Steps of Discipleship: Celebrate (Worship puts life in perspective)
Sunday, September 24, 2006
Acts 2: 41-47
Acts 2 disciples have five practices in our lives – learning, fellowship, worship, mission and evangelism.
We may not do all five with equal intensity at any one time, but over the long haul, our lives will include all five.
Three of these – learning, fellowship and worship are inwardly focused. We do these things for the sake of our own souls and spiritual wellbeing. Two are outwardly focused – mission and evangelism – which we do for the sake of others.
The question I want to ask this morning is why worship? If someone asked us why we go to church to worship on Sunday mornings, what would we say?
Worship was clearly a central part of the Acts 2 church. Acts 2 says this first group of disciples worshipped corporately – “They spent much time together in the temple.” (Acts 2: 46). They also worshipped together in smaller groups: “They devoted themselves to…the breaking of bread [an early form of communion] and the prayers.” (Acts 2: 42)
To explore this, I’ve suggested that we turn to Romans, Chapter 12.
Romans 12 is about spiritual worship. It begins with that wonderful sentence which I grew up with in church camp and youth fellowship: “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (Romans 12:1)
The Apostle Paul, who wrote the book of Romans, was an intuitive thinker. He leapt from idea to idea in flashes of insight. We can discover what he meant by spiritual worship by following his intuitive leaps.
Talking about spiritual worship he leaps to this idea in Romans 12: 3: “I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought …”
One of the purposes of worship is to help us not think of ourselves more highly than we ought. The very act of presuming the possibility that there is a God to worship helps us be aware that we are not God. It puts our own being into perspective.
Life is much bigger than we are. None of us decided when or where we would be born into the stream of human history. We were dropped into life at a time and a place over which we have no control. We have relatively little control over how long we will live. We are limited and finite.
Countless lives have been lived before us and, pray to God, countless lives will be lived long after we are gone. No one of us can save the world. Our contributions to humanity, no matter how large, are small in terms of the scope of existence. We find our life’s meaning – if we find it – in the flow of humanity of which we are a part.
We are not God. In worship we seek to open ourselves so that we might attune ourselves to movements, to longings, to hopes that are larger than ourselves. Otherwise life is too petty and egocentric and small…unless we can see ourselves as part of something larger than we are.
I often quote Reinhold Niebuhr:
“Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime;
Therefore we are saved by hope.
Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history;
Therefore, we are saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone;
Therefore we are saved by love.
No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own;
Therefore, we are saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.”
Worship helps us not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought. We are not God. Our lives are part of a larger whole. Worship helps us put our lives in context.
Then Paul makes another intuitive leap in Romans 12. From spiritual worship, to not thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought in Romans 12: 3, to Romans 12: 9-12, one of the truly beautiful passages of Scripture.
“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.” (Romans 12: 9-12)
Worship is a glimpse of the genuine, the good, the true, the beautiful, the just, and the loving. Worship is a glimpse of the Realm of God. It is meant to draw us to itself.
My gym posts a quote above the water fountains each day. One day this week they used a quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the author of The Little Prince. The quote is: “If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
This is the way God works. The purpose of worship is to teach us to long for the beauty, the justice and the love of the Realm of God.
I once heard Bill Coffin say that the job of the prophet was to proclaim: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, (Amos 5: 24), and it is the job of the rest of us to design the irrigation system.”
Worship – religion in general – is not a set of hoops to jump through or rules to mindlessly follow. Worship is a glimpse of the genuine, the good, the beautiful, the just, and the loving so that we might long enough for it to build that kind of world.
There is very little in life more important and more difficult to find than inspiration and encouragement. I used to talk about something being “merely inspirational.” I don’t anymore. Inspiration literally means “to put the spirit in.”
Encouragement literally means to put courage into. Discouragement means to take courage away. Nothing in life is more important that encouragement. Nothing is more destructive than taking courage away from people.
Worship is when we intentionally attend to the genuine, the good, the true, the beautiful, the just and the living. We glimpse the realm of God, so that we might be inspired and encouraged to built ships to sail toward it.
There is one more thing Paul says in Romans 12 about worship that I find intriguing.
“I appeal to you,” he says, “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (Romans 12: 1)
Worship is presenting out bodies…not just our spirits or our minds, but our bodies.
Presenting our bodies…holy and acceptable to God.
Our bodies are, for most of us, what we have the hardest time presenting to God. They are the last things that we – most of us – would think are acceptable to God. Most of us are ashamed of our physicality…our flesh…our humanity.
This is precisely what we bring to God in worship. When we worship, we cannot check our bodies at the door. We come embodied, just as we are.
I have a gay friend who has shared his spiritual journey with me through the years. He grew up in a fundamentalist home. It was a struggle for him to acknowledge to himself that he is gay. He is having a hard time coming out to his family.
A few months ago, over lunch, I asked him once whether he has come to the place where he considers his sexuality a gift from God.
He thought for a minute and said, “No, but I have come to the place where I realize that I can only follow Jesus in this body I’ve been given.” He said, “There is no other way I can be a follower of Jesus than in this body I have been given.”
This is true for all of us. The only way we can worship is to present our bodies, which trouble and disturb us, as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God, which is our spiritual worship.
So worship is finally grace. None of us can come before God as pure thought, pure feelings, pure anything. We come before God as the flesh and blood selves we are. We come depending upon grace…the grace of a God who calls us and our bodies holy and acceptable.
Presenting ourselves, as we are, trusting in the grace of God. This is our spiritual worship.