4 Holy Acts During Worship

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Words are important. Relationships and worship (or worship as an indication of relationship) require words, and the use of our words and actions will either build up or break down our relationship with God and with one another. The four words I have briefly outlined in my previous post here—singing, reading, preaching, and praying—constitute the language of love which, when properly engaged, are a language of transformation. God spoke, and everything came into being. Similarly, in some small way, what and how we speak has creative and transformative potential. The Spirit “broods” upon the water of words in worship.

The same might be said regarding the actions of worship. Liturgy, public worship, is about living (Alexander Schmeman). Public worship is not just about feeling good, it is also about being good. The proper worship of God simultaneously moves us both inward (self-care) and outward (other-care). When we do not properly attend to the actions of worship, both within and beyond the Worship Service proper, it is like expressing verbal love to your spouse without visual follow-up. Put within a far more vulgar framework, “bringing home the bacon” does not mean you love your spouse —- it means you are a competent butcher! Words and actions go together as do faith and works.

When people celebrate their anniversaries, as I just did, they often repeat their vows. I, for one, have absolutely no hesitation about this tradition. In similar fashion, public worship must make a place for recitation action. That is, after the Word is read and preached, we must recite what God has revealed and which is briefly summarized in a Creed — such as the Apostles’ Creed.  The recitation of the Creed is a renewal of our vows to God. When we say these words, from the heart, it says that we believe what God has said and we will behave in a manner appropriate to our belief. Creeds have at least three purposes. Creeds defend faith, define faith, and determine the bounds of community. When we say “I love you” to our spouse, when we say “I do,” we are defending, defining, declaring, and determining the bounds of our unique relationship. Creeds do the same thing for the church. It is, in another way, providing the very broadest context in which the preached and prayed Word is further vocalized and validated.

Reconciliation action is also critical to proper worship. Worship hinges upon certain actions taken at certain times. Reformed churches, as an example, read the Ten Commandments as an introduction to the Service of Worship. There is a solid reason for doing this, articulated by Paul the Apostle: law precedes grace. Unless we clearly know that we are sinners, we cannot appreciate the saving and sanctifying work of Christ. Worship has such an ordered structure, although not every church will read the Ten Commandments before worship. Within the structure of public worship, reconciliation takes place after the Creed, but before Holy Communion (the remembrance word). Having heard the Word, and affirming the Word through the recitation of the Creed, we now act upon the word—this Word of reconciliation. If the Gospel is about anything, it is about God’s love toward humanity. It is about reconciliation.  The Bible tells us, in at least two places (if not many more), that reconciliation precedes the Service of Remembrance. Before we “do this” we must first “be reconciled.” The “be” precedes the “do,” at least as far as is reasonably possible. The greeting and the announcements should occur at this time, and not before. The reason for this is because the Word (in all its expressions) move us toward God, whereas, after the Word, the actions move us toward one another. To put the greeting or announcements before the Word suggests a “Me-First” or “Us-First” theology. To place the greeting at the hinge between Word and action, most especially when the Lord’s Supper is a crucial part of worship, places the greeting as a form of ritual reconciliation. This is appropriate.

Many Protestant churches are recovering the importance of the Lord’s Supper, often making it a weekly celebration. My purpose is not to suggest frequency. Frequency is a matter of personal and congregational choice. Some celebrate yearly. Some celebrate monthly. Some celebrate weekly. Each has their own perspective. Rather, my purpose is to affirm fidelity to Christ’s call (“Do this”) as an intentional part of weekly worship. We may not celebrate Communion every week, but worship requires that the saving acts of God in and through Jesus Christ play a central role in our weekly worship. As such, in some way, Communion must always be profiled.

How might we understand this? Often Christian theology tends to be incarnational or cruciform. We either focus upon the initial coming of Christ or the crucifixion of Christ. Although Protestants embrace both, because we are indebted to Paul, Augustine, and Luther, we tend to focus upon the Cross of Christ, except when it comes to public worship.

As it was our Anniversary, I decided to take my wife out to dinner. It was a fine meal that satisfied our physical and our relational hungers. When we eat, we talk. We could and we do talk elsewhere. We do have rich conversations without eating. But there is a special connection when we eat and we talk. Jesus was expert at this. The same is true with worship. The first half of worship is, bluntly, about talking. The second half is about eating. Both rest upon the hinge (just discussed) of relationship. The Lord’s Supper, even if we do not participate weekly, must be prominently profiled. This might begin by simply being more attentive to the physical structure of the church. How we physically organize our church for worship will always, without exception, say something. What are we saying, even without intending it? Recently, I was asked to give a worship workshop at a local church. One of the issues we looked at was architecture: how the church was laid out. Like most churches, they featured a Communion Table at the front of the church. Nothing was on it. It was essentially bare. Week after week, it was bare. What was unconsciously being communicated by the bare Table was “come to the feast, although we are not offering anything.” I pointed this out to the leaders of the church. The next week, when I arrived to preach, there was a beautiful pitcher (indicating the “wine” of Communion) and plate (indicating the “bread” of Communion) on the Table. While what they originally communicated was subliminal, it was a biblically and theologically unsound message they were communicating. Just by having a Table, a pitcher, and a plate there was a visual reminder of Christ’s “once for all” sacrifice. We must also rethink how Communion, representing Christ’s sacrifice, should be communicated every week at worship.

We have spoken. We have enjoyed Word-centered worship. We have eaten. We have engaged in Sacrament-centered worship. We must now leave the church. That is, it is time to receive the Benediction. This is the action of release. Many people do not know what to do with the Benediction at the end of worship. For many people it is almost like having an extra toe; it’s there, but you are really not sure that it serves any useful purpose. If pressed, I do not think most people would miss the Benediction if it did not occur. This is unfortunate. In fact, when done well, when the congregation is properly educated and oriented, the Benediction serves as a blessing to be received (personal) and a sending forth (released) into the world to preach the gospel of Christ (social). The Benediction is not a sending forth to lunch. The receiving of the graces of Word and Sacrament now result in our being sent out with a Great Commission that is best expressed through the Great Commandment. When we hear the final word, the Benediction, it should always mean “Go” in the way that Jesus Christ said it in Matthew 28.

We have now briefly and broadly reflected upon eight essential elements of worship. Just like any good and growing relationship, words and actions are essential. Romance, at its best, is not simply a feeling. Romance is constructed upon a set of words and actions that hinge upon and are centered within a solid relationship. Worship is liturgical romance. In celebrating God’s saving acts, the mutual love shared between God and His Church is enjoyed. Every week is, in fact, an Anniversary where (again) we renew our vows and we are renewed. The Language of Love and the Language of Holiness find their center in weekly worship. This cannot be arbitrary.

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