The Story and Meanings of The Eucharist: 2

A series of four sermons

Historical background and study material
1: The Gathering of the People of God
2: The Liturgy of the Word
3: The Liturgy of the Supper: the Eucharistic Prayer
4: The Liturgy of the Supper: Communion and departure

2: The Liturgy of the Word
We consider our deeper involvement

Sermon preached on Sunday 16th March 2003
(Page numbers refer to our Service Booklet)

The Eucharist falls into two main sections - The Liturgy of the Word and Liturgy of the Sacrament. The dividing line is the Peace. Care needs to be taken to ensure that these two halves are balanced and, as we saw last week, that we all participate as fully and as meaningfully as we are able.

If we refer again to our blue service book the Liturgy of the Word consists of the Collect and the Readings, the Sermon, the Creed and the Intercessions. (pages 4 -7)

It is important to see the Readings (with Hymn or Psalm), Sermon and Intercessions as belonging together and relating to each other as far as possible. This is straightforward during the major seasons of the Church's year, especially from Advent to Trinity Sunday, when the broad outline is given by the life of Jesus and the great acts of God for our good. It is less easy in the 'Sundays after Trinity' period, though even then there is a link of theme between the Old Testament Reading and the Gospel, and Sermon and Intercessions can chime in. We note that the liturgical colour is meant as a visual aid to draw our attention to the season and its character: white for great feasts and celebrations, red for Pentecost and Martyrs' days, purple for penitence in Lent and Advent and green in ordinary time.

The aim of this part of the service is to give us the chance to reflect on some aspect of our faith. There is a minimum of ceremony, except to introduce the Gospel - because it faces us with the story of Jesus itself- and we can simply listen in a spirit of meditation. The hope is that we shall be 'tuned in' to God and moved away from our everyday occupations and concerns, or at least look at them in the light of God.

1. The Collect
The tradition has always been for there to be a special prayer for each Sunday, which serves to put us in the spirit to receive the Readings. They tend to be brief and succinct. Some, of course, are very memorable and there is much to be said for learning them for one's own private use. You never know when you can use them in the course of life.

2. The Readings
It is not easy to know how to receive the scripture readings: they are brief extracts, sometimes snatched out of longer stories or pieces of reasoning, especially in the case of the Epistle; they come from times very different from our own and are not always easy to grasp.

Sometimes, on the other hand, they hit us between the eyes and are moving. But how should we receive them?

The readings we are given each week, sometimes related to each other, at least in part, often not, are best seen as samples of what the Bible is meant to be for us: the account of God's ways with us and with the world. Scripture is there to get us into tune with what life is to be like in God's world, with all its complexity and uncertainty. It does not give us copy-book answers to all our problems, and it is full of conflict and argument. But it gives us certain directions in which to look and thoughts to wrestle with. Overall, it makes us aware of God's relentless love for us; his determination to have us back into true relationship with himself and with each other. Not easy, but essential for our well-being.

At one time, there were only two readings, normally one from an Epistle and one from a Gospel. Then a reading from the Old Testament was added: it was felt odd to leave out so large a part of the Bible from reading at the Eucharist - though it remains optional. The Epistle opens a window into the earliest thinking about our faith: we see how the very first Christian communities and their leaders coped with what to believe and how to live. In the Gospel, we have the life and teaching of Jesus, culminating in his final time on earth: so we learn how God would have us see him and follow him, for Jesus is the reflection of God to us. Here at St Mary's, on our Pew Sheet, we provide a brief comment on each Reading to help our reflection, especially after the service is over. This tries to focus on the main thrust of the passage or some aspect of it.

3. The Sermon
Perhaps the point for us about the Sermon is the need we all have to learn to listen and to make connections between the Word of God and the text of our lives. Sermons take different shapes, styles and approaches. Sometimes it can be helpful to use visual images or music as we reflect on what we have heard. Sometimes a story or anecdote from experience helps us to relate to what is being explored. It is important that we remind ourselves that the readings never exist in isolation; they reflect the concerns and experience of the writers and their communities who, in their own particular ways, sought to respond to God. The challenge is to ask how the particular pieces of scripture relate to our own concerns and experiences. In this respect, perhaps the Sermon ought to be heard as if it were a kind of conversation - even if usually only the preacher speaks. There is an interesting balance to be achieved between explanation and application. I feel it is my responsibility as a preacher to encourage an atmosphere in which we can all be surprised by the fresh truth of God…. through our own insights, thoughts and feelings.

4. The Creed
The Nicene Creed dates from many years ago, the fourth century to be precise, and it reflects the ways of thinking and the controversies that were current at that time. People sometimes say it ought to be modernised, and, for example, in the creed we use in our Family Eucharist, we use such a form that has been provided. But how should we regard the traditional Creed? Perhaps, we recite it out of habit, if we are that sort of person: but often people have reservations about this bit or that, and perhaps have a discreet cough as they come to that section! But it is important to say that the Creed is not a legal document that we are, as it were, being required to sign. It is a symbol of our allegiance. Of course, it does not cover everything: it has nothing about Jesus' life between his coming and his dying, nothing about the Eucharist or about Christian living. No such document would be perfect, and it may be thought easiest to take it for what it is; the traditional symbol of faith. No such summary could possible satisfy us all, yet it would be odd if we could say nothing together to express our commitment. That is precisely what it is: the sign of commitment to the faith of which the Readings have given us samples. In a way, then, the Creed functions rather like Hymns: it encourages and edifies in a general way, but you wouldn't expect to sign up to every line on pain of death!

5. Intercessions
I find that I can begin to make sense of Intercession if I think of it not as my attempt to persuade a distant God up there to act directly in the life of certain other people, but rather as my willingness for whatever energy of love there is in my own small being to be used as I align it with the energy of God and imagine it flowing into and through me towards others.

Prayer opens us to the presence of God….. the ever-creating and sustaining God….. my hope is that through our prayers God will bless those both named and un-named. My prayer is that the love of God will be done and the love of God will be shown.

You might like to think about the Lord's Prayer as a model for prayer. Truly, all we seek is to identify ourselves with God's will and the fulfilling of his purpose: always, as we make our detailed intercessions, 'Thy kingdom come, thy will be done' should act as the undercurrent.

The Reverend Dr James Woodward

Historical background and study material
1: The Gathering of the People of God
2: The Liturgy of the Word
3: The Liturgy of the Supper: the Eucharistic Prayer
4: The Liturgy of the Supper: Communion and departure

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