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Word and Table
Reflections on a Theology of Worship

Dennis Bratcher

The concept of the word and table or word and sacrament is an expression drawn from a particular theology of worship that has its roots deep in the early church. A service of the word and table is worship that emphasizes the dual aspects of the spoken word built around Scripture and the embodied Word centered on the celebration of the Eucharist or Communion.

This is not a "form" of worship, so the issues are not whether a service of worship is "liturgical" or "contemporary." A service of word and table may take either form. Rather, "word and table" is grounded in a theology of worship, how worship unfolds from certain ideas about God and his work in the world. This suggests that the concept involves more than any particular service of worship and includes more than certain forms of worship. It is a much deeper way of understanding the nature, purpose, and content of worship.

The idea of the word places emphasis on the proclamation of Scripture as the spoken word of God that bears witness to the incarnate Word in Jesus Christ. But it is not simply that it bears witness. The spoken word becomes the living and active word of God so that God speaks anew through the spoken word of Scripture. In this sense, the spoken word becomes a means of grace.

The roots of this perspective on Scripture and the spoken word lie in the Old Testament and the experience of the Israelites following the exile. The public reading and explanation of the Torah to the assembled people became an important feature of religious life after the exile. The graphic portrayal of the assembled people of God hearing the Torah read and explained, and then responding in joyful worship as they understood its significance became an important model for the role of Scripture in the community of Faith (Neh. 8).

As the synagogue became an increasingly important part of religious life during this same period, the public reading and explanation of Scripture even by laypersons became a weekly part of synagogue worship. In his hometown of Nazareth, Jesus highlighted this aspect of reading Scripture in public worship as he read from the Isaiah scroll and added his own comments (Luke 4:14-21). The early church adopted this model of the public reading and interpretation of Scripture in worship, and it has remained the practice in most Christian churches through the centuries.

Some religious traditions have taken this idea and placed almost all the emphasis on a sermon, so that all other activities in a service of worship are only "preliminaries" to the sermon. Unfortunately, this has sometimes led to a neglect of the public reading of Scripture itself. This problem is further compounded by the fact that sermons disconnected from the public reading of Scripture tend to be topical sermons on subjects that may or may not have any relation to a biblical text, or even biblical theology.

Often in this way of thinking, especially in churches that are heirs of the revivalist tradition, the most emphasis is placed on the human response to the sermon. This has often created a very rationalistic approach to the Faith. Theologically, that tends, as some of the criticisms from the Reformed tradition have accurately noted, to place undue emphasis on human activity in both the "effectiveness" of the preaching and the need for human effort focused on the "call" to respond at the end of the sermon. At best that is an unbalanced view of worship.

The word, of course, includes the sermon. But the emphasis is on the proclamation of the witness to God in Jesus Christ and God’s grace that comes through that proclamation, and that can be done in the reading of Scripture itself as well as in the preaching of a sermon. There is a theological assumption here that the proclamation of the word is itself a means of grace, that the word is, indeed, living and active and a vehicle for God’s work in the world. The word, both in its reading and in its explanation in the sermon, is the word of the risen and living Christ, the speaking of the good news of Jesus the Christ and his reconciling work to the assembled people.

This translates into a service of worship focused on Scripture in public reading, in sharing the reading responsively, in singing Scripture, as well as in the sermon or other activities that place Scripture at the center. This does not eliminate the need for human response, but it does not place all of the theological eggs in the basket of a certain kind of response (for example, an altar call). A minister of the word, then, is much more than a preacher or a revivalist. S/he is one who leads the congregation into hearing the witness to God contained in Scripture, and then calls them to engage that witness as an active manifestation of God’s grace.

It is this dimension that makes the use of a Lectionary common in church traditions and by ministers that deliberately have chosen to apply this theological perspective in worship. The Lectionary is simply a structured way to cover the entire range of the biblical proclamation on a regular basis. A Lectionary is nothing more than a compiled series of readings from Scripture, usually a Psalm, an Old Testament reading, a Gospel reading, and an Epistle reading in order to present a well rounded testimony to God’s work in the world.

