Category Archives: Worship

Worship In Spirit and Truth?

I’ve heard more than a few sermons on the subject of worshiping God in spirit and truth. I’ve even preached a few of those sermons myself. Using the passage of John 4:23-24, the focus of the sermon always presumed a question of what are the requirements that God expects of the church in worship so that the worship is pleasing to God and thus offered in spirit and truth? The preacher then begins proof-texting various Bible verses to clarify what God presumably requires of Christian worship and how the church is to carry out that requirement. And if you’re from my Christian tradition, the Churches of Christ, that sermon will always include an argument for a cappella singing in worship coupled with an argument against the use of instrumental music in worship.

worshipinspiritandintruth

The passage of John 4:23-24 is part of a larger story about an encounter Jesus has with a Samaritan woman. However, the type of sermon I described in the preceding paragraph has very little, if anything, to do with Jesus. The focus of that sermon is the church and specifically what the church must presumably do to worship God in spirit and truth. Yet the focus of John chapter 4 and really the entire Gospel of John is Jesus. So do we see the problem with a sermon using a passage from John 4 that is focused on us, the church, and not on Jesus?

Regardless of what our views our on how the church should worship, John chapter 4 isn’t about that and if we don’t realize that then we’re going to miss the more important point. So moving on…

There’s this woman from Samaria whom Jesus meets at a well and asks for a drink of water. That was a surprise to the woman since Jews don’t associate with Samaritans. As the conversation unfolds, Jesus offers the woman “living water” which will forever satisfy her thirst and everyone else’s thirst who drinks of the water Jesus offers. It is the promise of “eternal life” (v. 14). This intrigues the Samaritan woman but then, and rather abruptly, Jesus points out her marriage situation. Whatever the circumstances are for why this woman has been married five times and is now living with a man who is not her husband, the woman now sees Jesus as a prophet (v. 19). Her marriage history coupled with her identity as a Samaritan raises questions about her suitability to receive the promise of eternal life. But it is these questions that prepare us for the twist in the story.

Jesus offers living water and says, “Come, thirst no more!” Now who are we going to believe?

The twist comes when Jesus says in v. 21-24, “…believe me a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

Jesus says to the woman, “you will worship…” The personal pronoun is in the second-person plural voice. In other words, here is this Samaritan woman with a questionable marriage history who knows that she and the Samaritans are excluded from the temple worship of God in Jerusalem but now Jesus is telling her that she and the Samaritans will worship God. They who were excluded will now be included. Jesus is the Messiah (vv. 25-26) and this Samaritan woman along with other Samaritans now believe in Jesus (v. 39). The assurance of worshiping God in spirit and truth is an inclusive promise because Jesus is the Messiah who comes as God in the flesh, full of grace and truth.

Let’s not miss the irony here either. In John chapter 3 Jesus encounters a Pharisee named Nicodemus, an insider who excludes people like this Samaritan woman and thinks he’s on the inside because he keeps the Law and its traditions… But unless he believes in Jesus (that eternal life is possible because of what God is doing in Jesus), he’s an outsider. On the other hand, in John chapter 4, she who has been an outsider becomes an insider because she believes.

So worshiping God in spirit and truth is about believing in Jesus. This point is underscored from the wider narrative of the Gospel of John when we keep in mind that God is both Spirit and the Incarnate Word. So while in the past God dwelt among the temple, he now dwells among in the person of Jesus and as the Holy Spirt whom the Father and Son have sent. We worship God in spirit and truth not because of how we sing or pray when assembled for worship among our local church. No… we worship God in Spirit and Truth, or even better, in the Spirit and in the Truth because we believe in Jesus and have received the Holy Spirit.

This inclusive promise is the good news for everyone who has been an outsider. Those who have been treated as an outsider because of their race and ethnicity or because of questions about their own marriage history and moral lifestyle are now included in the promise. Here Jesus is offering living water regardless of the past… regardless of whatever circumstances, sins, doubts, and so forth. Jesus offers living water and says, “Come, thirst no more!” Now who are we going to believe?

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Encountering Truth in a Post-Truth Society

As of last year, the word post-truth officially entered into the American vocabulary. Ergo the Washington Post recently ran a piece with the following headline: “Post-Truth” named 2016 word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries. The article then went on to say, “It’s official: Truth is dead. Facts are passe.”

