This is the second installment in a series on the four different parts of our weekly worship service. My intention for this series is to help you better understand not only what we do, but also why we do it.
So, what is meant by “Word”? The constitution of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, our national church body, sets forth a three-fold understanding of the Word of God. First and foremost, Jesus Christ is the Word of God by which God both creates and redeems the world. Second, the proclamation of the message about Jesus, a message of both God’s judgment and God’s mercy in Jesus, is the Word of God. Third, the Scriptures of both the Old and New Testaments (a.k.a. the Bible) are collectively the Word of God. The order is important. Jesus is God’s Word-made-flesh (John 1:14). From the Christian perspective, anything that claims to be the Word of God must be related to Jesus. Our proclamation of Jesus – God’s promises of forgiveness, reconciliation, and abundant life because of Jesus’ death and resurrection – is the central and essential task of the church. It is the instrument that God the Holy Spirit uses to create faith in us and connect us to Jesus’ saving work. The Scriptures, finally, serve as the source and guiding principle of our proclamation. All three of these aspects of God’s Word are present in our weekly worship: Jesus is there (where two or three are gathered…), the Scriptures are read, and the Good News is proclaimed.
Our readings from the Scriptures follow the Revised Common Lectionary, prepared by an international, ecumenical group representing many mainline Christian churches. These include Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians/Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Disciples of Christ, UCC, and even the American Baptists. The text study I attend every Monday morning regularly includes participants from four of those church bodies.
The lectionary is organized on a three-year cycle of readings that takes us through each of the first three Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Readings from the Gospel of John are included every year, especially during the seasons of Lent and Easter, but also during the non-festival half of the year of Mark, since Mark is so much shorter than Matthew and Luke.
The church year has much to do with what is read on a given Sunday. In the first half of the year, the half in which all of the major festivals of the church year occur, the readings are chosen thematically. So, for example, in Advent we get readings about John the Baptist announcing the coming Messiah, as well as the stories of Jesus’ conception. In the twelve-day Christmas season we get the stories of Jesus’ birth, of course, but also of its cosmic significance (e.g. John 1:1-14). Christmas ends with Epiphany, followed by the post-Epiphany green season, known particularly in the Anglican tradition as “ordinary time.” It is in this green season that we begin reading through the Gospel of the year. That is then interrupted by the Lenten and Easter seasons, but picked up again in the long green season that follows Pentecost and Trinity Sundays, which constitutes the second, non-festival half of the church year.
The sermon is meant to be the primary moment of proclamation in the service, connecting the Word of God with lives of those present in the assembly. As we will see next month, though, proclamation in the liturgy is not confined to the sermon. What follows the sermon are several opportunities to respond to God’s Word. First, the hymn of the day usually picks up on the theme of the day or season. Hymn take several different forms. They can be prayers to God of praise, thanksgiving, lament, or supplication, but they can also be continued proclamation of the Gospel, or mutual encouragement and statements of faith. Second, one of the creeds is said in response to the God’s Word. The creeds are reminders of the essentials of our faith, but can also be seen as continuing proclamation of the gospel, because everything in the creeds is good news.
Third, as a response to God’s Word we turn to God in prayer in the Prayers of Intercession. These prayers traditionally include the following five parts: 1. Prayer for the church, especially the universal church, 2. Prayer for the nations of the world, including our own, 3. Prayers for the sick and those in any need, 4. Prayer for the local community of faith, and 5. Prayer remembering those who have gone before us in the faith and looking forward in hope to the culmination of God’s creative and redeeming work in the world. To these five elements has been added in recent years a sixth prayer for God’s creation, which is placed following the first prayer for the church.
Finally comes the offering, another response to God’s gracious Word, by which the ministry of the local, synodical, and national church is supported. In our order of service, the offering is preceded by the sharing of the peace. But that really belongs to the liturgy of the Meal, to which we will turn next month.
+ Pastor Chris Repp