Does worship Transform?

This last Sunday (August 21, 2016) I preached from Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-15. This passage, and its surrounding context, brings up a troublesome trend in the Church today. The commentary from Texts for Preaching on this passage illustrates the difficulty:

Hebrews challenges our understanding of Christ life, for much within contemporary Christianity wishes to divide ethics from worship and worship from ethics. Congregations and individuals implicitly, sometimes explicitly, identify themselves with one emphasis or the other, as if they were alternative approaches to being Christian. The author of Hebrews radically connects the two, however, understanding that behavior does (or does not) reflect praise of God, and praise of God requires behavior consistent with that praise.[1]

We cannot divide worship and ethics, but it is so very easy to do. Many of us live highly compartmentalized lives – school life, church life, family life, social life, and somehow we manage to live in such a way that these lives rarely intermingle. This is to our great detriment, especially when it comes to worship. Worship cannot be, must not be, something that we only engage in on Sunday morning from 10 to noon.

Returning to the quote above, we must consider how important it is that ‘praise of god requires behavior consistent with that praise.’ This declaration underscores an important but subtle point, namely, that worship should transform the worshipper. Martin Buber, in his influential book I and Thou, said, 'One does not pass from the moment of supreme meeting the same being as he entered into it.' Buber’s point reflects the whole Biblical story, that a genuine encounter with Our Holy Father will/must transform us. But this leaves us with a questions: if we leave worship without being transformed, what went wrong? Perhaps, just as we suggested earlier, we should expand this question of worship and transformation beyond just the Sunday morning ‘boundary’. Let me offer you a phrase for your consideration – this phrase has been used, in one form or another, by many great leaders in the Church through the centuries: ‘We become like that which we worship.’[2] My favorite quote to this effect is typically attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson:

The Gods we worship write their names on our faces; be sure of that. And a man will worship something ... That which dominates will determine his life and character. Therefore it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.[3]

If it is true that we become like that which we worship, then we must be very careful about what or whom we are worshipping. For instance, John Wesley insinuates that we practice idolatry when we '"set up idols in our heart"; and to these we bow down, and worship…We worship ourselves when we pay that honor to ourselves which is due to God only. Therefore all pride is idolatry; it is ascribing to ourselves what is due to God alone.'[4] This is obviously a very easy trap to fall into, but how do we avoid being snared by worship of idols?

Luke 6:43 offers us a simple truth that may help us with this question: 'No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit.' If this is true, then we should be able to tell if we are worshipping God by the ‘fruit’ that we bear. A commentary I read this last week on Hebrews 13 will illustrate further:

You come to resemble what you admire. People who admire money get green and crinkly. People who admire computers grow user-unfriendly. People who admire youth get juvenile. People who actively and deliberately admire Jesus Christ come to resemble him as he actually was and remains today, unchanged from age to age: generous, merry, tender, fierce, courageous, somewhat mischievous, fully open to others after his self is sorted out. Real worship is the engine of personal transformation.[5]

In harmony with this last line, John Wesley describes true worship as 'a steady imitation of him they worship in all his imitable perfections; more particularly in justice, mercy, and truth, or universal love filling the heart and governing the life.' [6]

This is an important subject – who is the recipient of our love, affection and worship? So, this brief blog is simply intended to raise some questions for us to consider as we continue this short series on the elements of worship. We will return to this theme in weeks to come, but let me leave you with this quote from Geoffrey Wainwright, and then a question: ‘In worship we receive the self-giving love of God, and the test of our thankfulness is whether we reproduce that pattern of self-giving in our daily relationships with other people. Of course, the test already begins with our attitudes and behavior as brothers and sisters in the liturgical assembly.’[7]

If it is true that our lives, the way we live, love and labor with and for the other, shows our thankfulness for God’s gracious activity in our lives, what kind of a ‘sacrifice of praise’ are you offering to God?

[1] Cousar, Charles B., and Beverly Roberts Gaventa. Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary, Based on the NRSV, Year C. Louisville, Ky: Westminster / John Knox Press, 1994. 494.

[2] Among those who’ve used some variation of this saying are St. Augustine of Hippo, John Wesley, N.T. Wright, G.K. Beale and James K.A. Smith and the Psalmist, in Psalm 115:8.

[3] This quote has been contested as having derived from Emerson, but no one has proven conclusively whether he said it or not.

[4] 'Original Sin', Sermon 44, The Works of John Wesley (Bicentennial Edition), 2.179.

[5] Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ) (Kindle Locations 716-719). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

[6] ‘Advice to the People Called Methodist’, The Works of John Wesley (Bicentennial Edition), 9.123-124.

[7] Geoffrey Wainwright, Doxology: The Praise of God in Worship, Doctrine, and Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 422.

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Heather K. Barclay & Justin Leonard