Chapter 5: The Gospel Expressed in Worship

Proclaiming Christ Today
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 5: The Gospel Expressed in Worship

Our concern thus far has been the centrality and importance of the office of preaching the gospel in the ministry of the Christian Church. We have insisted that the Word of God incarnate in Christ and proclaimed in "the preaching" is constitutive of the Church; and thus we have been in full agreement with generally accepted Reformed doctrine. The Word of God in Christ, primarily declared in the Church’s kerygma, is what in fact establishes the Church. But at the same time we have insisted, again with the great Reformers of the sixteenth century, as well as with the whole of historical Christianity in its Catholic expression, that there is an-other side to the picture. We have maintained that the Church’s celebration of the sacraments, and especially of the Lord’s Supper, in obedience to the command which the New Testament represents our Lord as himself giving, is also fully and genuinely a proclamation of the gospel of Christ. As the Church makes the anamnesis or "remembrance" of Christ in its eucharistic action, our Lord Jesus Christ becomes present to it as the very One whom the preaching announces; and thus the Holy Communion, with due regard to its many aspects, is nothing other than the public work -- the liturgy, as the Greek has it -- which establishes the presence of the Lord of the gospel, who here makes himself available to his people and thus constitutes them as his Body, his Church, united with him through Baptism and participant in his life through the reception of the mystery of his "spiritual body and blood."

It is appropriate, therefore, that we should devote at least one chapter to the meaning and place of the Eucharist, and with special emphasis upon the ways in which that celebration enacts what the gospel affirms. Otherwise there would be a suggestion of imbalance, of disproportion, even of distortion of the Christian Church’s action combining the "preaching of the Word" and the "administration of the Sacraments." We need always to remember that ministers in Christ’s Church are by common consent set apart precisely for the double task of declaring the "pure Word of God" and celebrating the Lord’s Supper according to Christ’s command and ordinance.

In the Athanasian Creed, that ancient canticle of Christian faith still found in the service books of many Christian communions, there is a fine statement which gives the proper setting for any discussion of Christian worship and, a fortiori, for a discussion of the central act of Christian worship, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, the Holy Communion, the Divine Mysteries, the Liturgy, the Mass -- call it what you will. The statement runs: "Now the Catholic faith is this: that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity."

At first sight that may seem to be a startling assertion. The faith is the worship? But when we come to think about it, surely we come to see that this must be the case. It is not simply that lex orandi and lex credendi, the Christian rule of praying and the Christian rule of believing, go band in hand; there is here a more profound truth than that. The deeper truth is that the Christian gospel and the faith which it evokes do, as a matter of fact, bring us to the place where our only response is worship; and a faith which does not involve and express itself in the worship of God through Christ is a faith which is radically imperfect -- so imperfect, indeed, that one may doubt that it is true Christian faith at all. On the other hand, the worship which Christians offer to God known in Christ is entirely dependent on the reality which the gospel proclaims and to which faith responds. It is that God, known in that way, who evokes the response of worship. In this sense, then, the faith is worship; the two are so much one that it is as impossible for us to believe in God without worshipping him, as it is to worship him without commitment in faith to him. Worship is an integral element in the whole Christian complex; it is central to the life of the Christian believer.

Furthermore, the Christian is one who does not worship God in solitude or isolation, although of course he may and must on occasion adore him without the actual physical presence of fellow believers. The Christian is one whose worship is always in company with the whole body of "faithful people," for to be a Christian means to be a member of Christ, a participant in the community of faith, and thus in profound and never-failing association with his fellow members. It is for this reason that the typical form of Christian worship is social in nature. Unlike adherents to some of the other religions which have commanded the allegiance of men, Christian believers are gathered together as a fellowship, meeting at specific times and in specific places to engage in the action of divine worship.

So far, probably all Christians would agree. But there is a distinctive type of worship which has been continuous within the Christian tradition and which has won the approval of the vast majority of those who are part of that tradition. This is liturgical worship. It is worship by and through a liturgy. It is with this type of worship that we are concerned in this chapter -- and appropriately so, because it is the type of worship which provides the best setting for the preaching of the gospel or Word of God, while at the same time it is the type of worship which best delivers the body of believers from complete dependence upon the minister to whom is committed by the Church both the preaching of the gospel and the conduct of the divine service itself.

