Someone once asked, “What’s the difference between a sermon and a homily?” Well, one answer is that a sermon is a long or tedious piece of admonition or reproof; a homily is a tedious moralizing discourse that goes on for too long. In other words, not much. While there are any number of jokes about sermons and homilies, preaching has been part of Christian worship for as long as we’re able to discern. It’s something we’ve inherited from synagogue Judaism. We can see an example of this in Jesus himself in the beginning of his ministry [St Luke 4:16-30 In this story, we can see that the preacher is not always favorably received!]. As preaching has been around for a very long time, there are a number of sermons that are famous enough to be remembered over time. One, the Easter Homily of St John Chrysostom [the Golden-mouthed] has been read in Orthodox churches each Easter since about the year 400.
The location of the sermon in proximity to the lessons gives a strong clue about the topic for preaching. Simply put, we are to allow these lessons to give commentary and instruction to our lives in this time. And as our worship is seen as a communal act, we are to understand that the words of the Lessons read are working on all of us together. The stories of the Bible are to shape our lives in this time. The preacher, hopefully, opens up the possibility of what these ancient words can mean in our lives and our present world.
Having concluded the opening, gathering stuff and said a prayer, we move into the Liturgy of the Word of God. In other words, we’re going to read some Bible and talk about it. Jewish worship included the public reading of Scripture. Christians kept this practice and over time added readings from the writings of Paul [and other apostles] and the Gospels to readings from the Hebrew Scriptures. What these lessons, read at worship, should be seems to have become standardized among churches somewhere in the fifth-sixth centuries.
Originally, there was one cycle of lessons, read throughout the year and repeated every year. Generally speaking, churches that followed a lectionary [which includes Lutheran churches] kept this yearly cycle from approximately the early seventh century until the mid-1960’s [nearly 1,300 years]. This newly revised lectionary consists of a three-year cycle of readings whose foundation is a reading from one of the Synoptic [Mathew/Mark/Luke] Gospels with portions of John’s Gospel interspersed in various places.
The First Lesson is, except for the Easter season, from the Old Testament. This lesson usually connects to the day’s Gospel in a direct [and occasionally not so direct] way. In recent years, there have been some Sundays, particularly in the summer months, where a semi-continuous telling of an Old Testament story takes place.
The Second Lesson comes from the writings [not Gospels] of the New Testament. It can, occasionally, be hard to see the connection between this lesson and the Gospel. The general sense, though, is that there is to be for the church a balance in seeing the work of God displayed in Hebrew Scriptures and writings of the New Testament.
The Gospel Lesson follows a [somewhat] discernable pattern. We begin with stories of preparation for the birth of Jesus [or, his second coming] followed by Christmas/Nativity stories and the visit of the Wise Men on Epiphany. We enter Lent, learn about Jesus’s suffering and teaching about the challenge of being his disciple, the events of Holy Week, Easter and the time after Easter and then the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. The other half of the year tells stories of Jesus’s teaching.
There is one additional piece to the church’s reading and that is the Psalmody. In the singing [or, reading] of one of the Psalms we are drawn into the worship of God by the Hebrew people, uniting us with them in their hopes and dreams of God’s work in this world.
The conclusion to the opening of our worship is known as the Prayer of the Day or, Collect [if you’re into old English titles for things]. There are three prayers on Sunday morning that follow the same form, the Prayer of the Day, the prayer over the gifts and offerings before Communion and the Post-Communion Prayer. The Prayer of the Day begins with a greeting or salutation, which is intended to call us to order after the all of the opening action. The leader says, “The Lord be with you.” The response is, “And also with you.” If you’re old enough, you might remember the time when the response was, “And with thy spirit.” [Fun fact: if you happen to go to a church that follows an old-style liturgy, or an Episcopal church that uses the old Book of Common Prayer, or a proper English church, you will still hear, “And with thy spirit.” It’s sort of funky, but both phrases mean the same thing.]
The Prayer of the Day was originally a “free-form” prayer offered up by the worship leader. Over time [maybe the prayer prayed too long too many times??] these prayers became a “set” prayer that is intended to reflect the theme of the day, be that the lessons or the festival nature of that particular worship. Most of the Prayers of the Day date back nearly 1,500 years and were originally in Latin. Thomas Cranmer famously translated these prayers into English for his Book of Common Prayer first published in 1549. These prayers would form some of the most beautiful and memorable phrases in the English language. [Thomas Cranmer, a somewhat mediocre theologian, was a genius with words.] Echoes of those prayers are still found in the prayers we say on Sunday.
The Day of Pentecost is the conclusion of the Easter season. The feast of the Resurrection, Easter Day, stands at one end of the church’s calendar and the Day of Pentecost, fifty days after Easter, stands at the other. This is to say that Pentecost should not be thought of as something separate from Easter but the consequence of Easter. God raised Jesus from the dead, Jesus appears to his disciples, Jesus ascends into heaven, God sends the promised holy Spirit [St John 16:4-15; St Luke 24:49; Acts 1:8], the disciples become the embodiment of Jesus’s ministry in the world. The Day of Pentecost, the power that comes to the church, to the disciples, through the Spirit is the logical [if you can use that word] outcome of the resurrection of Jesus.