So this, among other things, is what we’ve come to as society. Truth has become whatever we, as our individual selves, want to believe. It’s not just the politicians or the journalists, it’s us. That’s why there is all the influx of fake news stories about this or that we’ve passed along as truth in various social-media outlets. Most of the time, we don’t even care enough to even see if what we’re sharing is true or not. Why? Because the fake news story agrees with what we wish to be true. As my friend Sean Palmer remarked on Facebook, “We [don’t] see things as they are. We see things as we are. The lies are a symptom, the ego and false self are the disease!”

The question we must as is where do we go from here? Where might we find truth in order that we see life as God wills life to be?

Let’s begin with how our western society has understood truth and the birth of modernism in the 17th century, particularly with a couple of philosophers named René Descartes and Immanuel Kant. They led us to believe that the human mind and our ability to objectively reason was the foundational basis of what could be known and how we could resolve moral issues. Truth was reduced to whatever could be scientifically proven and the western world began to operate as though human reason could solve all of our problems. Though it wasn’t the intention of Descartes and Kant, this resulted in a grandiose view of humanity and what could be achieved through human ingenuity.

The human mind and objective reasoning might all sound good but then came the 20th century with depression and world wars, gas chambers and nuclear bombs, and humanitarian crises such as famine and the rise in urban blight. This is what the human mind, with its capacity to objectively reason, produced? It became rather obvious that science and human reason wasn’t solving every problem. Enter into the conversation two more philosophers named Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. They helped us see that we’re not as objective in our reasoning as we wish since we all think from a location shaped by our experiences; and sometimes our motives are less than pure. Thus, modernism bequeathed postmodernism.

“Truth is the revelation of God in Jesus Christ and the gospel story which centers in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

Now I am far from well-read in the field of continental philosophy. However, from what I have read, it seems that postmodernism offered a good corrective to the arrogance of modernism which placed such high confidence in human reason. However, the downside of postmodernism is a trajectory that has led us into a post-truth reality where our only source of truth is our individual selves. Obviously, we have a problem when the only source of truth is ourselves. While we are all shaped by our own biases, experiences, and motives, is there any truth beyond ourselves? I believe so and if you’re a Christian, so then should you. Truth is the revelation of God in Jesus Christ and the gospel story which centers in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I further believe the Bible is a truthful, and therefore trustworthy, witness of Jesus Christ, his gospel, and teaching.

We know this truth in the passing of tradition among the church. What I am speaking of is what Roberto S. Goizueta describes as “a truth that emerges from the interaction between two particular persons and that, therefore, transcends each of them” (Caminemos Con Jesús, p. 158). In our case the two particular people is ourselves and the local church which is always part of the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church whom Christ is present among. Among the local church is the tradition of what the first witnesses of the crucified and resurrected Jesus saw and began telling others who then told others and so forth. They we’re simply telling what they saw first-hand and subsequently experienced vicariously through their encounter of the gospel among the church. So the gospel story of Jesus and his teaching became the tradition passed on from one generation to the next.

One of the ways we encounter this tradition even as we share in it in order that we might know the truth is through the weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist where we remember Jesus Christ. In the partaking of bread and wine, the body and blood of Jesus Christ, we encounter the truth of what the world really is coming to be as God wills. We anticipate the future of history in the present (prolepsis) as we remember the past by sharing in the Lord’s Supper together as we sing hymns and pray as well as read scripture and hear the word of God proclaimed. Gathered together for this Eucharistic meal is where we then learn how to live into this future as a witness of the truth so that others, in a post-truth society, will encounter the truth of Jesus Christ.

With Thanksgiving… An Advent Message

Sunday, November 27th, was the beginning of the New Year per the Christian Calendar. It was also the First Sunday of Advent. Below is the video of the Advent sermon I preached at the Westside Church of Christ from Psalm 100 which is called “With Thanksgiving.”

Becoming Responsible For Our Faith

Few Christians, if any, move into to a new town and just decide to join the church that meets closest to their house, like the church around the corner. There’s a lot that goes into deciding what church we’ll join. We want to know what the church believes, what their mission is, what sort of values do they embody, if there are any major troubling issues, if this is the sort of community we want are children to be a part of, and on and on go the number of questions we want to know.

