Word, Prayer, Meal
It’s about halfway through the Sunday morning service, and Pastor Tim is standing at the communion table holding a loaf of bread in his hands. He is about to bless the bread, break it, and share it with God’s people. He is feeding the flock of God.
Earlier in the service he fed the congregation by reading and expounding on God’s Word. After that he invited them into prayer for the church and the world. Word, prayer, and meal—these are food for the flock, means of grace. And they are the place where pastoral care begins.
Liturgical Pastoral Care
Mention pastoral care to most pastors or look up this topic in a library catalog, and you’ll meet an assumption that pastoral care begins somewhere else, after the service. Most books on this topic are about discipling individuals and small groups or about counseling folks when they encounter difficulties.
It is my contention that pastoral care begins in the worship service where the means of grace are exercised, the Word is read and preached, prayers are said and sung, the Lord’s Supper is celebrated, and new members are baptized and welcomed into the flock. For most church members, worship is the place where they are taught faith, where they pray, where they are washed and fed. All other pastoral care derives from and builds on gathering for worship with the people of God.
Pastoral care is feeding and caring for the people of God, who Christ calls his “sheep” (John 21:15-17). Three times Jesus says to Peter, “Feed, tend my sheep.” Jesus had set an example of this feeding as he read and interpreted Scripture to the crowds and as he fed them generously with bread and fish. Peter and the other disciples shared a meal at which Jesus washed them, taught them, and fed them with bread and wine. They had seen him pray and had received a model prayer from him.
Means of Grace
The metaphor of feeding indicates that Christ and his blessings are given to people through means, not directly or miraculously. Jesus used feeding to sum up the way he had been caring for the disciples and the crowds. He said to Peter and the rest, “You have watched me, now go and do the same. Use the same means so that my people can receive me.”
The Westminster Shorter Catechism summarizes all this by teaching, “The outward and ordinary means by which Christ communicates the benefits of redemption to us, are his ordinances, especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effective to the elect for salvation.” The Heidelberg Catechism says something similar: “The Holy Spirit produces [faith] in our hearts by the preaching of the holy gospel, and confirms it through our use of the holy sacraments.”
A typical Lutheran view is expressed in these words: “God offers and communicates to [humans] the spiritual blessings purchased by Christ . . . through the external means of grace ordained by Him. . . . the Word of the Gospel . . . and the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and of the Lord’s Supper” (A Brief Statement of the Doctrinal Position of the Missouri Synod). And Episcopalians bless God for “the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory” (Book of common Prayer, 1979). There are differences among Calvinists, Episcopalians, and Lutherans about just how these means work, but all affirm that God ordinarily uses means during public worship for our spiritual good.
For instance, Sunday is the day to celebrate redemption from bondage, to wade in the waters of baptism. The African-American spiritual “Wade in the Water” reinforces the idea that this is a strong, profound sign of the gospel. Sixteenth-century Reformer Philip Melanchthon commented, “The function of [baptism] is to testify that you are crossing through death to life.” From this testimony comes assurance of salvation, assurance given by God through the means of water.
Reformation Debates about the Sacraments
Church historian Brian Gerrish summarizes the difference between John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli with respect to the sacraments: Zwingli viewed the sacraments as memorials and Calvin as instruments. As memorials, the sacraments remind and even encourage us. As instruments, “the sacraments cause/bring and communicate what they signify. . . . the Spirit uses them to confer what they symbolize,” to use Calvin’s words.
How this works (by the Spirit and by our faith) is another story. The point here is that many Christians have a weak (Zwinglian) view of the sacraments as mere reminders or badges of profession, rather than as instruments or means God uses to give us Christ and his benefits. Communion is considered to be only a reminder of Christ’s death and an occasion for self-examination and recommitment to Christ. This Zwinglian view persists to this day, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
Back to Pastor Tim
In this Sunday morning service, the Scripture readings are from 2 Samuel 11, Ephesians 4, and John 6. The sermon helps the people understand how these texts interact, how Christ is in all of them, and how the texts apply to their daily life. The sermon also leads people to the Table where they feed on Christ, receiving him and the benefits of his redeeming work. On the way to the Table, they pray once more—for the world and its leaders, for the church and its leaders, and for the sick and needy among them and around the world. Let’s look at how each of these elements of worship is a means of care for the people of God.
The Word of God
As the people assemble in God’s presence, they gather around the Word through the reading of the Scriptures and through the sermon that, in the words of Justin Martyr, “invites [people] into the pattern of these good things.”
This means that pastors need to read generous portions of the Word to the people. The Westminster Directory for Worship recommends reading a chapter from each Testament every Sunday. The Revised Common Lectionary recommends three readings of ten to twenty verses each.
It means teaching the people how to listen. This may be done best by encouraging them not to follow in their Bibles but to give full attention to the reader’s voice. This is formative reading, reading to which God’s people submit in order to be shaped by the good news.
The sermon is set next to these readings as explanation and application, urging the people to believe and to live God’s words. Again, this is spiritual formation, shaping the people’s inner beliefs and assumptions about the world and their place in it. A good sermon enables people to feed on what has been read and then to go out and serve God by acting on these words in the coming week.
The Word does not stand alone; it is sealed and reinforced by the visible signs of water, bread, and wine; by common essential elements of everyday life turned by grace into signs of eternal life in Christ. Looking forward to the meal he would establish, Jesus said, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (John 6:54). Later Jesus said, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me” (13:8).
As the people eat at the Lord’s Table each week, as new members are washed at the font or pool, the truth of the gospel is sealed and confirmed to them. Not only do they receive the benefits that flow from Christ’s death and resurrection, but also Christ himself is conveyed or communicated to them. How this happens, by the Spirit and by faith, is a mystery. As Calvin concluded, after affirming these truths and trying to explain them for several pages, “I adore the mystery.”
Accompanying the Word and the signs, prayers of several kinds give the people their voice in responding to Christ. An opening prayer gathers up the biblical themes of the day. In between the Scripture readings a psalm is recited or sung, answering the promises of the Old Testament or anticipating the fulfillment of the New. A hymn (a sung prayer) may also accompany the readings, answering God’s gracious news. After the readings and the sermon, the people pray for the church and the world, blessing God and claiming these promises. More hymns throughout the service and a final thanksgiving, either sung or spoken, fill out the liturgy.
In all this, God’s people are being shaped to praise him, to plead with him in trust, and to go out to serve him. In all this, God’s people are fed and nurtured.