originally.

Those practical reasons have been a part of our worship practices for some time, but practical reasons aren’t usually what drives the church to do what it does. This case is no different.

The elevation of the host is one of those points that demonstrates much of what the church does in worship isn’t really new. The people of God have have had a formal, organized worship life since God gave them a structure for worship back in Leviticus. Even in the era of the church, much of our liturgical theology is built up on what God gave the Israelites in Leviticus. The concepts of holiness and God’s presence, sacrifices and their purpose, the role of the priesthood and more all come from Leviticus.

Here in Communion, we are still offering sacrifices. Not that we are trying to pay for our sins, for that’s already been taken care of. Instead, we offer to the Father the one thing that can pay for our sins: Christ Himself. We also offer food to God in the form of bread and wine. In Leviticus, certain sacrifices would be given to God but not wholly burned on the altar. God delineated parts of the animals be given to the priests to provide for their needs. However, every part of that animal still belonged to God. The priest had no right to take it for himself. It didn’t belong to him. The sacrifice was God’s and God decided what to do with it. To reflect this, God directed the priest to make a “wave offering” of those pieces. He would take the piece of meat and hold it up before God to acknowledge that it was His now and belonged to Him. Whatever it was before, now it was God’s and had to be handled according to His rules. Now that it had been given to God, He chose to give it to His priest

Things haven’t really changed in this regard in New Testament times. We are still offering things to God. The bread and wine on the altar are an offering given by the church to God for Him to use for His purposes. The pastor holds up the bread and wine to show they are given to Him. They are His now. They are holy now and must be used according to His purposes. In this case, He chooses to give them back to His royal priesthood, the people of the church, in order to provide for our needs as well.

Good, Right, and Salutary

“It is truly good, right, and salutary that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to You, holy Lord, almighty Father, everlasting God… ” So begins the Proper Preface of the Service of the Sacrament. The specific content of this Preface changes, which is why the one that is selected is proper for that particular point in the church year.

Though the rest of the Proper Preface may vary in how it draws in different aspects of Christ’s life, it always begins and ends the same way. “It is good, right, and salutary…” It doesn’t sound like anything very important. In fact, you probably don’t give it much thought at all. If you do think about it, it’s probably just how pastor gets things rolling for Communion. But the wording here is intentional. It is proper. It is appropriate. It is beneficial. It is good. Good. A word that is used so often in our language as rarely garner any sort of notice. Our attention passes right over it without another thought. It’s unfortunate, because the word “good” is one of the first theology-laden words the Bible gives us. At the end of each of the first five days of Creation, God looks at what He had made and calls it “good.” He looks at His creation on the sixth day and calls it “very good.” Each of those days He sees what was made, how it does what He created it to do and how everything is in order. Everything is right where it needs to be. Everything is good. On the sixth day, it is so orderly and organized that nothing further needs to be added. It is complete. It is very good.

I spoke at some length about the different aspects of the offering rite and how they relate to the liturgy and Communion. At this point in the service, the offering has already been collected. It is at this point that we are able to announce that things are good. They are as they should be. We have given our offering to God. We have completed the work of God. That is not to say we have earned His grace or our own salvation. Merely that we have given evidence of our thankfulness. God has given us a great gift by offering the life of His Son on our behalf. We could neither earn nor repay this gift, neither does He expect us to. At the same time, when given a gift, the proper response is to thank the giver. This thanks is acknowledgement that we did not earn what we were given and that we are simply receiving what the giver wishes to give because he wishes to give it.

We bring our offering to God, not because we do not want it, but because we know there are others who need it more. We offer to God what is already His and we announce it as such. It is in this humble admission that what we have is not really ours and was never really earned, that we give thanks for what He has chosen to give us, that our relationship with God begins working the way it ought. It works the way it was intended.

God has restored us through baptism in order that we might begin to work the way we were intended. Adam and Eve were given innumerable gifts. Yet, instead of living in daily thankfulness for those gifts, they wanted more. They wanted what they were not given. Now we return to that place. Not taking more, but willingly giving up. We give to God what is rightfully His.

