Is any one form of worship liturgy better for reaching God? The apostle Paul suggested that an open heart has the answer.
Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. ~ Romans 3:27
Today was my last midterm exam for the semester at Yale Divinity School before a two week break. I could have headed home right after the exam, but I love to experience the variety of worship styles that daily services at Marquand Chapel offers. Today’s worship service was a very high Anglican mass, with a dramatic liturgy, sung mostly in plainsong.
A worship service like this is one of many forms that I have experienced through the years. I was baptised Episcopalian as a child, raised through my college years as a United Methodist, spent many years worshiping in Roman Catholic churches with my wife and son, as well as in New York City near where I worked, and I have had the privilege of seeing many forms of worship, both Christian and non-Christian, all over the world. The one true God speaks to us in many different ways.
Liturgy high and low
I have experienced quite a bit of “high church” worship. My wife is a student of the Middle Ages in Europe, so I have found myself with her in cathedrals, monasteries, convents, and parish churches where clouds of incense and the tinkling of bells accompany the mass and holy communion, often with the plainsong of Latin peppering the air.
Truth be told, I enjoy high mass services. They invite us to be as humble as a monk in approaching the mysteries of faith that unfold at the table of Christ. The question is, though: where and how does the grace of God enter our worship services?
Is there a “right” way to worship?
High, low, in-between – we have all sorts of ways to draw near to God in worship. At First United Methodist Church Middletown, where I serve, often worship is pared down to the most basic of forms. We set out stackable chairs in a banquet room, turn a plastic table into our altar and communion table, fire up a computer projector, and cue the pianist to get worship started.
This past Sunday, as I struggled to help our Pastor with a broken propane firestarter to light the candles, I turned around and asked, “Does anyone have a match?” Someone did, and the service went on, with the candle as bright as it would have been anyway. God was with us at the communion table, either way, and the bread and the juice that we used was, well, bread and juice – pretty much the same as at the Anglican service today at Marquand Chapel.
Does our simplicity in worship give us cause to boast? Does our willingness to act out a humble role in the midst of the pomp and circumstance of a high mass give us cause to boast? The apostle Paul, in his letter to early Christians in Rome, would suggest that the answer to both questions is, “No!”
Paul’s letter to the Romans is not one of my favorites, but a careful study of it for my midterm exam gave me a much deeper appreciation of how radically different Paul’s approach to Christian faith was for the world, and how it influenced not only the early church but today’s church, as well.
Abraham’s reckoning of the heart
Paul was writing to a community in Rome who he had not visited yet, and so he put on his “Sunday best” explanation of how he viewed Christian faith. He wanted to respect both Jewish and non-Jewish early Christians in Rome, but also he wanted to find a way to unify them in faith and in worship.
Some of these Romans were still wondering about how Jewish laws from the Hebrew Bible applied to Christians. Respectfully, Paul lays out a case in Romans that even before God gave Moses the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, God had reckoned Abraham a righteous man, because he had faith in God’s promises for his descendants (Romans 4:3).
Paul notes in Romans that Abraham received this gift of grace through faith before God asked him to become circumcised, the traditional bodily mark of Jewish men set apart by God. So, tactfully, but without pulling his punches, Paul notes that the grace of God available to us in faith through God’s Holy Spirit did not set us apart by outward signs through rituals or religious laws, but through our accepting God’s covenant love through a heart filled with faith in God’s grace.
It was the inward “circumcision of the heart” that mattered for all people, not the outward sign of it for a select few (Romans 2:29). The whole world was offered God’s promises through God’s work in our hearts that we accept as new life in God’s love, not through a ritual or outward sign!
From “never good enough” to “good to go!”
Paul’s further argument is that the Holy Spirit, which called both Jewish and non-Jewish people to faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, offered all of them a “spirit of adoption” into a covenant with God based on this heart-faith of Christ, offered to us in God’s Holy Spirit (Romans 8:12-17).
Both Jewish and non-Jewish believers became “new creations” through this adoption, dead to the rule of worldly passions, alive to the eternal love of God in Christ, from “never good enough” under the Jewish law or Gentile practices to everyone being “good to go” under the law of Christ.
Well, “good to go” for…what? And how does worship prepare us for it?
As a United Methodist, I believe that the sacramental ordinance of Holy Communion in our worship liturgies is an outward sign of God’s inward grace. Through God’s Holy Spirit, our faith in God can open our hearts to this inward presence of Christ offered to us through Holy Communion, and other experiences offered by God’s Holy Spirit, to experience God’s grace. These means of grace prepared by God prepare us for more holy living as children of God.
The “good to go” is the grace to live today in the image of God’s perfect love, knowing that God is always ready to fill our cup and our plate with the grace that we need to grow in faith towards the perfect presence of God’s love in our lives. We can never boast of our own accomplishments in this perfect love, but, Paul suggests in Romans, through our faithful obedience to God’s perfect love at work in us through faith, there will be much of God’s work to boast about, now and forever! (Romans 15:14-19)
From liturgical worship to liturgical living
So does it matter whether you are at a high mass or worshiping in a ballroom to come into God’s grace in Christ? Does it matter whether you get all of the words right in an unfamiliar liturgy, or have a whole liturgy committed to memory, to prepare you for God’s love in Christ?
Will the Holy Spirit move in you more effectively due to where you stand in line waiting for Holy Communion elements, or how well you cross yourself, or bend your knees – or don’t?
We could disagree on any one of these points, or more, but through faith I believe that God is ready to come to us through God’s Holy Spirit in all of these circumstances, and far, far more than we can imagine, if we can accept through faith our inheritance as God’s adopted children in Christ.
Our church liturgies are part of our Christian life, but they are not Christian life itself. Christian living is dying to the new life offered to us through faith in Jesus Christ, allowing God’s Holy Spirit to transform our hearts and our lives through faith, and living as if all of life itself was a liturgy that draws the eternal kingdom of heaven down to earth now, not just later.
When we try to make all of life like a liturgy, when we try to open each day or evening with prayers, praise, repentance, openness to God’s living word, gifts of thanks for God’s grace, accepting grace and moving in Christian fellowship towards God’s perfection on earth – this is a liturgical life. Smells, bells, a single head bowed in prayer, a world healing and growing into a new Eden – all can become outward signs of the inner life of grace offered to us in faith.