The word "liturgy" is derived from the Greek leitourgeia, which means "a public work." In ancient Greece, a liturgy was any service rendered or offering made for the good of the community; it did not originally have a specifically religious connotation. But it was natural that the word should be used to describe religious exercises, since these too were usually a "public work," paid for by some public-minded citizen. They were thus "liturgical" in nature, intended for the whole community; and as, say, in the production of a drama with religious overtones, they were both religious in nature and social in character. So it was that the worship of the Christian Church in its early days, a worship of God which was not individual but for the community, and thus marked by a social quality, could be described as a liturgy. The worship of the Church which was offered by the community and intended for all its members was liturgical worship.

The possibility of a common participation in the divine service through the development of set-forms which could be followed by all those who were present, gave liturgical worship a definite structure. It was public; it was communal; it was something in which all the members could share, both by word spoken and by action performed. In describing such worship as "public," we do not mean, of course, that it was opened to all and sundry, but rather that it was public for the Church and for all members of the Church who by their baptism had been initiated into the community and thus had been given the status which made it possible for them to participate in what went on when the community engaged in its regular worship of God in Christ.

In the widest sense, then, we may say that liturgical worship is any worship in which, through the use of established and accepted forms, the Christian community as a whole engages in the adoration of God. But there is a narrower sense in which the word "liturgy" has commonly been employed. In the Eastern Orthodox communions and among some other Christian groups, the word "liturgy" is used par excellence to describe the celebration of the Holy Communion. This for them is the Liturgy; and whatever other services of worship are held are arranged round it as a center, since they prepare for or are consequent upon the anamnesis or "continual remembrance" of Christ in the eucharistic rite. It is appropriate that the name should be given this special eucharistic significance, since of all the occasions when Christians gather together to worship God none is so central, none so charged with high meaning, as the repetition of the actions which Jesus Christ himself performed "on the night in which he was betrayed." Here, as we shall be seeing, the Christian community comes together to be made into the unity which is described in the phrase, "the Body of Christ." Here there is common participation in the liturgical re-enactment of the Last Supper. Here there is entrance into the "benefits" -- the results made available for the lives of men -- which Christ’s life, death, and resurrection effected and which gave rise to the specifically Christian claim that he is God’s Son, that One in whom True God dwells supremely in a true man, for the wholeness of all men.

One chief characteristic of liturgical worship, understood both in the wider and the narrower sense, is that it is ordered according to plan and therefore provides for a regular and undeviating repetition of word and action such as shall enable those present to participate in it as fully as possible. There is a very prevalent misunderstanding, especially on the part of those not familiar with this mode of divine service, which assumes that there is something highly ornate about liturgical worship. On the contrary, such worship is really marked by a great simplicity -- the simplicity which comes from need for common participation. It is indeed true that often enough the ceremonial action and the prescribed words of the service have a notable richness; but this richness is incidental to the main emphasis, which is consistency, orderliness, regular repetition of word and action, in order to make the service familiar to the people and not a matter of constant surprise, constant change, constant novelty.

In consequence of this regular ordering a liturgical service is marked by a certain dignity and beauty. Dignity and beauty are a natural corollary of form, just as vulgarity and, ugliness are often a natural consequence of formlessness. Pattern and plan tend to such dignity and beauty which, in a phrase used in a very different connection by the British art critic Clive Bell, are the result of "significant form." It is always a danger that this dignity and beauty and the form upon which they rest, may be without the warmth of personal participation by the members of the worshipping congregation; then there is "formality" in the bad sense, and there may be a "coldness" which almost amounts to indifference. But I believe that this is very infrequently found. Those who are not accustomed to participation in liturgical worship are sometimes not able to understand the way in which, for a congregation which is deeply familiar with the prescribed procedures, the repeated words and actions come to have enormous evocative significance. For those who know them, the same canticles, the same versicles and responses, the same collects and lections, used over and over again, have a power to speak to depths of the personality which are not always reached by that which is entirely new and sometimes reeks of the spirit of contemporaneity.

