This article is the fourth in a series introducing “Worshiping the Triune God,” a working document published following the inaugural meeting of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) in June 2010. (For parts 1-3, see RW 100, 102, and 103.) This document is a series of “proverbs” designed to provoke ongoing discussion about the nature and function of Christian worship. The study guide is intended to localize a global conversation, inviting those who design, lead, and participate in the liturgical life of particular congregations to experience deeper blessing and to exercise greater wisdom in their approach to worship. In this article, we will combine “response” and “sacraments”—forms of gratitude and means of grace.
Responding to God
Every moment of our life is a response to God. Every thought, every action, every reaction—whether gratitude, entitlement, rejection, or indifference—moves us closer to God or further away. What has your day been like so far? Have you been blessed or stressed? Have you noticed God’s presence in conversations, God’s leading in decisions, God’s grace and protection? Or have you been so focused on surviving the day that you need to consciously pause to realize how close God is to you at this very moment?
We hit that same pause button in corporate worship whenever we have the opportunity to respond to God through prayer and the sacraments. As a gathered community we enter into worship, share confession and assurance, and hear God’s Word proclaimed—all within a scripted liturgy. But when it’s time for us to respond to God, worship suddenly becomes intensely personal. No one else can do it for us. We alone can express our sense of gratitude, entitlement, rejection, or indifference to God. Which will it be?
Worship leaders must understand that these are the moments in corporate worship over which we have absolutely no control. We can create opportunities for response and provide means and methods, but we cannot influence the act of responding. This is the worshipers’ time to take or leave, apply or amend, appropriate or repurpose the good news of Jesus Christ—and the heart of each worshiper is the place in which his or her response to God is coalesced.
That being said, this next set of proverbs is really a set of metrics to evaluate the effectiveness of response. Are you seeing evidence of deep interaction with God among the individuals in your worshipping community? Are you sensing the blessing?
3.1 Praise and Gratitude
Blessed is the church that offers praise and thanksgiving not only extolling the beauty and glory of God, but also contemplating, reciting, and celebrating all that God has done throughout history.
Wise is the congregation that draws upon and leans from the Bible’s own narratively-shaped prayers of praise and thanksgiving as it gives form to its own prayer.
As we have said in earlier sections of this study, all of Christian worship is contemporary and eternal—informed by the moment and rooted in history. The prayers of God’s people are no different. Delightful as it is to praise God for the beauty of any given day, it is an almost unfathomable blessing to realize that we are, at that moment, addressing the Creator of every gorgeous day that has ever existed. God, who inspired you to sing the opening hymn with reckless abandon on this particular morning, also unleashed the angels’ festival chorus at the creation of the world and the incarnation of his Son. We are part of something much larger than we may realize!
Scripture is the go-to place to gain this broader perspective on God and eternity. Throughout Scripture, the place of God’s people in God’s big picture is confirmed when they realize what God is doing in their midst, and that both God and God’s people have “been there before.” This can be our experience when we use the great narrative prayers of Scripture to inform and influence our own prayer. When we respond to God, we are lip-syncing our praise with Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam, David, Isaiah, and thousands of other men and women just like them—God’s people throughout time.
Questions for Reflection
- Where have you seen the beauty and glory of God revealed today? Have you consciously responded to God with praise and thanksgiving?
- Why is praising God often referred to as a “sacrifice?” (Heb. 13:15). What is meant by “the fruit of lips that confess his name?”
Take time to read Psalm 136 carefully. Only read the first half of each verse. What you see is a narrative of God’s power and love at work through a small segment of history. Does seeing this narrative unfold help you to respond with the words, “His steadfast love endures forever”?
3.2 Praying in Jesus’ Name through the Spirit
Blessed is the church that prays in Jesus’ name, acknowledging our union with our ascended and ever-present Lord.
Blessed is the worshiping community that prays in and through the Holy Spirit, desiring the gifts of the Spirit, and acknowledging that as we pray the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness, interceding for us according to the will of God, and resisting the “cosmic powers of this present darkness.”
As Jesus’ followers, we worship the triune God: Father, Son and Spirit, united in One. While worship leaders cannot control the individual responses of God’s people, we can ensure that the language of praise, thanksgiving, and petition does not become tired, trivial, or unintentionally unitarian.
It is right to offer our prayers to God, the Creator of heaven and earth, whom we can call “our Father.” But even that blessing of familiarity is made possible because of our union with Jesus Christ, God’s Son—our Savior. Only because we are united with Christ can we, sinful people, experience an intimate relationship with God, who is both just and holy. Scripture is filled with this and other blessings of union with Christ.