That’s all fine. I get it because I have those questions too. In fact, those are some of the questions I ask of churches seeking a new minister to serve with. However, somewhere in time, we started concerning ourselves with other questions too that have to do usually with just a couple hours on Sunday… worship and preaching. We know the concerns in the way people judge evaluate whatever church they just visited… One person wants contemporary worship, while the other prefers the liturgy. Someone else can’t stand all those old hymns, while another person thinks the contemporary praise choruses are just a bit too shallow for their liking. Then comes the preaching issues… the sermon is too long, too short, lacking humor, not serious enough, too theological, too shallow, and on and on it goes.

From A Consumer Faith to a Dead Faith…

Somewhere in time our worship preferences became the standard by which we decided whether we liked a church or not, whether we would join that church or not. Somewhere in time the consumerism of American culture became a value among Christians and we started shopping for churches like we shop for everything else. Don’t believe me? Go visit any bookstore and look at the Bible section. Besides having to decide which English translation we prefer reading from, we now have specialty Bible’s marketed to almost every niche imaginable all to satisfy our consumeristic value.

Back to worship and church. We evaluate worship and the church based upon our consumer driven desires. Are we getting fed? Does the service inspire us? Are we happy? Somehow, church and worship became about us? But here’s the problem: When church and worship becomes about us, we develop an appetite that will never be satisfied! It becomes like an addiction and we need that bigger emotional high or that next powerful sermon to get our fix. The only problem is that as time goes by, it gets harder and harder to keep getting our fix. That’s usually when we bolt for another church because the church we’re at doesn’t get us high enough anymore. If we’re lucky enough, perhaps we can find a good sermon podcast or catch some cool church streaming their worship live but eventually that well runs dry too.

Before we know it, our faith has become dependent upon the church and its Sunday worship gathering. When the can’t deliver the goods, our faith begins to sail like a lead balloon. Eventually we come to the point where there isn’t any church with enough juice to fill up our faith and so we are left with a dead faith.

Maybe out of fear of God’s judgment, we keep showing up and going through the motions. Or maybe we show up because we have friends. But regardless, our faith…

What faith?

From Consumers of God to Worshipers of God…

But it doesn’t have to be this way. It shouldn’t. It never was meant to be this way either. There are numerous passages throughout scripture that suggest we have a part in maintaining our faith that we must take responsibility for. This isn’t to suggest that we earn our salvation, that we make up our own faith, or that our faith is dependent upon us. It’s like food and eating. We’re dependent upon God for blessing the tree with fruit but if we’re going to reap the blessing of that fruit, then we need to go pick some fruit off the tree and eat it. If we can’t do that, then hunger is what we get.

“How can a young person maintain a pure life? By guarding it according to your instructions! …In my heart I store up your words, so I might not sin against you.” – Psalm 119:9, 11

“Be devoted to prayer, keeping alert in it with thanksgiving.” – Colossians 4:2

“But you, dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith by praying in the Holy Spirit, maintain yourselves in the love of God, while anticipating the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that brings eternal life.” – Jude 20-21

The best way for us to take responsibility for our own faith is to devote ourselves daily to the scriptures and to prayer. Such discipline is not always easy to maintain because there is so much in life competing for our time and attention these days. There are numerous daily Bible reading plans available on the internet. Some are free and some will cost a few dollars but as long as we can afford five dollar coffee drinks at Starbucks, we can afford to spend a few dollars on a Bible reading plan. So Pick one! After your reading spend a few minutes praying about it. Pick a couple of other times slots throughout the day for prayer and do that every day so that you can develop a rhythm.

By taking responsibility for our own faith through daily attention to scripture and prayer, not only will we discover our own faith coming alive but our experience during worship will change for the better too. Whether we’re in a high church, low church, traditional church, or contemporary church, we’ll come full of the Spirit. We may come with great joy or great sadness on our hearts, depending on what is happening in our own lives, but we’ll come with a genuinly Spirit-filled faith in Jesus Christ ready to truly worship God with our church.

I Went To Church And…

Ok, I’m not really a fan of saying “I went to church” or “I am going to church” since the church is a people and not a building or worship event. Nevertheless, that’s how our society speaks of gather for worship with a Christian church.

