Why We Do What We Do: THE SURSUM CORDA

WHY WE DO WHAT WE DO: The Sursum Corda

“Lift up your hearts!” “We lift them up to the Lord!” We say these words every Lord’s Day as we prepare to receive the bread and wine in Holy Communion. This responsive refrain is known as the Sursum Corda, which is simply Latin for “Lift up your hearts.” Why we do this? Where did this tradition come from, and what does it mean? Here are a few reasons why we say the Sursum Corda every Lord’s Day in the Divine Service.

The Sursum Corda is biblical

When we say the Sursum Corda, we can be confident that we are using biblical language.  In Psalm 25, David begins his prayer by saying, “To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul.” In Psalm 86, he says, “Gladden the heart of your servant, for to you, O LORD, do I lift up my soul.” And in Psalm 143, he says, “Make me know the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul.” The Hebrew expression “lift up” essentially means to cry out for or set one’s heart on something. David uses this expression in the Psalms to describe his desire to worship the Lord and commune with him. Jeremiah uses the same phrase in Lamentations: “Let us lift up our hearts and hands to God in heaven” (3.41). The Sursum Corda, then, is biblical language that expresses the longing of our hearts to commune with God. It is an appropriate prayer as we prepare to come to the Table of our Lord.

The Sursum Corda is historical

The church has used the Sursum Corda in worship since at least the early third century. We find references to it in the writings of several early church fathers. For example, Cyprian (c.210-258), the bishop of Carthage, said in his treatise on the Lord’s Prayer: Let every carnal and worldly thought depart, and let the mind dwell on nothing other than that alone for which it prays. Therefore, the priest also before his prayer prepares the minds of the brethren by first uttering a preface, saying: ‘Lift up your hearts,’ so that when the people respond: ‘We lift them up to the Lord,’ they may be admonished that they should ponder on nothing other than the Lord.” We find similar statements in the writings of Hippolytus of Rome (170-235), Cyril of Jerusalem (c.313-386), and Augustine of Hippo (354-430).

In the sixteenth century, the Protestant Reformers did not condemn the Sursum Corda. To the contrary, John Calvin (1509-1564) recognized the wisdom in this ancient practice, especially in connection to the Lord’s Supper. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin said,

For, in order that pious souls may duly apprehend Christ in the Supper, they must be raised up to heaven…It was established of old that before consecration the people should be told in a loud voice to lift up their hearts. Scripture itself also not only carefully recounts to us the ascension of Christ, by which he withdrew the presence of his body from our sight and company, to shake from us all carnal thinking of him, but also, whenever it recalls him, bids our minds be raised up, and seek him in heaven, seated at the right hand of the Father.

The Sursum Corda is helpful

God calls us to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Col 3.1). The Sursum Corda helps us do this. We pray it in faith, trusting in God’s promise that as surely as we receive the bread and wine at the Table, so too we receive the body and blood of Christ in heaven. By saying the Sursum Corda, we acknowledge the mystery of the sacrament, and trust that the Holy Spirit will cause us to commune with our ascended Savior. It is not an empty ritual or just something else to do in worship. The Sursum Corda is nothing less than Christ’s flock crying to their Shepherd, preparing to be fed.

So, come, believing sinners, let us lift up our hearts to the Lord!

~ Pastor Brown

Why We Pray the Lord's Prayer

Why do we pray the Lord’s Prayer in the worship every week? Here are four reasons why:  

1.       Jesus taught us this prayer.

When Jesus’ disciples said, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11.1), he gave them this prayer as a model (cf. Matt 6.5-15). Jesus knows that because of our frailty and sinfulness, we can find prayer to be difficult. When we pray this prayer in faith, we can be comforted to know that we are praying the very prayer that the Son of God – our Prophet, Priest and King – taught us to pray. As John Calvin noted, “we know we are requesting nothing absurd, nothing strange or unseemly – in short, nothing unacceptable to him – since we are asking in his own words.”

