Scriptures: Isaiah 29:13-15; Colossians 3:12-17; Hebrews 12:25-13:3

Reformed Worship: The Sacraments and the Offering

As we continue the sermon series on Reformed worship, we have seen that we were made for worship, and will worship something or someone. Because God is worthy of our worship for who He is and what He has done in His mercy for us, we need to worship Him with all our hearts. Worship, therefore, is all about the heart as we give God glory and seek His Word for us today.

In Reformed worship, we gather together to make our hearts right with God and with each other as we sing praises, confess our sins, and pass the peace. Once we have made our hearts right, we open our hearts and minds to God’s Word as it is sung, read, and preached. Some see Communion as an extension of this, as we actually act out the Word through the Sacrament.

Once we have heard the message from God, we then need to respond to the Word. This third part of Reformed worship is also – at its core – a matter of the heart. Having heard the Word, and having been (hopefully) inspired and encouraged and edified by it, we then with grateful and joyful hearts share a variety of responses to the Good News.

If “Hearing the Word” is the climax and focus of worship for the Reformed believer, then “Responding to the Word” is probably the most diverse part. This is good, since it gives each individual a chance to express themselves in their own particular way.

Contained within the Response to the Word is Affirmations of Faith, like the Apostles Creed; Testimonies, which we have talked about and asked for people to share “God-sightings”; the Sacraments of Baptism and Communion, the Offering, and Prayers of the People – though just as Communion kind of blurs the line between “Hearing the Word” and “Responding to the Word”, Prayers of the People blurs the line between the Response to the Word and the “Taking the Word into the World” – which we will hear more about next week.

As with almost everything covered so far, each of these items could easily have their own sermon; but we will gloss over some, and focus on two – Communion and Offering. If you have questions about other parts, you can ask by email, a phone call – whatever works.

For many churches, immediately after the second hymn (which I like to refer to as “the sermon in song”) they have an affirmation of faith. This is usually expressed as one of the creeds to which the church confesses. We have a Book of Confessions in the Presbyterian Church, and I think we're now up to fourteen confessions, with the Belhar Confession added in. The very founding of the church was in response to the Word, and the action of the Holy Spirit. We recognize that tie with the church universal and its precedent as we – in unity with them – confess to certain revealed and time-tested essential truths.

The Apostle’s Creed is probably the best known, but the Nicene Creed is also very popular, and is actually more universal in nature. So we respond with mindful hearts and determined spirits to declare the Word of truth God has given to His people.

While it has fallen out of favor in many mainline churches, and I rarely see it in a Presbyterian church, our Directory of Worship, which is in the Book of Order, does speak of the validity and importance of testimony. This is not an opportunity for bragging, and no one who gives one should have that attitude. And no one should hesitate because they fear being seen as having that attitude.

At its core, testimony means witnessing. In this case, having heard the Word, someone then witnesses to the work and/or blessing of God in their lives as an encouragement to others. Someone going through a dry time in their spiritual life may be particularly impacted in a positive manner if they hear how someone else had the same kind of struggle, and how God supported and blessed them through it. It should be the product of a joyful and grateful heart. That is why I like to call it the God-sightings.

The sacrament of Baptism is obviously a response to the Word of God revealed to someone’s heart, as they hear the message of the Gospel, that Jesus Christ came and suffered and died to cleanse us of our sins with his blood, and was raised again that we might be new creatures and have new life in him.

They respond with a heart of gratitude and praise in making Jesus the Lord of their lives and affirming that publicly. As adults, they make that public profession to all as a testimony to the work of the Holy Spirit, and the change in their lives. One Baptist friend used to say that baptism is an outward sign of an inward change.

In the case of infant baptism, the parents testify to the power and work of the Holy Spirit, and the child is baptized on account of their faith, to be confirmed when they grow old enough to affirm such beliefs themselves. I would remind you that in baptism the congregation also makes vows, to help support the parents nurture the child and help them be raised to know the word of the Lord and the gospel of Jesus Christ. We have a part to play in their faith, and we need to take it seriously.