And again, liturgical worship has about it what we may call, following Rudolf Otto, a "numinous" quality. Through the repeated forms as well as through long usage, such worship establishes an atmosphere which speaks of the things of God, and which awakens the sense of the "holy," the "Other." One reason for this is, of course, that the actual liturgies -- the forms which are employed in the conduct of such worship -- are not new creations; in almost every instance they are adaptations of ancient and hallowed usages, freighted with the devotion of the ages, and they manage to convey suggestions which are much deeper than mere verbalization. Indeed one might say that liturgical worship by and large speaks not so much to the conscious attention of its participants as to those profound and almost unconsciously experienced areas of human life where men live in terms of feeling-tone, of unutterable emotion, and of profound subconscious relationships, with an almost intuitive awareness of the "more" which is deep down in the structure of reality. It is not true that liturgical worship entirely fails to speak to the strictly conscious levels of human experience; it does indeed speak to these, but it has richer connotations and implications; and it is these which do most of the "work" in liturgical as distinguished from didactic or other types of Christian worship.

Still another important aspect of liturgical worship is the way in which it manifests a certain rounded or balanced covering of the whole content of the Christian faith. By such devices as the Church Year, with its rich variety of feasts and fasts, with its commemoration of the events in the life of Christ, and with its concentration at this or that moment on this or that particular Christian affirmation, as well as by the repetition of this variety from year to year, the worshipper is delivered from a certain "choosiness" on the part of the minister, and also from undue centering of attention on some single aspect of the whole Christian affirmation. He gets "into the swing"; and as he goes round and round, over and over again, he is enabled to enter into the fullness of the historic faith, in all its facets and with all the demands that each of its facets makes upon him. Furthermore, the fact that the worshipper himself is involved in all this, that he has his own "liturgy" or expected part to play within the great liturgy of the Church as a whole -- his own work to do as a member of the company -- and that he is well acquainted with what is going to happen next in the course of the service, delivers him from the vagaries of the minister, who in such worship is not able to obtrude his personality and his personal predilections in any offensive sense.

Liturgical worship does not necessarily require a special type of building or the use of special kinds of ornaments. Yet it is unquestionably true that it naturally lends itself to such. A church building in which the worship is liturgical in nature is almost bound to be a building in which the center of interest, the focus, is not the pulpit but the Holy Table. It is almost bound to be a building in which the arrangements for seating are conducive to full congregational participation. It is almost bound to lead to common actions in which those present will kneel, stand, bow, and the like, thus enabling them to express for themselves the spirit of the whole liturgical action. The congregation has something to do, which more fully incorporates them into the whole meaning of what is going on.

Liturgical worship, both because it has been planned and built upon the riches of the Christian heritage and because it almost inevitably leads to an altar-centered church building, is theocentric in emphasis. The minister who conducts the service, if he knows his business, does not attempt to obtrude his personal idiosyncrasies into the worship of God, although it is of course inevitable that he shall be himself -- a man, and necessarily this or that man, whose manner of taking the service will in some sense reflect his understanding of what he is doing. The congregation is not there primarily to be edified or instructed, although that certainly will be one of the results of the service. Certainly it is right and essential that a sermon proclaiming the gospel of Christ be one part of the total action. And the fact that the pulpit is set up and the gospel is proclaimed give the Word of God its necessary place in the whole. Yet the direction of worship is towards God; and everything that is done, even the preaching of the Word which is included in the service, will ultimately tend this way.

Now it is noteworthy that in the tradition of Christian worship, as this has been "reformed" in those bodies which were affected by the Reformation movement, this worship of God does in fact include the preaching of the gospel. The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is the chief Christian act of worship and it is so regarded, at least in theory, by all Christians. But it is also true that with the ministration of the sacrament must be associated the proclamation of Christ as Lord. It is this proclamation which gives the meaning to the sacrament -- here is the story which explains what is happening, here is the Word preached which gives point to the Word enacted. The fact that the pulpit is at one side does not mean that it is unimportant. It is not correct to say that liturgical worship is alien to that kind of Christian worship which finds place, as a central element, for the declaration of the kerygma. On the contrary, the two go together. Christ the Word is preached so that he may be received "by faith with thanksgiving." The two go together; and it is a significant element in the new liturgical emphasis found in both "Catholic" and "Evangelical" churches that it is more and more recognized that they go together. We may be on the way to recovering something of the wholeness of Christian worship which has been broken during the past few centuries.