We are still one “person” shy of tri-unity, however. Jesus promised his followers the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, the Intercessor, Advocate, Counselor, Comforter (John 14:16). Scripture explains what God’s Holy Spirit can offer and enable when we are open to the Spirit’s blessing. Perhaps the proverb should read, “Impoverished is the worshiping community that does not pray in and through the Holy Spirit, afraid of the gifts of the Spirit, failing to acknowledge that as we pray the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. . . .” Like stubborn children who would rather have a broken toy than ask for help fixing it, Jesus’ followers can be content to “shoot a few prayers up to God now and then,” never realizing the blessing of an intimate, ongoing relationship with the living triune God.
Questions for Reflection
- Locate Scripture passages that mention “union with” or “being united with” Christ. What promises do they list?
- What are some ways we acknowledge our union with Christ in prayer? What happens when you offer the same prayer omitting that acknow-ledgement?
Read Romans 8:26-27. What does it mean that “we do not know how to pray as we ought”? What are some of the things people in your worshiping community may be “sighing” for?
3.3 Full Range of Human Experience
Wise is the church that, following the example of the Psalms, encourages honest and trusting prayers to God that express the full range of human experience, the “anatomy of the soul”—spoken, sung, or silent, danced, dramatized, or visualized—prayers of celebration and lament, trust and desperation, supplication and intercession, thanksgiving and confession, healing and hope.
Blessed is the church that prays not only for its own needs, but also for the needs of the world that God so loves.
The psalms prove to us that nothing is off limits in our interaction with God. “The Anatomy of All the Parts of the Soul” was John Calvin’s way of describing the psalms. In his commentary he wrote, “there is no emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not represented [in the psalms] as in a mirror . . . our heart is brought into the light, purged from that most baneful infection—hypocrisy.” The supreme goal of Christian worship is to achieve that level of honesty with God. Our individual, unedited, unbridled response to God offers us that opportunity.
Yet relatively few of Jesus’ followers in North America seem to have the freedom of God’s love and the empowerment of God’s Spirit necessary to truly delight in this opportunity to be real with “our Father” about the things that matter most in our lives—to sing and dance and play before God; to laugh or weep or admit (out loud) that we are perplexed about our life or relationships, or that we are hurt, humiliated, haunted. Like much of the rest of our worship, the range of “acceptable” response to God is often drastically diminished by our Euro-centric, self-conscious, “What would the people in the next pew think?” culture. Only when we can honestly present our own lives to God in prayer and response can we begin to know the blessing of being fully engaged in voicing the needs of others. In response, as in so many other acts of worship, we need help and encouragement from sisters and brothers in more uninhibited parts of God’s world!
Questions for Reflection
- What are different ways your worshiping community prays?
- Are some emotions or topics, intentionally or unintentionally, “off limits”? Why?
How are you nurturing prayerful attention to “the needs of the world that God so loves”?
3.4 Gifts and Offerings
Wise is the church that gratefully practices the giving of gifts, time, and talent, as an act of dedication and worship.
Wise is the church that affirms that all of life is lived in service to God and neighbor, and that believers are called to be stewards of every gift of God.
There is no such thing as a selfish Christian. Although many selfish, self-focused, and self-centered people claim to be followers of Jesus, Scripture reminds us repeatedly that Jesus came to serve (not to be served), and this is to be the pattern of life for his followers as well. But perhaps the most important take-away for the purpose of this study is that the “offering” is response to God. We do not give to buy God’s blessings. Tithers are not more beloved by God than people who give 3.4 percent! We do not give to support our church, although money from the offering may be allocated to help meet institutional commitments. Followers of Jesus offer our whole selves—money, time, ability, attention, attendance, intelligence, expertise—as a gift of thanksgiving to God. And the 90 percent that we do not give back directly to God, we are called to offer in service to others. This is the response of a gospel-shaped life.
4.1 Jesus’ Commands to Baptize and Celebrate the Lord’s Supper
Blessed is the church that faithfully obeys Jesus’ commands “to make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything Jesus has commanded,” and to “eat and drink in remembrance of me,” receiving these signs as occasions in which God works to nourish and sustain, comfort and challenge, teach and transform us.
We are intentionally combining two sections of “Worshiping the Triune God” because baptism and the Lord’s Supper are also responses to God. The sacraments, like prayer, demand the attention and participation of each individual believer. But also like prayer, the sacraments are outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual truth only by the faith of believers. Without faith, baptism just gets a few people wet and the Supper just looks like skimpy snacks. The sacraments are responses of praise and thanksgiving—assuring Jesus’ followers that they belong to him and empowering God’s people for selfless service in the world God loves.
