Today is Pentecost Sunday – symbolized with the color red, with fire, proclaiming the power of the Holy Spirit. Rather than read the somewhat lengthy scripture passage traditionally associated with this Sunday, I want to offer a quick Pentecost primer: During this Jewish feast, celebrated fifty days after Passover, pilgrims came to Jerusalem from all over the world. Jesus’ apostles were gathered together when a great wind came down, with tongues that looked like fire, and the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit. The crowd was astonished because each pilgrim heard the apostles speaking to them in their own language. Peter preached to them about Jesus, his crucifixion and his resurrection. The crowd was moved by Peter’s words and in response to his preaching, asked “what should we do?” Peter told them to repent and be baptized, and about three thousand people were added to the emerging Christian church.
Today’s scripture passage describes the life of these newcomers to the Christian faith:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
This morning, on this day of Pentecost, we celebrate both the confirmation of many of our young people, and the sacrament of Holy Communion. In our order of service today, in between this sermon and the rite of confirmation, we will also celebrate another part of worship we don’t often emphasize – the offering.
In the early church, the offering consisted of people’s gifts of bread and wine for the holy meal that was shared by all. The offering was when people were asked to give whatever they had – the necessities, the everyday elements of their lives – like food and drink. After the service, leftovers were taken to orphans and widows, to the ill, the captives, and to strangers. Their offering to God provided food and nourishment to those who were in need.
In a little while, we’ll be given an opportunity to make our own offering to God. When the plates are being brought to the altar, the bread and the cup will be brought forward as well.
The act of making an offering is a significant statement of faith, and its symbolism is powerful.
God asks us to give ourselves to God – our lives, abilities, and material gifts – as acts of worship and thanksgiving. Yet usually our offering on Sunday is just a routine element of worship. Other aspects of worship are often the subject of discussion – the selection of hymns that we sing, the sermon topic, how and when we greet one another, when announcements are made, how long people go on during concerns and celebrations. But I honestly can’t recall getting feedback on the offering. It feels like it’s just part of the routine.
Yet the offering is the element of worship that’s most important, and connects us best to our daily lives. Because what we give ourselves to – how we spend our time, our attention, our money – reflects what and who has our hearts.
Today we celebrate confirmation – the moment when those who were baptized as children declare as adults their faith in God. They’re offering themselves in service to God, and proclaiming that God has their heart. They were baptized with water – visible, tangible water. And they’re confirmed by the laying on of hands – physical, warm hands. We celebrate Holy Communion – the remembrance of God in the flesh, symbolized by broken bread, and the fruit of the vine. Our worship, our faith, is expressed tangibly, incarnationally, meaning “in the body.”
Every time we give and receive the offering, we’re giving visible, tangible expression to the materiality of our Christian faith.
The German theologian Deitrich Bonhoeffer, while imprisoned in Nazi Germany, wrote the following in a letter to his parents:
“It is Monday, and I was just sitting down to a dinner of turnips and potatoes when a parcel you sent me…arrived. Such things give me greater joy than I can say. Although I am utterly convinced that nothing can break the bonds between us, I seem to need some outward token or sign to reassure me. In this way, material things become the vehicles of spiritual realities. I suppose it is rather like the felt need in our religion for sacraments.”
We lift up ordinary things like bread, wine and money because ordinary things have significance for us. In his ministry Jesus was always taking the everyday things of life – seeds, birds, flowers, coins, lepers, children – lifting them up, recognizing their significance to God’s kingdom and their eternal importance. After understanding Jesus’ life and death, after listening to his stories, I don’t know how any of us can walk by a hungry person, or lift up a loaf of bread, or pick a flower, or look into the eyes of a child quite the same way as we did before. Christian faith is an incarnational faith.
Sunday worship isn’t meant to be a spectator sport. It’s meant to engage all of our senses, body and soul, heart and mind, in the praise of God. We love to focus on the spiritual, the uplifting, the inspiring aspects of our time together in this sanctuary. But is this service only a time to sing a few hymns, think a few lofty thoughts, feel a few warm fuzzies, and go home? Or is this service a time to rededicate ourselves to working in this world, through concrete actions, in our everyday lives, as Christ’s hands and feet? How do we gather in his name in the face of terrorism, inequality, and threats to life on this planet?
The offering is the link, the vital connection between our words and our deeds, our inspired impulses and our concrete commitments. The offering reminds us that Christian worship is about who we are and what we do. It connects our faith to our jobs, our daily cares and concerns, what we eat, what we wear, where we live, how we vote.
Our offering is our actions, our gifts, our deeds, our way of giving back to the God who has so graciously given to us.
This isn’t what many may think of as a “stewardship sermon” asking for money. It’s simply an affirmation of the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost – when barriers were broken down, when connections overcame differences, and when being in communion meant sharing bread and cup with all.
Today’s reading from Acts says that at the end of Pentecost, the church gathered to devote “themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” That sounds like us on Sunday, just like the first apostles at worship.
But the reading continues: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” They would give all that they had to all in need.
What’s the test of our worship together? It’s our offering. It’s how “together” we are as the church. It’s how able we are to produce “glad and generous hearts.” It’s how well we reach out to others in need, in concrete ways. It’s how well we’re able not just to listen to the word, or to sing the hymns. It’s how well we’re able to offer ourselves in tangible ways – small and large – to one another, and to God. Amen.