Fifth Sunday of Easter

“What Do We Do and Why Do We Do It?”

Part 5: Offertory through Prayer of the Church

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

“Restore to me the joy of Thy salvation” (Psalm 51:12; LSB 193).  With what has the joy of the Lord’s salvation been replaced in your heart and mind?  Is it something concrete, like the joy of some other thing, which makes Christian joy seem to pale in comparison?  Or is it more like the absence of something, a general malaise and indifference?  All your colors have been dulled by the blows of the world, and you’re not sure you would recognize joy anyway.  But you see some people and there is an almost intangible something that they have and you want.  As the Holy Spirit applies the Law of God to your heart, you begin to feel your lack of joy.  You recognize that your heart is not clean, that the spirit within you is not right.  In the Offertory, we highlight our lack of the very things for which we pray.  Things have gone wrong inside you and you can’t make them right.  Things are going wrong all around you and you have no control over any of it.  “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10; LSB 192-193).  This song, which we call the Offertory, comes from the response of David, after the prophet Nathan had confronted him with his adultery and murder.  After hearing Nathan’s sermon about a rich man who took a poor man’s only lamb, David, like us, applied its meaning to others: “As [Yahweh] lives, the man who has done this deserves to die, and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity” (2 Samuel 12:5-6, ESV).  And Nathan said, “You are the man!” (2 Samuel 12:7, ESV).  Suddenly, Nathan’s sermon was not about someone else, but about David.  Likewise, you and I should always hear in the preached Word of God our sin, our unclean hearts, our wrong spirits.  Before God, you may not look at others, but only at yourself.  I may preach to and for you, but if it has not hit home for me, it is likely not quite true.

The Offertory was originally the time when the members of the congregation would bring all their gifts forward and put them before the altar.  They would bring things for the poor and needy, as well as the bread and wine for the Lord’s Supper.  As the focus began to be more and more on the offering of the sacrifice of the Mass, the Lutheran Reformers removed the prayers that referred to such an offering, and substituted Psalm 51.  Now, as we sing the Offertory and then gather the offering, we still offer our gifts for use by the Lord, understanding that we offer to God only what He has first given to us.  We echo the words of David in 1 Chronicles 29:14: “But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able thus to offer willingly?  For all things come from you, and of your own we have given you.”  As I receive the gifts, I normally pray something like this: “O God, we offer back to You the first-fruits of what you have given to us; use them to further the work of Your Kingdom here and around the world.”

The Offertory and the Prayer of the Church form a bridge from the Service of the Word to the Service of the Sacrament.  You might think of the two parts of the one service like a mountain range with two high peaks, the sermon on one side, and the eating and drinking on the other.  In the Service of the Word, everything points to the sermon, the preaching of God’s Word.  Prior to the sermon, the liturgy is opening our ears, making us ready to hear God’s Word; after the sermon, we respond to what we have heard.  And all of this prepares us, baptized and believing, for that moment when heaven meets earth, as the eternal Son of God give us His crucified Body to eat and His shed Blood to drink.

In our prayers, we can see the bridge between the Service of the Word and the Service of the Sacrament, as we pray that the Word would take root and bear the fruit of the Spirit in our lives; we also pray that we would receive the great blessing of the Lord’s Supper for forgiveness, and the strengthening of faith toward God and love toward other people.  As with the Collect, the Prayer of the Church is exactly that: the Church’s prayer.  It is not the pastor’s prayer, though, again, someone has to speak it on behalf of the Church.  But this prayer does what the Church should always do, that is, pray for all sorts of people and for all sorts of needs.  We pray for the whole Church of God in Christ Jesus, as well as for all people, according to their needs.  We, the Body of Christ in this place, have been added to the priesthood of all the baptized by Jesus, our High Priest.  We have been given the privilege of offering our prayers to the Father through Jesus.  Since no one comes to the Father except through Him who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, we always offer our prayers “in Jesus’ name,” whether or not we actually say those words.  In the name of Jesus, we offer “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings for all people,” as Paul encouraged Timothy, the pastor of the church at Ephesus, to do.  Further, Paul said, prayer should be offered “for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.  This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:1-4, ESV).  And the promise of Jesus is trustworthy: “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.  If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:13-14, ESV).  Since the Prayer of the Church flows out of the Scriptures, it cannot but be in Jesus’ name.  As we speak back to Him His promises, we know that He will answer and do what He has promised.  All these prayers in Jesus’ name are your prayers, which I pray on your behalf.  And that is why I normally close each petition, “Lord, in your mercy,” and you respond, “hear our prayer.”  Last week, we used the other major form of the prayers, when I ended each petition with, “Let us pray…” and the congregation actually prayed the prayer by saying, “Lord, have mercy.”  “For,” as Daniel prayed, “we do not present our pleas before you because of our righteousness, but because of your great mercy” (Daniel 9:18, ESV).

In the Divine Service, the Lord’s Prayer typically falls within the Service of the Sacrament, but if Holy Communion is not celebrated, then we pray the Lord’s Prayer immediately after the Prayer of the Church.  If it comes after the Prayer of the Church, our Lord’s words sum up all of our prayers and gather all things which we have not spoken, or even what we have forgotten.  Nothing is neglected in the prayer that Jesus has given us, which not only gives us an outline for our own prayers, but gives us words when we have none of our own.  There are moments when all words dry up on our lips and this prayer becomes our lifeline to the Father, since Jesus Himself has taught us to pray with Him, “Our Father….”

