“…whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.” – 1 Corinthians 3:22-23
God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth. – John 4:24
Pilate said, “So you are a king?” Jesus responded, “You say I am a king. Actually, I was born and came into the world to testify to the truth. All who love the truth recognize that what I say is true.” “What is truth?” Pilate asked. Then he went out again to the people and told them, “He is not guilty of any crime.” – John 18:37-38
Some scholars have compared our post-modern societal trends with the pluralistic culture of the first few centuries A.D., particularly in the Roman Empire. They have shown that in both cultures their exists an relative acceptance of conflicting religious views and a general doubt about what is true and whether we can actually be sure of anything. Now, before I turn you off with something that sounds like dry, academic philosophy, let me make another comparison here. Rome created one of the first world markets and, had they been able to cross the Himalayas or spent more time crossing the Atlantic, they have become a truly global empire. They went out not just as conquerors, but with the intention of sharing their technology with the rest of the “backwater” nations of the world, and left the legacy of paved roads all through Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Northern Africa. In Rome, you were free to worship any way you wanted – provided you were patriotic and worshipped the Emperor first. Caesar was not a jealous god, he just wanted his dues. The Christians who were persecuted in Rome (as opposed to those persecuted by Jews in Jerusalem) were not charged with telling others about non-Roman gods. They were charged with telling others that Caesar and the Roman deities were not gods. From the height of this glory, Rome fell to rubble, much as Jerusalem had many years before it. The Goths from northern Europe burnt it to the ground, yet the fires started within the Roman people, the Roman leaders themselves. Their influence remains today, not for the city itself (which was reborn under Christian leadership), but largely due to their widespread cultural influence.
In this context, both then and now in our world today it seems, the word “worship” becomes emphasized, its importance emphasized over words like “faith”, “doctrine”, “creeds”, and so forth. This means we tend to pick our churches based on whether their worship elements live up to our expectations more than if we buy into their specific theology or religious beliefs. Whether or not, you think that is a good or bad thing, that is the hand we have been dealt and the reality in which we live. Therefore, the question of worship – and specifically how to worship “in spirit and truth” becomes all the more important to us today.
What is worship? Well, we can break it down into a list of activities that are generally accepted as being a part of worship:
- Singing or playing music, especially music that is related to God or spiritual themes
- Praying to God: for ourselves and/or for others
- Reading scripture
- Preaching or listening to preaching
- Spending time in silence and reflection
- Giving a material offering
- Celebrating the sacraments (particularly baptism and the Lord’s Supper)
Besides these generally accept elements, we may also participate in:
- Speaking in tongues
- Rolling on the floor
- Anointing with oil
- Picking up snakes
- Burning incense
- Asking for spiritual commitments
You may laugh at some of these, but all of them have at least a slight basis in Scripture, even if they are only accepted in a very few churches. They also represent a wide variety of worship styles, so that I doubt there is any one particular church that uses all of these elements. Last week in church, I shared that true worship comes in Koinonia, in the spirit of unity as Jesus draws us up to God, and that this is God’s gift to us, not something we do to earn points with our Heavenly Father. That unity, and the true worship that follows does not come by all of us agreeing with one another about everything either, but by a willingness to set our own prejudices, opinions, and agendas (wonderful though they may be) aside and let Jesus lead us (not just me). As He draws us up to God, worship becomes as natural as breathing.
Using Christ-centeredness, or God-centeredness with God as Trinity, which of the activities then are involved in “worship in spirit and truth”? My gut tells me music, especially singing (don’t all worship services involve music?)… and prayer because worshipping God surely means communicating with Him, and probably Scripture reading and preaching if at all possible – because you can’t go wrong bringing in the Bible, right? Let’s pause just a moment though and try leading with our head instead of our gut… or better yet, let’s let God lead, looking at the Scriptures where He spoke about worship.
