This homily was delivered at a mission service at St. John the Apostle Orthodox Mission Station in St. Francisville, LA, on July 19, 2008.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Christ is in our midst! He is and shall be!

Normally, the sermon in an Orthodox Liturgy is given after the priest reads from the Gospel. But this morning I’ve chosen to speak at the end, because instead of speaking about the Gospel reading, I’d like to talk about the service that we all just prayed together. This is the first Orthodox Christian Divine Liturgy in St. Francisville (LA), to our knowledge, ever. So speaking some about the service I hope will serve as a good basic introduction to the Orthodox faith and to Orthodox worship. We’re not really going to look at that much “theology” this morning, but studying the Liturgy is a very normal activity in the Orthodox Church – the Liturgy is our ultimate expression of faith and worship, so the things that are truly important in the Church are revealed in the worship of the Liturgy. The word Orthodox implies both right faith, and proper worship—the way we worship and pray is formed by what we believe.

Firstly—Everything in the Orthodox Christian Church is centered on Christ—the most perfect and complete revelation by God of Himself to humankind is in the person of Jesus Christ. The Christian Church begins, revolves around, takes Her entire content from, the person of Jesus Christ. Everything in Christianity flows from Jesus Christ. And we see this conviction of the Church very clearly in the Divine Liturgy. Every aspect of the service points us to Christ—we praise and worship Him, we remember the works of God for our salvation from the foundations of the world, we pray for others as Christ prayed for us, and ultimately we follow the command of Christ: “He that eateth My flesh and drinketh My blood, abideth in Me, and I in Him” (John 6:56). The entire Liturgy is a movement towards our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

And in this service that entirely centers on and focuses us on Christ, we go through this service in ways that have been revealed by God. For many of us as Orthodox Christians, this is a very important aspect of the life of the Church. We don’t just do whatever we want. Life is not just about what we want; this is the story of the Garden of Eden and the Fall—Adam and Eve just took what they wanted, and they fell into sin and death. Life is about our cooperation with God, our submission to God, so that He can bring about the best things in our lives for our salvation. And our worship of God is the same way. And this is really what I had planned on talking about this morning, but how can we speak of the worship of the Church (ancient and modern) without first speaking of Christ!

The worship of the Orthodox Church has its roots in the Old Testament, in forms and focus of worship as dictated by God Himself to the people of Israel. This was the question on our posters and ads to let people know about this Liturgy—“How did the first Christians worship? Come and see!” The first comment many visitors to our Churches make, is, “the service seems really old, very ancient.” And it is. The text of the Liturgy we served this morning was written by St. John Chrysostom, a bishop in Constantinople in the 4th century. But the roots of the service are even older than that. The first Christians, we see this in the New Testament Epistles, the first Christians (Jewish converts) worshipped in the synagogues. They continued to pray the way that God had told His people to pray thousands of years before the Incarnation of Christ. They worshipped in the synagogue, and then they went to someone’s house and they “broke bread together.” In the language of the Bible and the early Church, this means they shared communion, the breaking of the Bread and drinking from the Cup in remembrance of Christ, as He had commanded at the Last Supper. So the worship of the first Christians was a combination of the worship in the synagogue and gathering in homes to break bread and share in the Lord’s Supper.

When the Christians were finally expelled from the Temple late in the first century (at the Council of Jamnia in AD90), then the question of how to worship as Christians comes up. Buildings have to be built, and the services have to be arranged—what to do in those buildings when they were together as the Body of Christ to worship together as the Church. And the early Church did exactly what we might expect them to do—they continued what they’d always known. The worship of the Church was based on what had already been revealed by God. And we can see this in the basic structure of the Divine Liturgy we served this morning. The first half of the Liturgy, from the beginning through the reading from the Gospel, this is the structure of the worship in the Hebrew synagogue. You have someone who leads the people in prayer, to maintain order in the worship (1 Corinthians 14:40). The service then consists of prayer, psalmody and other hymns. That’s how we began—praise, worship, and intercessory prayers, divided by the singing of Psalms and other hymns. And after that portion of the service, the leader (Rabbi, priest) would read from the Scriptures, and then offer a word, an explanation, a teaching. Again, this is exactly what we have—the Epistle is read, the Gospel is read, and then the sermon is given. Up to that point in the service, we have the worship of the synagogue, obviously slightly different in content and context, but the same basic movements.

After the sermon, we really enter into the part of the service that is distinctly Christian in every way. There’s no precedent for it, before the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. The second portion of the Liturgy is all about the Mystery of the Holy Eucharist. “Eucharist” means thanksgiving—we have Communion and Thanksgiving. As the priest prays—“Remembering this saving commandment [the commandment to eat and drink] and all those things that have come to pass for us,” and then we list moments from the life of Christ. We’re doing what Christ said do, and in the offering of the service we give thanks to God for everything. In that second portion of the Liturgy we really continue, in many ways, in the patterns of the first half, and therefore the patterns of the Old Testament. We continue to offer prayers, we continue to sing hymns, all in preparation of the sacrifice.

Again, the Old and New are inextricably connected, and this sacrificial connection is really among the most beautiful (to me). In the Temple, sacrifices were offered daily, blood was shed to cover the sins of the people. The blood of the animals covered the sins of the people, there wasn’t real forgiveness, but more like a painting over; there were counted righteous we read in the Old Testament, vs. being truly righteous. For us as Christians, Christ is the final sacrifice—His blood was shed for the remission of our sins. He is the Sacrifice that ends all sacrifices. And in participating in His life-giving death, we receive true forgiveness, and can become truly righteous, as Christ commanded us to be. So in the Liturgy, when we approach the Holy Altar, we offer the bloodless sacrifice. Christ is not crucified again, rather we participate mystically in His sacrifice for our salvation. To quote from the New Testament:

In St. Matthew’s Gospel (26: 26-28) we hear the words of Christ in the upper room at the Last Supper, “And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink ye all of it; for this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins,’” “this do in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:19).

And St. Paul writes to the Corinthians (I Cor. 11:23-25), “For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, this cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.”

At the end of the Liturgy, after we’ve followed the commandment of Christ and communed of the Holy Mysteries, we give thanks in prayer again. And finally, we asked to be strengthened and preserved as we go out into the world. To do what Christ called us to do: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

This look at the Liturgy could go much deeper, and much longer. There are certainly other pieces of the service that we clearly find precedent for the in the Scriptures—the adornment of the temple, incense, standing for worship, and the list goes on. But this is a very basic and simple walk through the Divine Liturgy, and mainly I want us to see that Christ is the center of it all, and in this place and this time we give God what He’s already asked for, what He’s revealed. We worship God, we give thanks to God, and we do it in ways that God has revealed thousands of years ago. There is a time for other things—King David danced naked before God, the Scriptures say—but he did that in his house on his time in his own personal prayers to God. When we gather as the Church, we worship reverently, and orderly, as the Apostle Paul tells us to do. And certainly, just because the tradition is thousands of years old doesn’t mean it’s dead or void of meaning; doing what God wants is the source of life, a constant stream of grace and light and life.

Finally, it’s incredibly important for us to understand that we’re not here for us; we don’t come together as the Church for us— Church is about God. We gather as the Church to offer praise and worship and glory to Christ our God for all that He’s done and continues to do for our salvation and the salvation of all mankind.

Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!