October 28, 2007
Sermon by the Rev. Amanda Currie
People often joke that when Presbyterians gather together, there is always food involved. And though that may be true… coffee hours, pot luck suppers, tea and cake are not the main reasons that we gather together as a Christian community. The main reason that we come together in Presbyterian churches is to worship God. Worship is something that we do. That’s why, in the course of Presbyterianism 101, I couldn’t avoid devoting a worship service to considering how and why we worship.
Reformed Christians always begin any topic by looking to the Scriptures. For the readings today, I chose two texts written by the apostle Paul to the early Christian congregations. In both cases, Paul is writing to these churches to give them advice about how to live together in Christian community, and in both cases, worship is an important part of what the Christians are going to do together, day by day, and week by week.
But we don’t have to start with the letters to the early Christian churches to find out about worship. We could go back before the time of Jesus to the Matriarchs and Patriarchs who first believed in God and tried to live according to God’s will. Remember how Abraham followed God’s instructions to leave his homeland and go where God was sending him? As soon as Abraham arrived in a new place, he set up an altar so that he could give thanks to God and worship God in the new land that God had provided.
Remember the Hebrews, as Moses led them out of slavery in Egypt? When they crossed safely through the Red Sea, Miriam and the other women rejoiced. They played their tambourines, danced, and sang their thanks and praise to God for helping them. Remember the second commandment that God gave to Moses and the Israelites? The commandment said, “You shall not make for yourself an idol. You shall not bow down to an idol or worship an idol.” Essentially, you shall worship God alone.
Remember how King David and other leaders encouraged the people to worship the One God of Israel? Remember how they carried the ark of the covenant with the commandments of God into Jerusalem? Remember how King Solomon built a Temple there for the glory of God? Remember the Book of Psalms, a record of the spiritual songs that God’s People offered to God in their worship? As long as people have been aware of the One God, Creator and Ruler of the universe, they have been called by God to worship.
The Gospels witness to the fact that Jesus too had a faith in God that called him to worship. Though we read about times in his ministry that he went off in quiet to meditate and pray to God his Father, we also know that he regularly took part of public worship. When he was a child, Jesus’ family went to Jerusalem every year for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, he was found in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.
A chapter later, the grown-up Jesus is found in his local synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stands up, reads from the Scriptures, and takes his turn to interpret the Word of God for his time. Then, as Jesus begins his ministry of preaching about the coming of God’s Kingdom, Luke’s Gospel tells us that he proclaimed the message in the synagogues of Judea.
The Christian Churches that were established in the years following Jesus’ death and resurrection did not begin a new focus on gathering to worship God. They continued and developed an ancient practice that included praising God, reading and interpreting the Scriptures, and responding to God’s holiness and goodness by making offerings.
Through twenty centuries, Christian worship has been changed, ordered and shaped. Many things have changed about the way we worship God week by week… important things like the fact that both men and women are invited to be full participants and leaders in worship, wonderful things like the fact that we have copies of the Scriptures available for everyone to read in our own language, indifferent things like the particular instruments we use for our songs of praise and the way we often set up our worship spaces with wooden pews and an aisle down the centre.
But some things have also remained the same… like the fact that the church, as the body of Christ, is formed and reformed as it gathers around the Scriptures, the waters of baptism, and the Lord’s Table. Presbyterians call these “the means of grace,” meaning that they are the ways that God’s grace normally comes to us. They are God’s gifts, and we respond with praise, humility, thanksgiving and faithfulness.
The Presbyterian Church in Canada does not prescribe a particular order for worship. Increasingly, though, congregations are finding that one basic structure is the most helpful. In 1991, the Presbyterian “Book of Common Worship” was published. It says that “although worship is a constant movement of action and response with many variables, there emerges a basic structure of four components. The four basic components which give structure to the Order of Worship are:
Called to Worship
The Word Proclaimed
The Great Thanksgiving, and
You can see these basic components in our worship at St. Andrew’s if you take note of the section titles in the bulletin each Sunday. As God calls us to worship, our bulletin title notes that we “GATHER IN GOD’S NAME.” Next, we PROCLAIM GOD’S WORD with the children’s story, the readings and the sermon. In response to the Word, we GIVE THANKS TO GOD with our offerings and our prayers, and then we are dismissed with the commissioning and benediction to serve God in the world throughout the week.
Let’s think, for a moment, about the first part of our worship, the “rite of gathering.” Worship begins with God. God takes the initiative, calling us together. Our first act of public worship is to heed God’s call and to join with others in praising God. Our “Call to Worship,” which is often taken from Scripture, is our reminder that God calls us to worship. As the commandments tell us, we are to put God first in our lives and worship only God. In this first part of our worship, we gather, and we approach God with prayer and praise.
Singing is an important activity in worship. When we sing, we join our voices to proclaim the great truth of life: God is God. It doesn’t matter whether we can sing well; what is important is that we have something to sing about. Adoration or praise of God is central at the beginning of worship.
But we also know how difficult it is to live faithfully as God’s people. Therefore, adoration leads us to make our Confession. Trusting God’s graciousness, we admit our imperfection. When faced with God’s glory, we are aware of our unfaithfulness, our frailty, and our common and collective failure to be the people God calls us to be. We make our confession as people who have been embraced by God’s mercy. The “Declaration of Pardon”, or “Assurance of God’s Love and Grace” proclaims God’s faithfulness. We celebrate God’s glorious love and forgiveness in Jesus Christ – “Friends, believe the gospel: in Jesus Christ, we are forgiven!” Our lives are made whole by the saving grace of God. God does what we can not do for ourselves. God welcomes us, and sin no longer has power over us.
