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Worship as a Foretaste of Heaven; Jesus' Baptism and Transfiguration

Q My pastor was explaining John Calvin’s understanding that in the Lord’s Supper “the Holy Spirit lifts us up so that we commune with Jesus in heaven.” This sounds beautiful—but it also sounds pretty far-fetched. The Lord’s Supper doesn’t feel, taste, or look like heaven. What are we to make of this?

A The idea that worship is a foretaste of heaven is not limited to Calvin. The Old Testament temple was understood to be God’s dwelling place. Eastern Orthodox churches are built to suggest that heaven and earth come together as we worship. Many traditions speak about worship as a taste of heaven.

Calvin’s theology was built around both a strong ascension theology, which understands that Jesus’ ascended body is now in heaven, and a vivid sense that our eating and drinking at the Lord’s table are, in fact, a “sharing” in Jesus’ body and blood (1 Cor. 10:16). Calvin resolved the apparent logical contradiction by saying that the Holy Spirit unites us to Christ, crossing the boundary between heaven and earth to knit us all together as Christ’s body.

Still, all of this can seem pretty hard to believe. It is difficult to know how to “set our minds on things above” (Col. 3:1).

Try coming at this topic from another angle. When most people hear the word heaven today, they think of something quite different than the writers of Scripture did. Greeting cards often depict heaven as full of clouds and people playing harps, and Hollywood movies sometimes depict heaven as a perpetual spa. Young children sometimes think of heaven as a place that exists just beyond the solar system. Enlightenment philosophers depicted heaven as essentially unknowable, certainly disconnected from the empirical world we can see, touch, and feel. If our own view of heaven is shaped by these ideas, Calvin’s understanding sounds like pious gibberish.

But none of these ideas reflect the Bible’s view. The Bible describes heaven as the place where Jesus’ ascended body is, the place from which the Holy Spirit moves freely into the world to accomplish God’s ongoing redemptive work. It is a place from which the praise and prayers of God’s people and of all creation can be heard (Rev. 5). Summing up the Bible’s teaching, N.T. Wright refers to heaven as “God’s dimension of reality,” which intersects the world (a recurring theme in many of his books, including Simply Christian). Dallas Willard challenges us to think of heaven as a dimension of reality as close to us as our breath (a recurring theme in his book Divine Conspiracy). Calvin’s understanding makes more sense when our own view of heaven is shaped in this way.

Both Wright and Willard return repeatedly to this topic, constantly challenging their readers to redefine the way they imagine heaven. Both believe that ill-formed ways of imagining heaven are one of the most basic theological problems of our time. So I’m glad your pastor is pursuing this theme.

In my own teaching, I have found it useful to use a resource from the world of mathematics, a novel about creatures living in a two-dimensional world who were confronted by a creature from a three-dimensional world. The novel, Flatland, which has been turned into a 30-minute film, describes how confusing and inspiring the discovery of a three-dimensional world was. But once the inhabitants understood the third dimension, they couldn’t imagine a world without it.

The world of greeting cards, Hollywood movies, and Enlightenment thought have flattened out our view of reality. But into this flattened world come both the incarnate Jesus and the Holy Spirit, who both tell and show us a far deeper dimension to ordinary reality. Once this changes our perception, it is difficult to think of the Lord’s Supper as not being a taste of heaven on earth!

Q My friend’s church celebrates Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration every year. I can’t remember the last time our church focused on either one. How common is that practice?

A Churches that follow the Revised Common Lectionary celebrate Jesus’ baptism on the first Sunday after Epiphany and the transfiguration on the last Sunday before Lent.

Whether your congregation follows the lectionary or not, this is a wise practice. Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration are as important for understanding his identity and mission as the triumphal entry in Jerusalem, which many churches celebrate each year.

Celebrating Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration annually also helps congregations attend to more of Jesus’ life between Christmas and Easter, which lends a stronger sense of unity to the church calendar.

To be sure, Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration are challenging topics—mysterious and full of symbolic meaning. Yet most major hymnals include hymns for each occasion. (See sidebar on p. 46 with suggestions of such hymns.) Developing sermons and service plans for these occasions can be deeply nourishing for both leaders and congregations.

Editor’s Note: We encourage readers to submit their church’s Trans-figuration services to be considered for publication in RW.

Excerpt

Congregational Songs for Jesus’ Baptism and Transfiguration

Here are songs for planning worship focusing on Christ’s baptism and transfiguration.

PH=Presbyterian Hymnal/Hymns, Psalms, Spiritual Songs
PsH=Psalter Hymnal
TH=Trinity Hymnal
RitL=Rejoice in the Lord
SNT=Singing the New Testament
UMH=The United Methodist Hymnal
WC=The Worshiping Church
WOV=With One Voice

Jesus’ Baptism

“See Christ, Who on the River Shore” (Christopher Idle) SNT 14
“Behold the Lamb of God” (John L. Bell) SNT 15
“Spirit, Working in Creation” (John Richards) PsH 415, WC 293,
“Christ, When for Us You Were Baptized” (F. Bland Tucker) PH 70, RitL 241
“O Love, How Deep, How Broad, How High” (T. á Kempis) PH 83, PsH 364, RitL 342/343, WC 193, UMH 267
“Songs of Thankfulness and Praise” (Christopher Wordsworth) PsH 361, RitL 231, WC 190

Transfiguration

“Christ upon the Mountain Peak” (Brian Wren) PH 74, PsH 369, RitL 257, WC 180, UMH 260, WOV 653
“Christ Whose Glory Fills the Skies” (Charles Wesley) PH 462/463, PsH 481, RitL 463, TH 398, WC 562, UMH 173,
“O Wondrous Type! O Vision Fair” (John Mason Neale) PH 75, RitL 256, UMH 258
“Where Mists upon the Mountain Swirled” (John Core) SNT 91