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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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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Transfiguration: To See the Glory of the Lord

This Sunday is Transfiguration Sunday*, when we recall the revelation of Jesus’ glory on the mountain in the days before his final journey to Jerusalem.

The disciples had seen Jesus heal (miraculously), cast out demons, calm storms, feed the multitude, teach with authority, forgive sins, and bring lost sons and daughters of Abraham back home into the family of God. And he gave the twelve authority to do the same. That would have been incredible to experience. But despite the miraculous things Jesus did, and the miraculous things he empowered them to accomplish, it was their experience of Jesus’ glory on the mount of transfiguration that knocked the disciples off their feet.

It was also the experience of Jesus’ glory that empowered the early church for its ministry in the world. The early church was generous, compassionate and brave in the face of Caesar’s empire, and it adopted new members into its midst at an astonishing rate. But what kept it going was the experience of Jesus’ glorious presence in their midst. The Nicene faith developed not in abstract speculation, but because Christians knew that when they worshiped Jesus they were in the presence of light from light, true God from true God, of one being with the Father. They faced the lions and the executioners not because they had a great attachment to social service, but because they experienced Jesus to be the Son of God, beloved of the Father.

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Participating in Bodily Worship

For human beings, worship is both a physical and a spiritual activity.

When the Apostle Paul tells us to “Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God–this is your true and proper (‘logikos‘) worship,” I think the first application pertains to what Christians do when they assemble on Sunday morning.

The place of worship has moved from the temple in Jerusalem to the assembly of the faithful. Instead of offering a ram or a bull, the congregation unites itself to Christ’s offering of himself on the cross. All who are united to Christ a members of his royal priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices (1 Peter 2:5). But Christian worship is still a bodily, physical activity.

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Epiclesis: Body, Blood, Word, Spirit

The epiclesis is the part of the communion prayer in which the celebrant, calling on the Holy Spirit, asks God to make Christ’s body and blood real and present in the bread and wine. This, for example, is the epiclesis from a current United Methodist communion liturgy:

Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and wine. Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood. By your Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world, until Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet.

Within the framework of the current ecumenical consensus, the epiclesis occurs near the end of the Eucharistic prayer, but it has not always been so.

Sixteenth century reformer Huldrych Zwingli denied that the bread and wine were Christ’s body and blood at all. The supper was a memorial. Although this is still a popular view, in this post I am more interested in those Protestants who remained firmly in the “real presence” camp. While they denied the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, they affirmed that communicants actually receive Christ’s body and blood during the holy meal. Their communion liturgies, however, did not require the Holy Spirit to effect a miracle to make this occur. They arrived at Christ’s “real presence” in his body and blood by another route.

I don’t know Calvinist worship history enough to comment on the Reformed tradition in Protestantism, but both the Lutheran and Anglican streams offered versions of the Eucharist without an epiclesis, and both strongly affirmed that communicants truly receive the body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ.

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