Most church communities have some sort of centralized gathering where people come together for worship and fellowship that includes singing, praying, reading scripture, preaching, and participation in the Lord’s Supper. Maybe these churches do a few other things together like Bible-class time or a meal but regardless, this is a very typical feature of church. Yet in recent years it seems like this tradition, especially of the contemporary style, has taken its share of criticism from both Christians and non-Christians (see, for example here and here). But yesterday, I went to church with my family and enjoyed it. So did my family.

A Little Context…

I am a minister of the gospel… a preacher or pastor, as some call me. I really don’t put a lot of stock in titles, as I am just trying to follow Jesus whom I believe is Lord. For the last three and a half years I served with the Columbia Church of Christ until the church decided it was time to close at the end of January 2015. I still believe I am called to serve as a minister of the gospel and so I am searching, waiting, and listening for the church God wants me to serve with next. But in the meantime, what do I do?

The first two Sunday’s in February I was doing some guest-preaching in a couple of different churches in the area. Then there were two different snow storms each of the next two weekends resulting in every area church canceling their services because of the weather and road conditions. So each of those two Sunday’s were spent at home with the family (no complaints).

Although I have daily disciplines such as regular prayer time and daily Bible reading to help maintain my own faith and don’t expect the worship gathering to sustain my faith, it felt odd to sit at home on Sunday and not be at church. Then came yesterday. I wasn’t expected to be preaching anywhere or doing anything else as a minister and I certainly didn’t have to get out of bed, should I have chosen to sleep in which I’ll admit was a tempting idea. So came the moment that I had to answer for: Do I go to church only because I’m the preacher or do I go because, for all of the criticisms I might raise, I really believe in and value gathering with other believers for worship and fellowship?

Into The Holy of Holies

So as I have said, I went to church. I went with my wife and children. We visited the Countryside Fellowship Church in Savage, Maryland where a few of the people from the Columbia Church of Christ are now visiting. I also happen to know the pastor of that church, so there was that connection too.

The atmosphere was relaxed, somewhat contemporary but it didn’t seem like the church was trying to keep up with the latest trendy fads in worship. The members were friendly and hospitable without pushing themselves upon us. The worship began with a reading from the Psalms and a call to worship. After singing several songs, the pastor preached on Revelation 3:1-6 (Jesus’ message to the Church of Sardis) and then we shared in the Lord’s Supper together before singing one final song. In so many ways the gathering was typical and normal with nothing spectacular except for the presence of the true living God. It was just church.

Yet it was nice, for a change, to sing, pray, read scripture, encounter the preached word of God, and share in the Lord’s Supper not as the preacher but just as a worshiper. It was nice to be reminded through song, prayer, scripture, word, and the Lord’s Supper that even though I am not righteous on my own accord, I belong to God and live in the glorious presence of God because of the blood of Jesus Christ by which I am made righteous. That message was especially pointed as we sang the song by Kutless Take Me In (To The Holy of Holies).

I Went To Church And…

I know that there are churches where worship is a lifeless endeavor of just going through the motions of a dead faith. Likewise, I know that there are other churches where worship has become such a professionally manufactured endeavor that the work of the Spirit seems stifled by a shallow faith. But as I reflect on going to church, I am reminded that when we come ready to give our heart to God we receive… not some superficial emotion that is meant as a mask to whatever junk we are dealing with. I’m still struggling with the worry of my family and I living in limbo as we await the next church I’ll serve with.

What I received was joy, the kind that Paul spoke of in Philippians 1 where he was content with whatever happens because of his solidarity with Christ. I received this gift of joy not because I deserve it or could obtain it as though it is a commodity. I received it simply because I showed up at church desiring to worship the God who, by his grace and mercy, has made me alive in Christ and given me his Spirit as the assurance of this life.

So yeah, yesterday I went to church and I am glad I did.

Blessing The Children

Yesterday the Columbia Church of Christ had our blessing of the children. Besides singing songs and reading scripture about the abundant blessings of God, the message was about the role parents and the church plays in raising children as faithful followers of Jesus. At the end of the message, the parents brought their children and committed to raising them as followers of Jesus, with the church lifting each child up in a prayer of blessing. After blessing our children, we shared in the Lord’s Supper together.