The Prayers of the People is the last part of the “Response to the Word”, and it bleeds over into the “taking the Word into the World”. This is primarily because for most, it is a time of intercession for others. Having heard the Word and testified to it in a number of ways, we pray to God for ourselves and others. We share our joys (which is a form of testimony), pray for God to continue to work in our lives, and then pray for God to work in the lives of others, and in the life of the church.

Since part of the mission of the church is to spread the Gospel into the World, this prayer can lend itself to that. Of course, we finish with the Lord’s Prayer (which another whole sermon series could be given on alone) and that is concerned with us as individual believers and thus fits here in the Response to the Word.

Just so you know, there is a format that I use when I do the Prayers of the People or the Pastoral Prayer. It's something that I use to teach people when they're praying, and that is the acronym ACTS. We start with adoration. Then we give confession of our need for God. Then we give thanksgiving for God's faithfulness. And finally we make supplication, and intercession on behalf of others. And as I noted a moment ago, we wrap it up with the Lord's Prayer, which Jesus himself taught us.

Now we get to the two main responses to the Word that I want to discuss today. And again, there isn’t enough time to go into either fully. But here is a brief exposition.

Communion and the Offering get to the heart of what it means to “Respond to the Word.” I am going to start with the Offering. This is best covered in understanding stewardship, and I will probably preach on it fully someday – but I won’t say when, because if this church is like most mainstream churches, 75% of you will have other commitments on that Sunday.

Contrary to popular belief, the Offering is not “dues” for the church to keep running, or “emotional extortion”, or any of a number of other claims. If you want to consider something as “dues,” consider per capita the dues for being part of the Presbyterian denomination and the covenant people. By the way, I don’t think you will find any other organization that you can belong to that costs less than the $38 or so per year that is our per capita.

The offering is to be a heartfelt response to the blessing and grace that God has shown in your life – most fully in the salvation achieved for you in Jesus Christ. It isn’t the actual dollar amount that is important so much as the sacrifice behind it. Remember, Jesus said the widow with her two mites gave more than the rich man with his bag of gold, because he gave out of his excess – what he had left over, and she gave all she had.

I am a big proponent of the tithe. It is a great spiritual discipline that helps us achieve those fruits of the Spirit Paul talks about in Galatians. It was the starting place for the Jews, and Jesus was an observant Jew. If you give more than 10%, God bless you! You have the gift of generosity, and God will honor these gifts and return them to you in even greater magnitude.

I also believe that the offering, despite the example of the widow and her two mites, is not meant to be given over paying things like your mortgage. That's not a good practice. Instead, you try to align – and at your age most of you are probably way better at this than I am, where you set things up to live within your means, assuming that the tithe is given.

The offering is meant to be a sign – a token – of your giving your whole life in service to the King of kings; and it is meant to be done by believers. I am modern enough that I will take whatever is put in the plate for the work of the church, but in the early church it was for members of the community alone. You see, until you actually knew and experienced the grace of God in Jesus Christ, you couldn’t possibly give back in the right spirit and heart. Until you had achieved that reconciliation with God, and with your fellow believers, you couldn’t possibly make an acceptable sacrifice to God, as Jesus himself said.

It is a privilege, not some onerous duty, to give an offering unto God here in worship. You have the comfort, if you will, of knowing this offering is for the benefit of God’s church both here and elsewhere. I would note that the Thessalonians gave a mighty offering for the church in Jerusalem, despite being poor themselves, and Paul commends them for it.

We don’t tell you folks what to give. And we don't tell folks what you gave. It is between you and God, and interests us only in that it may tell us if there is something wrong with either our relationship, or your life situation. People who have given regularly, and then suddenly drop off tend to be either ticked off about something, or have suffered a serious financial setback.

In the first case, we want to make things right and reconcile as God has called us to do, so our hearts can be right when we come to worship God. In the second case, we as a church have a responsibility to you as part of the family of God to try to help you in every way possible through whatever struggle you may be having.

Well, enough about the offering (for now). We come to Communion – another highly misunderstood response to the Word of God. And again, I don’t have time to go into it in-depth; but understandings of Communion range from a means of grace in the Catholic church to an ordinance that is just remembering with the Anabaptists.

