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!
20 thoughts on “Epiphany: Worship Is Sunday Dinner”
The word liturgy means more than “the work of the people” – it indicates a public, visible display of how a religious group believed. It wasn’t the action of a group of Christians for whom their participation meant bringing to the gathering simply what was going on inside each of their heads. I don’t mean to sound obstreperous; it’s just that Protestants, including sacramentally-inclined ones, often miss this.
St Justin the Philosopher was writing to assure people that Christians were not cannibals, because there was a rumor going around among some that that was what Christians did at their rite. (A better translation would be “the one presiding” rather than “president”). Following the quote Chaplain Mike gave, St Justin wrote,
“And this food is called among us Eucharistia [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined.
For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.” – (First Apology, 66)
It’s not as simple as the term “family dinner”, and it wasn’t simply a matter of “hospitality”. Only baptized Christians could partake, and all believed that they were receiving the Body and Blood of Christ; centuries before there was any talk of “transubstantiation”. It’s not a bad thing when one has an experience of the love of God with the eucharist, or any other positive subjective feeling; it’s better when the reality of it doesn’t depend on how we feel or what’s inside our heads.
I like to think of the Eucharist as ‘strength for the journey’. Like the Israelites leaving the slavery and suffering of Egypt for the land that God would show them . . . . like a soldier going into battle against great odds . . . . like a beloved dying father receiving viaticum for the last time before his departing
Christ, who has taken our humanity to Himself;
Christ at the beginning of our final journey and Christ at its ending, He carries us safely through our final crisis.
That is strength indeed.
truth is, a lot of ‘the historic liturgy’ which is found in sacred Scripture WAS PRAYED BEFORE THE NEW TESTAMENT WAS EVER WRITTEN DOWN
one of the ways the Church affirmed the Word was to find out if a passage had been consistently a part of worship all across the various known Churches that had been formed coming out of Jerusalem to the first major areas of the Church . . . Rome, Alexandria, etc.
IF the passages were known to have been in use, then they were accepted as part of the canon of the NT
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord was told and was prayed before it was ever written down, so the liturgies of our day tie us to those early Christians who first came to the service of The Word and The Eucharist . . . .
you needed to talk about this, and imonk is like a sanctuary in that respect . . . we pray for you and for John that you will be comforted
When one looks at the words in the historic liturgy, one well see that the Bible, both Old and New Testament, are quoted throughout the service. In addition to the words of the liturgy, there are readings from the Psalms, The Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Gospel.
Most “evangelical churches” don’t have as much scriptures in their service than what you find in the historic liturgy.
There was a conflict in my mind, for perhaps twenty years, about the concept of “worship” itself. I wondered why, when such a premium is placed on humility, God wanted to be worshipped. Does the Lord need us to tell Him how great He is? Jesus himself certainly didn’t seek adulation. I did a lot of soul searching, thinking it was my pride at work. Some of it was. Still it seemed there was more to it. I have finally come to the conclusion that God is seeking the simple affection of a loving child, and or friend. It never has to be just one or the other. It is what emerges from the soul at any given moment. Sometimes it’s “Abba, Father” and other times it’s more like a friend or a spouse. He doesn’t need me to tell Him how great He is. He just wants me to. He is!
I was raised as a Southern Baptist in a rural church where we were taught to be suspicious of anything that might be considered liturgical or ritualistic. Consequently the congregation didn’t quite know what to do with the “Lord’s Supper”. It was “performed” three or four times a year. Now I can’t speak for the internal spiritual life of all the congregants; I’m sure many found it meaningful and uplifting. But I don’t remember it as much more than an occasion to consider one’s own relationship with Jesus. Apparently what was supposed to happen wouldn’t unless you were “right with God”.
Interestingly what captured my imagination as a child was baptism. It occurred even more rarely because we just never had that many converts. (Mostly the kids of the church as they grew old enough to figure out what they were supposed to do.)
As a young adult I remember the first time I attended a service in a Liturgical church. How overwhelming it was simply as a sensory experience! The most beautiful service I have ever attended was an Eastern Orthodox Easter service. But still I was conscious of the fact I could never truly enter into it. The service was moving the way a piece of art or a musical performance was moving. My upbringing had distanced me from true communion.
“…This is the feast of victory for our God!” – Such a beautiful and meaningful part of the Lutheran liturgy. I’m currently attending an Anglican church, but I do kind of miss singing that hymn of praise. It really emphasizes the great feast that Christian worship is.
Thank you. I will remember this.
It is a terrible situation, Susan. If I were in your place, and my wife had suffered at the hands of this man the way your husband has, I would not be able to receive Communion from him either. Know and remember that Christ is able to feed you his Body and Blood even if you were exiled alone to an island, as tradition has it John of Patmos was. I’m glad that you have good friends around, and we will hope for a new priest to arrive soon.
