In spirit and truth…
We’ve been talking about spiritual practices for a few weeks now as a series for Lent. We’ve heard that a spiritual practice is something like prayer, seeking God’s will, fasting, and worship. It’s something we do intentionally to make space to keep company with Jesus and learn to know him better. Or, if you prefer, spiritual practices help us to get to age 70 or 50 or 30 without succumbing to crippling cynicism or to terminal grumpiness.
Today, we’re talking about worship as a spiritual practice. Worship as making room for Jesus in our life together here and now.
What is Christian worship? Christian worship is firstly God’s gift to us. As we worship God through his Son Jesus Christ, we are drawn by the Spirit to share the intimate spiritual communion of the three Persons of the Trinity. We learn to know God in his love, which is freely extended from Father to Son to Spirit and all around the circle of the Holy Trinity. We learn to know and feel that love within us and among us. Friends, Christian worship aims high.
What is Christian worship? It is also our response to God. We offer our service to God, in praise and thanksgiving, and in service to others. In this way, the life of God flows through us into the world, in Jesus’ name. Christian worship is linked to our witness and service out in the world.
Christian worship may be God’s gift to us. It may also be our response to God. But sometimes it feels like neither one nor the other. Isn’t that so?
These are the three things I want to look at today: worship as God’s gift; worship as our response; worship that is in spirit and in truth, as Jesus said:
God is spirit,
and those who worship God must worship
in spirit and truth.
Christian worship is a gift of God to us. It isn’t something we just make up as we go along. Worship centres around the greatest gift of God to us: God’s Son, Jesus Christ, who loved us and gave himself for us. Jesus is at the centre of worship, and he comes to us in two key ways.
These two ways are in the Word, and in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
The scriptures bear witness to Christ. He is the Word at the centre. Jesus is the key to interpreting the scriptures. The way we understand scripture is to ask, ‘Is our understanding of this scripture consistent with what we know of Jesus?’ If it isn’t, we need to look again.
The Word comes to us in a number of ways. It may be in the Call to Worship—today, we said Psalm 100 responsively. It’s in the Declaration of Forgiveness—today, it was from 1 John:
If we confess our sins,
God is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins
and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
We read the scriptures, and the sermon is grounded in the scriptures. We hear a verse of scripture as we are sent out into the world. And it all points to Jesus Christ, who is the Word of God who was in the beginning with God.
The other central part of Christian worship is Holy Communion. Christians in the early centuries celebrated it every week. In medieval times, people shared Communion less frequently; that was a great loss. We have inherited that medieval reluctance to celebrate Communion weekly as Christians in earlier times did. Reformers like John Wesley and John Calvin wanted their followers to celebrate Holy Communion every week. In this they were quite unsuccessful, and most of their followers continue to resist.
This holy meal is a meal of thanksgiving. You may hear it called the Eucharist; that’s just Greek for thanks. You’ll hear the word every day if you go to Greece. Or indeed, to certain parts of Melbourne.
This holy meal is not a funeral reception. Jesus isn’t dead. He is alive, in our midst, sharing himself with all who will come in faith. It’s a place of life, of joy. We shouldn’t stay away from this holy supper to which Christ calls us.
With worship in the round, the table is in the centre to remind us that Christ gives himself to us, to recall us, to re-call us back to the self-giving of Jesus. It’s in the centre because that’s where a meal table belongs.
Christian worship is both the gift of God to us and our response to that gift. We respond with our praise and adoration, with our confession and lament, with our prayers for others. We respond with our music and song. Sometimes people call the songs ‘the worship’, as though the rest of the service is something else. They are not the worship, they are one part of our response to God in worship.
We also respond by offering our money to God; but if Christian worship is a spiritual practice, we can’t just offer our money. We must offer our whole selves as well. And we need to offer ourselves to God every single day.
There are attitudes that prevent us from worshipping God in spirit and in truth. Chief among them is an attitude of unforgiveness.
When Jesus teaches his disciples the Lord’s Prayer, he teaches them to say
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
Then he underlines it even more:
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
He also says that we are to forgive one another seventy times seven. In other words, we’re meant to lose count of the sins someone commits against us. We need to learn to forgive others, for our own sake. When we don’t forgive others, we are not open to God’s forgiveness.
A second attitude that bars us from worshipping God in spirit and in truth is asking what I’m getting out of it. It often seems that if someone wants to dismiss a service of worship, all they need to say is, ‘It didn’t do anything for me’, or ‘It didn’t meet my needs.’
The problem with that is that worship isn’t about us. It’s about the triune God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and it centres in Jesus Christ. If worship is centred on Jesus, then Jesus is being glorified. And if Jesus is being glorified, the Father is also glorified and the Spirit is at work. That’s what it’s all about.
Once we put the spotlight on ourselves and our reaction to worship, we lose sight of what it really means. And that’s tragic for the health of God’s Church.
Worship is about God. We’ve already talked about the spiritual practices of prayer and fasting. Remember that fasting creates a hunger, a desire for the thing we’re fasting from, whether that’s food or something else. That hunger is meant to remind that our most basic hunger is one we often forget about: our hunger for God.
Do we hunger for God as we come to worship? If so, we are likely to meet with God. If we’re not hungering for God, it’s no surprise if we come away untouched.
Are we praying daily? If we are, then coming together for worship is just part of our daily pattern. Saving all our prayers for Sunday rarely works well.
Our daily spiritual practice prepares us for the practice of worshipping together. Richard Foster talks about the need to prepare on a Saturday evening. If we’re up until all hours, we aren’t going to be at our best on a Sunday morning.
There’s so much more we can say about worship, but I just want to highlight one more thing. Richard Foster talks about cultivating an attitude of ‘holy dependency’. I like that, I think it’s very important, but I prefer to call it holy openness:
- Openness to what God will say to us as the scriptures are read and preached.
- Openness to receive Christ as he comes to us in Holy Communion.
- Openness to the music, even—and especially—if it’s not what we would choose.
- Openness to the way God’s Spirit moves in a service of worship.
- Openness to our brothers and sisters in the family of faith, from those here with us to those across the world and back through time itself, picking up the treasures of the past as well as the present.
- Openness to what God is doing in the present and wants to do in the future.
An attitude of holy openness is absolutely crucial to worshipping God in spirit and in truth.
Seek to be a true worshipper of the Father, as we gather together to worship him. Seek to be close to Jesus Christ each and every day of your life. Seek the Spirit’s voice, and follow where that voice leads.
The hour is coming, and is now here,
when the true worshippers will worship the Father
in spirit and truth,
for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.