The Revised Common Lectionary, used by most Protestant churches that follow a Lectionary, structures a three year cycle of Scripture readings around the seasons of the church year beginning with Advent (four weeks before Christmas). The readings are divided into Years A, B, and C, with different portions of Scripture read during services of worship throughout each year. For example, Year A Gospel readings focus on the Gospel of Matthew, Year B on the Gospel of Mark, while Year C takes most Gospel readings from Luke. In the three-year cycle of readings, there are readings from all major passages of the Bible. Some churches, such as the Anglican tradition, also have Daily Lectionary Readings that cover almost all of Scripture in a two-year cycle of daily readings.

Theologically, the prominence of Lectionary reading in a service of worship says that Scripture faithfully read is as likely, or perhaps more likely, to reveal God’s Word to us than anything the preacher says no matter how well prepared. It also affirms that Scripture has an authority that transcends that of the preacher, as important as the sermon might be in explaining the word. The spoken word cannot be just the preacher’s idea of what a congregation needs to hear, or what s/he thinks is important, or a reflection of their own favorite topics, or what lies within their own comfort zones. It is an acknowledgement that the spoken word of Scripture itself is truly authoritative, cannot be subsumed under the authority of a preacher or the people, and is an agent of God’s grace in the midst of the congregation.

Of course, as noted, this does not eliminate the need for explanation of the Scripture, as the model of Nehemiah demonstrates. In modern worship, the sermon or homily serves the role of explication of the Scripture, which suggests that the sermon should always be biblically centered. If it does not focus on the explanation of Scripture, it is not truly a "service of the word." Having the sermon correspond in some way to the biblical readings for the day helps the people focus on the Scripture and its meaning. This is one of the advantages of following Lectionary readings and using those texts as the basis for the sermon.

There are also other avenues in which the spoken word can be presented to the congregation in worship. Hymns, songs, responsive readings, litanies, and prayers can also give voice to the word. Even the physical environment of worship can "speak" the word, by the use of art, banners, paraments, stained glass, or other symbols and visual representations that portray the biblical story of God. In other words, a theology of worship expressed in word and table involves every aspect of a service of worship.

The idea of sacrament or table as a communal celebration of the embodied Word is a crucial corollary to the dimension of the spoken word and arising out of it. This is the recognition that the Eucharist (communion or Lord’s Supper in Protestant churches, mass or oblation in Catholic traditions), is an important part of the identity of a gathered Christian community. This is far more than an act of ritual observance as it has too often been portrayed in "low church" traditions. -1-  It is an expression of a fundamental theological conviction that the most important aspect of worship is a celebration of God’s grace, not just in personal experience but in terms of God Himself.

Behind this also lies a theology of the Eucharist as a means of grace. This is what prevents it from becoming just another ritual. There is a real sense in which worshippers receive God’s grace by partaking of the elements of communion. This, of course, also evokes a theological understanding that goes beyond communion being simply a "memorial" of Jesus’ death, and affirms that in partaking of the Eucharist there is a genuine spiritual encounter in which we come into communion with God in submission as his people. This suggests that, like the "word," the "table" is an important part of spiritual vitality. (For an excellent treatment of a Wesleyan understanding of the theology of sacrament, see Rob Staples, Outward Sign, Inward Grace, Beacon Hill Press.)

Especially among heirs of the revivalist tradition, as well as those who have inherited "low church" hostility to rituals and sacramental thinking, a theology of the Eucharist tends to be fuzzy at best. The same attitudes that allowed rejection of greatly unequal emphases on the rituals and priesthood also allowed the imbalance to swing to the opposite direction, an example of the pendulum theory at work. This in turn allowed apathy and indifference to the sacraments and how they might function as viable and dynamic aspects of worship and as means of grace. A restoration of that balance between the use of sacrament and too heavy a dependence on ritual as the carrier of spiritual vitality will require us to re-examine our theology of worship and the role of sacrament in that worship.

While exploring this topic adequately would require a good-sized book, there are two basic dimensions of the "table" that we need to keep in mind. First, the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper, Communion) is both deeply personal and transformational. Theologically, this relates to the covenant statement, "I will be your God." We have tended to assume from the low church traditions that the partaker was first made righteous by God so that they could then be "worthy" to partake of the elements. And yet, what the Eucharist embodies is the unconditional love of God in Jesus Christ, who, received in faith, becomes powerfully transformative in all aspects of life, not at one time and place but continually in the life of the believer. It is this dimension that makes the Eucharist a means of grace.

