sending forth

Four Parts of Worship: Sending Forth

Matthew 28:1-10

At the end of each worship service, I “send us forth,” to use the language of fourfold worship. The obvious question is, “Send us forth to what?”

The answer, of course, lies in the word of God.

Our text today is typically used as an Easter reading. Easter—the day we celebrate the resurrection of Christ—also is the key to understanding “sending forth,” however. We’re going to use Matthew’s story of Christ’s resurrection, focusing on the characters, to help us better understand what we’re sent forth to do.

Jesus doesn’t appear until late in the story, but as he is the starting point for all things, we’ll begin with him. Even if you’ve heard this core story of Christianity a thousand times before, try to hear it with fresh ears today.

In the resurrection, Jesus is revealed fully as the Christ, the son of God, the promised gift of God sent to redeem the world. As we understand the resurrection more fully in the context of other holy writings, we see he is God in flesh, God among us.

In Jesus’ resurrection, we are exposed to the most effective mystery creation has ever experienced. It is mystery because how it works can never be fully grasped in this life; it is effective because it proved in a single moment that sin and its result, death, were overcome by holy Jesus’ wrongful death on the cross.

The other characters in Matthew’s version of the resurrection are two Marys, an angel of the Lord, Roman soldiers assigned to guard the tomb, and Jesus’ disciples.

The two Marys. One is clearly identified as Mary Magdalene, a woman Jesus freed from demon possession. She was clearly devoted to Jesus. The “other Mary” is less easily identified; Matthew would never have referred to Jesus’ mother in such a way. She was likely the “mother of James and Joseph” identified as being at the cross. If you haven’t figured out by now, Mary (Miriam in Hebrew) was a very common female name in Jesus’ day and place.

What I take away from their part in the story is faithfulness, likely combined with an expectancy that something more was to happen. Unlike the other gospels, Matthew says the Marys merely went “to see the tomb,” rather than going with a specific purpose, such as to anoint Jesus’ body more thoroughly. I think that unlike many of the male disciples, the women had fully heard Jesus’ words about what was to come after his death, and hope remained in their hearts.

Through their faithful attendance to Christ, even when all seemed lost, they became important witnesses to mighty events surrounding the resurrection, standing at an intersection of heaven and earth. They also became the first humans to declare the truth about the remarkable event that changed the world.

The Angel of the Lord. The angel leaves no doubt that the resurrection is a God-ordained event directed from heaven. He brings glory and majesty to the story, a reflection of the One who sent him. The angel’s job was simple; roll back the stone and deliver a message. How he did his job underscored what had just happened.

I would think mighty angels have little need to sit and rest. This one sat on the stone, however, a symbolic act reminding us once again that death has been defeated. His decision to take a seat has almost military overtones, that of a conqueror forcing something into submission. It also comes across like a challenge: “Anyone want to try to roll it back?”

His message to the women had two parts: Jesus has been raised from the dead; go tell others he has been raised from the dead, in particular, the disciples.

The Guards. Let’s understand something here—these are Roman soldiers, part of the toughest fighting force on the planet. They represent worldly power, a kind of power that seemed insurmountable to the people they had conquered. But when faced with just one of God’s angels, they collapsed into a quivering mass. The word translated as “shook” in relation to these soldiers has the same root as the word used to describe the earthquake that occurred when the angel rolled the stone away. All that was worldly trembled at the resurrection.

The Disciples. Just as they were Jesus’ primary audience in his three years of ministry, they seem to be his primary audience immediately after the resurrection. The angel told the two Marys to go to them with word of the resurrection. Jesus repeated this instruction when he appeared to the women suddenly, as they ran to the disciples.

Later in Matthew, we’re told something interesting about the 11 remaining key disciples—despite seeing Jesus, some doubted. I wonder if they muttered in Aramaic, “It’s just too good to be true.” Jesus told them to go forth and spread the word of the resurrection, however, baptizing believers in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. It’s clear they finally did believe. After all, we’re here on the other side of the planet, worshiping Christ as Savior.

As people who gather to worship Christ, we have the potential to fulfill some of these roles today. Where do you fit in the story?

I would assume we have taken at least one foot out of the world. By that, I mean a full-blown encounter with God won’t leave us on the ground, quivering like a jellyfish. At a minimum, we’re like the disciples, following Jesus, even enamored with Jesus.

