Volume 10, No. 8 (August 2015)
Last month we naturally gave our first and primary focus in our study of congregational readings to “the public reading of Scripture“ (1 Timothy 4:13), and to the priority of letting “the Word of Christ dwell richly among you” (Colossians 3:16).
But there are other resources as well (historical and recent) that can be drawn upon and fruitfully used in worship services.
The public declaration of the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed can give a sense of congregational unity around these great truths that we hold in common. Such a reading also reminds our people that they part of the universal body of Christ, as we join in with other believers across the world (and down through the centuries) in affirming these core commitments.
The unison reading of the Nicene Creed is indeed one element we include in our annual Community Reformation Service, as that statement transcends our denominational distinctives to express our unifying beliefs.
The Westminster Confession of Faith and such documents, whether part of your denomination’s regular tradition or not, can also be used. The statement is arranged topically, and so a portion could be used for a unison or responsive reading in the context of a particular thematic focus. For example, on the Word of God:
The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, depends not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God. (I.4)
3. THE SOLAS
The great Solas of the Reformation have provided a conceptual and biblical framework for our church’s celebration of Reformation Sunday each year, as well as for our Community Reformation Services. See HERE for an example of how these themes, with corresponding Scriptures and hymns, can be used to proclaim the “faith of our fathers.”
Sola Scriptura (the Scriptures alone)
Sola Gratia (by Grace alone)
Sola Fide (through Faith Alone)
Solus Christus (through Christ alone)
Soli Deo Gloria (to God alone be the Glory)
Some of the great catechisms of the Reformation period and following can provide rich content for corporate readings. Indeed, as we include Scripture and other resources in our worship, these texts are in fact performing a catechetical (teaching) function for our people, reminding them of great doctrinal truths and reinforcing them in their hearts by giving them opportunity to express them aloud.
Because catechisms are arranged in question/answer format, they lend themselves easily to being read responsively, with the leader posing the question and the congregation replying with the answer. Just recently our church has used a number of portions from the Heidelberg Catechism (the biblical references are those that are included in the Catechism, and point to the scriptural basis of the statements):
a. As a teaching moment leading into the celebration of the Lord’s Supper
Leader: How does the Lord’s Supper signify and seal to you that you share in Christ’s one sacrifice on the cross and in all His gifts?
People: In this way: Christ has commanded me and all believers to eat of this broken bread and drink of this cup in remembrance of Him. With this command He gave these promises: First, as surely as I see with my eyes the bread of the Lord broken for me and the cup given to me, so surely was His body offered for me and His blood poured out for me on the cross. Second, as surely as I receive and taste with my mouth the bread and the cup of the Lord as sure signs of Christ’s body and blood, so surely does He Himself nourish and refresh my soul to everlasting life with His crucified body and shed blood.
(Heidelberg Catechism, Question 75; see Matthew 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19, 20; 1 Corinthians 11:23-25.)
b. As a rehearsal of the benefits of Christ’s Ascension (on Ascension Sunday)
Leader: How does Christ’s ascension into heaven benefit us?
People: First, He is our Advocate in heaven before His Father. Second, we have our flesh in heaven as a sure pledge that He, our Head, will also take us, His members, up to Himself. Third, He sends us His Spirit as a counter-pledge, by whose power we seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God, and not the things that are on earth.
(Heidelberg Catechism, Question 49; see Romans 8:34; 1 John 2:1; John 14:2; 17:24; Ephesians 2:4-6; John 14:16; 2 Corinthians 1:21-22; 5:5; Colossians 3:1-4)
c. As an expression of the significance of the gift of the Holy Spirit (on Pentecost Sunday)
Leader: What do you believe concerning the Holy Spirit?
People: First, that the Spirit, with the Father and the Son, is eternal God. Second, that the Spirit is given also to me; so that, through true faith, He makes me share in Christ and all His benefits, comforts me, and will remain with me forever.
(Heidelberg Catechism, Question 53; see Genesis 1:1-2; Matthew 28:19; Acts 5:3-4; 1 Corinthians 6:19; 2 Corinthians 1:21-22; Galatians 4:6; 3:14; John 15:26; Acts 9:31; John 14:16-17; 1 Peter 4:14)
5. THE VALLEY OF VISION
This wonderful collection of Puritan prayers are rich, deep and poetic expressions of grateful praise to God and of the life of faith. (A list of sources are given at the back, but in the authors of each individual reading are not identified.) Published by Banner of Truth Trust, it is now available in many forms (include audio and online versions).
Portions of readings can be used as pastoral or unison readings, or as read prayers. For a Trinitarian focus recently, our church excerpted this one:
Three in One, One in Three, God of my salvation,
Heavenly Father, blessed Son, eternal Spirit,
I adore Thee as one Being, one Essence,
one God in three distinct Persons,
for bringing sinners to Thy knowledge and to Thy kingdom.
