Note: This is an excerpt from the authors’ new book, Work and Worship: Reconnecting Our Labor and Liturgy. Footnotes have been omitted.
That we can give at all rests on what we have been given, on the sense of receiving our very selves as gift.—Rowan Williams, Eucharistic Sacrifice
Am I worthy to approach God with the work of my hands? My daily labors are often selfish and sin-stained. My work is implicated in a global economic system that includes moral corruption, economic injustice and environmental devastation. Are these feeble and fallen offerings worthy of a holy and righteous God? Modern workers who initiate an electronic transfer of tithes to their local church rarely, if ever, ask themselves questions like these. They seldom ask, “By what audacious magic do I dare approach God’s holy altar with the sordid fruits from my fallen labor?” These are not live questions for us today, but they should be.
Early Christians, like the ancient Israelites, considered these questions to be critical, and for good reason. In this final discussion of offering we will see that early Christians argued again and again that workers – on their own – should not dare to approach God with the fruits of their labor. They give several reasons for this. First of all, God does not need human work – or human workers, for that matter. God’s economy can run just fine without them. Moreover, God does not desire rebellious work or wicked workers to be offered up at his holy table. Sinful workers and unjust fruits – on their own – are absolutely disqualified and unworthy of admittance. On its own merits, sin-stained work can never be worship; on their own merits, sin-stained workers can never be worthy priests. In order for work to become worship, a greater work must be accomplished; in order for workers to become priests, a higher priest must ordain them.
In the New Testament and within early Christianity we see a strong emphasis on Christ as the sole high priest. Christ’s priesthood alone can transform a sinful group of workers into a holy priesthood. It is only through Christ’s work on the cross that humanity’s work in the world can be transformed into holy sacrifices of worship. Christ’s work makes humanity’s work worship. Christ’s work alone makes workers worthy to approach the altar (Hebrews 4:14-5:10). The secondary work and worship of humanity can be declared holy only because of Christ’s primary acts of worship and work in our place. The plural self-offerings of workers are made worthy (and delightful) to God through the singular self-offering of Christ (Hebrews 10:1-10; 13:15).
More than presenting a representative portion, early Christians were called to offer their whole lives as a sacrifice to God. Throughout the New Testament, the Apostolic Fathers and early Nicene Christianity we find repeated examples of early Christians describing the whole of their lives, labor, gifts, and their very bodies as instruments of holy sacrifice, offering and praise (Acts 20:35; Romans 12:1; 15:14-17; I Corinthians 16:1-2; II Corinthians 9:5-15; I Timothy 6:17-19; Hebrews 13:16).
Some modern Protestants have a habit of claiming that, because of the ultimate sacrifice of Christ, Israel’s practices of sacrifice are now irrelevant – they have been superseded. The early church fathers complicated these overeager dismissals. Jeremy Kidwell argues that, in the early church, Israel’s “practice of burnt offerings is not discarded by Christians but intensified.” [“Drawn into Worship,” p. 185] Christ’s sacrifice did not end our human responsibility to engage in sacrifice; instead, it radicalizes and spreads God’s sacrificial calling into every aspect of life and work. As Gregory of Nazianzus entreated his congregation, “Let us become reason-endowed whole burnt offerings.” [p. 186]
Edward Kilmartin, exploring the earliest theologies of sacrifice and offering, argues that for the early church, “Self-offering is the primary category: the surrender of the whole of human existence to the will of God in order to receive from him the meaning of one’s life. The paradigm is the self-emptying of Jesus (Hebrews 9:14). The self-offering of Christians committed to the way of Jesus embraces the whole range of human activity (Romans 12:1-2; 15:16).” [“Offerings,” p. 827] Note, for example, the apostle Paul’s comment on his body “being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice” (Philemon 2:17). Irenaeus adds that, in offering, the worshiper should imitate “the poor widow who threw her whole livelihood into the treasury of God [Luke 21:1-4].” [Against the Heresies, IV.18.2] Augustine says that in this liturgical action the worshiper must come to learn a scandalous truth: “She herself is offered in the very offering she makes to God.” [City of God 10.6]
Having noted the all-encompassing nature of early Christian sacrifice, let’s return to our primary questions: By what audacious magic are sinful works and sinful workers transformed into holy sacrifices of praise? What right do we have to call our work “worship”?
