Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Sent Forth by God's Blessing

A Bible Study Inspired by a Hymn
Text: Omer E. Westendorf, 1916-97
(Lutheran Service Book 643, alt.)

Primary Scripture Lessons: Luke 8:39; Colossians 6:17; Numbers 6:26; 1 Corinthians 10:16

Sent forth by God’s blessing,
Our true faith confessing,
The people of God from His dwelling take leave,
The Supper is ended.
O now be extended
The fruits of this service in all who believe.
The seed of His teaching,
Receptive souls reaching,
Shall blossom in action for God and for all.
His grace did invite us,
His love shall unite us
To work for God’s kingdom and answer His call.

With praise and thanksgiving
To God ever living,
The tasks of our ev’ryday life we will face.
Our faith ever sharing,
In love ever caring,
Embracing His children of each tribe and race.
With Your feast You feed us,
With Your light now lead us;
Unite us as one in this life that we share.
Then may all the living
With praise and thanksgiving
Give honor to Christ and His name that we bear.

Before the study proper begins, I want to make a few quick comments. You might notice the little “alt.” next to the hymn number. “Alt.” means “altered.” Sometimes the alterations can be quite significant, but in this case they are exceptionally minor. The word “is” has been added in verse 1, line four. In verse two the word “everyday” has been altered to “ev’ryday.”

Omer Westendorf
This hymn was written by Omer Westendorf, one of the earliest lyricists for Roman Catholic liturgical music in English. Once again we find a contemporary Christian musician who does not write in a pop style. I don’t know how many hymnals this song is in, but it clearly has jumped the denominational fence. This is the mark of a hymn whose truth is more universal and therefore much more likely to last long after the author has gone to his Maker. I might also quote the line I once heard, “Music is the most ecumenical element of any church” (or something like that). To put that another way, a good hymnal will use “gold” no matter where it was mined. Who cares if the author was Roman Catholic, Lutheran, or even an atheist, as long as the words express truth and the music does a good job in carrying that truth. And now, on to our study proper.

“Sent Forth by God’s Blessing” could be used as a closing hymn, especially if the Lord’s Supper had been offered during the service. It could be used as a hymn sung during distribution, especially the final hymn. It could also be used in a Maundy Thursday service.

In Luke 8:26-39 we find the story of Jesus healing a demon-possessed man. Not surprisingly, the man wanted to stay with Jesus. However, Jesus turned him down. Instead Jesus said, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So that is what the man did. Everywhere he went he spoke of how Jesus helped him (Luke 8:39). This thought is captured in the first couplet in Westendorf’s hymn. It is also captured in the Post-Communion Canticle “Thank the Lord:” “Thank the Lord and sing His praise; tell ev’ryone what He has done.” We are blessed by God to be a blessing to others.

In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul is addressing problems in the church at Corinth. Beginning in verse eleven he addresses problems they had with their communion practices. Beginning in verse twenty-three, Paul discusses the substance of the Lord’s Supper.

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)

With these words Paul reveals that with the bread Jesus gives us his body and with the wine Jesus gives us his blood. God performs a miracle. It is that simple. And we have Jesus’ word on it. Our theologians sometimes call this a “Sacramental” presence, which is just a label for the miracle and means that there is nothing else like it for us to compare it to. Another common way to refer to this miracle is as the “real presence” (as opposed to a merely symbolic understanding of the Meal). The Eastern Orthodox Church will often use the word “mystery” in reference to the Sacrament. Again we are just saying the miracle can’t be explained.

When Matthew writes about the institution of the Lord’s Supper, he records our Lord saying, “… for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). These words not only confirm that we receive the real physical blood [and body – see Luke 22:19] of our Lord for it was his real blood that was poured out on the cross, but Jesus also tells us why we are receiving the Sacrament, “for the forgiveness of sins.” This is the great blessing we sing of in this hymn. Westendorf makes this clear with words like “The Supper is ended” and “With Your feast You feed us.”

Paul, again writing about the Lord’s Supper, says, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16). These are rhetorical questions expecting an affirmative answer, as is clear in the Greek. The words translated “participation” can also be translated as “communion” and “sharing in.” It is from this passage that we get one of the common names for the Lord’s Supper, “Communion.”

Paul does a very interesting thing with the word “body” in 1 Corinthians. When you read the book from front to back, the word “body” is clearly referring to the body of our Lord Jesus, the same body that died on the cross for you and me. But, beginning in chapter 12, Paul begins to use the word “body” as a reference to the Church. We are baptized into this body (1 Corinthians 12:13). In verse 27 Paul makes it clear that this “body” we are all part of is “the body of Christ.” So, if we “read 1 Corinthians backwards,” we realize that the communion in which we participate in the Lord’s Supper is also a fellowship of the saints. All those who believe in the truths Jesus taught, including, but not limited to, the real presence and the forgiveness of sins given in the Supper, join in this fellowship. This Body transcends space and time, so our fellowship at the altar also transcends space and time. In other words, when we gather at the Table, we gather with all the heavenly hosts, great leaders, departed loved ones, and the hosts whose name are forgotten on earth but enshrined in Glory.

So the fruits of this meal are for all who believe. It embraces His children of each tribe and race. It unites us as one in this life that we share.

In Colossians 3:17 Paul writes, “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father though Him.” Our Christian Faith is to permeate every aspect of our lives. The hymnist writes that fortified by the Sacrament, we go out in our roles in life to serve God and others with joyful, thankful hearts (stanza 2). Fortified by this Meal of Grace we go forth as God’s people of grace into a world desperately in need of God’s grace.

In Numbers 6:24-26, Aaron is instructed to put God’s name on God’s people with the words, “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace” (Numbers 6:24-26 ). This is also the traditional benediction to close Communion services in the Lutheran tradition. The word “countenance” (v. 26) is not simply a redundancy of “face” (v. 25). It carries with it the idea of God’s presence. In the Supper we have been in the very presence of our God, Jesus Christ (John 20:28; 1 John 5:20), receiving forgiveness. Because we are forgiven, we receive the favor of the Father. What a blessing!

Now this study has reviewed the elements of the hymn that refer to the Lord’s Supper. The hymn, though, is more expansive. As it refers to the entire worship service, it also refers to the blessings we receive through the word, both the word encased in the liturgy and the word read from the Holy Bible and also the word proclaimed from the pulpit. Read the words again and discover those thoughts.

One of Luther’s many brilliant insights was that “Christians live outside themselves: they live in Christ by faith and in their neighbor by love.” Review the hymn again as see how it catches this reality. It is God’s grace that enables us to live this Christian way, and it is the worship service, rich in grace, that blesses us to do so.

One final thought for the fans of CCM. This hymn has a very upbeat tune. It would be easy to change the instruments (spoken like a man who really has no skill with musical instruments) to guitars and the like and incorporate it in a CCM worship setting.

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