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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

October 24, 2013

Today continues our series looking at Reformed worship for markers of church authenticity, since Reformed confessions declare that wherever God is rightly worshiped the church is truly present. Today we move to the heart of Reformed worship – hearing and receiving God’s Word.

I need to register here a parenthetical objection to the way “worship” gets defined by many today. I encounter it widely – “worship” is taken to mean the time of singing and prayer, followed by “preaching” or “teaching.” I won’t belabor it, but “worshiping God” literally means “according God all due worth.” We acknowledge God’s worth less by what we say or sing to God than by how we hear and respond to what God says to us. Being attentive to the reading and proclamation of Scripture is in fact the very heart of divine worship.

Reformed liturgy has an important component that is distinctive to our tradition – the “prayer for illumination” before the reading and proclamation of Scripture. This prayer offers an excellent window on how Scripture functions in forming us for God’s mission in the world.

The first thing to note is that the prayer for illumination is not a prayer for the preacher’s authorization or empowerment as God’s ambassador. It is perfectly appropriate for the preacher to call upon the Lord for help in delivering God’s word faithfully and fruitfully, but that is not what the Prayer for Illumination is about. If it were, it would immediately precede the sermon – but it precedes both the reading of Scripture and its proclamation. The prayer for illumination is primarily for the receivers rather than the deliverers of God’s word – that those who hear God’s word read and proclaimed may be quickened by the Spirit to receive it as life-giving. It is an acknowledgment that apart from God’s Spirit, none of us can hear God’s word in a way that leads to salvation.

Now there is a long and robust tradition of men and women experiencing personally transformative encounters with the Spirit of God. Jesus says that unless we are born of the Spirit, we cannot see the kingdom of God. Prophets are said to prophesy by the inspiration of the Spirit, and Paul calls speaking in tongues “praying with the Spirit.” To appeal for the Spirit’s illumination thus certainly taps into a tradition where God sovereignly moves upon individuals in extraordinary ways.

But the greater tradition is that of all members of the Body of Christ being empowered by the Spirit to benefit each other. The Spirit is God at work supplying to each of us all that we need for faithful living through our connections to the rest of the body. (See especially 1 Corinthians 12.) When we call upon the Spirit to illuminate our hearing of the Word so we may respond to it rightly, we are committing ourselves to listen to Scripture in company with other members of Christ’s body.

God’s Spirit has been at work illuminating God’s word through the ages and around the world. If we want to hear what the Spirit is saying, it must be in connection with what the Spirit has already been saying wherever the saints have heard Scripture read and proclaimed.

The Reformed way of embracing this is by being a confessional church. We listen carefully to the witness of the faithful from other times and places as they have sought diligently to discern God’s word, and have committed that discernment to particular faith confessions. When we pledge to be guided by our Book of Confessions, we are saying that we will listen and respond to God’s word in company with others who have journeyed the pathway of Christian discipleship.

2 Peter says that “no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation.” (2 Peter 1:20) To pray for the Spirit’s illumination as Scripture is read and proclaimed means that we are willing to hear it with the whole company of the faithful. This requires of us some hard work to learn how others have heard God speak through the biblical texts set before us. That is why we require ministers of the Word to be thoroughly trained in the broad tradition of Scriptural interpretation.

So when you hear Presbyterian preachers citing Augustine or Julian or Calvin or Thurman or Barth as they wrestle with Scripture, they aren’t just showing off; rather, they are anchoring our hearing of God’s word in the grand testimony of all the saints. Can God speak a new word to us in our own place and time? Absolutely. But the God who surprises us with such new words speaks to us precisely as we listen to the chorus of those who testify to the word of the Lord they too have heard.

To ask the Spirit to illuminate our hearing also entails embracing another discipline, namely that of comparing Scripture with Scripture. We’ll dig into that next week.

Listening for God’s word with you,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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