Addresses on the Liturgy: part 1

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Revd Dr Ray Williamson
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, 2nd August 2009

John 6. 24-35

You already have some idea about what to expect this morning. I have said that I will try, today and on the next two Sundays, to say something about what we do here week by week. After all, what we do in church is fundamental to our faith: it expresses who we are as people of faith; it expresses how we understand that faith. When Christians gather, regularly and rhythmically, to rehearse the faith, receptive to the Word and standing around the Table of the Lord with open and empty hands to receive Christ's gift of himself, we are reminded who and whose we are. It is, therefore, important for us to have some understanding of what we do when we come to church, and of the way we do it. In other words, it is important for us to have some understanding of the Liturgy.

The word 'liturgy' comes from a Greek word that means "the life (work) of people". So, it refers to our 'daily life'—the work and the ordinary things we do every day. But there also developed for this word a more specific reference, namely, to our 'cultic/ritual life'—the things we do and the way we do them when we come to worship. So, the word 'liturgy' has these two references: our daily life and our ritual life. And therefore the word itself reminds us that we cannot understand one without the other. Ritual life and daily life interact, and we can tell whether our ritual life is healthy by the quality of our daily life.

Ritual life consists in repetitive patterns of symbolic actions that enact a way of understanding the world, that are expressive of a community's story—expressive of that part of a community's history that gives that community its identity, that determines who or what that community is. [You might think of the ritual of Anzac Day re the Australian community]. So, our ritual life as Christians consists in repetitive patterns of symbolic actions that enact our way of understanding the world, that are expressive of our story—the Good News of Jesus, in whose name we meet, because we are his people—people renewed, refreshed, redeemed, by his life.

Our liturgical life, therefore, has to be such as to express these truths; but it also has to be such as to communicate these truths, to make sure that we who participate in the actions do not miss, or mistake, the truths being expressed and to make sure that those truths of faith are passed on.

At the centre of our ritual life—expressing the essence of our faith—is a meal, a symbolic meal. This is so because of the prominence of meals in the story of Jesus.

Frequently in the gospels we hear of Jesus associating with, befriending, caring for, marginalised people, and those occasions are often associated with meals. And when we read those stories, we cannot miss the scandal Jesus caused in that 1st century Middle Eastern society by mixing socially with such people.

Also meals feature prominently in the parables of Jesus as images of the reign of God. Clearly, Jesus attached great importance to such festive gatherings. The Last Supper surely was just the last of many such suppers. After his death his followers kept up his memory by continuing to break bread together. This is how he had wished to be remembered—in the context of a festive meal: "Do this in memory of me".

That is why his followers have continued to do so across the centuries. Of course, over time (although a comparatively short time), the gathering to break bread together developed certain ritual forms, and the eating and drinking became symbolic rather than proper meals, although the sense of festive occasion was maintained and developed through the use of music and colour and symbols and movement. So, in continuity with Christians through the centuries, coming together to celebrate the Eucharist, to break bread together, is what we do. The Eucharist is at the centre of our tradition, and has the central place in the experience of worship of the vast majority of Christians. Indeed, inspired by the ecumenical movement, there has been significant convergence among Christians about the basic content of worship, primarily, that the norm for worship on Sunday is the Eucharist.

The gospel passage today is again from John 6. It begins with the crowd searching for Jesus, and Jesus pointing out to them the real reason why they are looking—because they had had their fill of bread. But is this the bread that gives real life. This is a question about where we find God? In wonders? In some mighty achievements of our own or of others? John reduces the options to one: we find God in relationship. This is what Jesus brings: a relationship of love and acceptance. That relationship is the source of real life. That is why he is the true bread. Christian faith is accepting Jesus as the one who offers that relationship—believing that Jesus is the message and the messenger from God. That is the work to which God calls us, which God offers us.

Week by week we express that work—our faith—in the work of the liturgy.

The framework in which we do our liturgy is the framework of community—of relationship: we belong together, we care for each other, we talk with each other about our concerns, we explore with each other matters concerning our faith. We are a community, family, gathering together.

