The word of the day is “liturgy.” In our age of individualism, most of us think of worship as a private matter. It is our choice whether to attend worship or not. And that decision is based on what we can “get out” of our participation. But in today’s reading of Acts 17:1-15, we hear how the church in Antioch “set apart” Barnabas and Paul for their missionary work. This endorsement and empowerment of their ministry was made in the context of worship, that is, “liturgy.”
Luke reports, “As they [the church in Antioch] ministered to the Lord and fasted,” the Holy Spirit said, “Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (OSB 13:2). Then, Luke writes that after they had “fasted, prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them on their way” (vs. 3). Today we study the Greek word for “ministry” and find that this term defines worship as public service to God, the work of glorifying God that the whole assembly of believers offers to the Almighty.
“Liturgy” Describes the Church’s Public and Corporate Worship
This understanding of worship is hidden in the English translations of Luke’s report of the ordination by the laying on of hands of Barnabas and Paul. Our translations read that the Holy Spirit spoke while the assembly “ministered to the Lord and fasted” (OSB 13:2). But the word “ministered” is a misleading translation of the term that describes the church’s corporate worship. In Greek, that term is leitourgi’a, and in English, it is “liturgy.”
“Liturgy” in the Scriptures
While current usage often restricts the term to the “Divine Liturgy” of the Orthodox Church, it has a wider history and meaning. The word “liturgy” is derived from the Greek term for a public servant who works for the good of the state, most often at his own expense (Strong’s #3006, 150). But the Septuagint applies “liturgy” to temple worship (Lust, Eynikel, and Hauspie 2003, 369-70). Thus, the LXX uses the word to refer to the ministry of those who serve in the Tabernacle [of Witness] (Numbers 4: passim). It refers to the priests and Levites and other ministers who (LXX Numbers 4:3,23,24) perform public service in worship (Number 4: 39 and Numbers 4:24). And it refers to the vessels and instruments of the worship services (Numbers 4:26).
Likewise, in the New Testament, the Book of Hebrews uses the term “liturgy” to refer to the ministry of the priests who offer daily sacrifices in the temple (Hebrews 10:11). Paul uses it to promote his collection for the poor in Jerusalem. He refers to the “liturgy,” that is, the ministry, of material things that the Gentiles owe to the saints in Jerusalem who have given them spiritual things (Roman 15:27). Finally, as we find in today’s passage, Luke uses it for the service to the Lord in worship.
Worship is Corporate
When we apply the word “liturgy” to the worship of the church, we discover its essential characteristics. First, worship is corporate. That is, it is the worship of the community of believers. What a joy it is to join with fellow believers in the presence of the Lord Jesus, the Mother of God, and all the saints. When we meet together, the Lord fulfills His promise, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). Our gathering amplifies our praise, multiplies our prayers, and fills all who are present with a common Spirit.
Worship is Public
Second, worship is public. What a blessing it is to share the blessings of the Lord with all who will join us. We have no secrets. We are not a secret society. But the spiritual things that we have, we openly give to others. And the more we share, the more we receive.
Worship is the Work of the People
Third, worship is service, the public work of the people. This work is not a burden, but a joy as the psalmist said, “I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go into the house of the Lord (NKJV Psalm 122:1). The more we serve the Lord in praise, thanksgiving, and petition, the more our souls are lifted, our burdens relieved, and our spirits soar.
A quotation from Father Alexander Schmemann summaries our study:
“In the meantime, this distinction between ‘corporate’ and ‘private’ worship is a contradiction of the basic and ancient concept of Christian worship as the public act of the Church, in which there is nothing private at all, nor can there be, since this would destroy the very nature of the Church… the purpose of worship is to constitute the Church, to bring what is ‘private’ into new life, to transform it into what belongs to the Church, i.e., shared with all in Christ” (Schmemann 1996, 23-24).
Think of what we miss when we are absent from worship. We miss the communion with our fellow members of the Body of Christ. We forgo their mutual support and friendship. But most of all we pass over the opportunity for communion with Christ who feeds us and our fellow worshippers with the Bread of Life.
Lust, Johan, Erick Eynikel, and Katrin Hauspie. 2003. Greek-English Lexicon of the Septuagint. Stuttgart, Germany: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft.
Schmemann, Alexander. 1996. Introduction to Liturgical Theology. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.