Presbyterians, “people of the middle way”, are partway between these views. For us, Communion is a Sacrament that is the sign and seal of God’s grace. While it is not a means of grace, like a notary public’s seal or the embossed state seal on a marriage certificate, it lets us know that the gospel and the grace received are real, witnessed to, true, and dependable.

We believe Jesus Christ is present with us spiritually in the taking of the bread and the cup. ,As is attested to in our liturgy when we speak of “with the angels and all the saints of every time and place who forever sing to the glory of your name,” the Church triumphant is also present with us in this Sacrament.

With this understanding, we see John Calvin’s description of Communion as “an aid to faith” in its entirety. Communion is to be a moment when, with hearts full of joy and gratitude, we are strengthened by Christ’s presence, empowered by the Spirit, and emboldened by a sense of the greater Church, so that we can go out into the world with confidence and share the Good News of Jesus Christ to a needy yet hostile world.

Let me try a couple of quick illustrations to describe this. One writer has said that worship is the engine of faith, and that Communion is the gas that fills the tank. In a similar example, a young couple who joined one of the churches I have served went through membership class. She was Catholic, and he was Methodist – so naturally, they chose Presbyterian as their compromise.

When talking about Communion, one said “I don’t understand, You go to work not just to work, but to give you the money you need to live – pay rent, buy groceries, etc. Many people live from paycheck to paycheck, and quickly discover that when the bank account is empty, you can’t get what you need to live. Communion fills our spiritual 'bank account,' and without that people can’t get what they need to live out God’s will. Why wouldn’t they want that?”

It was a great question, and a great perspective on Communion. Why not, indeed. The early church had fellowship every day with each other as they broke bread together, taught and debated every day in the synagogue, and they had Communion every Sunday for the members after the praise time was finished – to prepare them for the next week’s challenges.

In modern times, for the churches who understand Communion as a means of grace, this practice is required every week. For churches that don’t see the Communion as a sacrament at all, they frequently have it once or twice a year. It simply isn’t as important, but it was something Jesus commanded.

For Presbyterians, the practice varies from church to church, usually between monthly and quarterly. For a few who believe in quarterly practice, it simply isn’t that important, although for some, it's the opposite. It's because they fear it “losing its specialness.” There is a saying that “Familiarity breeds contempt,” and these folks fear that happening.

Let me suggest to you that there are two kinds of familiarity. The kind that breeds contempt sees the focus of feeling as an object. You may put someone on a pedestal, but then as you know them better, these people, you see their faults and you start to think “They aren’t what I thought they were,” or even “Wow. I may even be better than them” and “I certainly don’t need them/it.” That in turn is what breeds the contempt or patronizing feelings we speak of in that saying.

But there is another kind of familiarity – one that is seen in long-time marriages and partnerships. As we spend time with the one we love, we gain in intimacy and trust. As we grow more familiar with them, recognizing their faults and loving them anyways or even for them, we are not contemptuous, but comfortable.

We can trust them as nobody else; be vulnerable with them; and count on them for support and love when perhaps no one else in the world would. Long-time partners are familiar with each other and how they will react or even think, coordinating their efforts so smoothly that the rest of us just stare with our mouths open and say “How did they do that?”

That kind of familiarity is what should occur with Communion. It is not just a “thing.”. It is part of a relationship of love and trust that gives us the opportunity to spend some time just basking in the love of God for us and to be reassured of the reality of His grace and His promises. We meet Christ there, and are given the strength and encouragement we need to fulfill His will in the world by Him.

As with the rest of worship, Communion and all the rest of our responses are all about that relationship, and our hearts. If we have that gratitude and joy, we receive the promised foretaste of heaven itself, and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. If we do not, then it is like the Israelites in our passage in Isaiah, an empty and pitiful thing, serving little purpose and not worth doing.

It just so happens, timing-wise, we are going to share in Communion in a moment. It is my prayer for you that this time would be a time of grateful reflection, joyful rapport with the One who saved us, and encouraging unity with all who profess Christ as Savior. From this time together, may you be raised up and be made ready to move to the next part of our worship, where we dedicate ourselves to serving God in this world.

And may God get the glory and honor here and every day of your lives. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.