A Homily by Archpriest Micheal Reagan
Originally published in Issue 13, 2006
In Spirit and Truth
To the woman at the well in John 4, Jesus said that “the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth”. From this passage it is clear that there is such a thing as “true worship” which is decided by God and not by man. But what is true worship? Is there such a thing as false worship? If the ancient Christians, those closer to the apostles and the direct inheritors of their teaching and tradition, worshipped God in one way, and modern Christians 2000 years removed from that apostolic tradition choose to worship in another, completely different way, are both equally valid in the sight of God?
Perhaps we should step back a bit and ask the even more basic question of why we should worship God. A young girl in our parish recently posed this question to me by expressing her confusion over why God, who is humble and the perfect image of humility, would demand to be worshipped. Don’t you love how children can boldly ask the questions that most adults are too afraid to even consider? God bless them! I told her that God doesn’t need our worship, but He demands it for our sakes and for our salvation. You see, it is we humans who need to learn that God is God and that we ourselves are not “god”. Only by worshipping Him in spirit and truth, according to the way that God specifies we must worship, can we learn humility before Him and begin to come into a right relationship with Him as His creatures. True worship pleases God because it corrects us (God knows we need that!) and leads us to unite with Him in the proper way.
If this is true, then obviously if we simply make up our own forms of worship according to what seems good and enjoyable to us, we are dethroning God and making ourselves the judge of what is acceptable worship. In this case, are we really worshipping God, or ourselves?
The earliest recorded instance of man formally worshipping God is found in the story of Cain and Abel. These brothers both recognized that the worship of God involved making an offering to Him. Abel, a keeper of flocks, brought to God the firstborn of his flock and of their fat. Cain, a tiller of the soil, brought some vegetables. As we know, God accepted Abel’s offering but rejected Cain’s. Many bible students conclude that the sole meaning of this is that only a blood offering is acceptable to God, but there may indeed be more to the story than this alone. Consider that Abel brought to God the absolute best that he had to offer, the choicest cuts and the juiciest fat. It was a truly desirable offering, a genuine sacrifice on the part of Abel, but he made it willingly to God whom he deemed worthy. Cain merely offered what he felt like offering; a few items from his garden that really didn’t represent any major sacrifice on his part. For this reason God did not respect his offering. If we understand that true worship is as much a correction of the worshipper as anything else, then what we see in this story is that Cain was not willing to be corrected. He stubbornly wanted God to accept what he thought was good enough, rather than to learn from God what would constitute true worship. Cain was therefore a false worshipper.
Throughout the history of Israel, we see God being very specific about true worship, not only in terms of what makes a true offering, the construction of the altar it should be offered upon, the Temple in which it should be offered, but even right down to the details of which incense to burn before Him. Once again, these instructions are given for man’s benefit, not for God’s. He who owns the cattle on a thousand hills does not need the blood of bulls and calves to be offered to Him. But man needed to offer them in order to humble himself before God, recognize his own sinfulness, and to glorify God as the Maker of all things and man’s only Redeemer.
When the Perfect Sacrifice was made upon the altar of the Cross on Mt. Calvary, the veil of the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom, signifying that God was through with the offering of animals, and man now had access to the Holy of Holies through the Blood of Jesus Christ His Son. His Body broken for us, His Blood poured forth, is the only acceptable offering, the highest and most precious offering that can be made to God. Jesus Christ is both the Offering, and the One to Whom the Offering is made. He gives Himself freely to us, that we in turn may offer Him back to God as the perfect, once-for-all sacrifice on our behalf.
But how does this work itself out in terms of Christian worship? In the ancient Church, the altar was the focal point of the church and the Eucharist was the center of the worship experience. Christians would assemble and stand together in church and, following even more ancient Jewish models, would read Psalms, sing hymns, hear readings from the New Testament epistles and Gospels, listen to a brief teaching on the Gospel reading by the bishop or priest presiding, and then would culminate the worship experience by praying over and offering the sanctified bread and wine as the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ back to God. Having offered the Only Acceptable Offering, they then partook of the same, as a royal priesthood, just as the priests of Aaron also partook of a portion of the sacrifice made to God. Being filled with the life-giving elements of Holy Communion (“for unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you”), they then concluded with prayers of thanksgiving and went forth from the church to offer themselves as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, in their daily lives.