I realize that there are a lot of ideas about how worship in the Early Church was done, or even during the time that Jesus came in the flesh. However, the history of worship does not begin there, it begins in the Old Testament. When you go back to Genesis, you find worship of God done by creating altars out of uncut stone and offering up animal sacrifices. Prayers of promise and commitment were prayed as well. This worship act however, was not typically one done once per week, but, following the Scripture, seems to be done on an as-needed basis. Much of these acts were probably similar to the way pagan gods were worshipped during the time as well. However, before you throw animal sacrifice out the window entirely, remember that, on Mt. Sinai, it was God who specifically laid out the worship calendar for the Jews and who included animal sacrifices as an integral part of that service. Remember also, that God would not accept just any animal you happen to find on the road on the way to the temple or Tabernacle, but He specifically demanded offerings from the worshipper’s own livestock. Again, prayers were prayed, in some cases music may have even been involved, but not always. The sacrificial offering was the central, and perhaps most important part of Old Testament worship.
As the Early Church began to grow and hold their own worship services, they also incorporated customs from the various areas they were in, including Jerusalem, Samaria, as well as parts of modern day Turkey, India, Ethiopia, Greece, and Italy. However, Acts tells us that the common link between all these varied congregations with varied worship styles was prayer and celebrating the Lord’s supper. Before, the debates arise as to whether you use real wine or juice, or what kind of bread… let us remember that the Lord’s Supper, as first celebrated by Jesus, was a Passover meal – remembering the lamb that was slain so that death would “pass over” the Israelite slaves in Egypt as the nation was judged for their sin. Jesus, in saying “this is my body…” shows them that He is the Passover lamb that is slain so that our sins will be “passed over” or forgiven. So, here again, we have a sacrifice as the central part of worship.
The sacrifice Jesus made for the forgiveness of our sin is hard to conceptually move from 2000 years ago to today, since it was on the cross that the sacrifice was made, not in our church every Sunday mornings, and the Letter to the Hebrews tells us so reminding us that Jesus’ death covers all sin, not just the sin of people of His day, for as death came through one man (Adam) so shall sin be redeemed by one (Jesus). Leviticus helps us out a bit further. If you look closely at the sacrifices offered to God in Leviticus, each has its own particular purpose. One is for healing, one is for thanks, one is for forgiveness… but they all have a similar pattern. The worshipper almost always has to bring 2 separate sacrifices, regardless of the reason. The first sacrifice purifies the worshipper, allowing them access to the Holiness of God’s presence. The second offering is what they bring as their act of worship to the presence of God. Often, the first sacrifice is made at the Temple/Tabernacle door, and the second one is brought inside to the altar. Again Hebrews, and the Letter to the Romans as well, show us that Jesus is that first sacrifice for us, giving us entry into God’s presence by cleansing us from sin and giving us His own righteousness. But once we get there, what do we bring to the altar?
Look at what Paul writes in Romans 12:
“And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice–the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him.” – Romans 12:1 NLT
We are to bring our bodies, and I would suggest our lives themselves as an offering of worship to God. We truly worship God, not through music, prayer, even sacramental rituals (though these all have their place as well). We truly worship God by bringing ourselves and giving ourselves to Him. Now some may try to turn this around and say, yes, I completely agree… and that is why we should play Amazing Grace for every worship service, because I can only completely give myself to God when I’m singing that song – particularly when it’s being played on bagpipes. Let me remind the picky parishioner about where we are when we worship though. Because Christ gave his life as the first sacrifice for us, we are in God’s presence and when the Lord, upon His throne, looks upon us from heaven and asks you what you bring to Him as your act of worship… will you really make excuses and tell God the setting wasn’t quite right for you to “get into” worshipping Him. Even if the person on your right stands up and starts speaking in a strange language and the person on your left starts rolling on the floor… it is not our place to make excuses to God about why we refuse to bring anything, or particularly to bring ourselves (for that is what He truly desires) to the altar as a living sacrifice and as true worship. Worship is not a response to the music, preaching, prayers, or any other piece of the worship service. Worship is, at its core, a response to God’s love for us.
God loves you. What are you going to do about it?