This sermon by David Welbourn is part of "Work in Worship," a collection of material for work-themed services compiled by David Welbourn. For more sermons, prayers, songs, and readings about work, click on the table of contents to the right.
The idea of offering our work to God in the sacrament of Holy Communion is not new. At the offering of the bread and wine, some churches use the following ancient words, said respectively over the bread and wine:
Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation; through your goodness we have this bread to offer, which earth has given and human hands have made. It will become for us the bread of life.
Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation; through your goodness we have this wine to offer, fruit of the vine and work of human hands. It will become our spiritual drink.
Bread and wine, both described as "the work of human hands", both offered to God. In using these words, our Christian forebears were indicating their belief that God intends human work to contribute to his own sacred purposes.
How can this be? What if our work isn't particularly "Christian". Many Christians express that feeling. They are thereby reflecting a persistent misunderstanding in Christian circles that work is only worthy if it is directly to do with preaching or spreading the Gospel or with caring. Thus, the jobs of the minister of religion, or the missionary or the member of the so-called "caring" professions are acceptable to God, while all the rest (the vast majority of jobs) are not.
This reflects a very narrow perception of the purpose of God, a perception very different from that of Jesus, who declared "I have come that they may have life and have it in all its fullness". Fullness of life, or "life abundant" as Jesus' words are rendered in some translations, includes the material side of our being as well as the spiritual. So any job which contributes to human need of whatever kind is relevant to achieving God's purpose as understood by Jesus. The work of architects, accountants, planners and factory workers is as relevant as that of doctors, teachers, nurses and social workers in contributing to fullness of life.
So whatever our occupation, let us see in the offered bread and wine symbols of our own work. At the moment of the offertory let us offer our particular work, our particular Monday-to-Friday occupation, to God.
There is a sense, however, in which we must all be hesitant in offering our work to God - whatever our occupation. And the reason for our hesitation is our knowledge that our work is imperfect. Whether we are priest or publican, teacher or town planner, we all know that we fall short of God's standards, and that our work contributes to God's purpose ambiguously at best.
But this is not a reason for holding back our offering; least of all in the Holy Communion service. For consider what happens to the bread and the wine. These human artifacts are taken up by God and transformed by him. Then afterwards they are received back by us in their transformed state as "the body and blood of Christ". This is a perfect way of symbolising that our work as it is is imperfect and stands in need of God's forgiveness and his transforming power. At the offertory we offer to God our imperfect work and our inauthentic selves. But when we take the bread and wine we receive both back transformed by the real presence of Christ. Now our work is "embodied" by Christ and we ourselves are the "body of Christ", enabled by God's grace to do his work in the world.
The Revd David Welbourn is Churches' Officer for Industry and Commerce with the Surrey & North East Hampshire Industrial Mission.
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