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The “What” of Worship

Previously I wrote about the “why” of worship. Put simply, we worship God in response to his self-revelation, which we believe happened fully in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. With this post, I’d like to address the “what” of worship, and next I’ll write about the “how”.

Christian worship emerged, of course, from the synagogue and temple, where the elements of song, prayer, scripture, and sacrifice constituted the worship experience. The early Christians followed this basic pattern with a couple of tweaks.

First, rather than gathering on the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week, the early Christians began to gather on Sunday, in remembrance of the resurrection. Also, in addition to the Jewish scriptures that we often call the Old Testament, new scriptures – the teachings and miracles of Jesus, letters of Paul, Peter, and John, and even the Apocalypse, the books that eventually became the New Testament – began to be read.

To the songs sung in the synagogue and temple (largely from the book of Psalms, which was, in essence, the prayer book and hymnal of the bible) new songs, sung to Jesus, were added.

Finally, Christians began to understand that the sacrificial system rooted in the temple had become obsolete after the once for all sacrifice of Christ, so the “sacrifice” element of worship was replaced by the Eucharist, sharing in the bread and wine that, according to Jesus, becomes his body and blood as the story of God’s salvation is rehearsed.

While Christian worship has evolved over time, we largely follow this same pattern. We’re called together in song and prayer, we hear scripture read, we affirm our faith in the Nicene Creed, we pray, and the culmination of worship is the Eucharist. We respond to the Eucharist with praise and thanksgiving, followed by prayer and dismissal.

We begin worship with a song of praise, declaring God’s power, God’s goodness, and God’s love. We continue with prayer, acknowledging God’s intimate knowledge of all things, and asking God to prepare our hearts to worship. We continue with another song of praise, and then a prayer to focus our attention on the biblical and liturgical themes of the day.

The prayers written in the Book of Common Prayer are full of rich theology and beautiful prose. Ideally, these prayers form us to be people who know God as God truly is. However, there is also a place for extemporaneous prayer – prayer that comes directly from our hearts and minds, appropriate to the situation. In the context of public worship it is important that we create space for extemporaneous prayer, either within the prayers of the people or during communion with prayer ministers.

Singing, as St Augustine of Hippo is often quoted as saying, is to “pray twice”. Another quote from St Augustine is, “singing belongs to the one who loves.” In other words, it is in singing that our prayer comes from a deeper place within our hearts, a place of deep love. When we sing praises to God, when we declare God’s goodness, power, and love, when we sing out to God in the midst trouble and pain, we do so from deep within us. Interestingly, most neuroscience has discovered that singing activates a different part of our brains than does speaking, which further illustrates the importance of singing in our relationship with God.

We pray, we sing, and then we hear the word of God. Jewish and Christian worship have always included engagement with God’s word written in the Bible. It is important to understand the basic narrative of scripture, beginning with creation, then the fall, then the call of Abraham, the exodus from Egypt, the giving of the law, the formation of the nation of Israel, the building of the temple, the division of Israel into the Northern and Southern kingdoms, the exile to Babylon, then, in the climax of the story, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, followed by the gift of the Spirit and the mission of the church.

We find ourselves, then, in the penultimate act of this great drama, trusting that we are headed toward a fully renewed heavens and earth, where God’s kingdom will come, God’s will will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. So our readings – from the Old Testament, the New Testament, and one of the gospels (which, of course, are also a part of the New Testament) – are, as I once heard N.T. Wright put it, windows through which we glimpse the great drama of our salvation, reminded through diverse witnesses of God’s action in the world.

This implies that we will be engaged in studying scripture outside of Sunday morning – individually and corporately – lest the Sunday morning readings be confusing or misunderstood. The sermon, then, is an attempt to take the scriptures and apply them to our situation. As Karl Barth once put it, we start by understanding what scripture meant – i.e. its historical and literary context – and then proclaim what scripture means. A good sermon needs to draw on the depths of scripture’s meaning in order for it to become God’s word to us.

We respond, then, to God’s word with an affirmation of our faith, which, most Sundays comes in the words of the Nicene Creed. We can talk about the history and meaning of the creed in another context, but suffice it to say that the Nicene Creed has been the basis of orthodox Christian faith, affirmed by Christians throughout space and time, since the 4th century. When we say the creed, then, we are united with the historic and global church.

We then continue with prayer – prayer, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, for the “church and the world”. We always begin by praying for the global church, especially its leaders, and, increasingly, Christians throughout the world that are being persecuted for their faith. We then pray for the leaders of the world, especially those of our nation. Occasionally I’ll hear people say that they are uncomfortable praying for the president (predictably when the given president doesn’t share the political positions of the given parishioner), but scripture commands us to pray for our leaders, whoever they might be.

Then, slowly we move toward more local concerns – our cities and communities. Next, we pray for the needs of our own congregation. The prayer leader will always verbalize prayer for those on the prayer list who are in urgent need, but we also create space for anyone to lift concerns to God, either silently or aloud. We also encourage parishioners to verbalize thanksgivings. We then pray for those who have died (an issue we can address in more depth another time) and, finally, a confession of sin.

The confession begins our preparation to receive the Eucharist, as we are assured of God’s forgiveness for our sins, both “known and unknown”. Please use the time of confession for self-examination, and, if you find that you can’t think of any specific sins or sinful dispositions, my guess is that you haven’t really thought too deeply.

After we hear the words of absolution we stand and hear the words of peace. The peace is a theologically significant moment in the liturgy, not a time chat with our friends. In the peace we are assured that, through Christ, we are at peace with God, and, as the church, we are at peace with each other. We experience God’s forgiveness, and that forgiveness flows out of us as we forgive those who have sinned against us and ask for forgiveness from those we have wronged. Scripture warns us against withholding forgiveness, and urges us, “as far as we are able, to live at peace with all people.”

So, up to this point, we’ve prayed, we’ve sung, and we’ve heard and responded to God’s word. Now we prepare ourselves for the Eucharist. We could spend weeks just walking through the riches of the Eucharist, which means “thanksgiving”, but, for today, we can simply say that, in the Eucharistic Prayer, we again recount the story of salvation, culminating in the words of institution at the Last Supper, when Jesus commanded his disciples to share this meal of bread and wine which has become his body and blood. We prepare to receive the Eucharist in silence, heeding Paul’s counsel to “examine ourselves”.

As we begin to come forward, we have meditative and contemplative music. As we receive the Eucharist we experience the self-giving love God in Christ. We are assured of God’s love for us, of God’s power over sin and death, and of God’s presence in our lives to heal, transform, and bless. As the Eucharist continues, then, we transition from meditative, reflective songs reminding us of God’s love and power to a song of praise, thanking God for his mighty acts.

Finally, we pray again, giving thanks for God’s love and faithfulness, and asking God to send us out into the world, ready to bear witness to this good news wherever we go and in whatever we do. We sing a final song, focused on God’s faithfulness and God’s desire to see all people come to faith in him, to see healing, transformation and the shalom of God – the kingdom of God – expand until Jesus finally returns.

As we come to worship, then, engage in song and prayer, hear and respond to God’s word, experience the presence of Christ and all of his redeeming, transforming work, and, finally, go into the world with a vision of how God might use you as He works in the world for His glory.