The New Testament scriptures, unlike the Old Testament scriptures, do not give specific instructions about these things because, quite frankly, none were needed. Each of the New Testament churches had already been established by an apostle who had previously instructed the people in these matters in detail. There would have been no need to go over them again in later epistles, except in instances where some correction was needed, as in the case of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Those who today see the Bible as a kind of manual detailing everything of importance to the church, are making the mistake of turning their backs on the historic testimony of the Apostolic Church and what it has to tell us to complete the story. The Bible itself calls the Church of the living God “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15), yet this crucial foundation is swept aside to make the Bible (and more to the point, our preferred interpretations of it) the pillar and foundation of truth. By divorcing the Bible from the context of the living tradition of faith and worship in the Apostolic Church and interpreting it himself according to his own understanding and culture, modern man has once again found a way to usurp God from the throne and make himself the final arbiter of what is truth.
In contemporary Christianity, this takes the form of worship that ignores ancient models and turns it into something that would be unrecognizable to the apostles. For one thing, the pulpit has replaced the altar as the center of worship. People no longer stand as priests but sit as students and are “fed on the Word” not as in partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ, but as in listening to the pastor teach his opinions from the Bible. Incrementally since the “Age of Reason”, faith and mystery has been replaced by intellectand rationalism in Western culture and finally in Western Christendom itself. No longer are Christians comfortable with the idea of Holy Communion being a sharing in the actual Body and Blood of Christ (“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”), and so they spiritualize it to become a mental memorial only, a mere symbol to be appreciated by the mind alone. Communion has been marginalized and made to be infinitely less important to giving life to the believer than reading the Bible. One wonders how Christians possibly survived before the invention of the modern printing press made Bibles commonly available to all! Of course the early Christians not only survived, but became remarkably holy by today’s standards, and turned the world upside down as they joyfully endured terrible sufferings and martyrdom in preaching the Gospel of Christ to the known world.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of modern Christendom, besides its having divorced itself from communion with the historic, Apostolic Church, is that it imitates Cain in its stubborn refusal to be corrected by the same. Rather than answering the question of “What is true worship?” by looking backward to see what the early Christians did, it puts a premium on devising continually “new and contemporary” forms of worship that ultimately are geared more toward entertaining the participants and pleasing them, rather than on pleasing God. Contemporary worship must be “exciting and lively” and “meeting the people where they are at” rather than on holy and reverential and lifting the people up to where God is at.
The contemporary worship experience can very nearly be likened to a junkie continually seeking a new and better “high”, and the value of a morning’s worship is evaluated entirely on whether or not its participants feel “blessed” by it. Does this not indicate the self-centered nature of such an experience, that they are putting their own blessing ahead of God’s? Can we imagine that St. Paul’s only concern for the church in Corinth was that they “get their socks blessed off during worship” and if they weren’t, then perhaps they should replace the bass guitarist with someone more “spirit-led”? His primary concern for them was that they judge and conduct themselves rightly in order to partake of the Body and Blood of the Lord in a worthy manner, for without this they were not providing the spiritual worship which they owed to God.
Modern Christians have drifted terribly from these things! Many groups are beginning to recognize this and are leaving behind contemporary forms of worship to embrace the more traditional Eucharistic-based forms. This seems like death to those who love toe-tapping worship, but in fact the Life of God is hidden in these ancient forms and they very much need to be brought back in our day. Even better would be for modern Christians to return to the Orthodox Church, which is the Apostolic Church, and which still focuses on the worship of God “in spirit and truth” as it has from its beginning.
May God preserve us in true worship for our salvation, and to the glory of His Holy Name!