Cyril of Alexandria sheds important light on this question as he explores Christ’s active involvement in a disciple’s humble offering at the altar. For Cyril, Christ does not passively wait at the altar to receive the worker’s offering. Instead, Christ actually accompanies her as she stands up and makes her way to the altar. More than that, for Cyril, Christ appears to actually carry her (and her offering) to the throne of God. According to Lawrence Welch, “For Cyril, there is no other way the baptized can come to the Father except through the prayers and sacrifice of Christ. This insight is liturgi- cally experienced and inspired. Christ as high priest and mediator unites the baptized to himself by making them one with his ecclesial body thereby uniting them to the Father.” [Christology and Eucharist, p. 38] Instead of sinful workers trying desperately (and fruitlessly) to purify their sinful work on their own, Cyril demonstrates how the atoning work of Christ sanctifies their fallen work and readies it for worship.
Just as Christ took up our humanity and presented it to the Father, now also Christ takes up our work (present in the bread and wine) and lifts it up to God in an act of thanksgiving and praise. Cyril of Alexandria helps us to see that when a worker brings her daily work forward, she does not offer it alone. It is actually Christ who is offering not only her work but also her very body to God as worship. Welch argues that for Cyril, Christ carries “worship to the Father that sinful humanity cannot offer.” [p. 113] He continues, “Cyril insists that the risen Christ, ‘who is still one of us’ after the resurrection, continues to present himself to the Father on our behalf.” [p. 90] Christ alone, Cyril argues, can offer “the worship which fallen humanity owes to the Father.” [p. 112]
What is the relationship between our self-offering and Christ’s? Rowan Williams’s commentary on the early church fathers is helpful here. Williams affirms the Protestant reading that Christ alone is the sacrifice and the high priest, that Christ alone reconciles all things to God (Colossians 1). No further sacrifice needs to be made to restore the world to God; no human work needs to be done (Hebrews 10). Protestants everywhere cheer.
However, Williams offers a challenge (and an invitation) to Protestants as well. He argues that voices within the early church compel us also to recognize that God’s primary sacrificial move toward humanity invites and enables humanity to offer a secondary sacrificial response. As Williams observes,
The effect of Christ’s sacrifice is precisely to make us “liturgical” beings, capable of offering ourselves, our praises and our symbolic gifts to a God who we know will receive us in Christ. Because of the cross we are now…offered to the Father: what we are is redefined in sacrificial terms….We bring ourselves near to the altar of the cross as we come and offer our gifts – and we are encouraged to do so because the way is open through the flesh of Christ. [Eucharistic Sacrifice, p. 27, emphasis added]
Because of Christ’s priestly work, workers can enter into his holy priesthood. Within Christ’s priesthood, workers can engage in their own priestly acts of worship and work. Their small creations can enter into Christ’s new creation. As Williams notes, Christ’s “sacrifice wins a holy people, a praising people, who actualize their priestly task in a uniquely concentrated and fruitful fashion when they offer bread and wine as a memorial and a thanksgiving.” [p. 32] Therefore, Williams argues, “Christians are priests entirely in a derivative sense: They ‘offer,’ which is the characteristic priestly act, but only because they are being offered by the eternal high priest, and because they have been made a worthy offering by the atonement.” [p. 16]
In worship, Christ lifts workers up, having redeemed them and their work, and Christ offers them to the Father in an act of worship. In the sanctuary, Christ graciously gathers a multiplicity of diverse work and workers from all over the city and offers them up – plumbers, nurses, architects and teachers – to the Father as an offering of praise. In his priesthood, they are made priests; in his work, their work is worship.
In closing, we find Augustine deftly weaving all of these themes from the early church together. Here we watch as he threads together the work of our hands, the work of Christ, and the liturgical celebration of the Lord’s Supper into a single fabric.
A true sacrifice is every work which is done that we may be united to God….For, though made or offered by man, sacrifice is a divine thing….Thus man himself…is a sacrifice….Our body, too, is a sacrifice….True sacrifices are works of mercy to ourselves or others, done with a reference to God….This also is the sacrifice which the Church continually celebrates in the sacrament of the altar…in which…she herself is offered in the offering she makes to God. [City of God 10.6]
Content taken from Work and Worshipby Matthew Kaemingk and Cory B. Willson, ©2020. Used by permission of Baker Publishing www.bakerpublishinggroup.com.