The greatest objective in liturgical worship is the creation of the new man in Christ. This means the creation of the "liturgical man," as some recent Roman and Anglican writers have put it. The man who is shaped and molded by his continuing participation in the round of Christian liturgical worship is the man who comes gradually to be informed by the spirit which animates and governs the liturgy -- and that spirit is nothing other than response to the gospel of Christ, made known and communicated through the preaching of the gospel, but not through verbal symbols alone; the response becomes effective through the whole action which includes mind and body, will and emotions, in an offering to God in union with his brethren.

The man who is shaped by the liturgy is a man whose life is marked by an awareness of the mystery of existence, grounded in the mystery of God, but who yet has been made partaker of the revelation of the mystery which was made in Christ and which is the hidden heart of the Church’s being. He is the man whose inner life is ordered in accordance with the rhythm of the Church’s commemoration of Christ. He is the man whose "conversation," whose manner of living, is with Christ, and with God in Christ, and with God in Christ in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit which we call the Holy Church. And this takes place because he is the man who is so informed by the whole ethos of the total liturgical action that he is himself caught up into it and finds it reproduced in himself.

The Holy Communion is the central focus of Christian prayer and worship; it is the Liturgy, all other services being ancillary to it. Hence it is appropriate for us here to consider the meaning of this action of Christian worship as the historical tradition of Christianity has understood it, always remembering that our primary concern is to show how this action is related to the kerygmatic proclamation, the preaching of the gospel of God in Jesus Christ for man’s wholeness.

In such an analysis it is right to start with the truth that the Eucharist is essentially a divine action into which our human action is caught up. This is why it can be the enacting of the gospel, for the gospel is centered not in what man has done but in what God has done. The human response to Christ in faith comes after the proclamation of Christ as embodying the divine self-expressive action which we call incarnation. So in the Eucharist the human actions, which are of course the obvious part of the sacrament, are the consequence of, and are themselves enfolded in, the divine action in which God makes available to his people what theologians call "the benefits of Christ."

The Eucharist is first of all something done, rather than something said or something thought about.

Wherefore, O Lord and heavenly Father, according to the institution of thy dearly beloved Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, we thy humble servants do celebrate and make here before thy divine majesty, with these thy holy gifts which we now offer unto thee, the memorial thy Son hath commanded us to make, having in remembrance his blessed Passion and precious Death, his mighty Resurrection and glorious Ascension, rendering unto thee most hearty thanks for the innumerable benefits procured unto us by the same.

These words, from the Prayer of Consecration in the American Book of Common Prayer, set the right note for our thinking about the eucharistic action. Here, in this celebration, is a memorial which the New Testament tells us that Christ commanded us to make. In our present context, we are not concerned with the details of New Testament study in respect to eucharistic origins; hence it will suffice to say that there can be no question that in some genuine sense the sacrament does have its origin in the actions of our Lord himself and that the primitive Christian community as it met for the "breaking of bread" believed that it was thus established by him for his "continual remembrance."

Thus the Eucharist, as an action, is an action which "remembers." However it may be with us today, it is important that we recognize that for a first-century Jew "memorial" did not mean reverie about past events; it meant the act of vitally recalling into the present that which those events achieved for the Jewish people. So for the early Christians the eucharistic action was not simply a mental recollection of Christ and especially of his sacrificial death; it was God’s bringing the life of Christ and his sacrificial death into the present experience of the Christians who celebrated the sacrament. But our use of the words "sacrificial death" brings before us a further aspect of the action. As Luther saw, and as Gustav Aulen has recently argued in a study of the eucharistic doctrine of Luther, the fact that by a memorial action Christ becomes present in the sacramental rite means that his sacrifice itself becomes present also, for we have to do with the "whole Christ" and the "whole Christ" includes all that he experienced in the days of his flesh. There can, of course, be no repetition of Calvary, neither are we to think any new sacrifice of our Lord is being offered by us. The Reformers rightly denied such views. But when we obey his command and bless the bread and wine, our Lord in making himself present to us his people makes present to us also the "one oblation of himself once offered" on Calvary. Here we have a sense in which we can quite properly speak of the Eucharist as a sacrificial action.

