Note: Over the course of several weeks, I have been publishing posts exploring Reformed 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.
So far in this series, I’ve been describing the meaning and movement of our worship service on the Lord’s Day. Reformed Christians have traditionally taken 1 Corinthians 14:40 very seriously: “All things should be done decently and in order.” (ESV) That wisdom has not only shaped our church government (which is very orderly—sometimes to a fault), but also our worship style (which is neither liturgical nor “free,” but certainly orderly).
I have already commented on the first two movements of our worship service, The Gathering and The Word, and now I will move on to the third: The Thanksgiving. Hearing God’s Word in worship should move us to faith, which is manifested in prayer, gratitude, self-giving, and praise. This is what gives shape to The Thanksgiving.
Prayers of the People and the Lord’s Prayer
Through Scripture we are reminded of God’s faithfulness to his children and his willingness to answer prayer. In fact, after Jesus’ ascension, the Bible depicts Jesus in one position only: reigning at the right hand of God and praying to the Father on our behalf (see Acts 7:56; Romans 8:34; Hebrews 7:25; and 1 John 2:1). Therefore, we are moved to gather together and pray to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit, knowing that our prayers are truly heard. It is custom for our congregation—but by no means required—that we pray the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples in Matthew 6 and Luke 11. I heard a veiled criticism of our worship service once from a visiting young man who said that the so-called Lord’s Prayer was for beginners only—that Jesus gave it to his followers as a starter, and not as a permanent, normative prayer for Christians to continue praying. If that is true, then count me among the beginners, because I still use Jesus’ words as a pattern for my prayers, and I still believe there is power and unity when believers lift up our Lord’s own words together.
Offering, Doxology, and Prayer of Dedication
Cynical folks will say that the offering during worship serves the purpose of raising enough money to keep the lights on, to heat the building, and to pay the pastor if there’s anything left over. But the offering is an opportunity for us as Christians to demonstrate our thanks and trust to our God who saves us. It’s one thing to say that we trust in the Lord—in the abstract—but it’s altogether another thing to actually trust God by giving our money to him freely, with the conviction that he will take care of us and bless us because of our faith (there’s also trust required of the church’s leaders to use and distribute the gifts wisely). So the offering is not so much about the money as what the money represents: our hearts. (See Matthew 6:21: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”)
The doxology and prayer of dedication are simply the icing on the cake. We praise the Triune God and fall down (figuratively speaking) before God’s majesty—as Creator, Redeemer, and Ruler of the universe. Then, in prayer, we dedicate not only our gifts, but our lives, to God’s service.
The Lord’s Supper
Although Christians disagree about what goes on during the Lord’s Supper precisely and who gets to participate in said Supper, we can all agree that Jesus commanded his followers to continue this simple meal “in remembrance of” him until he returns (see 1 Corinthians 11:23-26). Reformed Christians have traditionally seen Communion as a seal—an enactment, a token—of God’s promises proclaimed in Scripture and in the sermon, but never as a conduit of God’s grace (by itself) apart from the gospel.
Christians have also disagreed about how, exactly, Jesus is present in the meal (he did say, after all, “This is my body…blood”). Broadly speaking, Roman Catholics have taught transubstantiation, Lutherans have emphasized consubstantiation, and followers of Zwingli emphasized the Lord’s Supper as a memorial feast. Reformed Christians (following Calvin), however, have emphasized the spiritual presence of Christ in the elements; that is, Jesus is present, not by the automaticity of the sacraments themselves, but because the living Jesus chooses to use the sacraments as a means of grace and for being in “communion” with himself.
The Great Thanksgiving prayer that is offered before the actual Communion is the height of returning thanks to God for his faithfulness; in fact, Communion itself has often been called the Eucharist, based on the biblical Greek word eucharistein, which means, “to give thanks.” This prayer contains many ancient elements that we share with the broad streams of Christianity, including the exchange at the beginning called the sursum corda (Latin for “lift up your hearts”), the sanctus (holy, holy, holy Lord…), and the memorial acclamation (great is the mystery of faith).
The kernel of the Lord’s supper comes when the pastor repeats the words of Scripture (usually from 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, but also from the Gospels: Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; or Luke 22:18-20), usually while preparing the elements. Then, to emphasize the priesthood of all believers and the community we share in our church family, we distribute the bread and juice to each other and then partake at the same time. Finally, the pastor gives thanks that God has fed his people spiritually through the Supper and reminded them of his promises in Scripture.
So ends the third of four movements in our worship service: The Gathering, The Word, and The Thanksgiving. We have approached God, heard from God, returned thanks to God, and been given a reminder of God’s Word to us. Next time I will explore the final movement in our service, The Sending.
Soli Deo Gloria! (Glory to God Alone)