This second talk on Christian worship is about what Christians hear when they worship. Last time we said that the Church is this people gathered together, and that they are the people gathered by God. We ourselves confess that we are this people gathered by God, and we confess that we are surprised to find ourselves here and saying this. Now we have to say that we have been summoned together in order to hear the Word of God.
1. Scripture as address
When we are together in Church the bible is read out, loud and clear so we all hear it. God has promised to speak to us through Holy Scripture, so the Scriptures are read. As often as we meet, the bible is opened, and read out loud and so the gospel is heard by those who have gathered to receive it, and what we hear we receive as the speech of God to us.
God addresses us. God calls and Christ answers this call, and answers it for us. God has called and man has answered. Because Christ has answered, Abraham was able to answer, and Abraham’s yes to God brought into being a whole people, the people of God who could hear that call and answer the same way. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and Moses and David could answer because Christ had heard the call of God and answered for them. Peter and John and the other disciples were able to answer because Christ heard the call of God, and answered for them and enabled them to hear it too.
The Word of God has gone out into all the world. This Word is the seed sowed, each word dropping into its own place in the earth, and now the farmer waits to see what harvest he will get (Mark 4). The Word goes out and will not return to him empty but will accomplish what he desires (Isaiah 55.11).
2. Scripture is read
In my church, St Mary’s, in our service on Sunday morning, the book of the gospel is brought down from the altar into the middle of the church. It is held up high so everyone can see it. We all get to our feet and the deacon says:
This is the Word of the Lord
And we reply: Thanks be to God
This book, Scripture, presents us with the whole dealings of God with his people, Israel, and this makes it the Word of the Lord. This record is the witness, and embassy, and gift of God to us.
Three passages of Scripture are read to us – the Old Testament, an epistle and the gospel. We read from three parts of the bible so we hear from three groups of witnesses. We get to hear from the people of Israel whose testimony is represented by the Old Testament reading. We respond to this first testimony from this first group of witnesses, or to the voice of God which they bring us, by singing a psalm of praise to God.
Then comes the epistle in which we hear from the new churches that came into being as the witness of Israel spread across the gentile world. These first Christian communities give us their testimony. We greet this second reading from the epistle with a hymn.
Then comes the gospel, Jesus Christ, the fulfilment of the promise made to Israel and then to the world. As this gospel is read out, we greet it as Christ himself, here with us.
In the words of these witnesses, passed on to us as these the words of Scripture, God speaks to us. God’s Word comes to us whether or not the bible has been well read; it comes to us through the clear and confident or the stumbling and self-conscious delivery of the reader or minister. Scripture, read in Church is the act of God, speaking live to the world, and making himself heard here and now. God speaks and man hears.
2. The words of God
This whole Scripture tells us who we are, and who we may become. It knows us. We listen to it rather than to any other account of our identity. This particular passage that is read out to the assembled people, is the Word of the Lord for us. The Lord speaks and these words of this particular reading is what he says to us now.
When the Scripture is read, we hear the words of Christ.
Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest (Matthew 11.26)
‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14.6)
Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid (John 14.27) Take heart! I have overcome the world (John 16.33)
So Christ calls us, invites us, summons us, and we are the people who hear him.
3. Judgment and Forgiveness
The Word knows us. He is the one who knows us truly and loves us without reservation and so he is our best judge. He speaks directly and specifically to us.
The Word speaks to me to tell me that my place is both lower and higher than I imagined. He tells me not to be panicked by my situation, not to lash out to make myself enough space, or to take for myself the resources I judge that I need.
He tells me that you are not my servant and that I am not your master, and that I may not subordinate you to my purposes. He tells me that I have acted like a little tyrant, and that I may do so no longer. He tells me to get off your back. He tells me that I know this but have been in denial but that I may not deny it any longer. I must concede that it is so, and that my abuse of others and self-delusion may not continue. I must acknowledge that this is so.
We are not one another’s lords. This we learn from the Word that is received by the Church through scripture. Christ is Lord, and it is good news for us that he is so. He releases us from our panicked grip on one another, and from the burdens we place on one another. No matter who has imposed it on us, he can cut us free of our load, and so we can put it down. The load on our backs has to be taken away from us, even against our resistance, for strangely, we feel that its removal would be a threat to us.
The harsh and uncaring masters are taken off the backs of the poor and so the poor are released and this is relief, for both the poor and those who have been their masters. But this event is traumatic. The Word of God comes to us as judgement and as a shock.
4. The sermon
The gathered community of the Church hears the word of God as it is given in the reading of Scripture and that Scripture is opened to us by the sermon.
The sermon tells us again what we have heard in this Scripture and points out for us the links between these three readings. It shows their coherence, so that we learn that Christ is the fulfilment of the promise made to the specific sets of people who appear in those Old and New Testament readings. The sermon reminds us of last week’s readings, so that we appreciate the continuity of the Word of God through the weeks. We are not just reading consecutively through books of the bible. We are following the people of Israel in the Old Testament and following Christ and his apostles in the New Testament, and the people of Israel are pointing forward to him and confirming that he is the one that they were waiting for.
Scripture gives us the narrative of the events that make up life of Israel, that are now integrated in the gospel of Jesus Christ. So that we may now take our place in his narrative, so that this is not just a story about other people set in the past but also about our own future life with Christ. The sermon tells us that we may become part of this new testament, that is, of the ever-new testimony of God to man.
The sermon may therefore also bring together all elements of the service, by pointing out here a verse of the hymn, there a sentence or response. It points to what we have said and sung in the service in order to show how they all give us our identity within the people of Christ. It can point out events in the church, in the church year, in the parish and the borough, and events at national and international level and so show us that we also may become witnesses of God to the world, and of the world to God.
5. The name of God
God has called us and named us. This God called us first – he called us into love and existence. We have a name because he gave it to us and he calls us by that name.
We have heard Scripture and Scripture opened to us by the sermon, and in affirmation of all this, we say the Creed. We stand and say:
We believe in one God
the Father Almighty
Maker of heaven and earth
‘Father’ is a name, the name that Jesus uses. It is part of the longer name, ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ that has been given to the Church and which refers us to the whole event of Jesus, and the whole people of Israel, with God. Jesus reveals this name which is both complex and simple.
It must always disturb us that the name of God is strange. All the pressure is to look round for another less unilateral and controversial name, one on which we can all agree. But the only name that can protect us from one another is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This has to be taught and learned, just like all the rest of this faith. Not everyone knows this, or agrees with it or likes it. It is not too obvious to need saying and that is why we have to say it, and that is why we gather here, to be faithful witnesses in our turn, who give thanks to God for all that exists. We who confess it in public worship do so with our hearts in our mouths, and this is just as it should be. We are the community that, by God’s grace, is able to say
This is the Word of the Lord
Thanks be to God