The Resurrection of Jesus stands as God’s declaration that the vision of the world that Jesus preached and acted out was God’s true vision for the world. What Jesus said and did is what the world, what humanity, was always supposed to be. The Day of Pentecost shows us how God is going to make this vision come to life in the world. God is going to give power and strength to ordinary people and, through them, reshape the world.
One of the reasons we celebrate confirmations on the Day of Pentecost is that we are affirming with our lives that we believe God has called us to the mission and ministry of Jesus through our baptisms and we believe God gives us the strength do live out this mission and ministry.
Immediately following the Kyrie is a canticle [song] that would be sung in the early church [the earliest record of anything like the Hymn of Praise dates to the mid-fourth century] as soon as everyone got into the church. These songs are “big,” in the sense that they speak to the idea of God filling the world with glory, majesty and power.
There are two particular hymns used in this place of our worship. The first is the Gloria in Excelsis. The Gloria in Excelsis [or, Gloria] is the oldest of the two. This hymn begins with the song of the angels in Bethlehem at the birth of Jesus [St Luke 2:14], “Glory to God in the highest and peace to God’s people on earth.” The hymn remembers three principal themes:
1. The majesty of God who is in heaven
2. The coming of Jesus into the world for the salvation of the world
3. The unity of God the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
The second hymn is “Worthy is Christ.” Occurring in several different forms, this hymn reflects a number of themes from the book of Revelation, particularly power [Rev 5:12-13], the singing of the people of God [Rev 25:3-4], the Lamb who was slain [Rev 11:17] and Worthy is Christ [Rev 5:9]. The idea that the worship that is taking place is the “feast of victory for our God” is an allusion to banquets and feasts are a sign of God’s world or kingdom [Isaiah 25:6, Rev 19:9, St Matt 22:1, etc.]. When we sing this, we are making the claim that what happens in worship is a small sign of the great feast of all of God’s people that will take place at the end of all time. It is a short summary of what we believe about God, Jesus, people and heaven.
Both of these hymns have commonality in giving praise to the greatness of God as well as the presence and sacrifice of Jesus, the Lamb of God. Given the celebratory nature of both of them, they tend to be omitted from worship during the Advent and Lenten seasons. As those seasons of the church year are more “penitential” or focused on preparation and repentance, these hymns can feel a bit out of place.
Kyrie Eleison; Christe Eleison.
Lord have mercy; Christ have mercy.
As the beginning of Christian worship become more elaborate as Christianity became a more established, legal religion in the middle of the fourth century, a worship leader would sing out prayer petitions asking for God’s peace to come to particular people or situations. These would include prayers such as for peace for the world, for civic rulers, for the coming of salvation to the world, for the church and for the unity of the church. The people would sing back, “Kyrie Eleison,” or “Christe Eleison,” the Greek words for “Lord have mercy,” or “Christ have mercy.”
What is interesting is that there is a very civil act that the early church adopted for itself. It was not uncommon for people to cry out to emperors and rulers, “Lord have mercy!” as they passed by. The word “hosanna!” [see the story of Jesus’s entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday; St. Mark 11:7-10] is a Hebrew word that means the same thing. In various places in the New Testament, we see people crying out to Jesus, “Kyrie eleison,” “Lord have mercy.” [see St. Matthew 15:22, 20:30-31 or St. Mark 10:46]
The Kyrie, properly understood, is one of the church’s oldest prayers for peace. As we sing through this prayer each week, we’re asking the Lord, asking Jesus to give us mercy [peace] in whatever situation we our friends or even the whole world finds itself. The petitions [petition is the proper word for each verse or request] also remind us that worship is not for us alone, but the inclusion of prayers for the world, for civil authorities, etc., remind us that we aren’t separating ourselves from the world when we come to worship. In fact, worship binds us more tightly to the word God loves so much.
The first section of our worship [remember – the Confession happens, technically speaking, outside of our worship proper] is what is known, properly speaking, as the Entrance Rite. This includes the opening hymn, the Apostolic Greeting, the Kyrie, the Hymn of Praise [Gloria or Worthy is Christ] and Prayer of the Day. All of this finds its roots in the earliest public Christian worship. In the fourth century, soon after Christianity was legalized [and even publicly encouraged] and church buildings became public spaces, worshippers would process together to church for worship and, as you might imagine, they would sing hymns on the way. Going to church for worship evolved into a large, civic event. As we sing the opening hymn its sense still is one of gathering people together for worship, with echoes that reach back 1600 years of those early Christians gathering together publicly for worship.
As the church grew in prominence and power, the church began to invest this entrance and opening of worship with symbols of dignity and power. It evolved that the ministers would enter in a formal procession with someone carrying the Book of Gospels along with candles [remember, there were no electric lights in the fifth century!] and incense. This was an echo of the entrance of civic leaders into courts and government buildings on formal occasions. As you can imagine, this displayed the newfound power and prominence of this once illegal religion. What is interesting is that it seems that the choir didn’t join this procession [as it does with us now] until sometime in the late 19th century. Previously, the choir was in place before the entrance began.