 2.       The Lord’s Prayer provides us with an outline for our prayers.

Our prayers can easily become scattered and disorganized in thought. Sometimes we do not even know what to pray. Praying the Lord’s Prayer in worship each week helps us. It structures and shapes our personal communication with our heavenly Father. Each petition of the Lord’s Prayer is like a box that can be unpacked in adoration, thanksgiving, confession, petition and intercession.

 3.       The Lord’s Prayer helps children to participate in public worship.

Like confessing our faith in the creed, praying the Lord’s Prayer together during the service allows our children an opportunity to be involved in worship. From their earliest years, they become familiar with the practice of uniting with God’s people in one voice on the Lord’s Day. The petitions of the Lord’s Prayer teach them about God and his kingdom, and about our dependence on him. Parents can use the Heidelberg Catechism (QQ. 116-129) to explain each line of the prayer. Don’t underestimate the cumulative effect this can have on our children. They grow up learning how to pray, and develop hearts that worships with understanding.

 4.       The Lord’s Prayer gives us continuity with the historic Christian church.

The Lord’s Prayer is found in the liturgies of the historic Christian church. Early church fathers such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Cyprian wrote expositions and treatises on the Pater Noster (Lord’s Prayer). It was also used regularly throughout the Middle Ages and continued during the Reformation. The liturgies drafted by Protestant Reformers Martin Bucer (1539), John Calvin (1542), Thomas Cramner (1552), and John Knox (1556) included the Lord’s Prayer as an ordinary part of weekly worship. At no time was this practice deleted from the service. In reforming worship, the Reformers sought to remove superstition and idolatry, but hold fast to all things biblical and helpful. This included the Lord’s Prayer. This is why the Westminster Assembly’s Directory for the Public Worship of God commended the Lord’s Prayer as a liturgical practice: “And because the prayer which Christ taught his disciples is not only a pattern of prayer, but itself a most comprehensive prayer, we recommend it also to be used in the prayers of the church.”

May we, as disciples of our Lord, make diligent use of the model prayer he gave us. May we pray it in faith, and may it shape our communication with our heavenly Father.

~ Pastor Brown

Why We Do What We Do: The Benediction

Why does the minister raise his hands at the end of the worship service and pronounce a blessing on the people of God? Where does this practice come from? Many Christians are unclear on the meaning of the benediction and treat it as little more than a pious way of saying, “That’s all folks. The service is over.”

The benediction is God’s good word to us. That’s essentially what benediction means. It is a compound word from Latin: bene, which means ‘good,’ and dicere, which means ‘to speak.’ From that comes the Latin word benedictio, which means “blessing.” It is a pronouncement of God’s blessing upon his people.

This practice originated in the old covenant. The Lord commanded Aaron, the high priest, to bless the people with these 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” (Num 6.24-26). The high priest would lift his hands in a posture of peace. His hands were empty, meaning that God holds no weapon against his people as he pronounces his blessing of peace upon them.

Christ himself did the same just before his ascension into heaven (Luke 24.50). Now, in the new covenant, Christ blesses us in his name. The name of the LORD (YHWH) is more fully manifested in that name above every name: the Lord Jesus Christ, YHWH Incarnate. It is into this name that the Christian is baptized, and through him that we are the recipients of God’s grace. This is why the benedictions in the New Testament usually emphasize the name of Christ (see Rom 16.20; 1 Cor 16.23; 2 Cor 13.14; Gal 6.18; Eph 6.24; Phil 4.23; 1 Thes 5.28; 2 Thes 3.18; Heb 13.20-21; 1 Pet 4.14; Rev 22.21).

Each week, our great High Priest in heaven sends us an ambassador to pronounce his blessing upon us. A minister of the Gospel has been given the responsibility to lift his hands and declare the blessing of Christ to the people of Christ. The minister is not the source of the blessing; Christ is. And yet, Christ uses human means by the power of the Holy Spirit to bring that blessing to his people. This has been the practice in the church since the days of the apostles, and it continued during the early church, medieval era, Protestant Reformation, and into the present day.