As in any gathering, the first thing we do in our liturgy is to greet one another—in the name of the Lord. The joyousness of the occasion has first been expressed by singing a hymn, often one of praise. So we gather!

As I said a moment ago, there is wide agreement amongst the churches that the norm for worship on Sunday is the celebration of the Eucharist—the norm is in both Word and Sacrament. This gives us the shape of the liturgy: it is in two main (essential) parts, Word and Sacrament.

But when we look at the whole structure or order of the liturgy, we see that each of those parts is dressed-up a little, they are enclosed by an introduction (or preparation) and a response. Thus the agreed order is:

Ministry of the Word, with an introduction and response

Ministry of the Sacrament, with an introduction and response

Ministry of the Word—Introduction

So, after we have gathered—sung a hymn and greeted each other—we come to the introduction to the Min. of the Word. Here we do five things:

1. We hear a sentence of scripture, chosen for the purpose of expressing a thought relevant to the theme of the day.

2. We say the Prayer of Preparation, which reminds us of what we need to be in our relationship with God—a relationship to which we are giving expression in worship. In acknowledging that we are open to, not hidden from, God, we are really praying that we may be actively open to God, to the inspiration of God's Spirit, that we might hear and respond to the Word of God that is there to be perceived.

3. We come then to a moment of penitence, being reminded of the two great commands that shape our conduct. In the light of that reminder we say the Kyries, a prayer for mercy. We have the option then of making our confession (or later, where it can be a response to the whole ministry of the Word). Either way, we do it in preparing to share a meal. It would be impossible to overestimate the impact the meals must have had on those with whom Jesus shared them. By accepting them as friends and equals Jesus had taken away their shame and guilt. By showing them that they mattered to him as people he gave them a sense of dignity and released them from whatever held them captive. As we come to worship in the context of a meal, here we are acknowledging before God our brokenness, our capacity for evil; we face it; we bear our reality, we open ourselves to that condition in which we can receive grace, healing.

4. We then say (sometimes sing) the Hymn of Praise. It is a response to the assurance of forgiveness, and again helps to create the context and atmosphere for what we are doing.
5. The Prayer (Collect) for the day is prayed. It has two parts: a description of something we understand about God, and a brief intercession. And together they capture some part of the theme of the day.

The Ministry of the Word

So we come to the essential aspect of the first part of the liturgy—the reading of Scripture. We are who we are because of our past: we are products of our past; our past gives us our identity. This is true of any individual, family, community. The same is true of the Christian community. Our past is what gives us our identity, makes us who we are. We need to know and understand our past, our story. And what is crucial, of course, is the formative stages in that story—and that is the part of our story that the Bible contains. And so we hear it read, the story told, the Word proclaimed. We hear three readings—the Hebrew Scriptures (OT) followed by the singing of a psalm, a NT reading and the Gospel. The selection of readings has an important ecumenical dimension—chosen from a common lectionary that is followed by several denominations around the world. And as we hear that story, we are reminded that it is only through us that it can be passed on to others. The gospel procession symbolises our responsibility to take the story out to others.

Immediately, we come to the sermon—an opportunity for that Word to be expounded—hopefully relating the story of the gospel to our story as the people of God today.

And we say the creed. It is a product of the 4th century Church—another formative time in our story. Full of concepts from that Greek and Roman world, the creed comes as a summary of the faith.

So we have the Ministry of the Word—recalling our faith story—Readings, sermon, creed.

Ministry of the Word—Response

Our response to the Word is our prayer—our prayer for the world and for the church. It is our attempt to reflect in our own lives and concerns the conviction that God loves and cares for everyone and the whole creation.

Worship is the action of a community. It should be something in which everyone present seems able to participate (not just be passive spectators); it needs to be marked by a sense of celebration, reminding us of our participation in the renewing, refreshing, redeeming life of the Risen Christ. It needs to speak to us where we are, and inspire us.

Our Liturgy, especially the Ministry of the Word, is to help us to learn Christ, to be nourished by his teaching. As a result, we our deepened in our faith, and strengthen for a way of living that witnesses to our faith understanding, that witnesses to our new life in Christ—the Bread of Life.