Imagining a Different Space for Worship

I envision a worship space that I know I will never see in reality. It’s the product of a number ideas rolling around in my head. Central to my vision is an understanding that worship is a physical act, not just a mental and emotional reality.

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1. In the Eucharist, the baptized join the whole church on earth and the whole host of heaven to sing the song of the seraphim. I take that almost literally. At the table of the Lord, a door opens between heaven and earth so that we can see what Isaiah saw – the Lord, high and lifted up. At the table, we can see what John saw – and the Lamb who was slain at the center of the throne, with all the elders falling on their faces before him.

I envision a worship space that portrays that reality artistically, and which allows Christians to live it kinetically.

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Jesus and the Promise of Home

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. John 15:9-12

The Comforts of Home

Every afternoon, when I am worn out by the day, I look forward to the moment when I can walk out to my car and silently comfort myself with the thought, “Let’s go home.” And in my life, home has been a moving target.

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Did the Men Cook?

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Then came the day of Unleavened Bread on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and make preparations for us to eat the Passover.” “Where do you want us to prepare for it?” they asked. He replied, “As you enter the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him to the house that he enters, and say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ He will show you a large room upstairs, all furnished. Make preparations there.” They left and found things just as Jesus had told them. So they prepared the Passover. Luke 22:7-13

Sometime back I was sitting in the Upper Room Chapel in Nashville when my mind wandered off the chapel activities to the carving behind the altar. It is a representation of Jesus’ last supper before his crucifixion, a copy of Leonardo DaVinci’s famous painting.

Luke says that the “apostles” – the sent ones – reclined at the table with Jesus, a group Luke identifies with the twelve. In renaissance style, DaVinci’s apostles sit with Jesus; they don’t recline. Still, it’s just the twelve and Jesus – all men. And the question came to my mind, “Who cooked the dinner?”

Did Luke intend to say that Peter and John cooked the meal when he said, “they prepared the Passover?” Were there others, perhaps some women included, behind the scenes who prepared the actual meal?

It’s amusing to think of the great apostles of the church standing beside the oven baking bread, washing vegetables and roasting lamb. Maybe Peter washed the dishes and John set the table. We should not think it beneath the dignity of the princes of the church to do the work of  servants. Even an apostle can put on an apron and get to work. The disciples may not wash feet in the synoptic gospels as they do in the Gospel of John, but Jesus still calls them to the ordinary task of setting the table.

Whoever performed these mundane functions, the supper had to be prepared before the table could be shared.

Does not the apostolic church still set the table for Jesus, so that he can offer himself anew to every new generation of believers?


The Elements on the Table – Displaying or Offering?

The pastor may hold hands, palms down, over the bread, or touch the bread, or lift the bread. UMC Rubric for Holy Communion at the Words of Institution

It has been my custom to take the bread and the cup into my hands at the point in the Eucharistic prayer when I recall the words of institution. This is my body, given for you. This is the blood of the new covenant, poured out for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sins. Lifting the elements from the table, I thought, would make them more visible to the people. And, as the rubric directs, I face the congregation as I pray. I am increasingly convinced, however, that I am facing the wrong way. I think I should be leading the Eucharistic prayer more like most churches do the part of the service called “the offering.”

I’ve been watching as I visit from church to church how my fellow United Methodist pastors lead the congregation when the morning offering of cash and checks is received. In many American churches, the offering is the most “high church” element of the worship service.

After the gifts are collected, the congregation stands to sing a liturgical response, giving thanks to God, while the ushers bring the offering plates to the front of the sanctuary. The ushers hand the offering plates to the presiding clergy, who then turn away from the congregation. The pastor and the whole assembly face the cross hanging at the front of the sanctuary. The pastor lifts the plates in the air to offer their contents to God and then prays, dedicating the money to accomplishing God’s purposes. In my experience, this practice is nearly universal in United Methodist churches.

In liturgical practice, this is known as praying “ad orientem” – or toward the liturgical east – as opposed to praying “versus populum” – or facing the people.

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The Temptation of Jesus in John

Matthew and Luke record the story of Jesus’ post-baptismal temptation with which most of us are familiar. The devil tempted Jesus to create bread, perform miraculous signs and reign over the kingdoms of this age. In an unpublished commentary on the Gospel of John, Deacon Ezra Ham of the Antiochian Orthodox Church alerted me to the way these temptations show up again in the sixth chapter of John’s gospel.

Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself. John 6:15

So they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? John 6:30

“Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.” John 6:34

In John 6, the crowd looks to Jesus for kingship, miraculous signs and bread. John never uses the word “temptation”, but the parallel is remarkable.

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