Sermon for Easter 4
In our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we catch a glimpse of the early Church daily gathering with one another around “the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers”. And this group of people, who gather together for worship, grow in love and concern for one another—and for those outside. They reached out to meet the needs of the poor, and they spread the good news to the world.
Let’s just note this for today: people who gather to worship the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ grow in love and concern for one another.
It’s beautiful, this picture of the infant Church daily worshipping together. It’s a picture that has inspired me to value common worship together with the people of God as my highest calling, whatever part I play in that worship. In the service I exercise as a minister of the Word, I value leading the people of God in common worship, communal worship, above all else. It’s very dear to my heart.
You may see then that for me it’s not just a small issue that after our service today, we’re meeting to discuss whether we have one or two morning services here at Centenary. So I want to speak about worship today.
I want mainly to speak about worship as our service. Those of you who are as old or older than I am may remember a delightful old name for Sunday worship: that delightfully quaint name is ‘Divine service’.
I don’t want to say the old ways were best because often they weren’t at all; but I do wish we still spoke about Divine service. If we can’t resurrect that old name, I’m glad that we can still speak of a service of worship. We lose something when we forget that worship is service. And even if we don’t use the name, it’s Divine service—as we worship, we’re primarily serving God.
In Divine service, we are glorifying God, and putting God in the proper place at the heart of everything as the Source of life and love and grace. To magnify God is our purpose in gathering here.
We don’t come here as we’d go to a concert, or a play. We don’t go to be part of an audience. And we don’t gather to meet our own needs, as consumers of ‘religion’. Yet something wonderful happens: as we unite to glorify God, we find that we are built up together in faith and hope and love.
There’s another, second meaning to the name ‘Divine service’. Firstly, it’s where we serve God; but secondly, it’s also where—amazingly!—God serves us. It’s a place where God remakes us into the people we are meant to be. When we worship the living God in the power of the Spirit, we are being remade in the image of Christ. And we’re growing in love and concern for one another.
Of course, people don’t just worship God. We can worship other things, idols like money, fame, sex, success. The thing is, whatever we worship forms our identity. The Old Testament words in Psalm 135 about worshipping idols apply to our modern idols:
The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but they do not speak;
they have eyes, but they do not see;
they have ears, but they do not hear,
and there is no breath in their mouths.
Those who make them
and all who trust them
shall become like them.
Those who worship idols shall become like them. Worship forms our identity. We need to worship God to have a godly identity, an identity as people who serve God in worship. And to have an identity as people who serve one another as we join together to worship God.
We live much of the time as consumers. In fact, consumerism has become an idol. Living as we do in a consumer society, it’s all too tragically easy to identify first and foremost as consumers. You know, a consumer says, ‘I like going to that shop because it’s cheap, and I go to this shop because the service is good.’ A consumer chooses where they go, what they buy and what they do. It’s their right.
A consumer is not a servant. Consumers expect to be served. Our hearts are formed by the idol of consumerism. They’re formed by the consumer society before we even have a chance to realise what’s going on. Yet when we worship the living God, our identity as a consumer is challenged. God says No! to consumerism in worship.
As servants, we can’t pick and choose, we can’t say, “I’ll have some of this in worship, but none of that, thank you very much.” We can’t pick and choose which bits we take, and which bits we leave, because we don’t gather here as consumers.
Servants serve, that’s what they do. A servant has to do something. If we gather as a community of servants whose purpose is to glorify God, then each and every one of us has a part to play.
Some parts seem obvious. Mine, for instance. The Bible readers. The AV people. The musicians and singers. Those who greet us at the door, or make morning tea. The people who prepare Holy Communion. Although, of course, each of these parts needs to be service, and not a way of promoting ourselves. Each of these parts is meant to build up the body of Christ in faith, hope and love. We who are ‘up front’ are meant to decrease, not increase. We are meant to point to the Lord.
Yet most parts in the service are less than obvious, but equally essential. What about the part we play when we’re not ‘up front’, when we’re ‘just part of the congregation’?
The part most of us play in a service of worship includes:
- to give ourselves to God wholeheartedly through the service of worship
- to participate—to sing, to join the responses, to say ‘Amen’ at the end of a prayer (how many of us do that?)
- to be attentive—to listen
- to encourage those who are ‘up front’, by smiling, singing, nodding (not nodding off!).
Let me expand on singing. It’s been an issue here. Most of us sing, but there are those who sing some kinds of music, but not others. And some seem to glare crossly rather than look encouraging when they’re not singing.
Friends, consumers can choose what they sing, and what they refuse to sing. Worshippers who are here to serve and grow in the likeness of Jesus Christ play their part, including by singing. They and give themselves to the worship of God with a full heart.
There are those who don’t like contemporary songs, and those who don’t like the hymns. We try to have music here that reflects the makeup of the congregation, so we’re bound to have some music that an individual likes and some they don’t like. But I ask my fellow-servants the musicians to play a variety of music, and I ask my fellow-servants the congregation to sing a variety of music.
I’ve been on a journey with this. Let me tell you about my story: When I first came to Centenary as a member, sitting in the pews, I didn’t like the music. It wasn’t what I was used to at all. I confess that I didn’t always sing. But one day, I realised that I was actually enjoying the music, and I’d been enjoying it for a while. I had to think what had changed in me. I realised that I had begun to love the musicians and all the people of this congregation. And now I loved the people, I appreciated the music.
Remember: people who gather to worship the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit grow in love and concern for one another. And, let me say, in appreciation for them.
What am I saying? That people who don’t sing certain types of song are not loving? Well, I am publicly confessing that was once my position. It may be someone else’s too. But I’m well aware there may be a variety of reasons for not singing. You may have a sore throat. You may think you can’t sing—well, join the club, neither can I!—but that’s no excuse for not making a joyful noise to the Lord.
And I’m not saying we all have to like every song we sing or play. That’s not possible, in such a diverse congregation.
I am saying that when I first came here eight years ago, when for various reasons I didn’t have a heart to love the members of this congregation, I often didn’t sing. And perhaps more importantly for me: I am saying that if I’d never found that heart to love this congregation, I would never have accepted a call to minister here.
Now I have that heart, I’ll sing.
And I am saying this: to really participate in worship as servants of God and of one another, we need to have hearts that are open to one another. I’m suggesting a start today:
Soon, we are going to join in our prayer of confession, and that will be followed by the passing of the Peace. The Peace is not really about catching up with friends and having a nice chat, though most of us probably know that temptation. So when you pass the peace today, don’t just pass it to the usual people.
The Peace is really about reconciliation. It might be about saying ‘sorry’ to someone. It might be about squeezing their hand a bit harder than usual, or giving them a good hug. It might be about passing the peace to someone you suspect thinks differently about things to you. It might be about saying to someone, Let’s have a chat after church, I’d like to get to know you better.
I think we are at a time when it’s important for us to hear the stories of people we may not know very well. I think it’s time we moved away from thinking of ‘us’ and ‘them’. As the Aussie author Tim Winton says in one of his books (Cloudstreet), “It’s us and us and us.”
What have we said today? We gather to worship as fellow servants of God, and of each other. We are definitely to leave the consumer mentality at the door.
We’ve said that when people who gather to worship the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, they grow in love and concern for one another.
We’ve said that we each have a role in a service of worship, and we are to give ourselves to our role with our whole heart. And, when we worship the living God, we then become more the people God has destined us to be in Jesus Christ. Let’s begin again today.