What does it mean to worship: part 1
“I appeal to you therefore, 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.” Roman 12:1
In my last article, I introduced four priorities as a vision for our church. These were Worship, Fellowship, Ministry and Belonging and together they mark the identity of the church. In this article I would like to develop what it means to worship following on from this year’s motto verse (taken from Colossians 1:15).
As I write this article, the sacrifice of Colonel Arnaud Beltrame is fresh in my mind. It was astounding to hear how the French Gendarme had offered himself up to an extremist gunman in exchange for a hostage during a deadly supermarket siege in southwestern France. Arnaud Beltrame made the ultimate sacrifice by offering his body that someone might be released in his stead. There is an ancient and long history linking the language of sacrifice and worship. We see these words closely associated in the verse above from Romans 12:1. Sacrifice is a word that is often linked to duty, especially when we think about the discourses supporting enlistment for World War 1. This complicates the way we might understand our worship. Clearly, the word sacrifice can hold a negative connotation ranging from worship as a (dry) duty, to something that kills our joy and takes over our life.
In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul crafts a tightly argued case to demonstrate that through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, all of humanity has been brought into the potential of a relationship with God. “The gospel … is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek (Rom 1:16).” No longer is this relationship exclusively negotiated through the Jewish faith with its laws and customs, its temple sacrifices and regulations towards circumcision, ritual washing and kosher foods. We learn in Romans 2:11 that “God shows no partiality.” In fact anyone who turns toward Jesus with faith in him is made right (justified) with God and can be cleansed from all the wrong steps they have made. He is careful to make it clear that justification has nothing to do with us or the sacrifices we make; we cannot claim that there is anything in our behaviour or lifestyle that makes this possible. That would take us back to following the Jewish law, which not even the most perfect person could keep. Have you ever noticed how a sign like “keep off the grass” is almost an invitation for us to step on the grass. In the same way, outward rules exist to be broken and trying to keep the rules will only end up in failure – no one is perfect! In fact, in a through-away sentence, St. Paul says “Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly … it is a matter of the heart- it is spiritual and not literal (Rom 2:29).”
That doesn’t mean though that our worship is just spiritual and we can get away with doing anything we want with our bodies. For instance, we shouldn’t think that we can come to worship God and straight afterward speak unkindly to people. The letter from James (Jas 3:10) reprimands that kind of thing: “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.” Rather as Paul says our worship is about presenting “your bodies as a living sacrifice.” The kind of spiritual worship that he means does not divorce how we live from our acts of worshipping God, like some sort of Victorian period drama. In fact, the term Spiritual Worship can also be rendered, reasonable worship and as such refers to the kind of worship that is determined by the joyful out-living of our faith in Jesus Christ each day. Presenting our bodies as living sacrifices means that our whole lives are offered as a sacrifice to God. Thankfully, it is a living sacrifice and not one that requires the death of an animal as in the Old Testament, but our worship demands integrity with our whole bodily existence. No wonder then, that if our worship should incorporate the whole of life, those lives must also be holy and acceptable to God.
This is where we get into trouble. How can I live a life holy and acceptable to God? Does it demand that I do things in a certain way? Well, yes and no! No, because doing things implies I am trying to make myself holy and acceptable and we have already heard how that cannot come through my efforts of trying to follow rules or systems to appease God. Yes, because there is a way that I become acceptable to God in the way that I live. It is also the way I become a living sacrifice too. In Romans 8:11, Paul tells us that to live for God; in the faith of Jesus Christ we need his Spirit within us: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that lives in you.” It’s no coincidence that we call the Spirit – the Holy Spirit. If we spend time quietly asking God to fill us with his Holy Spirit, we will be transformed into his likeness. We will be made more holy. As result our worship will become increasingly acceptable to God. His Spirit gives us life and enables us to live out in our bodies this living sacrifice that St. Paul speaks about.
Simply put, we need God within us to worship the God beyond us. Worship isn’t simply something that we need more understanding about. To know what worship is, we must put it into practice. This year as we learn more about how to worship, let us be transformed by an experience of the Spirit and present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, this is our spiritual worship.
With blessings from Richard