Christ becomes present in the action. He is present, of course, to our faith, which is "the means whereby we receive the sacrament"; but this does not imply, as some have thought, that his presence is an imagined one or that it is simply a presence in a kind of mental attitude which the breaking of bread and the sharing of the cup awaken in us. It is a true and genuine presence, as Dr. Donald Baillie so well argued in his Theology of the Sacraments. The exact mode of it we cannot describe, but the reality of it we know as we "feed on him in our heart, by faith, with thanksgiving." There could be no presence more "real" than a presence to faith. And that reality is indelibly associated with the bread and wine which are used according to Christ’s own action at the Last Supper, so that in receiving them we may say, as the Church has always said, that we receive "the spiritual food of the body and blood of Christ," and that we receive this "to our great and endless comfort," or strengthening.

Finally, a true communion is established in the Lord’s Supper between Christ and those who are his members, his people, his Christians. They receive his life in the sacrament; and at the same time that this brings them into true communion with him, it always establishes a communion among the members themselves. As Christ’s people, his Christians, they are brought into the most intimate relationship possible one with another by reason of their being made fellow-participants in the life of Christ made available for them in the eucharistic meal.

It is in this way that we can see, summing up the last few paragraphs, that the Lord’s Supper, like the proclaiming of the gospel itself, is the declaration of a divine action, although this time the proclamation is not in words but in something done. It is a making present, by the operation of the Holy Spirit, of Christ himself in the fullness of his risen life -- a risen life in which (as Wesley’s hymn so beautifully puts it) "those dear tokens of his passion, still his dazzling body bears," a victorious life which yet was sacrificed or offered to God to the point of death for the wholeness of men. It is a true presence of the Lord of the gospel, as by faith his people open their hearts to receive him into their lives. It is a communion which unites God and man, and man and man, in the person of Christ whom the gospel declares and the sacrament imparts.

Now nothing that we have said thus far about the mean-big of the Eucharist is alien either to the general "Catholic" or to the whole "Reformed" tradition. If once we get behind the prejudices and tastes of this or that group of modem Christians, and try to discover what the great continental reformers like Luther and Calvin -- yes, and like Zwingli, too, for be has been much misunderstood and misinterpreted by many of those who have claimed to interpret his teaching -- not to mention the English reformers with their rather closer contact with the Catholic tradition, we shall find that with varying emphases and in varying idiom, they were all of them intent on saying something very like the summary outline which I have just given. One of the heartening things about recent theological investigation has been the way in which this essential agreement is more and more being brought to light.

Father George Tyrrell, that tragic figure in the Roman Catholic Modernist Movement, once wrote that the Christianity of the future would consist in "the Eucharist and charity." It is not quite clear what precisely Tyrrell meant by this moving phrase, for his remark was made only in passing; but we can on our part take the words as suggesting how, in a deep sense, the whole content of our Christian faith, understood as our response to the gospel of Christ, may be summed up. For the Eucharist does gather together the basic themes of the gospel; and "charity" or life-in-love which gives itself generously to others, is the quality which marks Christian life, the hidden and expressed meaning of the life of the man who is "in Christ." Eucharist leading to charity, and all of this because of the response to and entrance into life lived in and with Christ: certainly there could hardly be a better definition of Christianity.

Let us now notice that Eucharist is Greek for "thanksgiving." May we not say that it is no accident that the name commonly used for the sacrament in most traditional thinking and writing witnesses to the grateful response which men make to that which the gospel proclaims? So we come to consider what it is that we do in making that grateful response. What are the human actions which are gathered up and enfolded in the divine action which the sacrament essentially is?

First of all, we offer. The Eucharist is a thank-offering. It is a grateful offering of "ourselves, our souls and bodies"; it is an offering of thanksgiving in that it is the "continual remembrance of the sacrifice of the death of Christ"; it is the Church’s offering of itself to God in gratitude for Christ’s "benefits."

