And they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
I would guess that if I was to ask you, you would say that you knew worship. You should, it is something that we do every week, right? You probably are very familiar with how we do it, but I wonder if you understand worship. I don't wonder about it because you act like you don't, but because the entire church behaves as if it does not understand worship.
There are "worship wars" going on out in the church. They are debating the how and the why of worship. The questions which divide Christians in worship are questions like which liturgy should we use, and whether we should use a liturgy at all? Which hymns are appropriate for what use in the church? Who should preach? How long should the sermon be? Should there be a sermon? Should we shout out our agreement with the preacher, or not? What should the aim of the service be? Anyone who travels and goes to church in other places knows that the Missouri Synod is no longer the sort of church where you can feel at home and fit right in no matter where you go, because some churches worship really differently from us.
This morning and next week I want to look at worship, and talk about it from a Biblical standpoint and share with you why we do what we do. I know that there is not perfect unanimity even in our circles about this topic, so I want to begin the discussion here and hopefully we can come to peace here at Peace on the meaning and the practice of worship. Our theme, this morning, is The Shape of Worship.
Worship is more important than most of us think it is. I can tell that by the way we approach worship, the expectations of worship that I hear expressed, and the casualness with which many of us miss worship. We do worship each week, so we kind of take it for granted, and each of us has our own ideas about what it is and what we are doing it for. Now none of what you think may be wrong, but it is surely incomplete. Worship is vitally important.
It is the doctrinal instruction of the Christian week after week. It is the fellowship of the saints - brought to its highest level in Holy Communion. Worship is where God equips His people to live out their relationship to Him in the presence of the world. Our worship is our work as the sons of God in Christ Jesus. It is where and how we hold high before the entire world the glory of God in Christ Jesus. It is the fruit of the Holy Spirit's work within us and it is the stage upon which He works in us. Worship is the time and place where the body of Christ is most fully the body of Christ and most clearly evangelistic. Worship is just about the most significant and urgent thing that the Church does.
God didn't leave something as important and powerful as worship entirely up in the air. That wouldn't make any sense. He shaped it, and He taught about it in His Word. He guided the early church in their worship, and He gave us a record of how they did it that we could follow. And that is what our text is, part of that record. And it tells us that worship has a shape.
Worship always has a shape. It always did, and it always will. Generally speaking, the shape of worship is determined by what you think about worship. If you think worship is our gift to God you will do it differently than if you think worship is God's gift to us and His work among us. If you think the purpose of worship is to make you feel something - to feel better, or feel happy, or to feel all religious and holy - you will do worship differently than if you think that your worship is for the other guy, or if you think that worship is for your spirit and not your emotions. If worship is for the purpose of leading you to a conviction or a decision, you will shape it differently - as do the Baptists and the Assemblies of God - than if you believe that worship is for your soul, to build faith and not emotions, to strengthen the inner man and not entertain the outer man.
Now, I imagine that you could tell how I approach it from the way I talked about it just now. But just in case, I will spell out the attitudes I have found in Scripture - but briefly, because that is the topic next week. Worship services are the way that God comes to us in Word and Sacrament to bless us and equip us for the faith and the life of faith. Our worship is not for us alone, but for everyone around too. Although I always feel refreshed by worship, it is not about how I feel, but about God and His Word and His will. And what is the will of God for us? Worship is for the inner man, the part of me that loves God - the outer man is corrupted in sin and still hates whatever is holy, and in worship I must discipline my flesh and make it serve what is right and good and holy. I dare not allow my flesh to shape my worship by its pleasures and feelings, or I will be shaped by that part of me in which sin rules.
Worship, as we do it, is shaped by the same things as it was for the earliest Christians. Our text is a description of their worship. It had four elements; the Apostle's doctrine, Fellowship, the Breaking of Bread, and Prayer. It sounds deceptively simple - almost like four separate activities in which the Church indulged. It was not, it was their worship service.
First is the Apostles' Doctrine. That is the portion of the service in which we read the Scriptures and teach. The lessons each week and the sermon participate in that part of the worship service. A worship service without a sermon should not take place, according to Luther. It is first in the list in Acts 2:42 because it is the most important element of the service. That is why we give such priority to the reading of Scriptures and the preaching of the sermon. A century ago, the Lutheran Church had sermons ranging from an hour-and-a-half to forty-five minutes. People had the time, and they had the desire to hear and learn. Today, many pastors say that if you cannot say it in twelve to fifteen minutes, you can't say it. I am obviously not one of those, but you can see how our flesh struggles against the spirit in this most important element of worship.
Second is fellowship. The Greek word here is koinwnia/. It means a participation together in something holy. That fellowship is most clearly seen in the Lord's Supper, but it is also experienced in the confession of sins and the absolution, the confession of faith, the singing of the hymns and so forth. We share together in something holy - we share in the forgiveness proclaimed in the absolution and delivered personally to us in the Sacrament. We share together in something holy when we announce to the world what it is we believe and in whom in the words of the creeds which we use - ecumenical creeds: creeds used since the time of the Apostles, confessed by the Church against errors common throughout the history of the Church, believed by everyone who is a Christian - and denied only by those who also deny Christ.
Third is the Breaking of Bread. This specifically refers to the Lord's Supper. It is and always has been an integral part of the worship of Christians. Until about a century and a half ago, maybe two, no Sunday service, and no festival service of the Lutheran Church was without Holy Communion. We came to hear of God's grace, and then to receive it in the most personal and intimate fashion, by mouth, as we eat the body and drink the blood of our Savior in this precious gift. Except among those who deny God's gift and reject the sacramental in Communion and Baptism, Word and Sacrament were the two indispensable parts of the regular worship until the age of rationalism and pietism caused many Lutherans mistakenly to flee from the Sacrament and receive it only two to four times a year - and that reluctantly.
The fourth part of the worship is Prayer. We talk to God. We pour out our hearts to Him. He has spoken to us in His Word and He invites us to come to Him and speak with Him. But this is corporate prayer - prayer of the body of Christ. We pray about everything that all of us are concerned about, for forgiveness, to give thanks, to seek His continued blessings and grace. This is not a time for purely personal petitions, but for the things that we all together desire and for which the body of Christ cries out to God with one voice. We lift up our hearts together, calling on God for what we need and we confidently trust God to hear our prayers and grant our petitions for we do not seek what God does not want, or those things concerning which we have no word, but what God Himself has taught us to pray about and promised to pour out on His people, when they pray.
That is the shape of worship in Scripture - Word and Sacrament, liturgy and prayer. And how we do those things is also significant. Just as surely as false preaching is a serious and deadly error, and denying the Sacrament impoverishes a church, worship which does not faithfully follow the shape and purpose which God has revealed and which God has caused to arise in His Church is dangerous and even deadly as well. It is through worship that we teach, and make a habitus of our faith - it becomes a piece of us and a part of our thinking and valuing and living. We refresh our faith in God through the faithful repetition of the liturgy and the shape of our worship - which is why we are always slow and careful about changes, because when you change the shape of our worship, you may well be changing what our worship teaches us and works in us as well.
And what our worship teaches us is the grace of God in Jesus Christ, the forgiveness of our sins, and the sweet promises of resurrection and life everlasting as God's gifts to us through faith, for Christ's sake. And not one of us would want to change the shape of that!
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)
These sermons are for the Church. If you find it useful, go ahead and use it -- but give credit where credit is due.
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