At the very least that suggests that from this perspective the act of taking the elements in faith becomes more than simply the action of one who is already totally righteous and worthy. It is the action of one who understands the depth of sin symbolized by the blood and broken body, who comes before God in this act of sacrament in repentance for that sin, and who is willing by faith to embrace God’s transforming work in their lives. It is not that they must already be righteous to take the elements; it is that they must be willing to allow God to remake and renew them as they accept in faith that work of renewal. It is this understanding of the work of God in the lives of people that we symbolize in the Eucharist that allows the minister to say, "There is salvation in the cup!" -2-

This also allows the Lord’s Supper truly to be Eucharist, thanksgiving, which is the meaning of the Greek term from which the name is derived. As we acknowledge the presence of the risen Lord in the elements, it is a celebration of God’s grace that allows and calls us to transformation on the deepest and most personal levels of our lives. If we take this seriously as a way to understand the Eucharist, we approach it with a sense of expectation, with a sense of awe, and even with a sense of fear, because we do not always know what that transformation will entail. And yet we trust God with his work in us.

Brad Mercer tells of the experience of taking communion from his pastor father as he was growing up. He noticed that as he served the elements, the hands of his usually composed father were trembling. The magnitude of what was transpiring translated into a profound sense of awe and reverence, and yet at the same time celebration. Perhaps we should learn to receive the elements with those same trembling hands that confess our understanding of the power of God’s grace at work in that moment.

It is this dimension that suggests worshippers prepare themselves to participate in the sacrament of Communion. Preparation may involve fasting or other personal preparation such as Scripture reading or devotional exercises or other spiritual disciplines. It may involve nothing more than a time of quietness before partaking. It is a wise minister of table who allows this preparation, often in the service of the word before Eucharist.

A second dimension of the table is that the Eucharist is also communal and prophetic. Theologically, this corresponds to the covenant statement, "You shall be my people." In the Gospels, Jesus’ institution of the celebration of Eucharist is grounded in the celebration of Passover, the Jewish feast commemorating the deliverance of the Hebrew slaves from the oppression and bondage of Egypt. Yet, the celebration of Passover was far more than simply remembering a long ago event. To celebrate Passover was to confess who one was as a member of this people whom God had created. It was to identify with the group of ragged and hopeless slaves crushed under the tyranny of worldly power from which they could not break free. It is in this identification with the powerless and abused that allows the account in Deuteronomy (6:21) many centuries later to express, "Once we were slaves in Egypt."

Yet this is not just the sympathy evoked for the suffering of others. This identification only made sense because it evoked the deepest level of present human need. Even so, it pointed beyond that need to a celebration of the God who had heard the cries of oppressed slaves and entered history to bring liberation and freedom and hope. Passover was not a mournful look at the past but a joyful celebration of the present and the future that exists and can exist because God was and is active in human history. It was nothing less than a celebration of the God of grace who had entered history to create a people and call them to faithful response to that grace.

And so the Christian celebration of Eucharist recognizes that in Jesus’ own celebration of Passover, and the transformation of that celebration into a renewed celebration of God’s grace revealed in human history, we again identify with God’s people. We recognize that we still cry out to God from our oppression, from the burdens of our own slavery, physical and spiritual, that we still suffer under the tyranny of worldly power that crushes human hope. And yet in Eucharist we celebrate that God is still at work in our world, evidenced by the death and resurrection of the living Christ.

Eucharist is communal because through it we identify with the hopeless of humanity throughout history who know their slavery and yet long for deliverance. But through Eucharist we also celebrate the One who creates community, who calls into existence newness and possibility, the One who breaks the chains of oppression whether visible or not, the Champion of the poor and helpless, the Prince of Peace, the Author and Defender of justice, the great "I AM" who brings life and light amid the death and darkness that we ourselves have created. In Eucharist, we acknowledge that we are part of that community that God has called into being from hopelessness, and thereby understand that the purpose of that community is to proclaim that hope that it has itself experienced.

