‘God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ (verse 24)
That’s an obvious verse to pick for this circuit service on the theme of worship. But sometimes, however much I like to be obscure, obvious is OK!
There are several valid ways you can read this verse. Worshipping in spirit and truth can be about the fact that you can worship God anywhere. That’s true, and in the context, the woman has just raised the question of physical locations for worship.
You can also read the ‘spirit’ aspect as being about the need for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in order to worship. That has some merit, too, because there is much in John’s Gospel about the ministry of the Spirit.
Worshipping in ‘truth’ can be about the importance of basing our worship on the truth of God, rather than our own preferences or fantasies. That, too, would be valid.
But I want to offer a different – if complementary – approach to Jesus’ teaching that we are to worship in spirit and in truth. I think it also means our worship is to be Christ-centred. Why? The work of the Spirit in John’s Gospel is to point to Christ. And Jesus himself is the way, the truth and the life in John. Spirit and truth both focus on Christ. I’m going to use Christ as our framework for worship.
My sister is an Occupational Therapist. At the end of her college training in 1988, she had to take a final elective placement. With the support of her college Christian Union, she went out with a missionary society to Gahini Hospital in Rwanda.
One of her most interesting cultural experiences (apart from African driving!) was Sunday morning worship in the hospital’s Anglican church. People were not called to worship by the ringing of bells, but by drums. All well and good.
But when worship began, it was the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. Seventeenth century England, transposed to twentieth century Africa. Crazy.
Why is that crazy? Jesus is the Word made flesh, who dwelt among us. He took on human flesh, and lived in his context as a first century Jew. Might it be that when it comes to worship, our worship has to live in the cultural forms in which we live, and of the people we desire to reach with the Gospel?
Can I bring that insight to the worship wars that often rip apart our churches? We need to drop the nonsense talk that hymns and choral music are somehow morally superior. And those who argue for contemporary music need to quit the notion that others are fuddy-duddies. The issue is this: who has God called us to reach?
The American pastor Rick Warren, who planted Saddleback Church in California, has a useful approach to this. He says that if you are going to plant a church, then the way you decide the musical style of the worship is this: find out what the most popular radio station in the area is, and model the musical aspect of your worship on that style of music.
So never mind what we like: incarnation demands we live in the culture of the people where God has placed us on mission. And that will shape our worship – from music to other elements, too.
In my last appointment, I was part of a team that put on a weekly Wednesday lunch-time prayer and worship event entitled Medway Celebrate. At one team meeting, I remember the founder of the event say he had asked all visiting worship leaders to put a particular emphasis on ‘celebration’ in the tone they set.
Inwardly, I winced. What about people suffering pain or troubles? How would they cope with relentless joy and happiness? And at first glance, anchoring our worship to the Cross of Christ would support my reaction. In worship, the Cross leads us to confession of sin. It puts us in touch with the pain of the world, and so it also informs our intercession. And the central act of Christian worship, Holy Communion, is directly linked to the Cross: ‘This is my body … this is my blood.’
Not only that, something like one third of Israel’s hymn book, the Psalms, are the so-called ‘Psalms of Lament’, where the psalmists bring their pain and complaints to God in worship. So surely it’s right that worship is not persistently happy-clappy.
There must be room in worship to express pain. But – it’s only half the story. Even when the Cross shows us our need to confess, we don’t stop there: we receive forgiveness. When we intercede about the pain of the world, we do so expecting that God will answer. When by faith we take the tokens of Christ’s body and blood in the sacrament, we are renewed.
I was once at a Good Friday united service at the Baptist Church in my home town. Our own minister was preaching. He had chosen a song that was popular at the time: ‘I get so excited, Lord, every time I realise I’m forgiven‘. As a congregation, we sang it in the most drab way. Michael stopped us and berated us. How could we not be excited that God had forgiven us in Christ?
As we come to the foot of the Cross in worship, yes we bring our pain at the sin that put Christ there. We also bring the pain of the world. But we come for healing and restoration. Making the Cross central to worship is a matter of joy as well as pain.
I referred to Holy Communion a moment ago when talking about the Cross and worship. But it’s the Resurrection that makes sense of the sacrament.
‘What? Isn’t the Lord’s Supper about the death of Christ?’ you may object.
Yes, but it’s OK to stop there if you only believe communion is a symbolic memorial of a past event. If it’s remotely more than that, you need the Resurrection to explain it. How many memorial services have you attended where the deceased was present? How many funeral wakes have you been to where the one you were remembering served you the food? Jesus is alive! And our worship is filled with hope. Whatever discourages or depresses us, Jesus is risen from the dead and there is a new world coming.
So my friend who wanted celebratory worship had a point. Just so long as it wasn’t escapism, celebration is the proper tone for those who know the Christian hope. We experience suffering and we witness suffering, but in the Resurrection we know it won’t have the final word and our worship is an act of defiance based on Christian hope. In the words of Steve Winwood, we’re ‘talking back to the night‘. But we talk back to the night because the dawn is coming.
And when the dawn comes, God will no longer feel distant or remote. God will always be close. Thus if Resurrection characterises worship in spirit and truth, our worship will have a sense of intimacy with God. We cannot use hymns about the majesty of God to make him distant, even if we also avoid songs that make Jesus sound like a boyfriend.
If there’s one curse in all the worship wars that occur in church, it’s the way we use sophisticated arguments to hide the fact that what we’re really campaigning for is ‘what we like’. The Ascension of Jesus puts paid to that.
Why? Because the Ascension is the enthronement of Jesus at the right hand of God. It is the confirmation that Jesus is King over all creation, including the Church. When we treat worship as what pleases us, worship becomes idolatry, for we worship ourselves. When we recognise the kingship of the ascended Christ, I cannot ask what pleases me. I can only ask, what pleases you, Lord?
It also means we must stop treating worship as spiritual escapism. When a steward prays in the vestry before the service about us ‘turning aside from the world for an hour’, I cringe. When we sing an old chorus like ‘Turn your eyes upon Jesus‘ with its line about ‘The things of earth will grow strangely dim’, I wonder what some people are thinking when they sing those words.
If worship is in spirit and in truth – if that means it’s Christ-centred – and if that includes the Ascension – then worship cannot be used to escape from the world. It can only be used in preparation to face the world. For the king of the Church is on the throne of creation.
There is a church building in Germany, which has over the exit doors these words: ‘Servants’ Entrance’. Worshipping the ascended Christ thrusts us into the world. It’s why the Roman Catholic Mass is called the Mass – after the Latin ‘Eta misse est’: ‘Get out!’ Our feeble version is, ‘Go in peace to love and serve the Lord’: perhaps that should be ‘Go in boldness to love and serve the Lord’! The test of worship isn’t Hymns And Psalms versus Mission Praise versus Songs Of Fellowship. It’s whether we continue to worship by our lifestyles in the world where Christ reigns.
Archbishop William Temple wrote a classic devotional commentary on John’s Gospel. I can do no better in concluding this sermon than quoting some of his most potent words on this very verse:
For worship is the submission of all our nature to God. It is the quickening of conscience by His holiness; the nourishment of mind with His truth; the purifying of imagination by His beauty; the opening of the heart to His love; the surrender of will to HIs purpose – and all of this gathered up in adoration, the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable and therefore the chief remedy for that self-centredness which is our original sin and the source of all actual sin. Yes – worship in spirit and truth is the way to the solution of perplexity and to the liberation from sin. [p 65]
May we worship like that.