Sunday, February 20, 2011

Stand Up

I wonder how many Presbyterian congregations stand for the reading of the Gospel.

That thought flitted through my mind as I rose from my pew, in the little Lutheran church where I often go, to hear the words of Jesus from Matthew’s Gospel.

I know I had no success with convincing anyone that this was a good idea when I was in the parish, and we almost never performed that ritual gesture.

One time a guest preacher, in blissful ignorance of our wayward ways, asked those who were able to stand for the Gospel, and, wearing puzzled expressions, they did. The next Sunday, I tried to take advantage of that experience and, after full explanation of why, and in hopes of perpetuating it, repeated the request. It was grudgingly obeyed. Further discussion made it clear that more education was necessary. A lot more.

The custom of standing for the reading of the Gospel is usually explained as an ordinary gesture of respect. It’s what mothers used to teach their children at an early age: “When you greet someone, stand up, especially for older or important people.” It doesn’t take much imagination to see that it’s a good idea to be polite and courteous. Being respectful is always a good policy.

In this context, however, there is more. Sure, standing for the Gospel is a sign of respect—but this is not just for the Gospel. It indicates respect for the person of Jesus Christ to be met in that biblical text. The Gospels have a quality not found in any other books of the Bible, even in other New Testament books. They announce the Good News of Jesus Christ by giving the words of Jesus himself, or telling about his earthly ministry. So the Gospel is more than words, it witnesses to the presence of the Word, Jesus himself. Standing to hear the Gospel is showing respect for the Risen Christ.

There’s still more. Standing helps us pay attention to what is being spoken. In a real way, we stand at attention to hear our “marching orders” from the Lord. The Gospel is instructive, then, by setting before us the teaching of Christ, his summons to follow him, and his example of sacrificial love of those who need it most.

So in this one action, rising to our feet as we listen to the Gospel reading, brings us “face-to-face” with the Risen Christ. It is a “sacramental” moment in the order of worship, where we meet our Lord in a very common, ordinary, every-day way.

The other sacramental moment in Lord’s Day worship would be, of course, in the Eucharist. There also, interestingly enough, we stand for the Great Thanksgiving prayer, attentive, alert, preparing to meet Christ in common, ordinary, every-day eating and drinking.

Another related custom you’ll have trouble finding in a Presbyterian church is the “Gospel Procession.” When all are standing, the Bible (or Book of the Gospels) is brought to the floor in the center of the congregation. I’ve witnessed this in Lutheran and Episcopal churches.

We are told that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” (John 1:14) and this ritual dramatizes the truth of it. The Gospel is read not from a distant pulpit or lectern, but from near at hand.

The Gospel Procession also is indication that the Word is not static, not locked away somewhere, but on the move. Coming into our midst, the Good News Proclaimed is to be carried out by each disciple listening to it being proclaimed.

Do you stand for the reading of the Gospel in your church? Have you ever had a Gospel Procession, if not on a regular Sunday, for a special festival or celebration?


  1. Over this past weekend I heard Gordon Lathrop, retired professor of worship at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, lecture on the relationship of the four gospels to the Christian liturgy of Word and Sacrament. In one of the most exciting presentations I have heard in years, he described how the liturgy of the church has always been anchored by the reading from one of the gospels, usually with "ceremonies of intensification," such as standing for the reading, as you describe in this column. I too have experienced resistance to the request that congregants stand. What about trying some other ways of accenting or intensifying the gospel? I don't have any to suggest at the moment, but I endorse the idea.

  2. I received the following email from a friend of mine which offers an interesting alternative:

    Don, In Brunswick, except for extraordinary circumstances, we stand for all the formal readings of scripture,following the pattern of Nehemiah 8. Why only stand for the gospel? SDG,

    Harry This suggests an equal "accent" on all Scripture. There are others, such as myself, who think the four Gospels "out rank" the other books of the New Testament as well as those of the Old Testament. Certainly they are the primary reference given to anyone who wants to know about Jesus and the Christian Faith. They have prime placement in the New Testament, before documents written earlier. There are good reasons, I think, for the custom of standing to hear the Gospel. Thanks, Harry, for sharing your experience.


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