The Lord be with you
Every Sunday morning Christians gather together in worship. What are they doing in these worship services? What is this meeting and praying and singing all about? I am going to look at what is going on in Church in six talks. I am calling them ‘Gathering’, ‘Hearing’, ‘Singing’, ‘Praying’, and then ‘Eucharist’ and ‘The People of God’. These titles loosely correspond to the stages in any service, and allow us to talk about the Church and the Christian life.
1. The Church gathers
I think the best way to talk about the Church is by talking about one particular church, so I have chosen one – mine. My church is St Mary’s, Stoke Newington, here in London.
We leave our homes and offices to gather as this church. Every week we are roused out of our everyday existence, dragged away from our computer or our sofa, to join these many other people. On Sunday morning we leave the house, and cross the borough of Hackney, to join all the others at St Mary’s. And we once we get up the steps and into the church we go down the aisle and take our places next to each other. We are called together, so we come together.
When we arrive in Church we start singing, and so our service begins. The first hymn of the service, is the song we sing as we make our way to the house of God. We are a pilgrim people and on our way we sing, and our first hymn is our song for the journey.
The God of Abraham praise
who reigns enthrone above
ancient of everlasting days
and God of love (NEH 146 Yigdal, Thomas Olivers)
Or we sing
All people that on earth do dwell
sing to the Lord with cheerful voice
him serve with fear, his praise forth tell
come ye before him and rejoice
O enter then his gates with praise
approach with joy his courts unto
praise laud and bless his name always
for it is seemly so to do (psalm 100, NEH 334, William Kethe)
We praise just because it is the right thing to do. The Lord calls, and therefore we come. We have come because he has invited and even summoned us here together. He is host and we are his guests. As we journey out of our homes, down the pavement to church, the service has begun and we are already caught up in it.
The invitation is general, so every church service is public. In some way the whole surrounding community is aware of this. Imagine that the Church stands in the middle of the market, and that it has no walls, so everyone can see and hear what is going on, and look on or keep their distance as they wish.
So whenever we say ‘church’ we mean, not an institution or a hierarchy, but this gathering of people. Each of us is surprised to find ourselves here, with these other people. The church is this gathering of people who have become witnesses, this random sample of north London who can assure you that they are also surprised to find themselves here, singing these songs of praise.
2. The gathering of opposites
The service starts with the words ‘The Lord be with you’ and our reply ‘And also with you’. The Lord God greets his people, and this greeting and reply is the pattern for all that follows.
The Lord speaks to man, and man hears his voice, and starts to worship. The Lord God speaks, we hear and reply and he hears us and replies, so the whole service is the call and response of a conversation.
God has called these people together and made them in their entirety, his witnesses: his gospel is revealed by their whole lives, bodies and persons as much as by their voices. These people in this assembly are the Church, a large number of people, now speaking with one voice.
The Church witnesses to the power of God in that it is a large number of disparate, even incompatible people, brought together. We are called to meet these people who are not like ourselves. It is the meeting and public reconciliation of opposites. Each of us is called out of our isolation and out of our mutual estrangement and into peace. The peace of the Lord be with you, we say to one another.
3. We come into the presence of God
God has promised that when two or three are gathered in his name, that he will be present and hear them. In its worship the Christian community proclaims that the God of Jesus Christ is the only God. It sings, for instance, the Gloria.
Glory be to God on high,
and in earth peace, good will towards men…
The result of giving this glory to God, and not to anyone else, is peace and good will towards men. And for this we praise God.
Every Christian worship service is the worship and service of Christ. It is not primarily our work, but his. What we take to be the words of the Church, and so our words, are first the speech of Christ. This worship is made by Christ’s worship of God: these psalms are his songs, and these songs and hymns are the ways we are able to join him in those psalms.
For thou art holy, Thou only art the Lord,
Thou only O Christ, with the Holy Spirit,
art most high in the glory of God the Father
This is the Gloria. It has inspired the most complex musical settings. But our church sings this to quite a simple tune and we sing it with some gusto. But why do we sing glory to God? Does God need glory?
3. Worship of God
The Christian people worship God.