Not just a matter of mindlessly droning on before the sacrament, but rather an important declaration of what we are here to do and why we are here to do it. “It is truly good, right, and salutary that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to You…” By giving thanks, by participating in the relationship God has restored between us, we complete the work. We things around full circle. Now, as people who worship and give thanks to God as we ought, we are prepared to receive the next gift, the greater gift He has to offer: life in His presence through the Body and Blood of His Son.

A Restored Offering

My last couple of posts have talked about the connection between the offering and Communion, but there’s a further area in which these two pieces of the liturgy overlap.  God could have bound His promise of grace to anything He wanted.  He binds it to water, which is how we end up with the sacraments of baptism.  Now He does so again with bread and wine.  Out of everything else in all creation, God chooses these basic food staples of the ancient world.

The themes we use to explain salvation are widely varied, as Scripture describes it many different ways: atonement, redemption, cleansing/purification, and so forth.  This is necessary in part because the first sin of Adam and Eve was equally multifaceted. Their sin was idolatrous, a refusal to hold God up as God.  It was a failure of discipleship, those called to follow chose to call their own shots.  Their sin was a rejection of their status as creatures, as they sought to overcome their creaturely limitations.  However, it was also a rejection of God as the source of life.

After Jesus’s baptism, He goes out into the wilderness to fast for forty days.  Satan tempts Him with bread and in response Jesus quotes Deuteronomy, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”  This was a major undercurrent of the Israelites’ discipleship process in wilderness.  It was not the manna that sustained them.  It was always the God who had saved them and provided for them.  This context continues in John 6 as Jesus confronts those He had fed and reminds them it is not the bread that brings life.  Jesus tells them instead,  “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.  Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:53-54).  Jesus is reminding them again life does not come from food, but from God.  These two statements of Christ overlap, since John tells Jesus is the Word.  The Father speaks and the Word He speaks is Christ, carrying the full divine creative and redemptive power within Himself.

Luther comments that meek Mary conceives in her the baby Jesus through the power of the Spirit and the promise conveyed by the angel Gabriel.  He notes that this makes her the only woman in history to conceive a child through her ear.  It’s a somewhat corny way to think about it, but Luther is exploring how radically different Christ’s birth is from all those that have come before or since.  However, it is not so strange to think that we also “eat” through our ear.  God’s Word brings life.  God brings creates life.  God’s Word stands alone in creation as the one thing that can sustain life eternally.

That brings us back to the main topic: offering.  As we’ve discussed, the bread and wine used in the sacrament are an offering to God, given that He might take them and make them holy.  Their most basic essence, though, is as food.  Particularly in the ancient context, these are the two omnipresent elements of the meal, and yet in the context of the liturgy we are taking these basic elements and and giving them away. 

In our offering of bread and wine to God, we are acknowledging that these things cannot give or sustain true and eternal life. We give them to God so that He might do something better with them. God realigns our dependence on food. It no longer has to bear the burden of being the source of our life which, as Adam and Eve discovered, was never something it was capable of being.

It is in the context of this offering that we refocus our attention on God, that He takes this physical representation of our faith and dependence on God alone and He brings His Word of grace to bear and marries it to that offering and now it brings life. Not because it is food, but because it is God.

A Complete Offering

Many of the major heresies of the early church involved relationship between Jesus’s humanity and divinity. Steeped, as the theologians were, in the works of the Greek philosophers of old, this notion that Jesus could be both God and man simply didn’t work. Some of the proposed solutions involved Jesus not becoming fully and completely human. If there was some part of Him that was not connected to His divine nature, then it could be that part that died on the cross. God should be entirely incompatible with death. God dying on the cross should be an impossibility, so another answer must be found to this conundrum.

Gregory of Nazianzus, one of the primary theologians leading the charge against this flawed thinking said:

Window from Rothenburg ob der Tauber.

“If anyone has put his trust in Him as a Man without a human mind, he is really bereft of mind, and quite unworthy of salvation. For that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved. If only half Adam fell, then that which Christ assumes and saves may be half also; but if the whole of his nature fell, it must be united to the whole nature of Him that was begotten, and so be saved as a whole. Let them not, then, begrudge us our complete salvation, or clothe the Saviour only with bones and nerves and the portraiture of humanity.”

Gregory Nazianzen, “Select Letters of Saint Gregory Nazianzen,” in S. Cyril of Jerusalem, S. Gregory Nazianzen, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Charles Gordon Browne and James Edward Swallow, vol. 7, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1894), 440.

