15th September 2019 5 Questions of Worship Revd. Dr. Sam Wells
1. How can we become a people who can hear God speak?
Jesus was the moment in time when God’s heart was open to us and our human life was for once completely open to God. How is that moment accessible to us 2000 years later? On the night before he died Jesus said, ‘This is how.’ He took bread and wine and showed us how to remember and be re-formed in all that he was and did. Everything we do at the Eucharist is about allowing our life to be shaped around Jesus life.
You can think of a Eucharist in five parts – each one a response to a question. The question at the start of the service is, ‘How can we become a people who can hear God speak in the Scriptures?’
As we gather, we reflect on who is here and who is missing, and the many reasons why people might be missing. In the stillness of the congregation in preparation for worship we express a sense of expectation that God is about to say and do something. The leader offers a greeting and this act turns us from an assembly of individuals into a church.
The opening hymn then begins the story of the service. Our singing proclaims our joy that we are the song in God’s heart, and our longing to make God the song in our hearts. The procession during that hymn is a physical way of saying. ‘We are God’s pilgrim people, never settled in any one abiding city.’ Every processional hymn that begins our worship is a reminder of King David’s joyful dance as he brought the ark of the covenant into Jerusalem for the first time.
Immediately we make together an act of confession. Like old friends having a tense reunion after a long estrangement, we want to name and address and put behind us all that damages our relationship with God and one another, so we can relax and enjoy one another’s company and rediscover the depth of our love. In Genesis chapter 3 God says to Adam and Eve, ‘Where are you?’ In Genesis chapter 4, God says to Cain, ‘Where is your brother?’ These are the questions that evoke confession. When we’ve been forgiven we stand to sing a hymn or song of joy and praise. And then a prayer collects together all our prayers and makes us ready to hear God speak.
2. What is God saying today?
So ten minutes into the service we have become the church, God’s pilgrim people, and we have been reconciled with God and one another. Now and only now are we ready to hear the scriptures. Here then is the second question: ‘What is God saying today?’ Our tradition is to have three readings, one from the Old Testament, one from the later part of the New Testament, and one from one of the four gospels. This is a way of saying the story of Jesus, found in the gospels, can only be understood in the context of the story of Israel, found in the Old Testament, and the story of the early church, found in the later part of the New Testament.
Imagine this part of the service as an arrowhead. The Old and New Testament readings form an arrowhead, the gospel is the shaft; and the sermon should be the point, aimed where the arrow of God’s word is acutely poignant today. The sermon takes God’s five-act drama of creation, covenant, Christ, church and consummation, and locates us precisely in the fourth act, called church – between the full disclosure of God’s grace and mercy in Christ and the full abundance of consummation at the story’s end. Whether the sermon begins with a pressing issue of the day or starts out with a question, command or narrative from the scripture, either way it seeks to enfold our lives within the loving purposes of God, to show how our story is just one tiny but precious part in the endless stream of God’s story, and to polish the treasured pearl of faith within the confusing circumstances of our lives.
3. How can we become a people who can share food?
Here is the third question: ‘How can we become a people who can share food?’ Ideally the hearing of God’s word leads to an instant reshaping of our lives so we are ready to share food with God and one another. But before we get to the table we do three things. This is the moment where we signal that our worship isn’t just about these people gathered here but is our participation in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, the communion of saints stretching to all centuries past and future and to all four corners of the earth. This is what has always been believed, everywhere, by the whole church. These aren’t just our pet ideas and dreams: this is the faith of the church.
The next thing we do is turn faith into hope by offering intercessions. We come before God naked in our need and limitless in our expectation. That’s how the sermon should have left us: completely aware of the reality of our weakness and folly, yet on fire with the wonder of what God can do, even with us. The prayers place the deepest needs of the world and ourselves within our understanding of the way God works in the world.
And then we are reconciled to one another by sharing the peace. The creed is faith; the intercessions are hope; this is love. Matthew 5 tells us that if we can’t be reconciled with our neighbor we shouldn’t try bringing our gift to the altar. So the peace comes before we bring forward God’s gifts and lay them on the altar. Deuteronomy chapter 26 instructs the children of Israel to bring the first fruits in a basket and give them to the priest and then tell the story of salvation. In just the same way we bring our money, the harvest of our work, the bread and wine, which at this stage represent the ordinary food of life and the extraordinary drink of eternal life. In every way in creed, prayers, offering and song, we are saying, ‘This is our best understanding of how to respond to your gospel: take it and transform it into food that gives us eternal life.’
4. What does it mean to be God’s companions?
And now we come to the fourth, and crucial, question at the heart of the Eucharist and the heart of our faith: ‘What does it mean to be God’s companions?’ This is the question answered by the long prayer of thanksgiving and the distribution of the bread and wine. A companion literally means one with whom you share bread.
When the presiding minister says Jesus’ words ‘Take… bless… break… give,’ we are recalling what Jesus did at the Last Supper. But we’re also recalling what God did to Israel. God took one special people, blessed them, then broke them in the Exile before giving them as a light to the nations to bring the Gentiles to God. And then God took human form in Jesus, blessed us through the incarnation and ministry of Jesus, was broken on the cross before giving us life in the resurrection and the sending of the Holy Spirit. And in just the same way God takes our lives and blesses us, and if we are sitting here today feeling our lives have been broken this moment of the service is telling us that we are broken in order that our life may be shared that God’s people may be fed.
When the bread and wine and money and prayers are brought to the altar we each bring our different qualities, resources, hopes and dreams to God. And then the priest recalls the sacred story of how God took human nature and made it divine. And in that transformation we each receive back the same. What this is depicting is a new society in which we each bring our differentness to God but we each receive back from God the same bread of life.
And in this dynamic of transformation we see how salvation works. God takes a simple people and their simple offerings and gives them a sacred story and sacred actions and in the regular telling of that story and performance of those actions they are transformed into God’s holy people. And that’s exactly what the regular celebration of the Eucharist is about: God taking an ordinary people and through this story and these actions turning them into the body of Christ, God’s companions forever.
5. What do we need to make the whole world a Eucharist?
We have seen, we have touched, we have heard, we have tasted the Lord our God. The Eucharist is a whole-body experience of truthful living in a new society as God’s companions together forever. Only one thing more remains. What do we need to remake the whole world like this? What do we need to make the whole world a Eucharist?
Here we have announcements, blessing, and dismissal. At this moment the leader is like a person who throws a tennis ball out of the church into the world beyond, inviting the eager members of the congregation in their different ways to locate and discern and cherish the place where it lands, and at the next service to bring back the wisdom and wonder of where it landed and of how they met God there.
For the next act of worship begins the moment this one ends. Everything that precedes the next service is a gathering of joys to celebrate, sins to confess, money to offer, food to share, and needs to bring to the next time we come together to meet God. That’s what it means to make the whole world a Eucharist.