22nd of the Year, 3 Sep 23
There’s nothing like a nice special offer is there? I’m sure we all like it when we get 50p off something or two for the price of one or we get to the shelves in the supermarket when something is going out of date at midnight and so it has been reduced. A bargain. A special offer.
I want us to have a think about the special offer we are to be particularly concerned with as God’s people. That is the offer of course that we are to give to God, the offer of our self. Words from our second reading, Romans 12:1 “Present [we could equally say “offer”] your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (I’m using the RSV translation which is better than the one provided I must say).
The language of offering has always struck me as particularly powerful and expressive about what we are to be about. People may say they believe in God but we can recognise that lots of things exist and it makes no difference to the way we live our lives. I’m sure there’s sufficient evidence for us to say with absolute confidence that the planet Venus exists but it doesn’t affect the way I live my life. Whereas offering has a much greater potency. I offer myself, who I am, without conditions very rarely. Offering requires me to trust the recipient and to have confidence either in my own abilities or in the recipient’s mercy and forgiveness. If I offer myself to the extent that I surrender my own power to say yes or no then I need to know the one who receives me is going to be true goodness, one who wants the best for me and whose desire for this is not going to be altered.
All this is true of God, needless to say, and supremely it is to Him that we are to offer our self, who we are, our deepest being, thoughts and words, fears and hopes. The language of offering to God has within the Church always been linked to notions of sacrifice. The people of the Old Testament were to offer the first fruits of all they produced to God, from children to crops. King Melchizedek appears as if from nowhere in Genesis 14 bringing bread and wine, a prefiguring of that which priests of the new covenant will offer to the King of Kings - and Abram gives him a tenth of everything. The sacrifices made in the Temple of old were a reminder that the response of humanity to God can only be about offering. God gives us everything, including life itself and our response can only be to give God thanks through offering it back to Him and in this way do we also ensure that what we are given is used for the highest good possible, the service of God. For this reason we tithe, giving financially to the Church not only to ensure the mission of the Church can happen, but because it also means we are getting the direction of travel correct in our own life, not seeking God so as to get more from him, but seeking God that we may recognise all we do is give to Him what He already gave to us.
Supremely the offering of humanity to God is on the Cross. Jesus says as He hangs there for the redemption of the world: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” (St Luke 23:46 quoting Psalm 31:5). Jesus must drink the cup of suffering, which is the will of the Father. He is the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep, and He lays it down freely (St John 10:18). And as Abraham was called to sacrifice his son Isaac and prepares to do so by building an altar made of wood, so our Lord is sacrificed on the wood of the Cross, the altar of the Cross. As is written in Hebrews 9:13-14 “if the blood of goats and bulls … sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!”
I hope everyone has a Crucifix at home to help us to gaze upon our Lord and His offering of His self to the Father. When we ponder this outpouring of love we see Jesus acting in perfect union with and obedience to the will of the Father. We follow His command so whenever we meet we do this with Bread and Wine in remembrance of Him. We take, we give thanks, we distribute, we eat, just as our Lord did when He fed the crowds miraculously with five loaves and two fishes (St John 6). The Mass then, in the words of the the hymn writer William Bright, is how we present “the only offering perfect in thine eyes, the one true, pure immortal sacrifice.”
The generosity of God at this Mass as we stumble and scramble to offer ourselves to Him is such that He provides for us what we need to offer. And because we must strive to offer what is best, He gives Himself, His own flesh and blood. Right back to the institution of the Passover did God make it clear to Moses that it wasn’t to be any old lamb that was to be offered, but it was the firstborn. The most precious of the flock, who was to be without blemish: he and he alone was to be offered as the Passover Lamb (Exodus 12).
Let’s then each day ask ourselves, my friends, whether we offer our best to God. What does the best me, the best you look like? Well, we’d be more prayerful, more attentive to the Word of God. We’d be devout, listening with humility and willing to obey. We’d be disrupted, our own plans mattering a little less as we hear God’s call and know where He wants us to be. We’d be kinder, more time spent with the broken and those in need. There’d be fewer excuses. There’d be more time confessing our sin, because with holiness of life comes a greater awareness of how our life falls short of the call of God.
We mustn’t assume we know what offering ourselves to God looks like; it won’t necessarily look good on a Youtube video or a TikTok upload, it wouldn’t necessarily mean we win great acclaim from our family or friends. Our Gospel today continues from last Sunday, working through St Matthew 16. Peter was heralded then, you will recall, as the rock, his name changed, given keys to the kingdom of Heaven, gosh he must have got it cracked, this discipleship thing. Perhaps ebullient with this new confidence he objects to Jesus saying the Messiah was to suffer grievously at the hands of the religious leaders of their day: “Heaven preserve you, Lord,” St Peter objects, “this must not happen to you.” Surely the Son of God offering Himself to the Father doesn’t look like hard work or involve pain or shame or doing what others would not want to do? Well, yes it does. It’s a misunderstanding we each make when we consider what offering ourselves to the Lord will look like.
The language of offering is always physical. In the passage from Romans 12 Paul talks about offering “living bodies,” real flesh and blood, not good intentions, not happy thoughts, not pious aspirations, but lives poured out like a libation, to use the image of the drink offering St Paul uses to refer to his own life near its end (II Timothy 4:6). Today, 3rd September, were it not a Sunday, the Church would be celebrating St Gregory the Great, who commissioned St Augustine of Canterbury to come to these isles and to reinvigorate the Church. St Gregory’s Pastoral Rule is easily available in English to read and worth doing so. In one passage St Gregory is commenting on our Lord’s Resurrection appearance to Peter when he asks Do you love me? Peter says I do and Jesus says, “Feed my sheep,” (St John 21). Gregory writes, “If, then, the care of feeding is the proof of loving, whosoever abounds in virtues, and yet refuses to feed the flock of God, is convicted of not loving the chief Shepherd,” (1.5). Offering ourselves to God will then be evident in the way we encourage others in the faith and help nurture them in their relationship with God.
One final quotation from St Gregory which I think helps us work out what offering ourselves looks like. Remember always the need for humility, my friends, and consider how better it can be lived in our context. St Gregory writes, “It is not humble to refuse to do that which we should, it is only humble when we end up doing what God wants us to do irrespective of the ease with which we can fulfil it.” If we find life a struggle and us doing good things which are a struggle; if we get to Mass and it’s been a real nuisance to get here then rejoice, my friends, because that is a sign you have let another be sovereign in your life, one who calls us to follow Him even when circumstances make it difficult to do so.
The call of the Christian is to gaze adoringly on the Lord, as articulated by the psalmist: “As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, … so our eyes look to the Lord our God, until he has mercy upon us,” (Psalm 123:2). This is what we come here to do. As we gaze on the Lord in this place, beyond the outward signs of bread and wine we see Jesus constantly offering Himself to the Father. He is the Head of the Church and so we to unite ourselves each day to that offering of self and finding in that act perfect freedom and true joy. St Peter in today’s Gospel hasn’t quite worked out that that will mean inconvenience and suffering. Let’s ask for his prayers that we may learn from his mistake.