Dr. James R. Hart, President
The Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies
What is the purpose of Christian worship? It actually is an end in itself. We gather in response to God’s ultimate call to true or right worship—orthodoxy—proper doxology—right “adoration.”
Adoration comes from the Latin word adoratio, which means “to the mouth of.” Adoration is this intimate mouth to mouth relationship, the essence of true worship. The Song of Songs begins, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!” The Great Tradition interpreted this as the song of the soul singing to God for union. Union with God through Jesus Christ is the aspiration of true worship as we celebrate the mighty works of God in Jesus Christ. True worship leads to the rightly ordered life, family, church, city, country, culture, and cosmos. If you want a primary key to reading the entire biblical narrative, it is God calling his creation to true, right worship. God ultimately wants His people to worship Him right because, in that great act, we become rightly aligned unto God through Jesus Christ, the primary worshipper.
Worship gives an appropriate “orthodox” structure to our relationship with the God who wants to fire us with His love and passion to set things right. When things are set right, the created order is re-Edenized, brought back to its original intent in the Garden of Eden.
In the Great Tradition, worship is the participation of the people of God in the work of God. Through worship, Christ, our Redeemer, and high priest continues the work of our redemption in, with, and through the Church. Through worship, the three offices of Christ are manifested in and through the Body of Christ: the priestly office, kingly office, and prophetic office. Worship is priestly in its offering of Eucharist for the life of the world; kingly in inspiring concrete acts of charity, and prophetic in the proclamation and embodiment of the apostolic Gospel.
One of the fundamental ideas from scripture is that humans were created to offer right praise to God. The Garden of Eden was centered on right praise, and Adam and Eve were tasked to multiply and be fruitful, Edenizing the whole world. But, sin interrupted the project. In response, God chose Israel, calling them to right worship centered on the tabernacle first, then the temple, and gave them the task to Israelize creation. But, sin again entered the project. However, Israel was promised a Messiah who would fulfill that call by gathering the tribes and cleansing the temple, restoring the right worship of God. This is accomplished by God himself in the incarnation, God in Christ taking on flesh to perfect the praise of the created order, Christifying the world.
We have the privilege of telling the world its true story and bringing it to the right worship of the only God who is ultimately true, good, and beautiful. God wants true worship so we can be rightly ordered and sent on mission. This is why true worship is at the very core of the Christian faith! The Bible is God’s story of how he chooses and shapes a people with his heart and mind to praise him aright, to reverse that process of dis-integration, to re-integrate, to re-order our lives around Christ, and to go out on mission to participate in the reconciliation of creation. The content and structure of our worship simply summarize the Biblical narrative where God’s people are called to Edenize, Israelize, Christify, the entire created order. True worship is participation in the story of God’s saving work in Jesus the Christ. It is the submission of humankind to God, to be cleansed, changed into his likeness through word and table, and then sent on mission with fire to love the world to the God who is perfect love.
We see this call to true worship clearly in Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well in John chapter 4. First, please notice some essential details. The woman came to the well to draw water at noon, the hottest time of day. In that time, women didn’t go to wells at noon, and certainly not alone. They went in the cool of the morning or evening, always in groups. But this woman was living with the shame of scandal, having had five husbands and living with a man who wasn’t her husband. So she came alone at midday.
Additionally, she was a Samaritan, hated by both Jews and Gentiles. And, obviously, she was a woman. A conversation between a man and a woman was not typically allowed in this culture, let alone a Jewish man and a Samaritan woman, let alone a righteous man and a sinful woman. She was a triple outcast. As author Kimberly Mandelkow writes, she was “…looking for love and companionship – simple acceptance and affirmation. There is an intimacy that’s lost in her – she didn’t know how or where to find that, so she looked in all the wrong places … hurt by the unforgiveness and harsh judgments of others who were completely unaware of [her] own need to forgive [her]self.” She thirsted for transcendent love.
Let’s look deeper. What were wells in the Old Testament? Isaac, Jacob, Moses each found his wife at a well. Wells were trysting places, locations for marriage proposals. This woman came to draw water, but she met God incarnate. Jesus offered true, intimate covenantal love to her, or union with God.
Furthermore, this woman stepped into the light of Christ at high noon, and Jesus the Christ offered her living water, the baptismal water of new life. Her first reaction revealed confusion. But soon after this Jesus came to the core of the conversation, “But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him.”
This is a type of marriage proposal. Christ, the bridegroom is seeking after the bride, saving her, redeeming her, washing her, loving her. Is there a more beautiful depiction of God the Son’s pursuit of his bride? God is calling even the most marginalized of humankind to union with God, and that union is most viscerally and vividly experienced in worship, where humanity is divinized, changed into Christ-likeness and sent on mission to bring others, just like this Samaritan woman who brought many others to meet Jesus.