Tuesday, May 29, 2012

"Last Words" - Part Two

Reading my previous post, a finicky critic would insist that one cannot have two sets of “last words”—one must be penultimate or next-to-last, if the other will be the final words.

So let’s be clear at the top that both the Charge and what follows (the Blessing) go together to make up the last words of a Christian worship service, à la the Presbyterian model in the Book of Common Worship (1993). The Charge and Blessing are a matched set.

In fact, the Charge without the Blessing is only a string of biblical instructions, hortatory commands that may or may not be obeyed. It is not intended, however, that anyone should take these on as a solo act. God does not send people into the world’s wilderness alone or empty-handed. The Blessing conveys God’s presence and power so we can live out the Charge.

“Blessing” is the term used in the BCW replacing the more common term “Benediction.” The two words are not exactly interchangeable, although they carry much the same impact.

A “benediction” is literally a “good word” transmitting essentially “good wishes”. Of course in the setting of Christian worship it carries much more freight than that. At the conclusion of the service the presider is not simply saying, “Good-bye and good luck.” Yet it’s possible to be delivered as a casual comment and heard as such.

The words of the Benediction are scriptural, and suggest therefore that this is not a mere pastoral send-off, but a communication of a good word from no less than God, a form of the Good News of Jesus Christ. There is nothing mundane and ordinary here, but the conferring of an extraordinary gift.

Enter the substitute word, “blessing”, which has a much broader significance. All wrapped up in this word are ideas like a special favor granted, perhaps a gift bestowed, a sign of mercy passed from one person to another. In the context of our worship, of course, these are all conferred by God.

These are the words of empowerment. By the Blessing of God, we are given the wherewithal to accomplish what the Charge requires of us.

The most common text used in this fashion is Paul’s parting line from his Second Letter to the Corinthians (13:13):

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

I’d suspect that a fair number of sermons are preached on this text—and if not, they should be. At least the verse warrants some explanation or interpretation from time to time so that folks don’t just listen without hearing what it says. “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ” conjures up the whole life and ministry of God, and his gracious, forgiving, healing presence with us. “The love of God” speaks of power of good over evil, of life over death, a divine love (agape) we are able to live out. “The communion of the Holy Spirit” witnesses to the strength of the Spirit in which we share as God’s own people.

The other Blessings collected in the BCW (pp. 83 and 161) similarly send us forth with the confidence of faith, the assurance of God’s presence as we step out the church door to follow our Lord in the mission to which we have been charged.

There is a caveat, however, something for presiders to beware.

My seminary training far back in the last century included directions of how to pronounce the benediction (as it was termed then). The preacher was to raise an arm and outstretch the hand in a gesture simulating the laying on of hands. I remember the commentary that went with it: this is the last vestige of the priestly function of the clergy, the only time we are in that role.

Over the years I became less than comfortable with that posture and thought. It came to pass that I would speak the blessing with arms open wide, palms up, welcoming God’s gift for the whole congregation. We need to be clear that the Blessing is not the clergy’s to give, but God’s for the whole worshipping community to receive.

If it’s the Charge that sends us on God’s mission in this world, it’s God’s Blessing that makes us bold and brave, willing to take risks with our Lord. After all, we are not ever alone in God’s service, never left to our own devices and desires, but challenged and raised up to a new life in Christ.

Rather than stay standing after the Blessing, perhaps we do better to be seated in silence for a moment or two, just to mull over not only what we are called to do and be, but the encouragement those last words are for each of us. Music can lead the procession out, underscoring the inspiration of the last words.

What Blessing (or Benediction) is used in your church? Is it scriptural? Does it follow a Charge?

1 comment:

  1. I once heard a pastor offer as his "benediction," "Go have your cake and eat it, too." I kid you not. I shudder still to think about it. I think the intent was to say something about God sending us forth to enjoy life's blessings (which is also not the point of the dismissal rite), but, still....

    I like your commentary on the physical posture, although I admit I still bow my head and stretch out both hands in the "laying on of hands" way of thinking you mention. Assuming the congregation is familiar with the laying on of hands as an act by which people are set apart and commissioned for service, I find it a very appropriate gesture for the dismissal. You're quite right, though, it shouldn't be understood as a pronouncement of my blessing, but God's.


Thanks for joining in the conversation!