That is why many Presbyterian churches take a moment to share the “Peace” with each other, a sign of being reconciled with God and with each other. We may share the Peace with the people near us by a handshake, an embrace, a kiss or another sign that has meaning for the people. By passing the Peace, we affirm and share God’s healing, displaying a willingness to be channels of God’s restoring work.
Worship is something we do: we gather, we adore, we confess, we know God’s reconciling love, we share that reconciliation with others.
The next portion of our Sunday worship is “The Word Proclaimed.” With a prayer for illumination, we ask God to open our hearts and minds, by the Holy Spirit, and to help us understand what God is saying to the church today. We read from the Scriptures, both the Old and New Testaments, and we interpret the Scriptures in both the “GOOD NEWS for our children” and in the sermon.
Presbyterians include quite a bit of Scripture in our regular worship, often following the pattern of an Old Testament reading, a psalm, an epistle reading, and a Gospel reading. Even if the sermon only focusses on one of the readings, we immerse ourselves in Scripture, because we have found that the Bible can speak even if a particular passage is not the basis for the sermon.
In choosing the Scriptures for worship, most Presbyterian churches follow the Revised Common Lectionary, a three-year cycle of readings. The lectionary helps us to hear a wide range of the Scriptural witness to the activity of God, but ministers who use the lectionary, as I do, are also free to depart from it when circumstances warrant it — like for example, when you’re preaching on special themes for Presbyterianism 101.
Following the readings, there is normally a sermon — an interpretation or application of one or more of the Scripture readings. Presbyterians believe that “the God who speaks in Scripture speaks today — to us. The God who acted in the events of Biblical time acts today. Preaching expands and illuminates Scripture so that, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the gathered worshippers may come to know Jesus Christ in the present day.”
“Having been nurtured, instructed, challenged or supported by the proclamation of God’s word in Scripture and sermon, the people respond through song, profession of faith, and prayer.” Sometimes we respond to God’s word by saying a creed or another statement of faith. More often, we sing our response to the word with a hymn or song of commitment or discipleship. Our thankful response to God’s goodness includes making offerings of money for the work of God in the world. We also join in the prayers of the people, in which we offer thanksgivings and intercessions, giving thanks to God and praying for others.
Sometimes we also respond by baptising our children or new Christians. Sometimes we welcome new members into our community. Other times, we ordain elders or commission teachers, leaders, or others to special ministries within the church. “We understand worship as something we do: we seek illumination, we listen, we pray, we profess our faith, we offer our gifts, we welcome new people, we respond to God’s loving initiative.”
The next part of Reformed Worship is “The Great Thanksgiving” or the celebration of Holy Communion. The Lord’s Supper is Christ’s gift to the church, and it is also our grateful response. Before there were books of worship or formal creeds, and even before the New Testament was written, the first Christians met on the Lord’s Day to read the Scriptures and letters from the apostles and to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. This practice of joining sacrament to word was firmly fixed at the heart of Christian faith and life. Church Reformers in the 16th century wanted to continue the pattern of celebrating communion weekly, so that believers could be nourished by God’s love. “The Book of Common Worship” follows the same principle, holding word and sacrament together as the norm for weekly worship.
“The Great Thanksgiving” begins with the invitation to the Communion Table. Since Christ is the host at the meal, Presbyterians believe that the table is open to all who have been baptized — the whole family of God. With joy, we gather to be fed by God, to remember what God in Christ has done for us, and to celebrate our salvation. At the table, we commit ourselves again to the way of Christ in the world and to share our daily bread and all of God’s blessings with the whole world.
The order for Holy Communion is a series of simple actions: we receive the gifts of bread and wine; we give thanks to God; we break the bread and pour the wine; we share the food and drink with each other. The basis for our celebration is found in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ last supper with his friends and in Paul’s account of Jesus’ instruction to “do this in remembrance of me.” After the meal, we give thanks to God for the gift we have received. Worship is something we do: we respond to an invitation, we take, we give thanks, we break, we share, we praise.
The final section of our worship is the most brief and direct. It may begin with the singing of a final hymn, but then the God who called us together to worship, now sends us forth in service, commissioning us to live faithfully in the world and blessing us with the grace to do so. The minister pronounces the “Benediction” – the “blessing” – and the people are charged or commissioned to go and be God’s disciples in the world.
In some ways, worship does not end when we leave the building. Worship continues for the next six days and 23 hours, as we continue to respond to God in our daily lives. Worship is something we do: we are commissioned and blessed to go into the world to live as God’s people.
Worship is something we do. We gather in God’s name. We proclaim God’s Word. We respond to God’s Word with the Great Thanksgiving, and we go in God’s name to continue our response throughout the week.
Worship is something we do. Yet worship is also the work of the Holy Spirit in us and among us. The Spirit strengthens us to give our best effort and — with love — God receives it. Thus we encounter God and respond with a renewed commitment to live as disciples of Jesus Christ. May God bless us as we seek to worship God day by day and week by week. May God inspire us to become active participants in the worship, praising and praying and making offerings for God’s glory. And may God help us through the week, as we continue to respond to God’s goodness and love by giving our lives to the way of Christ. Amen.