I miss worshipping in-person on Sundays.
I hope I never get used to standing in an empty sanctuary on Sunday morning while talking into my computer hoping it’s streaming clearly online. However, I recognize how important it is for all of us to maintain our distance at a time like this – lives, truly, are at stake.
Over the last few years I’ve been recording, editing, and producing a lectionary podcast in which, every week, I have a conversation about the assigned texts for Sunday morning in order to help get the creative juices flowing for preacher types and fill in the scriptural gaps for lay types. It’s been a joy to have so many conversations about God’s Word, and to hear from so many who listen about how it has helped them (re)engage with scripture.
And yet, over the last three years, I’ve come to discover something strange: A lot of us (and by “us” I mean Christians) have no idea why we do what we do as a church.
Perhaps it’s because we’ve grown up in the church and we can’t imagine it any other way, or we were told at some point and have forgotten, or we’ve never troubled ourselves to think about it, but there’s a lot we do that, without explanation, rings like a clanging cymbal – it might sound nice, but what’s the point?
This Sunday Christians across the globe will hear the story of the road to Emmaus. It is the assigned lectionary Gospel text, and it is a worthy one for the 3rd Sunday after Easter. Just like those two on the road so long ago, we’ve heard some incredible news but we’re not entirely sure what it all means. It can be one of the most powerful Sundays of the year in the sense that we get to journey with them and meet the risen Christ who speaks a word we all need to hear.
But even more than that, the story of the two on the road points to why we do one of the things we do as Christians – Worship.
Across the great spectrum of Christianity, we worship with a four-fold method: We gather, we proclaim, we respond, and then we are sent forth. And why do we do it that way?
Let’s take a look:
Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hope that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”
The beginning of worship takes place through the act of Gathering. But when does it actually start? It is when the live-stream finally get going? Does it begin with the first prayer?
Actually, worship begins before we tune in or even walk into the building (remember when we used to get together in-person for church???). God is actively involved in gathering us together from the moment we wake up. God is with us in the thoughts we have while scarfing down our breakfast, while we’re waiting for the coffee to reheat in the microwave, and while we’re begging the kids to get dressed.
God continues to gather us while candles are lit, and throats are cleared, and the volume is adjusted.
Every little bit of our worship has a purpose, whether it’s the acolyte carrying in the flame at the beginning or the time of silence that marks a change in mood. Added together, those elements allow us to practice our faith.
Worship is, after all, a practice. We do it over and over to tone our spiritual muscles in order to hear and respond to the Word of God.
In most churches there is a hymn or some sort of musical setting during the Gathering. That sacred music resets our hearts and minds away from whatever it was we were doing to whatever it is that God is going to do with and for and to us.
Similarly, a time of prayer (whether silent or spoken aloud) continues this Gathering. The prayers that are offered are a sign of our devotion to the people we call church as well as a commitment to the greater community around us.
This is how God gathers us every week, just like God (in Christ) gathered the two disciples on the road to Emmaus and changed their lives forever.
Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
After the two were gathered on the road, after Jesus listened to them ramble on about everything they had seen in Jerusalem, he then proclaimed the stories of scripture and interpreted them through his gracious work. And yet, they still were unable to recognize who he really was.
The second part of regular worship is dedicated to Proclamation, speaking words about God’s Word. We do this because Jesus first did it on the road to Emmaus, and we also do it because we believe God’s Word is alive and still speaks into our lives even today.
It is at this time that we read scripture aloud, another hymn may be sung, and then a sermon/homily is offered.
In many churches the scripture are picked accord to a list called the Revised Common Lectionary. The RCL contains a great assortments of scriptures over a three-year cycle and is designed to bring congregations through the great narrative of scripture without being constrained by the choice of the preacher. We boldly proclaim the scriptures from the Bible with prayers and hopes that somehow of another God can and will speak through them to us.
The sermon itself is a little harder to explain. Every sermon, like every preacher, is different. Some are funny and light-hearted while others are sad and pensive. The point of preaching is to incarnate God’s Word, again, through the ways we respond and react to it.
This is how God proclaims God’s Word every week, just like God (in Christ) proclaimed the scriptures and interpreted them for the disciples on the road to Emmaus.
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the days is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, which he was opening the scriptures to us?”
Jesus was going to keep on walking, but the disciples invited to him to stop and stay with them. And it was while they were at the table together that Jesus took the bread and the cup, gave thanks to God, and gave it to the two. Only then did they recognize who had been with them the whole time. It was only in responding to the words they heard on the road through the breaking of the bread and the giving of the cup that Christ became real for them.
The third part of worship is all about responding to the proclaimed Word of God. On most Sundays churches will do this work by joining together to affirm their faith with something like the Apostles’ Creed, presenting their tithes and offerings, and then gathering at the table for Communion. The holy meal is what being a Christian is all about. We are invited by God no matter who we are and no matter what we’ve done. We confess how we have failed to love God and neighbor. Ee are forgiven to share signs of peace with one another. And then we feast.
This is how we respond to God’s glory in the church and in the world week after week just like Jesus did with the two disciples whose eyes were opened in the meal they shared with Jesus.
That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
I’ve always wondered what it must’ve been like to be one of those two disciples sitting at the table when Jesus was revealed. But then I remember that I do know what it was like – every time we gather for worship we are all catching glimpses of Jesus in our hymns, scriptures, sermons, sacraments, and even silences.
The two disciples were so moved by their experiences of being gathered on the road, of hearing Jesus proclaim the scripture, and of responding with the bread and cup, that they ran back to Jerusalem to share all they had seen and heard. Whenever we are confronted by God’s incredible power and glory, it’s as if we can’t help ourselves from sharing what it feels like with everyone in our lives.
The fourth and final part of worship is all about being sent forth into the world. While a final hymn or prayer is still resonating in our souls, while we are contemplating all we’ve seen and heard, God send us out into the world to be Christ’s hands and feet.
This is how we are sent forth from worship, just like the disciples ran to tell their friends what happened.