To celebrate Eucharist is a profoundly prophetic act, because it acknowledges that the human situation is not the final word. It calls us to look and indeed to move beyond the walls of our hopelessness, to see in God and his grace what we can be and become through him. In partaking of Eucharist, we take into ourselves the Word of life, the very power of God that transforms what was into what can be. No tyranny, from any source, not even death itself, can contain that power. As we celebrate Eucharist, we center on the risen Christ, God’s ultimate expression of victory over human limitations. In that life we live prophetically, empowered by God’s grace to embody his hope and liberation in the face of any act or system of tyranny that enslaves humanity. We become, as his people, a living witness to God’s transforming and liberating grace and a challenge to anything less.

While many churches who have adopted a theology of word and table as the structure of worship take Eucharist or communion every Sunday, some only celebrate Eucharist every other week, or once a month on a regular schedule. Most, however, also feel free to observe Eucharist at other important times in the church year, such as near New Years or Epiphany (January 6) or on Maundy Thursday of Holy Week, sometimes as part of a Christian adaptation of Passover (see Introduction to a Christian Seder). -3-  There is simply not the fear that it will become mundane as is so often heard in "low church" traditions because it is such an integral part of the entire theology of worship.

There has been a tremendous explosion of interest in many sectors of the evangelical and especially the holiness tradition in the United States in developing a deliberate and purposeful theology of worship, as opposed to simply doing worship in whatever way is most comfortable or familiar. Along with this, there is a growing concern to return to more authentically Wesleyan roots in worship, and the corresponding critical analysis of exactly where those roots lie. There are a whole range of factors in that move, some valid and some driven by the exigencies of the moment. It is no doubt part of a larger social trend to reverse the rampant individualism, self-centeredness, and generic approaches to Christianity that have dominated US culture since the 1960s.

In any case, renewed interest in a service of word and table is an emerging fact in the traditionally low church branches of the Holiness Movement and even among Pentecostals and evangelicals in general. Rather than being something that we need to fear, it may actually be the vehicle for a revitalized emphasis on the deeply spiritual dimensions of worship that have sometimes been obscured by more pragmatic approaches to evangelical church services or by more superficial emotional concerns. In this sense the emergence of a "word and table" emphasis may be one of the best signs of genuine vitality in churches today.

Further Discussion

In trying to maintain the place of Eucharist, especially in an evangelical context where the preached word has historically been elevated as more important than the table or Eucharist, some have argued that the Eucharist should always take priority.  There is some sense in which that is true since throughout most of the history of the Church it is the Eucharist that has historically occupied the center place in worship.  However, to support the priority of Eucharist over the spoken word, some also want to argue that Christ is present in the Eucharist in ways that he is not present in the spoken word (Scripture or preaching).  They would contend that God himself is mystically present in Eucharist, which is therefore a direct manifestation of God, something not true for the spoken word.

The idea of the mystical presence or "real presence" of God in the Eucharist is a topic that is far beyond the present discussion. However, even apart from those debates, I would still maintain that there must be a balance between the word and table from both directions.

Here is where a lot of assumptions about the nature of scripture come into play, especially for evangelicals. I recall a sermon from Jerry Falwell I heard on the radio a few years ago in which he began from John 1 talking about the “Word of God” that was made flesh, obviously referring to the incarnation of Jesus the Christ.  Then in the middle of the sermon, without any qualification, he continued using the same language he had used for Jesus earlier but instead referring to the Bible as the Word of God (see The Word of God and God's word).

Unfortunately, as this illustrates, evangelicals tend to assume that the “word” (Scripture and preaching from Scripture) and the “Word” (Jesus as the Word of God) are functionally the same thing. As a result, especially in evangelical contexts (and in Catholic transubstantiation contexts from the other direction), I think we have to make a clear distinction between both “word” and “table” in order to keep them in balance.

In this sense I contend that neither “word” nor “table” can be equated with God in Christ (“real presence” in the Eucharist is another topic). Scripture bears witness to God in Christ in the spoken “word” (which is why reading Scripture is important as testimony); the “word” bears witness to the “Word.” Eucharist is testimony to God in Christ in the acted “word,” which also bears witness to the Word. In this sense both word and table are “words” that point to the Word, indeed proclaim the Word, but neither are that Word (which is why I think transubstantiation and most forms of consubstantiation are meaningless).

