Readings Acts 4: 32- 5:6 and Luke 12:13-31
We're continuing our series exploring the reasons and stories behind the fundamental building blocks of our service. After breaking the procession last week to explore the acknowledgement of country, we return to the pattern of working backwards to ask, why do we take time to take up and dedicate an offering each week.
Let's start with why do we have an offering, by that I mean, why is it the nature of the church that we ask for money in order to function. Because there could be other ways… some sort of membership, or door fee for entry, money could be raised via the selling of services and other religious deeds). Yet, that is - by and large - not the way (though the cultural and political position of the church in the history of these lands does mean that some churches draw the bulk of their income, or supplement their income through other means… property hire, rental, etc). But at a base level the church has long functioned on the practice of its members offering some of what they possess to the communal body of the church.
Let us reflect on that reading from Acts, we learn here that the church held all things in common so that none in the community would go without. The proceeds of property being sold would be redistributed to the community. (Now whether we want to read what happens to Ananias and Sapphira as a literal occurrence, or more as a parable, is more than we can adequately explore today, but either way, the message is that there is no private possession - nothing that a member of the community held should be hidden from God and the body of Christ, for to close off oneself and one’s holdings brought about death, led to a rupture in the body and the community).
But the sustaining of the community of disciples goes back further than even the start of the church in the afterglow of the resurrection. In Luke 8 we learn that, Jesus travelled with the twelve, but also a number of women, Mary, Joanna, Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources. It was these women who provided the financial means to clothe, feed, and fund the itinerant earthly ministry of Jesus. For them, we give thanks.
So we have both the sharing of resources to support the local community of faith, and before that the ministry of Jesus himself, but we also see in the New Testament, special offerings taken up to support churches in other places. Paul, in particular mentions in several letters an offering he is collecting to help the poor in the church in Jerusalem (almost analogous to the way some of our offering goes to churches in other places (Bruce and Kathy's work, Uniting World, but also Synod and Presbytery).
So the church has, from the beginning operated with a communal spirit where what the individual person possesses rightly belongs to God and should thus be held loosely and used for the service of others and the building up of the local and wider church.
At the same time, the church has (at its best) sought to mitigate against any special or preferential treatment based on how much one person is able to give. James, for instance, angrily castigates churches which are showing partiality for those who are rich and disdain for those who are poor. He writes that such a dishonoring of the poor not only denies the glory of Jesus Christ but overlooks the fact that it is indeed the rich who oppress and blaspheme against the name of Jesus.
The church relies on the free offerings of those in the community because this reflects the communal nature of the body of Christ in which we each bear responsibility in its building up. It further reflects the overturning of the normal economic order where wealth reflects blessings and bestows the haver with preferential treatment. The offering reflects the position of the church within the community where resources are shared and managed in such a way as to promote as little inequality as possible, so that all members will be freed of the kind of material insecurity and anxiety that might inhibit their discipleship.
So if that is, in part, why the church’s fundamental financial shape is one founded on the offering of those who make up its body, why then do we take up and dedicate the offering during the service?
This is an even more pressing question in our times given that more and more people give online and that since COVID we are not passing the bowl about. Again there are other ways in which the offering can be collected none of which draw attention to itself in the service.
Some might argue this is even preferable. There are many whose objection to organised religion is the way it takes money from parishioners… often people have charged the church from getting rich off the poverty of others (and this has happened). Would it not be better to omit this from our service… would it not make it easier for visitors and those just looking to see 'what this Christianity thing is all about?'
And yet the main reason we still take the time to pause and acknowledge the offering, to dedicate it in prayer and lift our voice in praise of the God from whom all blessings flow is because this is what this Christianity thing is all about. God is the one who gives all good things, and so the church is a gift of God. The church is founded on Christ the cornerstone, and its life depends on the Spirit who pours out their gifts on all flesh.
This giftedness, this reliance on divine grace, informs how we use our own gifts, and time, and possessions. The offering is not taken because we are obliged or guilted – it is a time in which out of gratitude for Christ and commitment to his way, we demonstrate our desire to live open lives. To be open and generous with our gifts, time, and possessions. To live open hearted, not build up storehouses for surplus when others go hungry, to not live siloed away from our community and neighbors, but rather to choose to be part of a body, to be part of a movement of disciples who seek to love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly with our God.
And so we pause. We note that offerings are made to the building up and sustaining of the church in this place (as well as any other offerings made that day to the work of others seeking to do the work of justice and love). We dedicate it to God and its faithful and bold use, and then we remind ourselves that the very life of the church is a gift, and that we are blessed to get to be here, blessed to be participating in the ongoing and unfolding ministry of Jesus, who came to beat back the forces of death and form a community in his own image, so we may have life, and have it to the full.
Image: Saturnino Herrán (1887 – 1918, Mexican) The Offering, 1913.
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