Note: Over the next 5 weeks or so, I will publish posts exploring worship, including an annotated commentary of my church’s worship service, a modified version of the Service for the Lord’s Day from the Book of Common Worship.
Last time I mapped out the development of the fourfold movement of our worship service: Gathering, Word, Table, and Sending. This month I want to dissect the first of those moves, the Gathering, and how it functions to usher us into an encounter with the living God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
In the Gathering, we approach God and enter into worship together (a.k.a. “corporate” worship, or worship by the body), and for each act of worship within the Gathering, there is a biblical and theological warrant.
Sharing the Peace of Christ
Jesus taught his disciples that “if you are offering your gift at the altar [in an act of worship] and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24 ESV) This is why we begin our worship service by sharing the peace of Christ: because if we are at odds with our sisters and brothers in the Lord, then we will be hindered from truly worshiping God. So we give ourselves an opportunity to put down our grudges, forgive each other, and then gather together as a reconciled family to worship the Lord Jesus. In this way, we fulfill the biblical commandment, “Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” (Colossians 3:13 TNIV)
Call to Worship, Opening Prayer, and Hymn of Praise
Following sharing the peace, God invites us to worship him joyfully by means of a brief snippet of God’s Word. This leads us naturally into a collective prayer, summoning God’s presence into our gathering (because without the presence of the Holy Spirit, we are just a random meeting of people). Responding to God’s invitation, we burst forth into song, praising God for who he is and what he has done for us. Over and over, Scripture invites us to “Worship the LORD with gladness,” to “come before him with joyful songs,” and to “bow down in worship,” kneeling “before the LORD our Maker.” (Psalms 100:1; 95:6 TNIV)
Call to Confession and Prayer of Confession
But approaching a perfectly holy and righteous God, while having the benefit of lifting us up into the heavenly realms with Christ (Ephesians 1:20; 2:6), also makes us aware of our shortcomings—how we are neither holy nor righteous. Isaiah the prophet had a glorious vision of the Lord God seated on his throne in heaven, as angels flew about declaring God’s majesty. And as he beheld the vision, he was overwhelmed by his broken humanity: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5 ESV) Later, when the Lord became a human and revealed his glory to his disciples through a miraculous catch of fish, Simon Peter, also overwhelmed by God’s presence and his own deficiency, fell to his knees before Jesus and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8 TNIV)
So it is in our worship: As we draw near to our holy and just God, we are necessarily brought to our knees, confessing our condition before God, who knows the true state of our hearts (Acts 1:24). Of course, we confess our sins knowing that God is gracious and merciful, that Jesus has already died to forgive our sins, that Jesus has opened the way to heaven, and that we will be forgiven and restored, as God has promised.
Assurance of Pardon and Invitation to Faith
Our prayer of confession leads to one of my favorite parts of the service: the assurance of pardon and invitation to faith. It is my privilege as a pastor and God’s representative to speak on God’s behalf, using the words of Scripture, to announce the gospel as clearly as possible: “‘He himself bore our sins’ in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; ‘by his wounds you have been healed.’” (1 Peter 2:24 TNIV) And, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9 TNIV) In case someone has never heard the good news before or doesn’t know what Christianity is all about, this should make things crystal clear. And besides, even mature believers never tire of hearing the radical, life-changing words of the gospel.
Our collective response to being assured that we are forgiven is relief, joy, gratitude, and glory to God our Redeemer. The words of the response we sing originate in the ancient church and are still used by Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and many Protestant churches: “Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, both now and always, and to the ages of ages. Amen.” We often use the first two words in Latin, Gloria Patri, for its name.
The Law of God
One of John Calvin’s major contributions to the church was his articulation of how God’s law functions in Christians’ lives. He wrote that the divine law, especially the ten commandments, served as a basis for secular laws and to point out our sins to us (Romans 3:20). But in addition, he taught that the ten commandments also act as a guide for the Christian life. Because if the Holy Spirit enables us to obey God’s law (Ezekiel 36:27), however imperfectly, then the ten commandments are valid for our lives and should bind our consciences and instruct us in the ways we should go. That’s why we recite the ten commandments during worship every Lord’s Day: to remind us of the pattern and goal of our behavior as Christians.
That is the Gathering—the first room in a great cathedral, the bottom bun of a beautiful sandwich, the first stage of worship when we approach the living God together. Watch next time as we examine the next move in our service for the Lord’s Day, the Word—the second room, the meat of the sandwich, the time in worship when we hear from God.
Soli Deo Gloria! (Glory to God Alone)