These three posts are taken from a sermon I preached in October 2016.
Part One noted that most of us learn about worship by imitating others, and pick up some cultural idiosyncrasies along the way. (By culture I mean the ways we make sense of life in order to make decision about how to act.) Although we all believe in the same gospel, "worship wars" happen when cultures clash.
I'm using a story from the gospel of John, its well-known but look for the evidence of a clash of worship cultures.
John 4: 7 -26 (Frederick Dale Bruner translation, read it in NLT here)
Samaritan Woman: “How come you, a Jewish man, are asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink of water?” (You see, Jewish people try not to have much to do with Samaritans.)
Jesus: “If you only knew the free gift of God, and who it is who is talking to you, asking ‘Would you please give me a drink of water?’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you - Living Water.”
…..“Every single person who is drinking this well-water will get thirsty, again; but whoever once drinks the water that I give will never ever thirst again. In fact, the water I will give that person will become in that person a Fountain of Water gushing up into deep, lasting Life.”
Woman: “Sir, I have the feeling that you are a prophet. You know our ancestors worshipped here on (Gerizim). But you people are saying that Jerusalem is the place where people absolutely have to worship.”
Jesus: “Trust me madam, an hour is coming when neither here on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you people be worshipping the Father. You people, I’m sorry to say, worship something you don’t really understand, because real salvation comes through the Jewish people. However, an hour is coming – indeed it is happening right now – when the true worshippers will be worshipping the Father by means of Spirit and Truth. You see, the Father too is actively seeking exactly such people (true worshippers) to be the people worshipping him. The great God is Spirit and the people who worship him absolutely have to worship him by means of Spirit and Truth.”
Woman: “A Messiah is coming who …will explain everything to us.”
Jesus: “I am he, I, the one talking with you.”
What kind of worshippers is the Father seeking? The Hebrew Bible gives us some clues. It contains many pages of detailed instructions for worship rituals going back to Moses' day. But within a few centuries they had either been ignored or become so rigid and superficial that their spiritual function had almost disappeared. Old Testament prophets like Isaiah and Amos described the temple worship as ‘abominable’ and ‘rejected by God'. After the exile the Jewish Rabbinic movement attempted to change that, but brought in a legalistic and hypocritical culture. With the coming of the gospel, and the way of Christ, the deep spiritual meaning of worship practices like prayer, music, scripture, repentance, Passover and baptism were restored and renewed. What had earlier had physical and material meaning was recovered in the spiritual dimension as the Risen Jesus came to indwell his people, individually and in community. That’s what this good news story is about.
Here’s the background – for 700 years the Jews and Samaritans had developed different worship cultures; they are still estranged today. The separation had an political dimension because the Samaritans were seen to be mixed ethnicity, while the Jews treasured their racial purity. But there were spiritual difference as well. The Samaritans followed different scriptures, a smaller bible with no prophets or psalms That meant their expectation for God’s future were necessarily incomplete, with little thought of a Messiah. This is what Jesus meant when he said to the woman “You Samaritans know very little about the one you worship”. But if Samaritan worship was inadequate, Jewish worship was too burdensome. In this conversation with the woman of Samaria, Jesus explains that God is not found in altars or buildings – not the temple in Jerusalem, not the shrine at Gerizim. John Stott wrote that where the people of God come together indoors or open air, church or shack, majestic cathedral or dingy catacomb, God promises his presence; wherever two or three are gathered (Matt 18:20).
And what is true of buildings is also true of our worship style or culture. No outward form is of itself right or wrong - silent meditation, monastic chants, orthodox pageantry, ancient hymns, happy clappy choruses, Parachute, Hillsong or indie. These forms are only helpful or unhelpful, and that will vary from place to place and time to time. The Bible warns us over and over again about placing too much stress on the externals of religion. We all have different backgrounds and temperament and need to give each other permission - and opportunity – to lean in to these differences. And look to the Holy Spirit of the risen Christ to lift us out of our self-centredness. The Father, says Jesus, seeks authentic worship, worship in spirit and truth. What might he mean?
Traditionally these words have been written in lowercase and interpreted to mean inwardly authentic worship without outward ceremony. And a few times I have preached I’ve contrasted spirit and truth as ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ components of worship. But this year I’ve been reading a theologian called Dale Bruner, whose translation we are using today. He says the message is more biblically nuanced than that, and much more about community than individual salvation. He says Jesus is introducing the woman to two realities. A free gift that she just needs to ask for, and a personal encounter with the Messiah, the one she is meeting in person by the well.
“If you only knew the free gift of God, and who it is who is talking to you…”
I'll draw out Bruner's explanation in Part Three (link coming).
To Think About: Are there outward forms that help or hinder your worship? Why?
Go to Part Three
Go to Part Three