Thank you Robert for your suggestion.
I appreciate your thinking of my problem and praying for me.
I am between a rock and a hard place with this man. John’s and also my troubles with him go back to 2003. So many years. So many disagreements. John worked hard for our church for 26 years but it was never satisfactory in this man’s eyes.
He told John and me to stay away from the church, so we did. He demanded John’s church keys and told us to go. A real clash of personalities. John developed PTS disorder from the treatment he received. The Geriatrician says this is what started John’s tumble into dementia.
Now this man is locum for a while at my new parish I find it hard to shake off the angst which occurred. I should not grumble as in time someone else will come either as another locum or hopefully as our new parish priest.
I feel I have said too much today. Perhaps I should just be grateful for the good friends who surround me with their love as we wait for a new priest.
Blessings be yours,
Sadly, the Lutheran parish my wife and I belong to, and which she is organist/choir director for, does not celebrate Holy Communion every Sunday. For a variety of reasons, at the insistence of the parish council and with the support of what I think is the majority of the parish, the Eucharist is celebrated once a month, except for additional celebrations in any give month for certain Festival days, like Christmas Eve and Easter Sunday. I personally believe that the Holy Communion is and should be the culmination and center of every Sunday worship service. The way I get myself through the less than ideal situation regarding this matter is to think of and approach every non-Communion Sunday service as a preparation for the coming Communion, and to think of it as oriented toward the coming Communion. It helps that our parish does not use the prayer liturgy provided in the Lutheran worship book for non-Communion worship, but the first part of one of the settings for a Communion liturgy.
I have prayed for you regarding this problem this morning, Susan.
Have you spoken with this priest about your feelings concerning him, Susan? Is he aware of the issues that keep you from receiving Communion from him? If not, would it be possible, or something you would be willing to do, to speak with him about this matter? Perhaps making your feelings and the issues known, perhaps making your legitimate grievance known to him, even if it didn’t lead to resolution and reconciliation, would make it possible for you to receive Communion from his hands, with the understanding that the priest is just an officiant, a delivery boy, a conduit, while Jesus himself is the true giver and the gift. I hesitate to suggest such a route, because I understand how hard it is to travel, and I’m not sure, given the emotional difficulty involved, I could undertake it myself it I were in your shoes; but, in view of your situation, your attachment to and love for your parish, your felt need to partake in Communion, and your lack of other options for doing so, I’m offering the suggestion anyway. Whatever route you feel compelled to take, whatever route you do take, know that I’m with you in prayer.
Let us with our camels attend this royal birth.
Worship the Lord in the beauty of Holiness, Bow down before Him, His Glory proclaim.
with gold of obedience and incense of lowliness, sing and adore Him the Lord is His name.
Very hot but a cool change coming through. My cat is breathing a sign of relief.
I have a comment below.
Makes me feel sad but I have a good friend I think I have told you about and Cathy is supporting me. She has given me two new books on prayer. Face to Face Volume 1 and 2 by Kenneth Boa. Very scripture based but not evangelical, so with the other book you know about I am having a lot of support.
Blessings be yours.
Through my stubbornness I have not received the Sacrament for two weeks because of long standing issues between the locum Priest and my John, from the hands of a man with whom I have long standing issues.
He gave only contempt to my husband and I feel loyalty to my John and cannot receive the consecrated sacrament from this man’s hands.
What ever prayers you care to send upwards to God.
I hope you are keeping well, especially in the heat, and that you had a good and blessed Sunday.
This confirms my increasing sense that a worship service without Eucharist/Communion/Holy Supper is incomplete.
Thanks be to God.
After a lifetime I have finally made the move to a liturgical church (Anlglican). Jesus greets us . . . Jesus speaks . . . Jesus hosts the table . . . Jesus sends us. Amen! Perhaps, more than anything else, the thing that strikes me most about the difference between “revival” style services and liturgical services is the presence of Something, or Someone that is actually holy. Everything that I find in an Evangelical service I can find somewhere else, but to encounter the mysterious presence of Christ in communion with His people, I must go to a church that believes He is actually there!
The second thing that strikes me is the prayers for mercy! More than once the congregation cries out “Lord have mercy”. Before the Lord’s Supper we all kneel together and say a prayer asking the Lord to forgive us of our sins. NEVER in my 55 years of being in evangelical services did the need arise for the entire congregation to ask for God for mercy (that was only necessary for the lost and backslidden Christians). A tear really came to my eye the first time. I could barely contain my emotions when passages that confirmed the Lord’s forgiveness were read and we were invited to the Lord’s table.
I have truly never been in services that were more Christ centered. I look forward to Sundays more than I ever have because am confident that I will encounter Jesus there. Mike, thank you for helping me these many years to prepare for this transition.