All human beings give themselves away. We worship and adore, and cannot help ourselves. If we do not give ourselves to Christ, we give ourselves away in some other direction, or many other directions. We are needy, and want recognition and we throw ourselves on anyone and anything to get it.
But by giving glory, that is, recognition to God, Christians do not give themselves away to all sort of other creatures. They do not fritter themselves away, casting what belongs to them indifferently to any creature that does or doesn’t want it.
So it is not that we are giving glory to God, but simply that we are giving glory back to God. We are sending the glory that we have received, back to where it comes from, to the one who can be trusted with it. We are simply acknowledging receipt of it, and returning it so that it may be renewed, by God. The point is only not to hold on to glory for ourselves and not to pass it on in any direction to which it does not belong.
In its worship the Christian community says that the Father of Jesus Christ is the only God. Of course this sounds abrupt. We mean that there are other ‘gods’ (gods in inverted commas) all vying for us. Our contemporaries don’t claim that there are other gods, so it is for us to point out that all the various things that our contemporaries say and do that represent claims to power and even to misplaced divinity, without making them in the open.
This takes us to salvation. My identity cannot be established single-handedly by me alone. I may try to establish my identity in defiance of the rest of the world and I may try to force them or make a bargain with them so that they agree that my identity is what I say it is. But I have to find someone who can affirm that I am who I say I am. We have to receive our name from others, and if this name and identity are truly ours it has to come from within a relationship of love and freedom and mutual knowledge.
God knows you and loves you. It was he who called you into existence in the first place. He therefore recognises you, and has all the recognition and respect and love for you that you will ever wish for. He has always had this recognition, that is, this glory, for you, from the foundation of the earth. And of the whole jumble of things you are and might be, he is able to recognise what belongs to you and what does not.
The glory that God has for you is the identity that establishes you and secures you finally and forever. It is your salvation. As long as you prefer to fight those who love you and know who you are, your identity is in danger. But when you receive your identity from the one who loves you without reservation, you enter the communion in which you known and cherished. Outside that communion are only endless threats and your own ever frantic efforts to secure yourself against them. Within that communion, you are changed from being no one to someone, and so saved.
We are given a identity, and given the healing that enables us to receive that identity, and frees us to acknowledge what we are given is good, and that it is much more than we knew how to ask for. And God has assembled a company of people – sanctified people, that is, made holy for the purpose – to pass this recognition and love on to you, so you can receive it. Salvation is a place in this fellowship, with them.
This implausible collection of people turns up and sing these things together. They are not secondary, but fundamental, for they are the Church. The Christian community is made up of people who turn up. However surprised they are to find themselves here, or still here, these people gathered here in this worship are the gathered people of the Church.
God calls these people together and he makes them different from the world. He regards them as his holy people. You see how unholy they are, and we see how unholy they are, and we are. But we cannot short-cut these people. They have the pledge of the resurrection hidden in them, the indelible mark of God that says that they are holy.
We may well feel uncomfortable when we say that this people is different or that this people is holy. Who is comfortable about saying that they are one of the holy? We may well want to play down this difference between ourselves and the rest of the world. But we are not allowed to do so. The difference between the Church and the world, is fundamental. Because the Church is distinct and different from the surrounding world, it is visible and it is therefore the witness of God to us.
The Holy Spirit brings us into the communion and love of God. Communion and love are one and the same. We are brought into a circle of love, and within this love we are opened up to love, and this love enables us to subordinate ourselves to one another. Since we have received the love of God, which is without end, we can afford to love each another. We do not need to drive hard bargains and calculate pay-offs because for us there is forgiveness and release and new starts. This single fellowship is the communion that we know as the community of the Church. Of course it takes time to discover any of this for ourselves, but then that is what time is for.
The love of God is this specific fellowship, the fellowship of those being made holy by God. For us this fellowship starts with these specific people gathered in this congregation.
In the talks that follow I am going to say something about hearing Scripture, about singing and worshipping, about praying and interceding, and about the eucharist and the people of God. In the Christian worship service something extraordinary is going on before you, and more extraordinary, if you stay long you will become part of it.
The peace of the Lord be always with you.