1 Cor 11:26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.

However, we can’t just leave either word or table as only our action. I don’t think Eucharist can be only a “memorial” of what God has done in Christ, as Zwingli and the later Anabaptists thought. It then becomes largely about us. Recall, that Eucharist comes from the Greek word for “thanks.”  However, even in the Old Testament, “thanks” in “thanksgiving” or todah psalms was a deeper act of worship than our idea of “thank you” suggests. There was a sense that todah/eucharist was an act of worship in which a person encountered the presence and power of God (the same was true of lament psalms).

So, as in any act of worship, while “word” and “table” bear witness to God they also become the actions that allow us to “enter” (using a spatial metaphor) the presence of God as a receiving worshipper. This attitude can be illustrated in the liturgical practice of receiving the bread in upturned open hands, which can be a profound act of confession and submission.

As we open ourselves up to God in worship, we allow God’s presence into our lives in transformational ways. But it is not just our actions. God “comes” to us (still using spatial metaphors) as we are open to his presence. As we focus on God we allow his presence in that worshipping moment to be transformational. It is in this sense that both word and table are means of grace, as is all authentic and sincere worship. I would argue that word and table moves far beyond the level of emotional response that often typifies other aspects of worship.

That is why I think there needs to be a balance between word and table. This is not just making sure there is equal time between sermon and communion. It is an approach to worship that assumes everything done in the service, both spoken and acted, serves to proclaim and bear witness to the Word in such a way that both are acts of worship and thereby means of grace. At the same time it also understands that neither the word nor the table is the same thing as God or the Christ.  They are the witness to and the proclamation of God in Christ but cannot be equated with what they proclaim.

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright 2013, Dennis Bratcher - All Rights Reserved
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Notes

-1- "Low Church" is a neutral term that simply describes a type of worship that does not follow a prescribed order of service and that does not follow certain liturgical patterns. Webster's: "Low Church (1710) tending esp. in Anglican worship to minimize emphasis on the priesthood, sacraments, and ceremonial in worship and often to emphasize evangelical principles." By contrast: "High Church (1687) tending esp. in Anglican worship to stress the sacerdotal [priestly], liturgical, ceremonial, traditional, and Catholic elements in worship."

John Wesley was sometimes accused by his detractors of being "low church" because of his field preaching but vigorously defended against the charge. He remained thoroughly Anglican and high church, while still continuing to emphasize evangelical principles. The Methodist church then emerged as an interesting blend of low and high church, while the American versions in the American Holiness Movement, Pentecostals, and others like Quakers, Brethren, and Churches of Christ, clearly chose to move to "low church."

In these terms, it seems the word and table thinking is an attempt to reintegrate the two dimensions of a concern with the sacramental and liturgical that is a part of Wesleyan heritage with the evangelical emphasis that is also a crucial part of that identity. [Return]

-2- In the historic Christian tradition, persons could not partake of Eucharist unless they had been baptized. That is, it was only for Christians. However, we must keep in mind that in that environment, baptism was not "believers" baptism where only adults who had professed a "conversion" to Christianity were allowed to be baptized. In that context, baptism was administered as a means of grace, both to converts as well as to infants. Baptism was a mark of belonging to the Christian community, not the sign of a deliberate and cognitive act ("born again") or of choosing to affiliate with a particular Christian tradition. This latter understanding of "believers’ baptism" as the only admission into a closed community allows some church traditions to restrict Eucharist to all except members of that specific church or tradition, a violation of the very essence of Eucharist as a communal act of worship. Likewise, it is never appropriate to serve Communion to only part of a gathered group (for example, only the bride and groom at a wedding), or to celebrate it for some after others have been dismissed from the service (for example, children to go to children’s church). [Return]

-3- While many churches observe communion on Good Friday, traditionally Eucharist is not served on Good Friday since Eucharist is a celebration and Good Friday is not a day of celebration but of mourning, both for the death of Jesus and for the sins of the world that his death represents. A midday prayer vigil or service of darkness (Tenebrae) are the traditional services for Good Friday. [Return]

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis Bratcher - All Rights Reserved
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