O Father, Thou hast loved me and sent Jesus to redeem me;
O Jesus, Thou hast loved me and assumed my nature,
shed Thine own blood to wash away my sins,
wrought righteousness to cover my unworthiness;
O Holy Spirit, Thou hast loved me and entered my heart,
implanted there eternal life,
revealed to me the glories of Jesus.
Three Persons and one God, I bless and praise Thee,
for love so unmerited, so unspeakable, so wondrous,
so mighty to save the lost and raise them to glory.
And for a New Year’s focus on the first Sunday of the year, these words were very appropriate:
O Lord, I launch my boat on the unknown waters of this year,
With You, O Father, as my harbor,
You, O Son, at my helm,
You, O Holy Spirit, filling my sails.
Length of days does not profit me except the days are passed in Your presence,
in Your service, to Your glory.
Give me a grace that precedes, follows, guides, sustains, sanctifies, aids every hour,
that I may not be one moment apart from You,
but may rely on Your Spirit
to supply every thought,
speak in every word,
direct every step,
prosper every work,
build up every mote of faith,
and give me a desire
to show forth Your praise,
testify Your love,
advance Your kingdom. Amen.
And for Easter Sunday:
Jesus strides forth as the Victor,
Conqueror of death, hell, and all opposing might;
He bursts the bands of death,
tramples the powers of darkness down, and lives forever.
O Great Redeemer,
You who were lifted up upon a cross
are ascended to highest heaven.
You, who as man of sorrows was crowned with thorns,
are now as Lord of life crowned with glory.
What more could be done than You have done!
Your death is my life,
Your resurrection my peace,
Your ascension my hope,
Your prayers my comfort.
5. OTHER SOURCES
The Anglican Book of Common Prayer is known for the poetic beauty and biblical depth of its writing. Portions can be excerpted and used in any tradition, for example:
Holy and gracious Father:
In your infinite love You made us for Yourself,
and, when we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death,
You, in your mercy, sent Jesus Christ, Your only and eternal Son,
to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us,
to reconcile us to You, the God and Father of all.
For our sins He was lifted high upon the cross,
that He might draw the whole world to Himself;
and, by His suffering and death,
He became the source of eternal salvation for all who put their trust in Him.
And another example:
Almighty God, to You all hearts are open, all desires known,
and from you no secrets are hid:
Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit,
that we may perfectly love You, and worthily magnify Your holy Name;
through Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Worship Sourcebook, a mammoth work produced by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, has a huge number of readings drawn from historical documents, as well as many newly composed readings and prayers. The book is organized in Part One around the various elements of the worship service (Opening, Confession and Assurance, Proclaiming the Word, etc.), and Part Two covers central themes and events of the Church Year.
Another place to find readings are in collections of sermons from the early Church fathers, and from later preachers such as Luther, Calvin, Spurgeon, etc. Here is part of an Easter sermon from Melito of Sardis (about A.D. 195; this particular one is probably more suited to be read by a leader alone):
When the Lord had clothed himself with humanity, and had suffered for the sake of the sufferer, and had been bound for the sake of the imprisoned, and had been judged for the sake of the condemned, and buried for the sake of the one who was buried, he rose from the dead, and cried aloud with this voice: “Who is the one who contends with me? Let him stand in opposition to me. I have set the condemned man free; I have given the dead man life; I have raised up the one who had been entombed. Who is my opponent? ‘I’, he says, ‘am the Christ’. I am the one who destroyed death, and triumphed over the enemy, and trampled Hades under foot, and bound the strong one, and carried off man to the heights of heaven’. ‘I’, he says, ‘am the Christ’.
“Therefore, come, all families of men, you who have been befouled with sins, and receive forgiveness for your sins. I am your forgiveness. I am the Passover of your salvation, I am your light, I am your savior, I am your resurrection, I am your king. I am leading you up to the heights of heaven, I will show you the eternal Father, I will raise you up by my right hand”.
This is the one who made the heaven and the earth, and who in the beginning created man, who was proclaimed through the law and the prophets, who became human through the virgin, who was hanged upon a tree, who was buried in the earth, who was resurrected to the heights of heaven, who sits at the right hand of the Father, who has authority to judge and to save everything, from the beginning of the world to the end of the age.
This is the alpha and the omega, this is the beginning and the end — an indescribable beginning, and an incomprehensible end. This is the Christ. This is the king. This is Jesus. This is the general. This is the Lord. This is the one who sits at the right hand of the Father, to whom be the glory and the power forever. Amen.
We of course want to encourage active participation in worship by the members of the congregation: because the Lord wants and deserves every believer’s heart and voice to be raised in praise to the God of their salvation, and because we all learn and grow best by doing.
Let’s let them read as well as sing!
Please feel free to comment on other sources you have found helpful for Congregational Readings