(Continued from Part 3)
It’s a simple fact that the worship of God cannot be carried out without ritual. There is good ritual and bad ritual. There is never no ritual. As well, all worship resorts in some fashion to the use of symbols. So, we haven’t addressed the subject without looking at these terms.
THEN WHAT IS THE SUBSTANCE OF CHRISTIAN WORSHIP?
But essence must be attended by substance. True, Christian worship is largely internal, an exercise of the spirit because “God is Spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth” (Jn 4:24). But we are not pure spirit. We are creatures who partake deeply of the material realities of life. When Paul exhorts, “Present your bodies a living sacrifice … which is your spiritual worship” he acknowledges this fact (Rom.12:1). So, what can help us physical beings to worship God in Spirit? Consider four substantial means:
Ponder The Use Of Ritual
All congregations rely on ritual of one sort or another, and sometimes those most opposed to ritual become the most ritualistic. For example, a charismatic leader was in charge of a summer community union service in another evangelical church in his town. He began by scolding the members of the host congregation for how “ritualistic” they had become over the years. He then sought to help them by calling for some hearty amens. Next, he faced one side of the congregation and exhorted them to say, at the drop of his hands, “Amen.” Turning to the other side he made the same urgent request. He kept this up until he was satisfied (although the long suffering people were not). His thought was to deliver the people from what he considered their cold rituals. In fact, he was only substituting another ritual more to his liking.
Any ritual used by Christians grown cold becomes empty, but there is no such thing as a congregation without ritual — saying the Lord’s Prayer together, singing the Doxology after the offering, standing for the pastoral prayer, starting each service with 20 minutes of praise choruses, placing a hymn of response after the sermon. What a congregation does week after week are its rituals. And what it uses should be chosen wisely because it takes rituals of substance and beauty to bring refreshment despite their frequent use. I remember one aged member of a congregation who had served the Lord since her childhood. She said, “the ritual we use for the Lord’s Supper becomes more meaningful to me with the passing of the years.”
Consider The Place Of Symbol
The substance of worship is also reflected in the use of Christian symbols. A symbol is an object that helps the worshiper to apprehend the spiritual reality that is behind all Christian worship. The use of symbol is not a substitute for truth, but it marks the point where physical and spiritual reality meet.
I once took a group of 10- and 11-year-olds into the sanctuary of the church. I was leading them in a membership class midweek after school. I had them sit down on the floor in front of the communion table. Carved across the face of that beautiful walnut table were the words, “This do in remembrance of me.” For starters, I asked if they ever felt that God was present when they came with their parents to worship. One of them, Barbara, said, “Oh yes, and sometimes it’s sort of scary; well not really scary but you know what I mean.” I did know. Children are well able to feel awe in God’s holy presence.
In even the simplest location, symbols can help in divine worship — the communion table with a Bible and candles on it; the pulpit, a symbol of the authority of God’s preached word — often called in earlier times “the sacred desk”; the communion rail, more recently referred to as the altar; a cross mounted on the wall behind the pulpit; artistic banners reminding the congregation of “faith” or “hope” or “love.” It’s hard to live without symbols, so they, too, should be chosen carefully and exploited wisely to enhance the worship of God.
Sacraments Are Acts Of Worship
Sacraments or ordinances are a third substantial means of worshiping God. The word “sacrament” from the Latin “sacramentum” means a pledging. Sacraments have to do with the use of physical enactments to enhance our sensitivity to spiritual realities. Whereas symbols have to do with objects; sacraments have to do mostly with actions.
The two sacraments observed almost universally in Protestantism — Baptism and Holy Communion — convey by action two key realities at the heart of the Christian faith. Commanded by Christ, baptism is a rite of initiation into the church (Matt.28:19,20). Water is used to represent the washing away of sin and the beginning of a new life in Christ. Paul refers to the “washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). By it, some believing parents dedicate their children to God until such a time as the children can make their own faith commitment. In adult baptism new believers pledge publicly to follow Christ. Baptismal services bring great blessing to a congregation because the essence of the faith — the worship of the triune God — is made substantial, visible, even palpable.
If Baptism is a rite of entry into the church, Holy Communion is a rite of continuation through faith in Christ’s sacrificial death. When believers regularly receive a piece of bread and the juice of the crushed grape, they celebrate again and again the death of the Lord Jesus Christ and enact their dependence on the merits of that death for their redemption. This rite Jesus also commanded when he said, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Lk. 22:19). His most mystifying and inviting words, reflecting the reality behind the action may always be, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (Jn 6:53). Holy Communion enacts total dependence on Christ for our salvation.