Hearing the Word

On a typical Sunday, we will hear three lessons from the canonical scriptures, one from the Old Testament, one from the Epistles, and one from the Gospels.  In addition, we usually respond to the Old Testament lesson with a recitation from Psalms and we hear the Word preached.

The lessons that are chosen are not random, but are part of a three-year cycle of readings called the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). The RCL was published in 1992 by the Consultation on Common Texts, a forum for consultation on worship renewal among many Christian churches in the US and Canada.  Today, Lutherans, Episcopals, Methodists, Presbyterians, and even the Mennonite Church use these common readings each Sunday.  The ELCA recommends the use of the RCL in its policy statement, The Use of the Means of Grace:

"The use of ELCA-approved lectionaries serves the unity of the Church, the hearing of the breadth of the Scriptures, and the evangelical meaning of the church year."

The RCL is built around the seasons of the Church Year, and includes four lections for each Sunday, as well as additional readings for major feast days. During most of the year, the lections are: a reading from the Old Testament, a Psalm, a reading from the Epistles, and a Gospel reading. During the season of Easter, the Old Testament lesson is usually replaced with one from the Acts of the Apostles, following an ancient church practice. 

The seasons of the Church Year reflect the life of Christ. Consequently, the Gospel lessons for each Sunday provide the focus for that day. The Gospel readings for each year come from one of the synoptic Gospels according to the following pattern:

  • Year A - Matthew
  • Year B - Mark
  • Year C - Luke
  • Readings from the Gospel of John can be found throughout the RCL.

The other lessons for a given day generally have a thematic relationship to the gospel reading for that day, although this is not always the case.  The Old Testament lesson is most likely to have a connection with the Gospel, giving a parallel story or providing background for the Gospel lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures. 

The Epistle Lesson follows the pattern of Lectio Continua, or continuous reading.  In each of the three years, various New Testament books are chosen to be read.  Each week a different section is read in a more-or-less continuous fashion so that over the course of several weeks or months, an entire book will be read aloud in church.  Because of the continuous nature of these readings, they do not always fit thematically with the other readings on a given Sunday.

The Psalm is not a fourth reading, per se.  It is instead a response to the first reading. With it we are given a text from the Word of God to sing or speak together, full of the themes that have been presented in the first reading.  It prepares us to hear the further readings.

Finally, the sermon is preached. The pattern for worship says simply: “Preaching brings God’s word of law and gospel into our time and place to awaken and nourish faith.” The Use of the Means of Grace elaborates: 

"The preaching of the Gospel of the crucified and risen Christ is rooted in the readings of the Scriptures in the assemblies for worship. . . . Preaching is the living and contemporary voice of one who interprets in all the Scriptures the things concerning Jesus Christ [Luke 24:27]. In fidelity to the readings appointed for the day, the preacher proclaims our need of God’s grace and freely offers that grace, equipping the community for mission and service in daily life.”

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