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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A Debate: Theological Insights

Regarding contemporary practices in the church, a Biblical understanding of covenant helps us form a proper theology of worship. We must first recognize God as the primary character in a covenantal relationship. John Witvliet writes, “It is God who initiates relationship. The covenant relationship is not one among equals. In covenant, God graciously condescends to establish a relationship with Israel. God’s primacy is also reflected in the act of establishing covenant, for it is God who proposes, makes possible, and enacts covenant.”[1] Worship is dependent upon revelation. God has taken initiative to reveal His glory and to enact a plan for relationship. We respond in worship as we discover the initiatives of God.
We have seen how the Old Testament presents covenant as central to the worship of ancient Israel. Covenant regulates religious life and action. John Witvliet writes, “Israel is reminded that it serves a God of promise and action, a God who initiates relationship, a God who invites thankful obedience and condescends to provide an opportunity for ritual affirmation of covenant love.”[2]
            Turning to the New Testament, by Jesus’ establishment of a new covenant, the apostolic church continued the act of historical recitation and dramatic reenactment through celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper is a covenantal act of worship that has been practiced through all of church history and still continues today.
The Lord’s Supper simultaneously looks backward and forward, bringing all of history into a present reality. It remembers covenants made with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David. It makes real the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. It anticipates a coming Kingdom and reestablishment of heaven and earth. In sum, it embodies the entirety of Scripture.
Throughout history, the church has continued to celebrate the Lord’s Supper on a routine basis along with the proclamation of God’s Word. Remembrance is central to the practice of the Table. The Word helps us remember and to live into the experience of the Table. In many denominations, a carefully constructed liturgy has been used to prepare worshipers for receiving the Lord’s Supper. John Witvliet captures the heart of this liturgy: “Beginning with the recounting of God’s deeds and, in particular, those deeds that enact and transform God’s relationship with his people, the traditional eucharistic prayer continues by invoking God’s presence in the feast and imagining the future of God’s relationship with his people.”[3]
The Lord’s Supper is worship through remembrance by recitation of such great liturgies, but also by reenactment. Robert Webber writes:

Bread and wine signify and perform God’s story and communicate the benefit of God’s story to us. When we open our hearts, our minds, and our wills to see ourselves inside God’s story, to think thoughts after him, and to embody God’s story in love, we become broken bread and poured out wine to others in an incarnate, cruciform, resurrected, and eschatological life.[4]

Webber points out in this statement that the Lord’s Supper has a moral obligation that accompanies it. Just as under covenant, Israel was called by God to live out a particular lifestyle, (understood especially in commands to care for the widow, the orphan, and the alien), so too are we called to action of social justice by our participation in the Lord’s Supper. N.T. Wright argues:

The Eucharist is all about God’s life given in Jesus Christ to be our life. It is all about God’s Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, given now to be our breath of life. As we eat and drink, we become walking shrines, living temples, in whom the living triune God truly dwells. And if this scary thought should make us take our fellow Christians more seriously as what they really are, it should also make us take more seriously the tasks to which the living God calls us within his world. We cannot worship the suffering God today and ignore him tomorrow. We cannot eat and drink the body and blood of the passionate and compassionate God today, and then refuse to live passionately and compassionately tomorrow.[5]

In conclusion, the structure of Word and Table in worship follows a covenantal form of worship. Traditionally, the order of a Christian worship service moves through a sequence of gathering, service of the Word, service of the Table, and sending forth. This pattern loosely reflects the outline of the covenant structure. The gathering serves as preamble and prologue, a joyful celebration of the God's dominion and his acts of salvation. The service of the Word exhorts the Scriptures as stipulations defining the relationship between the great Suzerain King and his vassals. The service of the Table is an act of covenant affirmation as worshipers pledge loyalty in the intimacy of communion and mutual participation. The sending forth is a time of benediction or blessing pronounced upon the faithful to go forth and keep covenant with God the King.
Worship is ascribing to God His worth. We worship because He has revealed His glory through covenantal relationship and action. In worship, through the Word, we participate in remembrance through the recitation of God’s great deeds. At the Table, we reenact God’s story and encounter the real presence of Christ. We join as God’s children, bound to Him by the Holy Spirit through the covenant of Christ’s blood. As His covenant people, we are called to a particular lifestyle as we anticipate the future Kingdom God will usher in, and to which we have become heirs. Robert Webber writes this about the character of worship:

In worship we remember God’s redemptive work in history. We especially remember the story of Israel and how it is a type of the Christ event, pointing to the saving events surrounding the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We also anticipate the future. Worship connects the past with the future, for it is here in worship where God recasts his original vision.[6]

Every part of worship, whether spoken or acted, should serve to proclaim and bear witness to God’s glory. Practice through Word and Table witnesses to God through acts of remembrance and anticipation. Thus, it is fitting to consider this historic liturgy often spoken around the Lord’s Supper:

And so,
in remembrance of these your mighty acts in Jesus Christ, 

we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving
   as a holy and living sacrifice, 

   in union with Christ's offering for us, 

as we proclaim the mystery of faith.

Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.[7]

[1] John D. Witvliet, Worship Seeking Understanding: Windows into Christian Practice (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 74.
[2] Ibid, 77.
[3] Ibid, 80.
[4] Robert E. Webber, Ancient-Future Worship: Proclaiming and Enacting God’s Narrative (Grand Rapids, IL: Baker Books, 2008), 141.
[5] N.T. Wright, For All God’s Worth: True Worship and the Calling of the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997), 31-32.
[6] Webber, 66.
[7] Taken from Service of Word and Table I, The United Methodist Book of Worship (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1992), 38. 

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