This aspect of the Lord’s Prayer-that it gives us an outline for what we say and do-can be applied to the whole liturgy.  What can you say in the face of unspeakable tragedy?  Often, I find my mouth saying, “Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercy.”  What words of our own can be better as a song of praise than, “Glory to God in the highest!”  Confronted with our sin and finding the mercy of God bigger than that sin, can we find more fitting words than, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.  Cast me not away from Thy presence, and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me.  Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation, and uphold me with Thy free spirit”?  And at the side of a dying Christian or on our own deathbed, there is little comfort greater than the words of Simeon: “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace according to Thy word, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation.”

We tend to think that our worship in the Divine Service is the outgrowth of our own private devotion (or lack thereof).  In reality, it is the Divine Service that begins to form our private devotion, so that our private devotion is never really private; but our prayers and our reading are springs that flow out of the public source we call the liturgy.  We are not autonomous individuals, but members of the one Body of Christ.  The liturgy puts things in their proper order: God gives and we receive, and then we respond.  The liturgy gives form and content to our devotion, and takes us out of our sinfully natural selfishness into love for God and love for other people.  Are your prayers dry and repetitive, maybe even non-existent?  Learn from the liturgy how to pray: in confession, thanksgiving, adoration of God for who He is, and intercession on behalf of all people.  Learn from the liturgy that the very language of prayer always flows out of the hearing of the Scriptures.  Is your reading of the Scriptures aimless and seemingly hollow?  Know first of all that the Scriptures are never empty and hollow, because the Spirit will use them in spite of our lack of discipline.  But learn from the liturgy that Jesus Christ is at the center of everything.  Learn to read the Scriptures with the mercy and forgiveness of God in Jesus as the beginning, middle, and end.  The liturgy is never far from offering you forgiveness in concrete, physical forms.  Learn from the liturgy how the Scriptures function, as the words of a really present God who is here in mercy and love for the baptized brothers and sisters of His Son.  The liturgy, what goes on in this place week after week, should become the very cycle and rhythm of your life.  Sin and forgiveness, repentance and absolution, death and life, change and permanency, passive and active, gift and given to-all bound up in the life of Jesus poured out for you on the cross.  Confession and forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ are at the heart of the liturgy, as they are at the heart of your life as a Christian.  Here is real life that makes everything else you do meaningful, not the other way around.  If, God forbid, I should ever not preach the Gospel purely and clearly, the liturgy does what I might fail to do, which is why it is a very bad idea to get rid of it.

The Lord’s Prayer, which patterns our prayer as the liturgy patterns our life, takes on different shades of meaning depending on the context.  As we pray it in the midst of the Service of the Sacrament, we find our minds and hearts turned toward what God is doing there: It is His will that the Supper be celebrated and given for the forgiveness of sins.  His Kingdom does come and we who are baptized members of that Kingdom are strengthened by the work of the King.  Here, our daily bread is the Body and Blood of our Lord and it is more precious than any merely physical food and drink.  Just as we eat and drink for the health of our bodies, so here we eat and drink for the health of both body and soul.  Having received the forgiveness of God from Christ’s own mouth and hand, we go out to bring that forgiveness to others who need it.  We are here given Christ’s own strength to resist temptation, and in His Body and Blood we are kept from the ultimate effect of evil promoted by Satan, the world, and our own sinful flesh.  Here is life in the midst of death.  And so you may want to make the sign of Jesus’ cross at “deliver us from evil” to remind yourself that it is only by His cross that you are delivered from evil here and hereafter.  As we join with the Church of all times and all places in the liturgy of the Divine Service, the Father accepts our gifts and our prayers for the sake of His Son, and He will use them for His saving purposes.  For His is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever!

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 4/16/08

3 responses to “Fifth Sunday of Easter

  • Kathie

    I think that I have a teensy problem with your next to last paragraph in which you are tending to put the liturgy on too high a pedestal.
    I love the liturgy but the Divine Service itself does not form my private devotion; only the elements present in the service and liturgy form the basis for my devotion, which may or may not always include each of the elements.
    I would agree that we can, do and should learn from the liturgy many things which fuel our private devotion. As I am very fond of saying, “The liturgy informs my relationship (with the Lord) and my relationship reforms the liturgy.”

  • prwinterstein

    What is the Divine Service apart from its elements?

    When I say that the liturgy forms our private devotion, I mean that it teaches us how to pray; it teaches us that Christ is the center of both the Scriptures and our lives; and that it also teaches us the correct order of things: God gives and we receive; and then comes our response.

    I don’t mean (necessarily) that in your private devotion you should use the parts of the liturgy; although, being Scripture, it surely doesn’t hurt! Perhaps members of monastic orders got a little carried away, but I think they were on to something when they prayed set, formal prayers throughout the day. Without those set formal prayers (and I’m arguing that the liturgy of the Divine Service is the highest form of such formal prayers), our private prayer can easily devolve into a selfish exercise in navel gazing.

    In what sense do you understand your relationship with God “reforming” the liturgy?

    Pr. Winterstein

  • Kathie

    I guess that the big thing for me is that my personal relationship with my Lord is so important to me and really exists whether the liturgy exists or not–that I don’t NEED the liturgy to strengthen that relationship. I don’t know what navel gazing really looks like but I don’t know that I can think of a time when my private conversations with the Lord could be classified as that.
    There was a time in my life when my relationship with the Lord took a dramatic turn–the Holy Spirit really took hold of me in a fresh new way, and that’s when the liturgy began to be “reformed” for me–that is, it became much more meaningful, more deeply lovely, less a rote experience than it had been in all the years previously. So, I guess that’s what I mean by my relationship “reforming” the liturgy.
    I’m thankful to be in a liturgical church; I’m much more thankful to know the God of the liturgy in such a way as to be able to communicate with Him even without using the liturgy I’m privileged to use on Sunday mornings.

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