Our worship is central to our lives as Christians, and perhaps because it is so very important it is often something that fuels heated discussion and even division. I’m sure you’re familiar with many of the arguments.
We’ve special societies ‘protecting’ ways of worshipping. One, The Prayer Book Society seeks to defend and uphold the BCP. There was for a short while, an ASB Society fighting to hold on to the ASB (do you remember that). On one hand we have people arguing for BCP or Hymns Ancient and Modern and on the other, those who can’t imagine how anyone can worship without singing choruses more than 3 or 4 times – those who sometimes argue that everything old has to go – only the new is of value.
Now I know these are parodies, but unfortunately they are so very close to reality, for if it isn’t the forms of service we use, it’s the version of the bible they use or their churchmanship that seems to matter so much and make it impossible for us to share fellowship with them.
It is natural that we’ll have our own commitments to styles, forms and the substance of worship. But it isn’t styles or patterns that matter to God. ‘What matters,’ says Jesus, ‘is that those who worship God, worship in spirit and truth’. That worship is from our hearts and has integrity.
It was these kinds of arguments that separated Jews and Samaritans. Oh, there were a few age old grudges as well, but it was the arguments about worship that were most often used to maintain their divisions.
The Samaritan woman brings up the debate to change the subject. The conversation with Jesus has got too personal and she tries to deflect Jesus’ attention away from herself. Jesus generously accepts that change of direction, and, as they talk, he makes it clear that place and practice will soon no longer matter. ‘What’s important,’ says Jesus, ‘about worship is the heart of those who worship.’
How I wish that down the centuries we’d listened to Jesus. Many awful acts have been done in the name of the Church. We’ve even burnt people at the stake to protect our ways of doing things. We’ve refused burial rights in our cemeteries, we have ostracised and vilified those different from ourselves. I have seen the speck in their eye and ignored the plank in my own. We have been so concerned with the peripheral and the unimportant that we Christians have separated into thousands of denominations the world over – and we continue to condemn each other over the outward forms of our religion.
So, what does it mean to worship in spirit and in truth? Is there a particular way of worshipping that we can latch onto, that will ensure that we don’t worship in error and without the spirit rather than with the Spirit and in truth? …… Clearly the answer is, ‘No!’ Each generation, each community has to explore for itself what it means for that generation or that community to worship in spirit and in truth.
The world is constantly changing and our understanding of God is always developing. God may not change, but in every generation people have had to find new ways of expressing themselves to one another and to God … new forms of expression – in order to remain faithful to the revelation of God that we have received.
So, please let’s not allow the peripheral, the ultimately less important, to become the central and most important things. Let’s begin to believe that others are at least as sincere as we ourselves are, in our efforts to honour God in our worship.
Let’s focus with Paul in Romans on what is important and what we all share – the death and resurrection of Jesus – through which we have peace with God – through which, and through whom, we live by faith in the grace and love of God. No longer enemies of God but friends, no longer at odds with each other but reconciled as friends.
Do outward forms of worship matter? Are they important? Of course they are, for they’re the framework, the place where we are set free to worship in Spirit and in truth. They’re also the space where the other person is set free to worship. But worship itself is not about those different ways of doing things. Worship in spirit and in truth is about our hearts and wills focussed on the grace of God.
Worship in spirit and in truth brings us face to face with the love and grace of God in Jesus, our hearts focussed on God, drawn to him through the love shown to each of us in Jesus. Worship in spirit and in truth brings reconciliation and not division because ultimately our focus is not on ourselves but on the love which shines out from the face of Jesus.