Does “Word and Table” Signal a Shift in the Way We Worship?

by E. Byron (Ron) Anderson
Over the past forty years or more, Protestant and Catholic churches have undertaken a sustained and shared effort at the reform and renewal of Christian worship. Our Catholic brothers and sisters, long accustomed to an emphasis on Holy Communion, have given renewed attention to the place of Scripture and preaching in worship. United Methodists, with our other Protestant brothers and sisters, have given renewed attention to the place of the sacraments, especially Holy Communion, in worship.

This shared work has resulted in a basic pattern of worship. United Methodists call this pattern "Word and Table." It is outlined on page 2 and given fuller detail on pages 3-5 of The United Methodist Hymnal. We gather in the Lord's name with prayer, praise, and song. We open the Scriptures through reading, preaching, witnessing, music, and the arts. We respond to this proclamation of God's Word in prayer for the world, acts of commitment and faith, and in the offering of ourselves. The Lord's Table is prepared with the gifts of bread and wine. Pastor and people join in the Great Thanksgiving and the Lord's Prayer. Bread is broken, wine is poured, and all share in the holy meal. At the conclusion, we are sent forth in ministry to the world with God's blessing. This pattern reflects in some ways the Emmaus story recounted in Luke 24:13-25. This pattern is also reported in the writing of the second century Christian martyr Justin.

For many United Methodists, this is a shift in the way we worship. Since the time of the American frontier, we have become accustomed to a pattern of worship that included a time of gathering and preparation through prayer, song, and testimony and that reached its high point with the sermon and the invitation to respond to God's grace. The shift to a pattern of "Word and Table" invites us to reclaim a Methodist heritage that understands searching the Scriptures and sharing the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper as "ordinary means of grace" given to the church. Through Word and Table, our concepts, words, and images of God's grace and love for the world lead us to an encounter and experience of that grace and love at the Table of the Lord. If our former pattern of worship left us feeling that Holy Communion was something added to the end of the service, then the Word and Table pattern helps us feel that something is missing when Holy Communion is not celebrated. This is a shift in perspective, even if we do not celebrate the Lord's Supper every week.

Breaking the Word, Interpreting the Loaf

One way for us to think about the relationship between Word and Table is to think about the work of proclaiming and interpreting the Scriptures as a "breaking" of the Word. In reading the Scriptures and exploring their meaning for our lives today, we break them open to find the nourishing and sustaining word of life. Mary Lathbury captured this sense of the nourishing Word in her familiar hymn "Break Thou the Bread of Life"(1877):

Break thou the bread of life, dear Lord, to me,
as thou didst break the loaves beside the sea;
beyond the sacred page, I seek thee, Lord;
my spirit pants for thee, O Living Word!
Bless thou the truth, dear Lord, to me, to me,
as thou didst bless the bread by Galilee;
then shall all bondage cease, all fetters fall;
and I shall find my peace, my all in all.
(see The United Methodist Hymnal, 599)

As we break open the Word to interpret the work of God in the world, we are also interpreting the meaning of what we do when we gather at the Lord's Table. Word and Table call us to remember not only one meal in an upper room, but also a history of meals that God has shared with us. God has been with us in the meal at the oaks of Mamre (Genesis 18), in the manna provided in the wilderness (Exodus 16 and Psalm 95), in the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17), and in the promised banquet as Israel returns from exile (Isaiah 55). God has been with us in the bread broken with the multitudes on the hillside and by the seashore (Mark 6 and 8), in the continued gathering of the church for the breaking of God's Word and sharing of the Lord's Supper (Acts 2:42-47), and in our fellowship meals today. In each time and place, we encounter God in Christ through the Word opened for us; and we are led to an encounter with God in Christ as we share the bread and cup.

Breaking the Loaf, Interpreting the Word

Sharing in Holy Communion is a way in which we interpret the Word. In Word and Table, we are reminded that Jesus is both the Word of God incarnate for our sake (John 1), and the bread of life broken that we might "feed on him in faith." The disciples who encounter Jesus along the Emmaus road (Luke 24:13-35) come to understand that it is Jesus who opens the word to them only when Jesus breaks bread with them. Charles Wesley interpreted the Emmaus story this way:

O Thou who this mysterious bread
didst in Emmaus break,
return, herewith our souls to feed,
and to thy followers speak.
Unseal the volume of thy grace,
apply the gospel word;
open our eyes to see thy face,
our hearts to know the Lord.
(see The United Methodist Hymnal, 613)

The visible actions of taking, blessing, breaking, and giving bread and cup are not only means by which the Word of Scripture is put into action, but also means by which the Word we read and hear is interpreted. As we break the bread and share the cup, our actions interpret what we have heard, said, and prayed in the service of the Word. The Holy Meal makes tangible in touch, taste, sight and smell God's word of grace. With the early Methodists whose mission was to "offer them Christ, " in Word and Table, the Word proclaimed is present to be welcomed, loved and received at the Table. As we gather about the Lord's Table to give thanks, break bread, and pour the cup, our sharing of the Holy Meal breaks open God's word for us, putting into action the Word proclaimed in reading and preaching.

Word and Table combines the strong tradition of our evangelical roots and our deep sense of sacramental piety. God offers a gracious word and invites us, unworthy as we are, to share in a Holy Meal. God feeds our hungry hearts with the Word of life and the bread of life. In Word and Table, we feed on the Living Word and the Living Bread, Jesus Christ.

For Further Reading:

Hoyt Hickman, The Worship Resources of The United Methodist Hymnal(Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989; available from Cokesbury).

Hoyt Hickman, Worshiping with United Methodists(Nashville: Abingdon, 1996; available from Cokesbury).

Laurence Stookey,Eucharist (Nashville: Abingdon.)

James White, The Sacraments in Protestant Faith and Practice(Nashville: Abingdon, 2000).

E. Byron (Ron) Anderson is a clergy member of the Minnesota Annual Conference, where he has served as a local church pastor, musician, and educator.

Categories: Worship, Worship Planning, Sacraments, Holy Communion, Holy Communion - Articles and Papers, General Planning Articles