Worshipping God As We Are: Worship Forms Our Identity in Christ
Isn’t it self-evident that we worship God with who we are? Not really. In the medieval period priests and singers performed before silent spectators. And at the Reformation Ulrich Zwingli “conducted a monologue in the presence of a completely silent congregation” (Howard Hageman, Pulpit and Table, p. 120). There’s not much difference between those two practices. The people could watch or listen, but who they were was omitted.
We perpetuate similar practices in private devotions or performances by pastors and musicians before silent congregations. We perpetuate the same idea when we wish we were like some other church. Behind the wish is the assumption that importing something from the outside will solve our problems.
The church at its healthiest knows another way. It begins by asking who we are. As Christians we are creatures created by God—good but fallen creatures, redeemed and given new life in Christ. In Christ God took on our flesh, nailed our fallen brokenness to a cross, and broke our brokenness to new life. Death is taken captive. New life is ours for the taking.
We participate in this new life in worship where God addresses, graces, and embraces us. At the font we are baptized into Christ’s death and life, into Christ’s body, the church. We gather weekly on the day of Christ’s resurrection to read from the book that tells the history of God’s dealing with us. We expect pastors to apply themselves to the Bible and the newspaper in the hope that in their poor human words we will by the Holy Spirit hear God’s Word. We gather at the table to receive the bread and cup. And we depart into the world as the presence of Christ that we have received.
We only need ordinary things—words in our language, water from our faucets, bread and wine from our stores. We ordinary people speak these words, pour this water, break this bread, and drink this cup. Christ promises to be with us when only two or three do these things in his name. We don’t need to be bigger or different from who we are. There are implications:
• First, we come with our sound, not with some choral ideal. We are virtuosos or monotones or somewhere in between. God expects us to use our voices and gives us a song to sing.
• Second, we are the youngest child, the oldest adult, and everybody in between. We come from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. We have differing gifts and abilities, different sexual orientations. We are short people, tall people, athletic, studious, clumsy. The church crosses every boundary and says this is good. Everybody is welcome around pulpit, font, and table. Nobody is treated like an object; we use people’s gifts at points of strength.
• Third, we are part of the church catholic. To stop with ourselves is idolatry. Not all Christians are like us. We learn from our sisters and brothers in Christ to guard against thinking we have all the truth. Our song is enriched by that of the whole church, past and present.
• Fourth, to worship is to do what is of the highest worth accompanied by a vision of who we are in Christ. We will never reach that ideal because we are always sinners; but in Christ who we are is not who we were. In Christ all things become new. We who were no people are now a people, a new creation. As a new people doing the highest human thing, we are led beyond our sloth. It’s no accident that the finest art, architecture, and music have been produced by the church.
• Fifth, worship is soli Deo Gloria, “for the glory of God alone.” God turns it upside down and graces us, but from our side it’s soli Deo Gloria. That evokes the highest human virtuosity. Our non-virtuoso sounds have a place, but so does the careful practice of two or more. That’s a choir. Choir and congregation do not compete; they complement one another.
None of this undoes who we are. We go where the Spirit leads and discover we are more than we thought. The world offers a rich array of resources we can use for God’s glory. Potters, musicians, artists, architects, teachers, and poets can help us.
• Sixth, we do all this for the world. We gather as an invitational oasis for the world, turned outward not only to God but to the world for whom Christ died. We spend money on worship because worship is worth spending money on. Simultaneously we take a collection for the poor and needy, just as the early church did. Giving of what we have to support justice and peace is worshiping God with who we are.
Priesthood of All Believers
Howard Hageman helps us put these pieces together. “Our liturgical life must witness to the priesthood of all believers,” he says (Pulpit and Table, p. 119). It is the “corporate task of the entire Christian fellowship.”
The priesthood of all believers starts with Christ’s priesthood. Christ is both priest and sacrifice. We, though defiled, yet are priests in Christ in whom we “offer ourselves and our all to God,” in Calvin’s words (Institutes, IV.xix.28). That offering extends to the neighbor. Faith spills into good works—no merit there, simply thankfulness. To express our thankfulness is to be a priest to our neighbor. Bard Thompson says we lay hold of the grace of God by faith. We exhort one another, hear each other’s confessions, do good things, and pray for our neighbor. That leads to corporate worship (lecture notes from “The History of Christian Worship,” Lancaster Theological Seminary). Worship is not something done by an individual priest in a private mass, or by a pastor in private devotions before silent spectators, or by a nonordained lay “priest” alone on a mountainside with sagebrush. Worship is the liturgy done by the entire people of God.
The Corporate Character of Worship
Thompson and Hageman make the same point: the Reformation emphasizes the corporate character of worship. We worship as the body of Christ, not as individuals. Hageman puts it this way: “The liturgical life of the Reformed congregation is not a matter of individual needs but of the witness and responsibility of the entire fellowship” (Pulpit and Table, p. 120).
Worship is not about our individual needs. Starting there is a Pandora’s box of madness. Every need turns into a legion of others in a profusion of self-centered despair that circles in on itself and leads to death. To worship God with who we are starts not with needs, but with calls, vocations, and responsibilities. Hageman’s logic suggests three clusters here.
• First, the corporate character of our worship is most obvious in the adoration, prayer, and praise we do together. But note how individuals contribute to it. Somebody crafts words, fits them to music, leads music, fashions prayers, designs and builds worship spaces, furnishes them, and dances in them. We call these “artists” to the vocation of adoration, prayer, and praise. Our artists tell the story and help us glimpse the grace God offers so that as a body we can adore, pray, and praise with one voice in heightened vision on our pilgrimage.
• Second, pulpit, font, and table suggest how the various gifts spread out in tandem. The pastor preaches the word and presides at font and table. The congregation responds with critical listening, gathers at the font to affirm our individual baptisms and to welcome the newly baptized, and comes to the table to greet and be greeted by the Holy One who comes in the name of the Lord.
Again, someone prepares the font with water, makes baptismal garments, cleans the font after the service, bakes or buys the bread, presses grapes or buys the wine, prepares the table, takes care of the bread and wine that are left over, greets people, hands out worship folders prepared by somebody else, opens and closes the building, and cleans. We are all these people with various vocations who in our respective callings work together for the sake of the whole.
• Third, apart from the gathered body, the church permeates the world as the butcher, baker, candlestick maker, governor, maid, father, sister, secretary, computer programmer, and on and on, in service and love.
It is no accident that the mass in the West was named for its words of dismissal, Ite misse est—Go, this is the dismissal. They highlight the sending of the people into the world in blessing and mission to be what they receive, the body and blood of Christ. In the words of George Macleod, “We are to be to others what Christ has become for us” (Only One Way Left, p.35).
So who are we? A people who, from the womb of our baptism, worship God as we are with what we are around Word and Table. And we do that with all the resources we can imagine, to the glory of God, in service and love to the world.
Artwork by Lecy Design, from Graphics for Worship 2.0 CD (© 1999, Augsburg Fortress, 1-800-421-0239). Used by permisssion.