Friday, February 22, 2013
Emptying the Cross of Its Power by our Form of Worship?
If a style or form of public speaking can threaten to empty the cross of its power, then a style or form of worship can also empty the cross of its power. This is my main concern as I look at how the church today in the Evangelical and Reformed world worships. My fear is that the very form of our worship services is at odds with the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Our problem is twofold. First of all, we have all but eliminated the Lord's Supper from the divine service. In Reformed circles we have a regulative principle that says that Scripture is to guide our worship services. This is a good principle, but if we ask the question, Where in Scripture is the worship service instituted? the answer is found in Jesus' words, "Do this in remembrance of me." Here is where our Lord instituted the liturgy.
But notice that Jesus instituted the divine service through the meal, and not through the preaching and teaching of the Word. He knew that his pattern of teaching accompanied by a meal, and his pattern of teaching accompanied by miracles, would ensure for the regular teaching of his people in the liturgy. He knew that what we would be prone to leave out of the liturgy was the meal, and so he instituted the liturgy with the meal rather than preaching or teaching.
When we leave out the meal, we empty the cross of its power because in the meal we draw near to the risen and exalted Christ. The meal is a sign and wonder that corresponds to the miracles of Jesus, for it brings us into contact with the crucified and risen Christ. In the meal Jesus gives us his forgiveness and risen life. Yes, Jesus also gives these same blessings in the preaching of the Word, but since the teaching of the Word is designed to lead us to this fellowship with the Father and the Son, it is best if we allow it to happen in our services. If we leave out the meal, our tendency will be to begin to view sermons as mere lectures, instead of teaching that leads us to life because they lead us to Jesus Christ.
The Supper is a kingdom meal. Jesus told us that he would not eat this meal until he came into his kingdom. But the risen Christ ate this meal with his disciples on the day of his resurrection! This meal, therefore, is powerful because in it we meet with our resurrected Christ. It is the goal of the preached Word. We are unwise builders if we keep this meal, which brings us into contact with our King, from his people. The pattern that Jesus gave us continues in his church: teaching and signs, teaching and a meal. This pattern accords with Jesus' death and resurrection, but a change in the pattern he gave us does not.
If the first problem we have has been inherited (although all the evidence shows that the early church participated in the Supper each Lord's Day), our second problem is this generation's own doing. This second problem is multi-faceted but it involves the first part of the liturgy, which is called the liturgy of the Word as opposed to the second part of the liturgy which is called the liturgy of the table. Lots of issues are involved in this part of the problem including the proper way to approach God, the role of music, and the reading of God's Word. The second problem, like the first, is a lack of wisdom in applying the cross to our worship together --- a failure to pay attention to the pattern of worship Jesus gave us in his words of institution and in his ministry.
The cross necessitates that we approach our Father humbly. The triune God we serve is glorious in holiness. We can only approach him through a mediator, and that mediator is Jesus. Early on in our service we must confess our sins and our unworthiness to approach him in and of ourselves. We do not believe in a theology of glory---the teaching that we can approach God through our own merit or wisdom or spirituality. We come to him through the blood of the Mediator, which cleanses us. We come humbly, because original sin still clings to us even as believers, and our need of cleansing and covering by the blood and righteousness of Jesus is constant.
We also come humbly to our Lord to listen. Imagine coming to Jesus while he walked this earth and spending more time talking to him than he spent talking to us! Yet this is what we are doing now days as we eliminate Scripture reading from our services, so that we can sing (talk) more and more. We are to come to him humbly, recognizing that the written Word is a means of grace. Yes, we should sing as as part of our dialogue with the the Father and the Son, but not to the exclusion of Scripture readings from the Old and New Testaments.
We also need to be careful in the words we sing. More thought needs to be given to the function of each song in the liturgy. Some songs are praise; some are prayers; some are confessions and laments; some are teaching; some are exhortation; some are a combination thereof. The direction of our songs can be vertical from God to us or from us to God. They can also be horizontal as we address one another. But these things need to be kept in mind so that our songs serve the dialogue of worship. Our goal in the liturgy of the Word is to hear Christ, and this is not just applicable to the sermon, but to the entire liturgy of the Word.
Our tendency today is to sing about ourselves! "I will love, I will serve," etcetera. Too often we are the subject of our songs, rather than our Lord. Not only that, by putting words into people's mouths in the first person singular, we make liars out of many in the congregation. Individual thank offerings in the Old Testament were just that, namely, individual. The individual brought the thanks for the individual mercies given to him and no one could do that for him. The place for individual thanks in the divine service is during the quiet of the Supper, but because we no longer have the Supper, we have to compensate! When we follow Jesus' pattern in the Lord's Prayer of we, us, and our we do not make liars out of the congregation for we are speaking collectively. If we do not use I and me much in our prayers, then why would we use I's and me's in our songs, which are, for the most part, prayers put to music?
But aren't the Psalms full of I's and me's? Yes, but we are singing the Psalmists' words and ultimately the words of Jesus to whom the Psalmists pointed. The Psalmists' I and me is really a collective word, for Jesus is our representative and we are singing the words of Scripture. I am not saying that we can never sing a hymn or chorus that contains I or me but we have to be very careful. True worship is a self-offering of ourselves to God in view of his mercies in his Son (Romans 12:1), but we cannot make that offering for others.
If we can empty the cross of its power by a form of public speaking that is inimical to the death and resurrection of Jesus, and we can as Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 1-4, then it is possible to do the same thing in our form of worship. We need a form of worship that is in accord with the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus has not left us without such a form! He instituted the form in the words, "Do this in remembrance of me," and instituted the pattern of worship in his ministry of word and signs and word and meal. May we build as wise builders, and not as foolish ones, for his glory and our good. In our worship may we experience the power of the age to come by the Holy Spirit as we taste our Lord's gracious Word and eat his heavenly meal (Hebrews 6:4-5). Amen.