This is God’s final word to us in the covenant assembly of worship. God tells us that, because of Christ, we are not under his judgement, but under his grace and the objects of his love. The benediction is God’s holy announcement that our whole life is covered by his grace.

How we need to hear this each week! We live in a world where things are uncertain. Any number of tragedies can befall us at any given time. But whatever may happen in your life, whatever set of circumstances you may face, know this: the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ will be with you. His grace is sufficient for you. He will hold you, sustain you, and even enable you to rejoice in tribulation. His grace will strengthen you, establish you, keep you, and cause you to persevere to the end. He will see you through and cause you to attain the resurrection from the dead. This is God’s Word to you in the benediction. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.

~ Pastor Brown

Why We Do What We Do: WORSHIP

At Christ URC, we've begun a column in our Lord's Day bulletin called "Why We Do What We Do," exploring the biblical principles of worship, particular parts of our liturgy, the significance of the church calendar, and the historic practices of the Christian church in the ancient, medieval, and Reformation periods. Each article will be around 500 words and will be posted here on our website after the Lord's Day.  

Let’s begin by thinking about the big picture. What is worship? And why do we gather together every week to worship God? These are important questions, for worship is at the very core of our reason for being. To understand what worship is and why we do it, we need to first remember who made us and why. The Bible reveals that we worship God because God created us to worship him. As the Heidelberg Catechism summarizes so well, “God created man good and in his own image, that is, in true righteousness and holiness, so that he might truly know God his creator, love him with all his heart, and live with him in eternal happiness for his praise and glory” (HC Q.6; see also Gen 1.26-27; Eph 4.24; Rev 4.11). God made us to worship him!

Have you ever wondered why there are so many different religions in the world? Everywhere on earth, during any period of time, we find humans worshiping something. There are churches, temples, altars, and meeting places for meditation in every part of the world. Why? The answer is that we are hardwired to worship God. It is build-in to our nature as human beings. The problem is that this natural drive to worship God is distorted by our sin causing us to worship the wrong thing. We “suppress the truth,” as the apostle Paul says in Romans 1, exchanging “the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Rom 1.18-23). This is deadly, for worshiping anything other than our Creator invites God’s wrath.

But God has graciously provided a remedy to this problem by providing us with his Son. Christ has not only reconciled us to God through his life, death, and resurrection, cancelling our debt and earning for us eternal life, but has also provided us with the opportunity to worship the Father “in spirit and truth” (John 4.21-24). Having fulfilled all the type and shadow of Old Covenant worship, Christ has inaugurated the New Covenant. God’s people no longer gather in the temple to worship him with the sacrifice of animals, for Christ “has entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (Heb 9.12).

God still calls his people to worship him in the New Covenant. We gather on the Lord’s Day to devote ourselves “to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2.42). We are to “offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name” (Heb 13.15). The weekly worship service is the place where God meets his people. He speaks to us in his Word and Sacraments, and we respond in prayer, confession, and song. He stoops down to feed our souls, strengthen our faith, and build us up as the body of Christ. We come ready to hear, ready to receive, and ready to please him. 

~ Pastor Brown

Epiphany: Worshiping Christ is the response of true faith

Today is Epiphany, a day that many in the Christian church observe in remembrance of Christ’s first appearance to the Gentiles, which were the magi. Epiphany has been on the church calendar since at least the fourth century. But who were the magi, those mysterious travelers from the east who showed up in Jerusalem looking for “he who has been born king of the Jews”? What place do they have in the unfolding drama of redemption?

We’ve all seen manger scenes that show three wise men gathered in a stable with Mary, Joseph, and some shepherds - whether it be the modern ones that appear every Christmas or ancient ones, like the 14th century painting above by Giotto. We may also be familiar with the old Christmas carol, “We Three Kings.” In reality, the facts about these magi have been obscured in the folklore that has overshadowed the biblical record in Matthew 2.1-12. It’s important that we separate legend from fact.

