Sermon: Worship Is Sunday Dinner (Epiphany)
To the bath and the table,
To the prayers and the word,
I call every seeking soul.
• Inscribed on a church bell in Wisconsin
• • •
I became convinced long ago that one of the most important things I could do for a congregation was to teach them about worship. After all, it is what we do, week after week, month after month, and year after year. And yet, most churches that I’ve been part of had very little instruction about worship. We just did it in the way we did it and never talked about it much. I think it is especially important that our younger people receive this teaching, because they often don’t understand why we do things the way we do when we come together each week for worship.
So, we are going to take this Epiphany season to talk about why we worship the way we do. It is my hope that it will be refreshing for all of us to think about these things together.
Way back in the second century, one of the Church Fathers, a man named Justin Martyr, wrote a description of what Christians did when they came together on Sundays.
And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons.
• Justin Martyr, First Apology c. 150 AD
Before that, the author of the Book of Acts described what it was like when the first Christians met together:
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
• Acts 2:42, ESV
In these quotes, we see the basic elements of what we call the “liturgy.” The word “liturgy” means “the work of the people,” and it refers to what we as God’s people do when we gather. These are the actions of worship.
There are two main parts of worship: first, the Word, and then the Table.
- In the first part of worship, we share words with God and one another, we converse with God and our sisters and brothers in God’s family. We do this through hymns, prayers, the reading of the Bible, and the preaching of the Gospel.
- In the second part, we come to the Lord’s Table, give thanks, and then give and receive the gifts of God. This is our family meal, our Sunday dinner, if you will.
So worship revolves around these two poles: the Word and the Table. To these main parts of the service we add a beginning and an end. The beginning is called the Gathering and the end is called the Sending.
In the Gathering we praise God and confess our sins as we come together. In the Sending, we are dismissed and sent forth to serve the Lord in our daily lives.
This is the basic pattern of worship. This is what is called the Liturgy.
- We gather together
- We hear and speak the Word
- We come to the Table
- We are sent into the world to serve God
Now, if you go to other churches, you may find that they don’t follow this traditional, historic liturgy. There are many churches whose services follow patterns that began in the 1800s when revival meetings were held throughout the southern and central United States. And then, there have also been a lot of changes in the last 40 years or so, as churches began using more contemporary music and less religious symbolism in their services.
I came out of those traditions, and one of the main reasons I left, one of the primary reasons I came into the Lutheran tradition, is because I think the traditional, historic liturgy should be upheld and followed when we gather to worship. Not because I’m a traditionalist but because I believe this pattern of worship makes sense and honors the gospel, putting Jesus at the center and emphasizing the main things we should be doing when we worship.
Think of it this way. Sunday worship is essentially designed to be patterned after a meal gathering. For the early Christians it often involved a full meal and they met around a table.
In the same way we might say worship is our Sunday dinner. It’s our special weekly family meal. Therefore, what we do in worship follows the pattern that happens whenever people get together for a meal.
Let’s say Gail and I were invited to the home of dear friends.
When we arrive, we are greeted at the door and as we enter we say, “Thanks for having us over; boy, that sure smells good; I love what you’ve done with your house” — in other words we thank and praise our hosts.
Before dinner is served, we sit down in the living room or out on the porch together. We catch up with one another through conversation. We share words with one another.
And then we are summoned to the table, where we sit down together and enjoy the meal our friends have prepared and served us.
Finally, after more conversation, we bid our friends goodnight, saying, “We must do this more often. Have a great week. Let’s do this again.” We go home with hearts warmed after a time of renewing this special relationship we share.
We gather. We converse with words. We share a meal. We part, going back into our lives refreshed and renewed.
This is the pattern of worship that the church has historically followed.
It is a meal gathering, but there is one thing we must never forget — it’s not just a gathering of friends. Our host is Jesus himself!
- It is Jesus who greets us at the door and invites us in.
- It is Jesus who speaks his word to us and who prompts our prayers and praises.
- It is Jesus who hosts us at the Table and feeds us with his gifts of salvation.
- It is Jesus who sends us forth to serve in newness of life.
Just as the disciples on the road to Emmaus experienced the presence of the risen Christ when he taught them from the scriptures and broke bread with them at the table, we who are God’s family meet with Jesus and one another in this way every week.
This is our Sunday dinner.
This is what keeps our family alive and vibrant.
This is what keeps each one of us experientially connected to the Lord and to each other.
This is the feast of victory for our God.
This is the joyous highlight of each week.
This is where we are refreshed, renewed, and sent forth into our daily lives again to walk in the newness of salvation.
Come, let us worship the Lord!