If there is one part of a church service that does not seem to need explanation, it is the proclamation of God’s Word. Nearly all Christians read the Bible aloud during worship, and nearly all offer some meditation on what has been read. But there are different ways of doing this, and different ways of understanding what it means. So maybe it is worth talking about.
In Lutheran churches, including ours in Cluj, God’s Word revealed in the Bible can be heard at least three ways: (i) in the passages chosen for a particular Sunday; (ii) in the sermon that is inspired by those passages; and (iii) in the liturgy itself, the songs and prayers passed on through the ages, in which the words of the Bible are said and sung together in new contexts. (There is another way as well, and I’ll explain it further on.)
Here’s how we do it:
In our church, the readings consist of three lessons and a Psalm. Usually, the first lesson is from the Old Testament, the second from one of the Epistles, and the third is from one of the four Gospels. A sermon follows the Gospel.
These lessons are not chosen by the preacher. They are drawn from the lectionary, a list of readings for each week used by many different churches. At our English service in Cluj, we use the Revised Common Lectionary, which is the list of readings adopted by most Protestant communities in the United States, Canada, the UK, Scandinavia and some parts of Africa and Asia. It is very close to the lectionary used by the Roman Catholic church worldwide.
There are many other ways to do this. Some churches us a one-year lectionary. Some read only one passage each week, chosen by the preacher for his or her own reasons. A few, like the Quakers, have no particular plan for reading at all, except to wait for the Holy Spirit to make a suggestion.
To be honest, I don’t think it makes a big difference how many lessons we read, or how they are chosen. The important thing is that Christians, gathered as a community, open their ears and their minds to the voice of God. After all, “faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes from the Word of Christ.” (Romans 10:17)
The sermon matters, too. It is not an independent thing, but grows, or at least it should grow, directly from the readings. Here in Cluj, both Pastor Terri and I preach primarily on the Gospel lesson for each week, using the Old Testament and Epistle readings to deepen our message. Our goal is to help the whole assembly praise God, by making a connection between the scriptures that have been read and the life of the community that reads them.
But let’s be honest. Some Sundays, your mind wanders. The Bible isn’t read in a clear voice, or the translation is hard to follow. Sometimes — it hurts me to admit this! — the preacher has a bad day. Does this mean that you have missed your chance to hear the Word of God?
Absolutely not! The Bible is at the heart of the historic liturgy, from the beginning to the end. The greeting we use each week (“The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all”) is from 2 Corinthians 13. The Gloria in excelsis is an ancient song, based on Luke 2:14. (On some weeks, we sing a different hymn of praise, “This is the feast,” based on Revelation 5:12-14.) The Gospel lesson is introduced, either with St. Peter’s acclamation (“Lord, to whom shall we go?” in John 6:68) or with a sentence from the lesson for the day. Before Holy Communion, we sing the Agnus Dei, or Lamb of God, a song based on John 1:29. Before we leave, we sing the Nunc dimittis, or “Lord, now you let your servant go.” This is Simeon’s song after he beholds the promised Christ, in Luke 2:29-32. We sing it after our encounter with Christ in worship together.
So if the lessons and the sermon do not speak to you, a traditional worship service has a backup plan. The Bible is woven into our worship, allowing us to speak today in the worlds of the prophets and apostles before us.
There are the three most obvious ways in which the Bible is present in our service: in the readings, the sermon, and the canticles. But I mentioned a fourth way, and it is a little more complicated to explain. The Bible is present in the Sacrament of Holy Communion, which we celebrate together each Sunday. Not just the words we speak or sing, but in the elements themselves, which we eat and drink.
For this to make any sense at all, it is important to understand what Lutherans mean when we talk about the Bible, and especially when we call it the Word of God. The Bible is a human creation, a collection of books passed on from antiquity, and at the same time the Bible is a divine creation, a gift which allows us to understand not just God’s actions in the world, but God’s will and at least in some way, God’s very being.
The specific sense in which we understand God’s being is Jesus, the Son of God, to whom the whole Bible gives witness, from the first page to the last. St. John’s Gospel calls him “the Word of God,” and tells us that he was involved in the very creation of the universe. So when Lutherans talk about the Word of God, we mean Jesus first of all. The Bible is God’s Word because it proclaims Jesus.
And so reading the Bible together makes Jesus present with us, as truly as the Eucharist does.
That is a radical idea, and through history it has disturbed many people. For some people, the Eucharist is an add-on, a pleasant symbolic ritual but one which is secondary to the reading and preaching. For others, the lessons and the sermon are a trite intellectual exercise, to be dispensed with quickly before we move into the sublime moment of direct, personal contact with God. Lutherans balance these two ideas, giving the Word and the sacrament equal value. Indeed, the Word and the sacrament aren’t truly separate things at all. They are, together, the means by which Christ breaks through into our world, sharing with us God’s very presence.
The picture reproduced on this page, from an altarpiece by Lucas Cranach, is a visual representation of what we believe happens in liturgical preaching. The preacher does his part and the people do theirs; and in the midst of them, Christ is present.