Jesus takes on our entire human nature. Every part of who we are is taken on by God. We are in need of complete restoration, complete re-creation because every part of us is subject to sin and thus subject to death. God made Adam and Eve as a spirit-filled body, with all of the parts that go with that body. Since sin means seeking something other than God as the source of life, there is no part of us that is not dying. Thus, God must take on all of it.

This tells us something about how committed He is to saving us and restoring His broken creation. God takes on human flesh, all of it. There is no part of our humanity that Jesus does not also have. His death is a complete death. His sacrifice a complete sacrifice. He holds nothing back because to do so would mean losing some part of us.

In Matthew 10, Jesus says, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.  And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

God rules all creation and so everything is rightfully His. In that sense, God can, and does, simply demand we offer Him His rightful tribute. But, He only does that when we get too hard-headed to listen. More often, He’s demonstrating what it means to give everything and what that is so important. He gives everything so we may be saved and it is only because he gives everything that we are saved.

At the same time, He demands 100% of us as well. We must give everything to Him and hold nothing back. For if we hold something back then we are still seeking something else to give us life. Since God is the creator of life, anything we hold back from Him will ultimately be lost.

The thank offerings described in Leviticus 7 are given not given because of any particular sin, but simply because someone wants to give something to God as a way of saying thanks for all He has done for them. An interesting feature of this offering is that, unlike the various sin-oriented offerings that God either claims entirely or gives to the priests, this offering is claimed by God and then given back to the person to offered it. There are some restrictions on how it can be eaten and who may eat it which are there because the offering is now God’s. Nevertheless, the sacrifice is given back to the one who offered it, only now the offering isn’t the person’s, it’s God’s.

Last week’s post discussed how Christ is the perfect offering. We, who are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, have been made a part of His life. As we place the bread and wine on the altar, soon to be the Body and Blood of Christ and the very stuff of His life, we are also offering our own lives along with it. This is not an atonement for sin, for only Christ, the perfect sacrifice, can do this. Rather, our offering is a thank offering, a joyful response to what God has done for us. Like the thank offerings of Old Testament times, God takes what we offer, claims it as His own, and then returns it to us. He takes ownership of us, of our very lives, but then He gives that life back to us. That life is and forever will be owned by Him, but He gives it back to the giver that it may be used appropriately.

Thus, in the elements we bring to the altar, as we carry them forward to God and lift up the bread and wine before Him, we also are offering ourselves along with them, that we may have, not our life, but His given back to us in the sacrament.

A Perfect Offering

My congregation, like many over the last year or more, had put a moratorium on collecting an offering during the service.  While we still don’t pass the plates, we’ve returned  to bringing the offering forward so it can be given to God during the service.

This might feel like a rather minor point, but the offering occupies an important place within the service.  It comes as a response to the joyful gift of the Gospel and as a preparation for the sacrament.  The theology of offerings is one that we do not bring out very often, yet it is fundamental to what Communion is.

Leviticus describes the various sacrifices used in the religious life of Israel.  Most were related to sin in one way or another, yet all sacrifices are described as offerings.  Guilt offerings, burnt offerings, and more.  It might sound like these offerings paid the debt of sin, but the author of Hebrews tells us none of these animal sacrifices could ever take away sins. 

Of course, as with just about everything in the Old Testament, these sacrifices were pointing forward to Christ.  Hebrews tells us further that only Christ could be the perfect sacrifice.  Only the perfect sacrifice can pay the penalty for sins.

The lectionary this Sunday in the three-year series concludes Jesus’s conversation with the crowd.  Jesus says some controversial things about how He is the Bread of life and His flesh is true food and His blood is true drink and that these things are necessary for eternal life.

Taken together, the only offering that can take sins away is Jesus Himself.  The presence of Christ in the meal is what gives the sacrament purpose.  The church offers to God bread and wine that, through the Sacred Mystery, will be joined to the Body and Blood of Christ. 

Communion truly is an offering, but it is offering of the only thing we have of any value: Christ.  Taking the offering in the service and bringing it to God helps us remember that we do have something to give to God, something we only have because He first gave it to us.  We offer the Son to the Father and so find our salvation and life.

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