The apostolic greeting
The opening words of worship are: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion [or, fellowship] of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” What is interesting is that these opening words are actually the closing words of St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthian church [2 Corinthians 13:14]. The understanding in these words is that the grace of Christ gives us the ability to love God which allows us to participate in the work of the Holy Spirit, the very power that makes possible the fellowship [or, communion] between God and God’s people. These words summarize the gifts of the Holy Trinity. If you like knowing how something is going to turn out before you begin, these words are for you. These words summarize the purpose for which we have gathered together for worship; to know the grace that comes to us through the work of Jesus Christ, to learn to love God and to participate in God’s transforming work empowered by the Holy Spirit. This is to describe you when you leave worship!
The proper title for this is “The Brief Order for Confession and Forgiveness.” You may have noticed that this rite sits at the very beginning of our worship. In fact, as it happens before the opening hymn, it sits “outside” of our worship. This reflects an older understanding of confession as something that takes place before you come to Communion. In the medieval church [and this continues in portions of the Roman Catholic Church], one was to confess and receive absolution [forgiveness] prior to coming for Communion. While Protestants [including Lutherans] struggled with some of the abuses that arose around the acts of Confession and Absolution, Lutherans in particular were not able to completely do away with some form of confession.
Historically, this act has popped around in various places of Lutheran worship preceding Holy Communion. [It was, at one time, between the sermon and the Creed, the general place you will find something similar in Episcopal worship.] Finally, these places were deemed disruptive and the act was moved to the front of our time together, before the opening hymn, before the beginning of worship proper.
It should be noted that the emphasis of the rite are the words of forgiveness [absolution] on the part of the pastor. Admittedly, we are not able to grasp in its entirety, the breadth of our sinful selves in the brief time of the Order. Yet, in this brief moment, we are to grasp the contradictory sense of our very nature, “… we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” It is, actually, one of the more startling things we say out loud. These words, more than anything we can admit to, are intended to help shape our self-understanding.
The second portion of the Order is intended to be as startling as the first. We are declared free by the work of Jesus Christ. We are to grasp that we are set free by Jesus to become the people God imagines us to be. It is one of the most powerful things any one human can say to another. If we really believe this, really live this, it has the power to not only transform our lives, it changes the world.
There is one additional “introductory” thing I’d like you to think about before we start talking about the actual parts of our worship. Specifically, let’s think for just a minute about language. The Jewish people spoke Hebrew. Jesus and his disciples spoke Aramaic [and probably Hebrew and a bit of Greek and Latin, given where he lived]. St. Paul spoke Greek and undoubtedly read Hebrew and probably knew Latin. The New Testament was originally written in Greek. Most of the foundation pieces of our worship liturgy was written in Latin which, in some places, reflect on things probably originally written in Hebrew and Greek. In the 1600’s, Luther translated the worship liturgy into German. Later in that century, Thomas Cranmer made the most famous translation into English.
I hope you can begin to see that the words we say on Sunday morning have a very complex history. One of the challenges is that every translation is an interpretation. Another challenge is that language is a living thing. Words can shift in their meaning and intention. How language is used can change. Finally, people who put worship together walk a fine line between creating a worship language of poetry and “otherworldliness” and familiarity and contemporary understanding. Frankly, it’s all a lot harder than it looks!
One of the things we find in worship language is that there are attempts to make the flow of the words eloquent and poetic. One reason for this is that there is something unique about what we do and say in our worship liturgy. The other is that the poetry helps make the words memorable. Poetry helps the words imprint themselves on our hearts and minds.
One final thing to think about when we think about language and worship are the words we use for God. There are a number of challenges here. Many of the traditional words used for speaking of God are masculine [although there are a few notable feminine images for God in the Bible as well]. Over the past 30 years or so, there has been some intention to try to understand that God is not male or female in the same way humans are. Too, many people have found purely masculine images of God to be exclusionary and even limiting of our understanding of God. Our worship language tries to understand and respect this challenge.
The Third Commandment says, “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.” The Sabbath, properly speaking, is Saturday, the seventh day of the week. In this sense, all of us [unless you happen to be Seventh Day Adventist] violate the commandment. So, why do we? Why do Christians, generally, worship and set aside Sunday as their holy day?
It all goes back to Jesus and the Resurrection. All four Gospels point to the first day of the week [Sunday] as the day of Jesus’s Resurrection. [See: Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:1, Luke 24:1, John 20:1] Each Sunday’s worship is to find its life in the resurrected life of Jesus. The center point of the church’s [and our own] life is the Resurrection of Our Lord. Jesus’s Resurrection changed the way understand time, both past, present and future.
The time of Sunday worship seems to be variable. While our general experience with going to Sunday worship tends to be sometime in the morning, there is good evidence that Christians have also worshipped at other times of the day. There is good speculation that in many New Testament communities, Sunday worship was in the evening and included dinner.