Blessed is the congregation that announces that their true identity is found in Jesus Christ.
Blessed is the congregation that proclaims how the waters of baptism are a sign and seal of God’s promises to wash us clean, to adopt us into the body of Christ, to send the Holy Spirit to renew, empower, and resurrect us to a new life in Christ.
Blessed is the congregation that proclaims how the waters of baptism are also a sign and seal of God’s call to renounce sin and evil, to embrace Christ and our new identity in him, and to live a renewed and holy life.
Wise is the community who celebrates baptism joyfully and remembers that baptism as a means of grace and encouragement to live out our vows of covenant faithfulness.
While much time and attention should be invested in examining, considering, and enjoying the beautiful theology that is expressed in the first three proverbs in this section, I want to focus on the final proverb. Frequently in the Reformed tradition, baptism is administered to babies or young children. Because of this, our astonishingly potent rite of initiation into the Christian faith has, in many worshiping communities, devolved into something best described as “cute and cuddly.” Or, possibly worse, the grand rite of initiation has been allowed to become a liturgical add-on, crammed into an already tight one-hour “schedule” and abbreviated accordingly.
Read the above proverbs again. If you were asked to design an act of worship that announced our identity in Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world; that proclaimed the promise of the Creator of all to cleanse us from our sin and death and claim us as his own; that included an anointing in the power of God’s Holy Spirit; that allowed us (in the power of that Spirit) to renounce sin and evil, embrace Christ, and begin a transformed life; would you try to squeeze all that into three minutes before the children’s sermon?
The stakes are even higher now that we are baptizing more and more adults—many of whom are experiencing for the first time the embodiment of “church.” Life transformation deserves serious attention and significant amounts of liturgical time. Baptisms in many Asian cultures, as an example, are accompanied by testimonies of faith and transformation—evidence plainly spoken of God’s power, grace, and tenacious love. We need to hear these testimonies, hit the pause button, and realize that God is doing amazing things in our midst.
Questions for Reflection
- Are we so eager to remember that God loved us first (infants), or that God really can redeem us from ourselves (adults), that we are willing to give our time and attention to the sacrament that proclaims this? If not, why not?
- Do we believe that baptism is an outward sign of a very real spiritual truth? Does our worship order and practice affirm that belief?
- How does your worshiping community respond joyfully to the celebration of baptisms?
4.3 The Lord’s Supper
Blessed is the church that regularly celebrates the Lord’s Supper as a feast of thanksgiving, communion, and hope.
Blessed is the congregation that not only gratefully remembers God’s creating and redeeming work in Jesus Christ, knowing his presence in the breaking of the bread, but also gratefully receives the gift of union with Jesus Christ and Christ’s body, and looks forward to the feast of the coming kingdom.
Blessed is the congregation that shares this meal by “discerning the body of Christ” in its manifold oneness, by expressing hospitality for one another with grace and truth, and by reflecting God’s hospitality for us in ministries of hospitality in the world.
This last proverb references one of the most disputed passages of the New Testament. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul was addressing massive dysfunction within the worshiping community at Corinth. People of privilege would arrive early, eat and drink with no thought for others, become drunk on the “blood of Christ,” gorge themselves on his “body,” and not only disrupt the worship of the community but deprive others of participation in the actual bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. Middle Eastern translations of this text, which are somewhat more blunt than the NRSV or NIV, help us understand that Paul said these people were “destroying” the body of Christ.
In his new commentary on 1 Corinthians, Ken Bailey captures the essence of the problem in Corinth and the truth behind this proverb today:
Paul’s readers were asked to remember that [worship] is not one more Greek drinking party. It is not merely a social occasion to pass the time with friends. . . . They have come together as the body of Christ to remember the saving events that created them as a body and to proclaim that salvation to the world. Each worshiper is intimately connected with the other worshipers, and the struggles, joys, fears, and failures of all are known and shared. All come as sinners in need of grace, and in that shared awareness there is openness to receive needed healing. The only believer who is unworthy to receive the Holy Communion is the person who thinks that he/she is worthy to receive it. (Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in First Corinthians, IVP, 2011, pp. 323-324.)
Questions for Reflection
- In the context of “response,” what is the blessing of celebrating the Lord’s Supper with “thanksgiving, communion, and hope”?
- What truth does the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper give us about ourselves, our worshiping community, and our place in God’s big picture?
- Locate several versions of the Great Thanksgiving in the Worship Sourcebook (CRC), the Book of Common Worship (PCUSA), or other worship books.
- This is a narrative prayer. What does it tell you?
- What has been the most helpful discovery of this study on responding to God?