Today, instead of a regular sermon, I am going to talk about what we do in the service and why. My main goal is to explain the dynamism of the service. As we worship together, we are invited into an encounter with the living God.
In the Gospel reading that we will shortly hear, Jesus asks his disciples, “who do people say that I am?” And then the really important question: “who do you say that I am?” We come together in worship to answer Jesus’ question for ourselves.
In our reading from Romans, Paul calls this being transformed by the renewing of our minds so that we can know the will of God.
That transformation and renewal happens in four unequal stages. (1) We begin by preparing ourselves in heart and mind for worship. (2) In the first big part of the service, we hear God’s holy Word, which joins us together as the people of God. (3) In the second big part of the service, we share the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood, which forms us into the body of Christ. Finally, (4) we are sent back into the world, to love and serve the Lord.
The first, preparatory part begins at home, but here at Church the first few minutes of the service help us focus. I typically sit in silence for a minute or two immediately before the service to get ready. We sing a hymn, which gathers us together. We engage in a short call and response in praise of God. We pray the “Collect for Purity,” asking God to cleanse our hearts and minds. Finally, we praise God using the Gloria or else a praise song addressed to God.
Thus collected and prepared, we are ready for the specific prayers and readings of the day.
Liturgy of the Word
The first major part of the service is called the Liturgy of the Word, when we encounter God in Holy Scripture. During the Liturgy of the Word, the Gospel Book sits prominently on the altar as the visual focus for this part of the service.
Our readings come from the Revised Common Lectionary, a three-year schedule of readings we share with other denominations. Divided as Christians may be, many of us hear the same Bible passages in worship each Sunday.
After the readings comes a sermon in which the preacher is supposed to apply the lessons of Scripture to our lives today.
Then we say a creed, normally but not always the Nicene Creed. A mentor of mine once joked that we put the creed after the sermon to correct any heresies the preacher might have preached. His serious point is that the Creed serves as a kind of summary of what the Bible teaches us about who God is.
The liturgy of the Word ends with the Prayers of the People, when we ask God to bless us and the people we love, and we thank God for the blessings we have received.
By the time we have finished the Liturgy of the Word, our encounter with Scripture has formed us as the people of God. As one of our prayers puts it, we read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest Scripture. In the process, we are renewed in the image and likeness of God as individuals, and we are brought together as a community of faith.
Peace and Offertory
Passing the peace can seem like an interruption in the service, and sometimes it is, particularly if we use that time for casual conversation.
But the Peace is an important part of the service. Having been brought together as a community of faith by hearing Scripture, we greet each other in the name of our Lord. It is a way of experiencing ourselves as brothers and sisters in Christ.
After the Peace, we take a collection. We offer our gifts to God as small token of thanksgiving for all that God has given us.
Our gifts are not just money. We also use this time for special dedications—things like prayer shawls and memorial gifts—and to commission people for special ministries. In two weeks, we will commission our Sunday School teachers and our worship leaders.
At the deepest level, we are symbolically offering up ourselves, our souls and bodies.
Now we are ready for the second major part of the service. Having been formed into the people of God during the Liturgy of the Word, we turn to the Liturgy of the Table, the Great Thanksgiving. The Gospel Book remains on the altar, but now the visual focus is the chalice. Symbolically, we are gathered around the chalice in a big circle.
Our Prayerbook gives us six forms for celebrating Holy Communion, and we are allowed to use forms in the Prayerbooks of other parts of the Anglican Communion. We are currently using a form from the New Zealand Prayerbook.
The Great Thanksgiving begins with a short exchange in which we lift our hearts to the Lord and give God thanks and praise. That part is pretty much the same every week.
After the brief exchange getting us ready, virtually all the rest of the Great Thanksgiving is our prayer to God. Most of the differences in the different Eucharistic Prayers come at the beginning of the prayer and depend on the season. We are now in Pentecost, which begins with the coming of the Holy Spirit onto the gathered disciples shortly after Jesus ascended to heaven. In honor of Pentecost, the Eucharistic Prayer we are using this summer highlights the work of the Holy Spirit, so listen for that as we pray together in just a minute.
When I pick up the paten, the little plate with the wafers on it, we are shifting into the “words of institution.” This is the part of the Great Thanksgiving that changes the least. In every approved version, we recite Jesus’ words from the last supper about his body given for us and his blood shed for the forgiveness of sins.
In most forms, including the one we are using this morning, we then invoke the Holy Spirit, asking God to send the Holy Spirit upon these gifts that they may be for us the body and blood of our Lord.
Repeating the “words of institution” and invoking the Holy Spirit are the essential elements in every celebration of Holy Communion. After we have done that, the elements are consecrated, and Jesus’ body and blood have become present in some mysterious way.
Another element common to every celebration of Holy Communion is the Lord’s Prayer at the end. Then the priest breaks the bread and invites the congregation to share Eucharist.
Finally we give each other the gifts of God. The priest does a lot of the giving, but not all. Laypeople almost always distribute the wine. I normally ask the chalice bearer to communicate me, which is to say, to give the gifts to me. The point is that we all receive the gifts of God from each other.
So what does the liturgy of the table do to us? Well, having come together as the people of God, we receive the body of Christ in the Eucharist. As we receive the body of Christ, we are formed into the body of Christ. As Father Derrick says when he invites people to share Holy Communion, “Behold what you are. Become what you see.”
Having been formed as the people of God by hearing Scripture, and having been nourished by the body of Christ, we are ready to return to the world to serve it in God’s name.
At the post-communion prayer, we thank God for feeding us with spiritual food, and we ask God to send us into the world equipped to love and serve God and God’s people.
We call our final hymn our mission hymn because it is normally about committing ourselves to God’s mission.
And the final dismissal is about going forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit. Having been formed, we are ready to serve. Thanks be to God.