In a liturgy class during my first year at seminary Dr. Gordon Lathrop told us about a bell that hung in the tower of a northern Wisconsin church founded in 1873, until it was destroyed by fire in 1985. The bell bore the following inscription:
to bath and table,
to prayer and the word
I call every seeking soul
Then, using this list:
- the baptismal bath
- the Lord’s table
- the prayers of the people
- and the word of God
Dr. Lathrop taught about the importance of each of these throughout Christian history, and then (probably because musical types and worship styles are so often the source of strife and division within worshipping communities) Dr. Lathrop said: Notice that music is not on the list.
Well, Mark Mummert, the seminary musician, who was serving as a TA for the class sat there listening and agreeing with the importance of all of those other central things. But to his musician’s heart, Lathrop’s words were nearly blasphemous. So when Lathrop said, “music is not on the list,” Mummert shot back: “Gordon, it’s a bell!”
“Of course”, Dr. Lathrop said apologetically, as he laughed at his own narrow-mindedness. You see, music doesn’t need to be on the list, because the list is on an instrument of music in the first place! The ringing bell sang out the invitation to the central things each time it rang!
The fact of the matter is that music has always been among the central things, not because it in and of itself is a means of grace per se, but because it carries and serves the others so profoundly. The liturgy is musical.
- we sing hymns
- we sing psalms
- we sing responses
When you look at Luther’s Mass from Wittenburg, Germany, in the 1500s, there are even tunes for the singing of the Gospel each week. Luther himself wrote hymns for the Christian assembly
- so that people could sing in their native German tongue,
- so that they could sing the basics of the faith, and in the singing they could learn those basics, not in Latin – the religious language of the day – but in the language of the people, the language of the day, the language of their culture, the language that their babies learned.
But it goes back much further than that. Centuries before Luther, St. Augustine is attributed as saying (and though Augustine apparently never did say it, there’s still truth in the saying): “One who sings, prays twice.” Acknowledging that, not only the words of prayer honor God, but the form can as well.
And long before our brother Augustine, the Church sang the faith.
The whole book of the Revelation is, according to some scholars, a liturgical drama meant to be performed and sung within the worshipping assembly. Far from the nonsense of such things as the Left Behind series, with its vengeful God, and its warrior Jesus, this is a message to a persecuted Church facing death at the hands of the emperor, and the message is delivered in images, and numerology, and, yes, in song! The Spirit and the Bride song ends the book. And the benediction ends the liturgy of the word, so that this hymn of invitation – the Spirit and the Bride say: Come! – probably led the believers to the Table where, in fact, to the very ones who just sang out “Come, Lord Jesus!”, Jesus did come, as, still, as He did then, he comes to us today
- as the one full of grace and truth
- as the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end of all that is
- the one who gives the waters of life, not to the deserving few who happen to be raptured, but as a gift given freely to everyone who wishes to take it…
In our first lesson today, we pick up where we left off last week. Paul is with Silas in Philippi, a town in Macedonia, where he is staying at Lydia’s house – Lydia who has just been baptized – and Paul’s ministering to the people who gather at the river as a place of prayer. And Paul is being harassed by this demoniac servant girl and he can’t take it anymore, so he casts the demon out of her. Only, the men who owned this demon-possessed girl, and who made money off of her supposed gifts of divination, get upset over their sudden loss of this cash stream, and they have Paul and Silas arrested and beaten with rods and cast into a Roman prison. Bloody, beaten
and chained – hands and feet stretched out – Paul and Silas, ‘round about midnight, start to do what any of us would do, right? Well, okay, maybe not what we’d do, but they start to pray and to sing hymns!
It’s almost comical, except that the Romans were so brutal. I mean, they’re more concerned with these Jews and how they worship than for this poor oppressed and possessed girl.
And the jailer, after the earthquake, assuming that everyone in his charge has escaped, and knowing that he faces the death penalty for his failure, prepares to commit suicide – better to kill himself than to face the dishonor of his failure to keep his prison secure. But there’s something at work here that is much deeper than he realized, aside from the binding and the freeing that the authorities are seeking to maintain. In fact, Paul and Silas are so free that they choose to stay bound, in jail, even after the earthquake. They are slaves, you see, not to Rome, and not like the girl, to another human. They are slaves to God. They are bound to the proclamation of the Gospel, which in this case is done, not through preaching, not through speech, but through song. Paul and Silas are singing, and the other prisoners are listening.
Music is important because it carries the message of God’s love for the world, the message of the cross and resurrection, the one message in all the world that has the power to change and to save lives.
After this story, Paul leaves Philippi. But he writes to them later, the letter to the Philippians, and in that letter Paul quotes a hymn:
Let this attitude be in you that was also in Christ Jesus: who being in very nature God, did not
deem equality with God something to be grasped at, but emptied himself, taking the part of a
slave, and obediently accepting death, even the death of the cross.
So God highly exalted him, and gave him the name above every other name, so that at the name
of Jesus every knee shall bow, in heaven, on the earth, and under the earth, and every tongue
confess to the glory of God the Father that Jesus Christ is Lord!
Now, I don’t know this for sure, no-one could, but I wonder if that isn’t one of the hymns that Paul and Silas sang that night in Philippi. I wonder if that isn’t one of the hymns Paul and Silas sang that night in the jail.
And notice that, after the jailer comes to faith, after he and his household are baptized, they share a meal…
In our Gospel text, we have a bit of Jesus’ prayer. And like the Revelation hymn that leads to a meal, and like the meal shared by the Philippian jailer with Paul and Silas, this prayer is prayed at a meal – at the last supper. And in this prayer, we have Jesus praying for the unity of the Church, a unity that, on the surface at least, seems far from being realized – we are still far from experiencing the visible unity of Christ’s Body on earth.
So, what? Did Jesus miss it here? Have His prayers gone unanswered?
No, I don’t think so. If anything, we miss it. There’s a unity that runs far deeper than our denominational divisions.
- There’s a unity in the Spirit shared by all who are named and claimed by God in the bath and in the word of promise in Holy Baptism
- There’s a unity in the Spirit shared by all who have been gathered into the one body of Christ throughout all times and in all places, lifting up their hands and their voices in thanksgiving at the table
- And there’s a unity in the Spirit shared by all who are sent out in mission for the sake of the world
- There’s a unity in the Spirit that calls us all to, as with one voice, to sing out the praises of the God of love, the God of grace, the God of mercy, the God of glory
To the world, this unity might not be so readily recognizable, but it’s true nonetheless. And it’s in this unity that we lift our voices, together with believers from every generation, crying out, “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!”
And it’s in that unity that we come to the table to receive the very presence of Christ Jesus in the form of a bit of bread pressed into our hand and a sip of wine on our lips and in the words of God’s promise that this little remnant of a meal is the bread that brings life to the whole world as we, empowered and inspired by this eating and drinking, hear the cry of all the hungry and thirsty world behind it. And as we, then, go out from here in the unity of the Spirit to give of ourselves as bread for the sake of the world.
Raise your voices as you go out from here today! Let your lives ring out like so many inviting bells! Sing the song of triumph in how you live, in how you love your neighbor, and let the world, through that living and loving, come to see the deeper unity that makes us one in Christ. Let them come to see the bond of love we share through our active caring for all of this world’s “other” ones – for all those society calls us to see as outsiders – let them see our unity in Christ in that most profound way! Let your life sing, as you give yourself away in Christ’s name.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Christ is risen, indeed! Alleluia!