First, Scripture never says that there were three wise men. Matthew tells us that there were three different types of gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh – but not that there were three wise men. It is far more likely that they numbered more than three, given the long journey they made from the east. They came from the Parthian Empire, which was beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire. Crossing dangerous and lawless lands, they undoubtedly traveled with a large number of assistants and guards. They probably resembled a small army, making their arrival to Jerusalem very noticeable.  

Second, despite what is sung in the popular Christmas carol, the magi were not kings. From what we know about the magi, both from the Old Testament as well as ancient Persian and Babylonian texts, the magi were assistants to kings and rulers. They were a priestly caste in Babylon and Persia practicing an ancient form of Zoroastrianism, which was the official religion in Persia from about the 6th century BC onward. They were experts in the science of astronomy, but blended it with the superstition of astrology. They were specialists in dream interpretation, wizardry, and magic. But they also served as scientists, mathematicians, doctors, and legal experts. They were considered the leading scholars in Babylon and Persia, and were the advisors to kings and rulers, and partly responsible for choosing the kings of Parthia.

This is why Herod treads carefully when speaking to them. He doesn’t throw them in prison or have them executed because he knows this could invite the wrath of the Parthians. Instead he took the diplomatic approach. He assumed that these magi served as advisors to high officials.

Remember when Nebuchadnezzar had his dream? He assembled his magi and asked for an interpretation. Later he made Daniel the chief prefect over all the magi in Babylon. This may provide a clue as to how the magi in Matthew 2 knew about the birth of the Davidic King. It very well may have been a prophecy they discerned from the days of Daniel.

They also expected a star at his birth. Numbers 24.17 reads, “A star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.” As scholars of ancient texts, the magi evidently knew this prophecy. This Old Testament text provides some background to what the magi say when arriving in Jerusalem: “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

The star that these magi saw was probably not a natural phenomenon like a comet or supernova, but a supernatural revelation by God, leading them to Christ. Just as God led Israel through the wilderness, appearing as a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, he led these magi to the place where Christ was born. Whatever it was that they saw, it “went before them,” as v.9 says, “until it came to rest over the place where the child was.”

They followed the star to a house, not a stable or inn. “And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him.” The magi saw Jesus when he was only a baby or toddler, and yet they believed the promises. They worshiped him as a king. They presented him with costly treasures, as gifts of honor and devotion: Gold, the most precious metal then known to man, was a common symbol of royalty; frankincense, an expensive and fragrant resin, was used as incense on the altar in the temple; and myrrh, a curious gift for a newborn king, often used as a stimulant and anesthetic. When Jesus was crucified, he was offered a myrrh and wine mixture to dull the pain, but he refused it.

These were very costly gifts, which, providentially, were likely used to finance Joseph and Mary’s flight to Egypt. They were acts of devotion. They were acts of worship. And worship is the response of true faith.

True faith in Christ leads one to worship Christ. Like these magi, the one who loves Christ and acknowledges him as Lord, bows before him in worship. He cannot be stopped; he must come to Christ. These magi traveled a long way. If they came from Babylon by the main trade route, it meant they crossed at least 800 miles. If they averaged 20 miles a day (the norm in the ancient world), it took them about 40 days. It was costly and inconvenient. We often fail to appreciate the cost, fatigue, and danger involved in travel in the ancient world. Yet, they were determined to come and adore he who would be given the throne of his father David.

As the 19th century Anglican pastor J.C. Ryle put it, the faith of the magi “deserves to be placed side by side with that of the penitent thief. The thief saw someone dying the death of a criminal, and yet prayed to him, and ‘called him Lord.’ The wise men saw a baby on the lap of a poor woman, and yet worshiped him, and confessed that he was Christ…Let us walk in the steps of their faith. Let us not be ashamed to believe in Jesus and confess him, though all around us remain indifferent and unbelieving. Have we not a thousand times more evidence than the wise men had, to make us believe that Jesus is the Christ?”

May we have faith like the magi and worship Christ the Lord.

Happy Epiphany,
Pastor Brown