Our reading this morning, from the Letter to the Romans, is a fitting conclusion to our retreat this week. Here we glimpse St. Paul describing his ministry in distinctly sacerdotal terms: “minister” of Christ; “priestly service” of the Gospel; “offering” of the Gentiles. The words are hieratic and sacrificial, and serve as self-description of Paul’s ministry, and also delineate the Christian life itself. For us, gathered this week, and now at this eucharist, St. Paul’s words help flesh out the priestly ministry entrusted to us as ordained presbyters and bishops of the church.
As a minister of Christ, Paul is a “liturgist” (that’s the Greek): not in the anachronistic sense that he’s engaged in the worship of the church, but in the original sense of liturgy, a public service or offering that builds up the community. St. Paul describes his ministry, his liturgy, as “priestly,” though it is not a reference to priestly service under the old covenant, but the service of the good news or gospel. He is explicitly sacrificial in his language, in terms of describing the “acceptable offering” of the Gentiles.
Here, St. Paul may be referring to the “offering” that the Gentiles make, perhaps the collection for Jerusalem that he refers to a number of other times in his letters, and which we read about in Acts. This collection would certainly rise to the level of a public service or offering, a sacrificial gift from the gentile church on behalf of the mother church in Jerusalem. A good work, if you will, given by those who are well supplied to those who are in need of provision.
It’s quite likely, however, that we are meant to take this “offering of the Gentiles” (Rom. 15:16), that Paul refers to, not in the sense of the offering that the Gentiles make, conveyed by him to the Jerusalem church; but rather as the offering represented by the Gentiles themselves, made by Paul the priestly servant of God. William Sanday and Arthur Headlam put it this way in their influential commentary on Romans: “St. Paul is standing at the altar as priest of the Gospel, and the offering that he makes is the Gentile Church” (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary, 5th ed., 1902). The priestly service that Paul renders, in other words, is not conceived as the offering of something extrinsic to the church, an offering of alms, but rather as an offering of something intrinsic to it: the offering of the church itself.
St. Augustine conjures with this vivid image of the church itself upon the altar when he wrote in the City of God, “This is the sacrifice of Christians, who are ‘many, making up one body in Christ’ (1 Cor. 10:17). This is the sacrifice which the church continually celebrates in the sacrament of the altar, a sacrament well-known to the faithful where it is shown to the Church that she herself is offered in the offering which she presents to God.” (10.6).
Or, as Augustine put it in a sermon on the eucharist, Jesus “wanted us ourselves to be his sacrifice” (Sermon 227). Whatever sacrifice we offer, even the sacrifice of “ourselves, our souls and bodies,” is only possible through the sacrifice of Christ. Again, as Augustine writes in the City of God, “Thus he is both the priest, himself making the offering, and the oblation. This is the reality, and he intended the daily sacrifice of the Church to be the sacramental symbol of this; for the Church, being the body of which he is the head, learns to offer itself through him” (10.20; trans. John O’Meara).
Christ’s ministry is priestly; St. Paul in our reading casts his own ministry in terms of priestly service, as well. There is an offering to be made by Christians, therefore, and the offering is of ourselves through Christ. St. Augustine defined sacrifice as actions intended to unite ourselves to God in fellowship; as acts of compassion for ourselves or others, directed toward God (10.6). Sacrifice and offering have implications for the priestly ministry of all Christians, and especially for those of us who share in the priestly ministry ordained by Christ.
All of which returns us to the “source and summit” of the Christian life, in the sacrifice of the Eucharist. Today we break the bread and drink the cup, joining at this altar in the sacrifice of Christ himself. He has offered himself for us so that sins may be forgiven, and so that we may be empowered for the ministry he has called us to. When the church gathers, it offers itself in unity with Christ’s sacrifice, which alone makes the offering of the church possible. In our various orders, Christ has called us to be effective servants and symbols of his mission and ministry.
Jesus himself has called us to this work, to the priestly service of the Gospel, to make an offering acceptable and holy in his sight. This work will stretch us, and demand from us all that we are. But he would not have called us if he had not also prepared for us every grace that we need to answer the call! Today Christ gives himself, his Body and Blood, so that we, and the whole church, may be filled with his own life, and equipped with every good gift we need for the ministry to which he’s called us.