The Four Gospels on Sunday

Last Sunday I was in church, a lot: four different services or events. In one of them I talked with people for a while on the topic "What is the Bible For?" and we had a good, rich discussion. At work today I have had to think about two pieces of work that need completing in the near future. On the one hand I need to write 500 words on 'Saint' Matthew (the ecclesiastically implied author of the first gospel). On the other I need to prepare two talks on Luke and the relevant of his gospel for the church and its mission.

So, it was a pleasure to spend a few minutes finishing off Gordon Lathrop's recent book, The Four Gospels on Sunday: The New Testament and the Reform of Christian Worship (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012). If you read this blog and you don't go to church, you don't need to read any further. But if you do, then I can commend Lathrop's book as a clear and provocative plea for the connection between fully critical biblical interpretation and fully faithful Christian worship. In his words, there is an urgent need for our assemblies to become coherent with the Gospels (p.209). In his own unique way (and Lathrop has as unique a prose style as any theologian writing today; you will either love it or hate it) he makes the cause for putting the Gospels at the heart of worship; as the beasts that surround the Lamb. More importantly, Lathrop shows what this might mean in terms of liturgical reform. The constructive liturgical proposals emerge out of a scholarly approach to the gospel narratives and so, for me at least, are particularly satisfying. But the satisfaction is made more complete by the fact that Lathrop is insistent that liturgical reform shaped by the gospels is neither a call backwards to expressions of worship from another time, not is it a call away from the specific historical, social and cultural constraints that constitute the church's current diversity.

Here are two quotations to whet your appetite from the concluding sections:

"The kind of biblically grounded reform we want to consider in our assemblies is no longer the recovery of a golden age of liturgy nor the assertion of a single model of practice. It will not be built on either romanticism or modernism. It also ought not be built on biblical literalism or biblical naivete. Rather, all of our diverse assemblies need to be invited to use the Bible faithfully, which is to say not as a law code nor as a history book but as scripture, as grounds for the encounter with the triune God in assembly. Such faithful use means employing the biblical symbols in support of Christian faith and engaging the biblical texts in a dialogue of critique with our assemblies." (p.197)

"The recovered central matters of the church; the accent on the presence of the risen one in those central matters; the mystery of the Trinity understood as the mystery of the assembly's gathering and the assembly's sacraments; the continually recovered poetics of parataxis and juxtaposition; and renewed work on the strong center and open door of our meetings—such are some characteristics of a biblical-liturgical movement in our time that will have learned from the Gospels and their coherence with assemblies.

This movement will, first of all, be concerned with what happens on Sunday, when the Gospels are read in assembly. At the heart of the proposals from the Gospels to this assembly, we have seen, again and again, this urging: the risen one, the one around whom the meeting gathers, is the crucified one. Mark, by means of the secret and the ring construction, asserted this identity of the risen one already, echoing Paul (Mark 16:6; cf.1 Cor. l:23; 2:2) and establishing the Gospel purpose and the Gospel genre. But the same assertion, the same refusal to forget the cross, is there, also for example, in Matthew's image of the last judgment and Luke's image of the serving Lord. The same assertion recurs in the risen one showing his wounds in John. Why does this matter so much? Why is it the constant theme of all four Gospels? Not because it means to center our assemblies on a cult of violence. On the contrary. Rather, the repeated Gospel interest in proclaiming the crucified risen one means to anchor our assemblies in truth telling about our sin and death and, at the same time, truth telling about who God is. The resurrection is not a fairy tale nor a wish dream. It is an encounter with the God who takes on the awful need of the world and transforms our place of death into the place of life. Because of this repeated theology of the cross, the Sunday assemblies are called to let the words of the meeting tell the truth, the prayers of the meeting be for far more than ourselves, the meal of the meeting proclaim Jesus' death as life giving and so also remember the poor, the bath that constitutes the meeting be seen as a bath that makes us dirtier with the needs of all of our neighbors, the boundaries of the meeting be porous, the tone of the meeting be deeply joyful while avoiding triumphalism, and the leadership of the meeting serve." (pp.204–205)

Lectionary preachers and worship leaders might read this book as a way of stepping back from the week to week task of preparing to lead and preach within the assembly. Many New Testament scholars might want to see the way that Lathrop has connected exegesis to issues of liturgical practice. Thoroughly recommended.