Sunday, February 19, 2017

Christ at the Center: Exploring the Liturgy of the Word

“For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.”
I Corinthians 3:11

If you are joining us today for the first time, I should explain that in the Episcopal Church it’s our practice to have one, not three sermons, and that after rather than before the Scripture readings.  But today, my purpose is to provide an instruction about this service we celebrate week by week, the Holy Eucharist, which is the highest and most ancient form of Christian worship.  Today we explore the first part of the worship service, the Liturgy of the Word.  As Saint Paul reminds us in today’s Epistle, Christ is the foundation on which all His Church’s work depends.   The Liturgy of the Word, above all, testifies to Him, and places Him at the center of the life we share as His people.

Our worship begins with a hymn, hopefully one that announces a theme appropriate to the season or the particular readings that will be presented later in the service.  Hymns are a relatively new addition to the Eucharistic liturgy, only becoming popular with Episcopalians about a hundred and fifty years ago.  Their practical function is to cover the time those leading the service need to get from place to place.  But many of our hymns teach the faith with power or, like the one we have just sung, are moving personal prayers.  Many of our hymns have stirring tunes, but the texts are deeply important, and serve as a kind of supplementary prayer book.  We pray that in all things, we may live as we sing. 

Then follows an acclamation of the One who has brought us together, God whom we praise.  In this season, we especially recall that He is merciful, the forgiver of our sins.  To praise God requires our very best, an uplifted mind, a pure heart—an answer in kind to His abundant love for us.

God has revealed His will to us, and prepared us to obey it.  And often here, at the beginning of our worship, we remember His commandments, or the summary of them Christ has given us, to love God completely and our neighbor as ourselves. 

But we are not pure and steadfast, and we stand before our holy God deeply aware of our failings.  There’s a pause for you to look back over your thoughts and words and deeds of the past week.  Then, we confess our sins using a prayer written for one of the first Books of Common Prayer.  It could be called an anatomy of sin, gathering phrases from nearly a dozen Biblical passages.  No part of our lives is free from sin’s influence.  The closer we trace our actions, we see just how much farther we have strayed from the Father’s embrace. The deeper we search our hearts, the more wounded we know ourselves to be.

And yet, we can examine ourselves and plead for mercy in hope.  For Christ has given His life to take away our sins.  He has risen from the dead to assure us that true and lasting reconciliation has been secured.  When we are truly penitent, sorrowful for what we have done, desiring to make a new start, He will restore us and renew His grace within us.

I answer your confession with a word in the Name of our merciful Savior, an Absolution.  Absolution means a cutting loose, sawing off the chains of your sin. Christ gave that power to His apostles on the day of His resurrection, and through the generations, they have handed on, even to me.  When I speak for Him, making the sign of His life-giving Cross, the Gospel’s miracle unfolds, and you are truly free.

We then turn to praise Him who has redeemed us.  Today, we sing the Kyrie Eleison—a Greek hymn, which was already venerable when Jesus was a boy.  Lord, have mercy—originally it was what the crowds chanted for their earthly master, a plea for Caesar’s goodwill.  The Christians used it for their true king instead, who gave grace no emperor could imagine.  Sometimes, instead, we sing an ancient hymn to the Trinity, the Gloria in excelsis, an enduring echo of the angels’ song that first Christmas night.

The hymn is followed by a bidding to pray.   If I do things right and I’m not in too much of a hurry,  a time of silence follows.  That’s time for you to offer your own prayers to God, to ask for healing for someone you love, or for peace in your family or help for the poor.  I collect those silent prayers of our many hearts in a single prayer we call the Collect. 

The Collects follow the seasons of the Church Year, and begin by describing an attribute of God before invoking His help and concluding with confession of His Triune Name. Many of our Prayer Book’s collects are literary masterpieces, and are used in churches beyond our own.  Today’s was written by Archbishop Thomas Cramner for the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549.  It paraphrases I Corinthians 13, Saint Paul’s great hymn to love, which was the traditional Epistle for the Sunday before the beginning of Lent.  It reminds us that love is a gift from God which should shape all we do.  It is now placed on this Sunday because it echoes Jesus’ command in the Gospel to love our enemies. 

We next have a series of readings from the Bible.  We generally have two here, one from either the Old Testament or one of the letters, or Epistles of the New Testament.  Then comes a reading from one of the four Gospels, the records of the good news of Christ’s words and deeds.  God’s people gather to listen to Him, to hear the record of His deeds and to understand more fully what He would have us do. 

I don’t get to pick the readings, which is for the best, but we follow a three-year cycle shared, more or less, by most Christians across the world.  Back in Advent, we began Year A of the cycle, which follows Saint Matthew’s Gospel in roughly continuous order.  The readings are chosen so that the Gospel sets the agenda, and the Old Testament reading especially, and sometimes the Epistle, help us to see its message in a deeper light.  That’s because Christ is the heart of all God has revealed to us, and all the Bible points to Him.  Today you will notice a connection between Saint Paul’s teaching that Christians should be holy and Jesus command that we be perfect even as our heavenly Father is perfect.  Jesus’ command that we give generously to those in need and refrain from striking back at our enemies sometimes makes us appear fools in the eyes of the world, something Saint Paul warned the Christians of his own time to expect. 

We stand for the Gospel reading, like servants in the presence of their king, ready to go and do His will.  You may join me in marking my forehead, lips and heart with the sign of the cross, praying that the Gospel’s message would penetrate all you think, say and desire. 

The sermon follows, an extension of the readings, attempting to shed some light on their meaning and apply them to the challenges of living the faith today.  The Reformation recovered the ancient emphasis on the spiritual value of preaching, trusting with Saint Paul, that “faith comes by hearing.”  I preach in the conviction that God uses my words to nourish and strengthen you, and that you will often hear what He needs you to hear, whether or not I actually say it. 
We respond first to God’s word by confessing our faith.  The Nicene Creed is an ancient and universal summary of what Christians believe.  It was hammered out by two councils of the entire undivided church in the fourth century, a golden age of theology.  It aimed to respond to two particular debates that were dividing the Christians of the time—one about Christ’s full divinity and the other about the divinity of the Holy Spirit.  The key phrases then were that that the Son of God is “of one being with the Father” and that the Holy Spirit “with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified.”

The creed confesses one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, all three persons eternal and equal in majesty and power.  One God has made all things, and has come in the man Jesus Christ to be born for us, to die and to rise in glory.  He has sent the Spirit into the world to give life and to sustain the work of His Church.  He gives true forgiveness, raises us on the last day and brings us to eternal glory.

We then bring the needs of the world before this powerful, active and loving God.  Following the New Testament’s teaching about public prayer, we ask God’s blessing on the ministry of the church throughout the world and for those who hold authority over us.  We remember the suffering, confident in His power to heal and restore.  We commend those who have died to His mercy and give thanks for the witness of His saints.  We name some individuals who have asked that their needs be remembered in this public way.  You remember dozens more in your silent thoughts, as we confess together that God who speaks in power also listens intently, and will do, in all things, what is best for us. 

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