And yet—doubt creeps in. The question is, can we join the Marys? Can we declare what has been revealed to us through God’s word? Can we live as if we expect greater things to happen?

That is what we’re sent forth each week to do. We’ve gathered here week after week and equipped ourselves through the word. We’ve celebrated what has been declared.

Now share the good news about Jesus Christ with those who so desperately need to hear it!

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Note: Any good church does more than just tell its members to tell others about Jesus. We also equip people to tell the story successfully. If you’re near Cassidy UMC, you’re invited to join a small group where we develop our evangelism skills and keep each other in loving accountability. If you’re interested, contact me.

Four Parts of Worship: The Gathering

It has long fascinated me that when we make mistakes in life, they often are rooted in our failure to execute the basics well. We’ll let complicated details worry us and then botch what should be simple.

You see it in sports. A Major League baseball player costs his team the game by booting a routine ground ball, a simple maneuver he’s executed thousands of time since Little League. An NFL quarterback in a panic throws off balance and across his body, something a coach first told him not to do when he was 8 years old. Interception.

It happens to us at work. We’re trained in the basics of our job. We execute those basics day after day. And then one day, often for reasons even we cannot explain, we do it another way, and we’re left scratching our heads, wondering what went wrong.

It happens to us in worship, too. To worship well, there are some basics we need to keep in mind. And if we keep going back to them, we will worship very well, in a way that invigorates us and impacts every moment of our lives.

Through the rest of September, we’re going to talk about the most basic aspects of worship, the four identifiable parts of worship going back to the earliest days of Christianity. We’re going to see if we can fully understand our role in each part and how each part leads to its next part.

Worship experts use different terms for these four parts of worship, but I like these: Gathering, Word, Celebration, and Sending Forth. We’ll cover one each week. We’ll begin today with gathering, of course.

Focus

The gathering time is perhaps the most confusing of the four, simply because many Christians don’t consider it part of worship at all. Much of it happens before we’ve officially “started.” When we neglect it, however, we’re like a traveler who begins a journey by tripping in the first few steps and cracking a kneecap. The rest of the journey will be painful, and the traveler may never reach the destination.

At the latest, the gathering should begin somewhere out on the church lawn, before we ever enter the building. It begins when we gather ourselves, readying ourselves for why we have come to this place—to encounter God, and join with others seeking to do the same.

If you’ll pause outside a church building for a moment and breathe, you’ll see there is so much designed to put you in the right frame of mind. The exterior design of Cassidy and many other church buildings is intended to point you toward God, to say to you, “Lift up your eyes! Look up!” We’re granted a moment of perspective where we remember where we stand in relation to God.

If you’re blessed with a church bell, as we are, its ringing is a call to the faithful and a reminder to the lost that something special is about to happen. And we’re particularly blessed at Cassidy to have a beautiful garden with a pathway through it next to the sanctuary. I’m often able to center myself before a worship service by walking through it.

To again use a sports metaphor, the gathering is first about getting your head in the game. You may have noticed that I said the gathering begins on the church lawn “at the latest.” I’m probably stretching the concept of gathering a little, but I would argue it begins long before we cross the church property line. Are you preparing yourself for worship through encounters with God during the week? Was your Saturday night an appropriate prelude to an encounter with God, including plenty of rest?

Once inside the sanctuary, the gathering continues as the service formally begins. Our individual readiness becomes a group readiness, and when we do it right, great things begin to happen. We feel it in the singing. The prayers bind us together.

We’re Not Alone

And we should expect great things. Just look at Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:19-20, words given to us very clearly in the context of church life.

Consider Jesus’ words, and then think about what we’re doing when we gather here. God is present when we gather. Not only that, the holy decisions we make as a church align us with events in heaven.

When worship is properly understood, the question regarding church attendance should never be, “Am I going today?” Instead, it should be, “How will I ever leave?”

We also begin to realize that a mature Christian’s worship experience has little to do with matters like style of music or preaching. Jesus promised to show up when we gather in his name; he said nothing about matters of style. Our experience is tied to how fully we believe God is among us when we gather as Jesus told us to do.

Next week, I’ll tell you why I can promise you we will encounter God every week in worship, assuming we stick to our basics and walk into church ready for the encounter.