Man has ever sought to find something worthy to offer to God, something which would express his adoration, his contrition, his love for his Creator and his sovereign Lord. This explains what seem to us the strange and horrible sacrificial rites of primitive peoples; they are seeking to find something that they may present to their god -- their best gift, even if it meant the offering of the bravest man, or of a treasured possession, or of some animal of flawless quality. We need to have the insight and the imagination to see that behind these barbaric rites there is something that is right: there is this desire planted in man’s heart to give to the divine reality, however conceived, that which is worthy of him. Yet we can see also that as men grow in understanding they come slowly to recognize that such offerings are unworthy of God and that the only really satisfactory offering must be the self-giving of man himself, fully surrendered to God. But that which man knows he should do, he also knows he cannot do. And here the action of God in the man Jesus Christ comes into context. For in Christ, one Man did offer himself fully and completely in obedience to the will of God, in a self-surrender which led him to the Cross. The whole of our Lord’s life was a giving; and that giving reached its climax on Calvary where it was, so to say, thrown high to God the Father and thrust down deep into the world of men. In the Eucharist Christ’s Church "re-calls" that supreme sacrificial action, "remembers" it before the Father, saying in the words of a well-loved hymn:

Look Father, look on his anointed face,

And only look on us as found in him.

No Christian thinkers have understood this truth about the Lord’s Supper better than John and Charles Wesley, who in their eucharistic hymns, and especially in the hymns of Charles, speak nobly of the way in which we "plead" the sacrifice which was once and for all accomplished on Calvary. Certainly there is danger in our using sacrificial language about Christ’s death and about the sacrament in which that death is recalled. But if we never forget that Calvary is the culmination of a whole life of obedience, self-surrender, and self-giving to God, and that the medieval sayings are right which speak of "the whole life of Christ as the mystery of the Cross" and of the sacrifice of Christ as "not the death but the willingness of him who dies," we are delivered from this danger so far as our Lord’s death is concerned. Similarly, if we constantly bear in mind that the Eucharist has sacrificial reality only insofar as it makes Jesus, in the fullness of his life, present to his people, while at the same time it calls forth from them the whole-hearted surrender of themselves in Christ and by Christ’s grace to the Father, we shall not fall into error in describing the eucharistic action as sacrificial in nature.

The Church offers that which it is, the Body of Christ, that it may more fully and really become what it is, the Body of Christ. So St. Augustine saw; and so many centuries later John Calvin taught in his treatise on the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. That is one side of the Eucharist, then: the offering, the oblation, the pleading, the sacrificial side of it. But there is another side; and that is the second part of the human action in the Eucharist.

There is the receiving. For the Lord’s Supper is the way in which, by our Lord’s ordinance, we are fed by him, strengthened by him, nourished in him, sent forth in his power to carry him into the world of everyday life and experience. First there is the offering, which the Church can perform only as it is identified in faith and obedience with the Lord who in the deepest understanding of the Eucharist is himself the One who offers; then there is the receiving, as the members of Christ’s Body are incorporated anew into their Lord and are fed with "the bread that cometh down from heaven," even with Christ himself. Whatever may be our theory of the mode of that feeding, whatever may be our understanding of the nature of the presence of Christ in the Holy Communion, the fact of it remains; and it is so real and so universal an experience of Christians that we need not dwell on it further.

The Lord’s Supper is integrally bound up with the proclamation of the gospel, so that either one of them without the other is truncated and partial. It is not that the gospel adds anything to the sacrament, or the sacrament adds anything to the gospel; it is simply that they belong together, that together they make one thing -- and that one thing is the Lord Jesus Christ, in whom God so richly and truly dwelt for the wholeness of men. This is why the normal worship of the Christian should be the combined ministry of Word and sacrament. Sunday by Sunday, as Christ’s people come to worship God, they should both hear the Word and receive the sacrament; and by those two, which are really one, be built up in Christ their Lord and their life, by whom, through Word and sacrament, they are nourished and strengthened for Christian witness as "faithful soldiers and servants of Christ, until their life’s end."