And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. -Justin the Martyr
Okay, maybe we don’t read, as Justin suggests, for as long as time permits. After all, wouldn’t it be easy to get carried away and read the Bible for the whole day?! Yet, we do hear four different texts from the Bible on Sunday morning. These readings prescribed by the Revised Common Lectionary, which has its own interesting history, form the basis for the liturgical year. Even more interesting to me, are the relationships between these 4 readings that help us proclaim the gospel.
Old Testament and Psalm
The first reading is most often from the Old Testament. Whether a part of a narrative, a prophecy, or some commandments from God, this is our first glimpse into the theme for a given Sunday. It is followed immediately by the song of all the gathered people Justin the Martyr has mentioned (that’s us!). This song, the Psalm, acts as a direct response to the first reading. For example, on August 5th we hear Nathan’s rebuke of David for taking Uriah’s wife after causing his death. We place ourselves within the story then when we sing Psalm 51 saying, “Have mercy on me, o God, according to your unfailing love” and “Create in me a clean heart, o God.” David’s sins become our sins and we pray to God for forgiveness as David did.
The reading from the Gospel, usually relates to the themes found in the first reading and psalm. Often we’ll hear something of Jesus’ teaching on the subject. Other times, the Gospel may be tangentially related or a solution to a problem raised in the earlier readings. Again, on August 5th, Jesus teaches he is the bread of life and that forgiveness and wholeness come from him. So, after praying to God to make us whole, we hear that David is restored, and so are we, through God’s great mercy in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus we enact every Sunday.
This leaves the second reading, which usually comes from one of the epistles (letters to the early churches). These readings usually work through one of these epistles over the course of a number of weeks and do not intentionally relate directly to the themes found in the other readings. Why read them, then? These epistle readings often offer concrete advice for dealing with a variety of relational issues or they may clarify a theological point. Personally, I find it interesting to note that the early church dealt with many of the same issues we deal with today and I find some of the wisdom of the apostle Paul and other writers to be invaluable on the journey of faith.
So, each of the four readings on Sunday come together to form something that is larger than their individual offerings. The Old Testament and Psalm pairing draw us into the theme for the day, making these stories our stories. The New Testament reading shows us that the church has always been the church and though we may feel we’re dealing with new problems, there’s nothing new under the sun. Finally, the reading from one of the four Gospels will offer another insight into the themes we have been drawn into at the beginning of our reading. The four readings on Sunday work together as a feast, with a little something for all who have gathered, whether from the city or the country.