The following was part of the prayer of blessing offered for our children:

As the family of God, a congregation of whom Jesus is the head…We ask for you God, our Father in heaven to bless these children…

Lord, we praise you for the life of these children and ask you to surround everyone of them with your blessing, that they each may know your love and may be protected from all evil, knowing your goodness all the days of their lives.

Lord, we ask that you bless the parents of these children, giving them the grace to love and care for their children with patience and faith. As they stand before us as a profession of their commitment to teach their children to be followers of your Son, Jesus, may your Spirit grant them wisdom and guidance to live as Jesus, setting an example of what it means to be a Christian!

And Lord, as we give these Bibles to the newest born children among us, we pray that as they grow up, they will receive the scriptures as your word, shaping them and becoming their story… our story…your story, Lord! Amen!*

——————–

* Adapted from an Anglican prayer of blessing for children.

Christians Worship Who?

I’ve started preaching a short series through the Old Testament book of Jonah. The popular understanding is that this book is a story about a man and a giant fish. It’s not! The fish is only mentioned in a total of three verses (1:17; 2:1, 10) and while the story a man named Jonah, the book of Jonah is about God.

To Worship Is To Fear

That’s right. The book of Jonah is about God, the God whom Jonah claims to worship. As Jonah flees God, sets sail with a bunch of Gentile shipmen bound for Tarshish, and the violent storm erupts on the sea, Jonah proclaims his worship of God, saying, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (1:9).

Jonah’s declaration was the typical way a Jewish person would speak of God among Gentiles but considering the context, it’s a laughable claim. The word “worship” (yârê) literally means to fear. It has to do with the sort of reverence that results in obedience to God. In the broader sense, such reverence may include ceremonial acts of worship but it will always includes moral and ethical obedience. In the book of Jonah, the prophet’s claim of worshiping the Lord means he should mean obeying God’s command to go and preach against the city of Nineveh.

But Jonah doesn’t! And that is the beginning of the irony in his claim to worship God.

While Jonah claims to worship God but instead flees God in disobedience, the Gentile sailors encounter God though the testimony of Jonah and the violent storm. Though they attempt first to call upon their own gods and then turn to their own ingenuity in trying to survive the storm, they eventually learn to fear the Lord. After throwing Jonah overboard, we are told that “the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him” (1:16). This is to say that these pagan sailors learn to worship God through ceremony and the making of promises regarding how they will act in the future.

Jonah is a Hebrew, one who knows God and claims to worship God but proves through his disobedience that such worship is a feeble notion. The sailors, on the other hand, are pagans who learn to worship God. This is not to say that they have become monotheists who ascribe to every orthodox dogma regarding God. What it means is that the sailors have acknowledged God as the Lord, who must be obeyed. The irony is that the one who knows God and claims to worship him, fails to do so while the ones who did not know God, came to know him and render worship to him!

Christian Worship and the Question

So who do Christians worship? I know that sounds oxymoronic but I’m guessing that if Jonah, who knows God, can fail to worship God then Christians, who claim to worship God can also fail to worship God.

When worship is understood as obedient living and not just singing and praying for an hour or two on Sundays, the question of who Christians worship takes on a greater urgency. Jesus redefines what obedience looks like, saying that the Torah hangs on the two greatest commands of loving God and loving neighbor (cf. Matt 22:37-40). I saw a great quote attributed to Scot McKnight in a tweet from David Fitch that said, “The Pharisees taught love of the Torach, and were good at it. Jesus taught a Torah of love and he was good at it.”

Worship as obedience involves living as Jesus teaches us. Jesus shows us what it looks like to love God and neighbor. This isn’t about turning Christianity into a new set of legalisms regarding church life and worship, it’s about living a life of humble service, dying to self while following Jesus to the cross as people who point to Jesus in the very way we speak, think, and act. How we speak, think, and act towards our neighbor is how we speak, think, and act towards God. . . and our neighbor is everyone, including those we regard as an enemy, foreigner, freak, stranger, and so on. Similarly, such obedience demands consistency between what Christians sing and pray about “in church” and how they live in their homes, neighborhoods, work places, and even in the world of social media (i.e., Facebook).

So if you’re a Christian like I am, then the question is: Will we walk in obedience, following in the footsteps of Jesus?

Will we worship God today?