Rediscovering the Dangerous Act of Worship: A Shift in Perspective
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.
2 Cor. 5:17-19
At the Institute for Worship Studies, I often begin my presidential addresses with the statement, “Congratulations, ladies and gentlemen, you are about to embark on the most useless study there is—the study of Christian worship. Aristotle claimed that the supremely important activities are the most useless, because they exist precisely for their own sake and not for a greater external end. The worship of God is therefore the most…supremely important thing we can do.” Likewise, drawing from the well-known book of Dr. Mark Labberton, worship is also the most dangerous thing we can do. Why? Ultimately, all of worship conduces to mission. We are not called to comfort, or accommodation, or status quo; we are called to Kingdom action. Through active and conscious participation in Christian worship, we are changed into the likeness of Christ and infused with Christ’s heart of love for God, our fellow humankind, and the entire created order.
At its essence, Christian worship is a call to right worship, or “orthodoxy.” The word “orthodoxy” means “right, or true worship.” True worship is biblically centered worship that participates in that story of God’s saving work in Jesus the Christ. It is the submission of humankind to God, to be cleansed, forgiven, and changed into His likeness revealed in Christ though His Word and table, and then sent into the world with fire in the mission to love the world towards the God who is perfect love.
Right worship leads to the rightly ordered or integrated life, the rightly ordered family, church, city, country, culture, even the rightly ordered cosmos.
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. Celebrating the mighty works of God in Jesus Christ in the posture of adoration is the proper aim of right worship. Right worship leads to the rightly ordered or integrated life, the rightly ordered family, church, city, country, culture, even the rightly ordered cosmos. If you want a primary key to reading the entire biblical narrative, this is it—God is calling his creation to right worship (over and over again). God ultimately wants His people to worship Him aright, not because He needs our praise, but because in that great act we become rightly aligned unto God through Jesus Christ, the primary worshiper. When things are set right, the created order is reconciled, or brought back to its original intent and order. Fellowship, Word, Table, Mission, all elements of right worship serve that end—the reconciliation of the created order. To be reconciled means to be restored relationally, as closely as cilia to cilia, eyelash to eyelash, in the most intimate friendship, first with God the Father through Jesus the Christ in the presence of the Holy Spirit, but also with our neighbors (fellow humans) and the entirety of creation.
Worship can be described as a public work or service, commonly referred to as “the work of the people.” The Greek word for this work is leitourgia, which is where we get the Anglicized word “liturgy.” In the Great Tradition, worship (specifically liturgy) 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 the Head are manifested in and through the Mystical Body of Christ: the priestly office, kingly office, and prophetic office. Worship is priestly in its offering of prayer and 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.
In worship we have the great privilege of engaging the world, telling the world its true story, and bringing it to the right worship of the only God who is ultimately true, good, and beautiful.
In worship we have the great privilege of engaging the world, 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 right worship so we can be rightly ordered and sent on mission. This is why the focus on right worship is at the very core of the Christian faith, and of supreme importance! 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 the processes 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 the entire created order.
Leading the Praise of Creation
In worship we have the great privilege of leading the praise of all of creation. In the very beginning, Genesis 1 and 2, God brings forth creation in that beautiful poetic narrative. First, God created the heavens and the earth. Then we hear, “Let there be light, and there was light.” Then the seas and the dry land, vegetation, plants yielding seeds, and trees are brought forth into existence, followed by the sun and the moon to rule the day and night. Then come the living creatures, fish of the sea, birds of the air, livestock and creatures that creep on the ground. This is like a stately liturgical procession of elements coming forth from God. This is like a spiritual parade. Who comes at the end of a parade? Think of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Santa Claus is at the end, the most important character in the parade! Now think of a liturgical procession, if you have ever seen one. Who is at the end? The celebrant, the person whose job it is to lead the praise of everyone gathered.
So it is in this liturgical procession in Genesis. The celebrants, who lead the praise of the entire created order that has gone before, are at the end of the narrative procession. Those celebrants are us, humankind, uniquely created in the image of God. Rooted in Christ and His over-abundant and overflowing life, humankind has been given the great privilege of being the priests of creation. We do that through worship, famously called the source and summit of the entire Christian life.
Worship is the moment when we are most ourselves, because we have gathered in adoration, giving highest praise to God on behalf of all creation, for the life of the world.
In this orderly, liturgical procession, we understand the purposeful end of the created order—to worship the Creator. Our whole purpose is to lead creation in the great chorus of praise to the Creator God. In that act of adoration, we realize our deepest identity, who we are ultimately meant to be. Worship is the moment when we are most ourselves, because we have gathered in adoration, giving highest praise to God on behalf of all creation, for the life of the world. This is the cosmic emphasis of worship.
In his great book For the Life of the World, Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann wrote this:
The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God—and by filling the world with this eucharist [thanksgiving], he transforms his life, the one that he receives from the world, into life in God, into communion with Him. The world was created as the “matter,” the material of one all-embracing Eucharist, and man was created as the priest of this cosmic sacrament.1
What are some practical ways we can apply our life of worship formation to the work of reconciliation, being “priests of this cosmic sacrament?” In the Great Tradition there are specific acts of mercy, such as feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, giving alms to the poor, instructing, advising, consoling, comforting, forgiving, bearing wrongs patiently, participating in creation care, singing to the dying, and of course, praying, praying, and praying some more. Note that all of these acts of mercy involve giving oneself away in love for the other. The love of God and the love of the other coexist. You cannot have one without the other (1 John 4:21). Loving the other concretizes our love of God.
Worship is about turning our all-too-often “no” into a “yes” to God, letting God change us into His likeness, or divinizing us, and sending us out on the mission of reconciliation.
Since humankind is made in the image of God, we alone in the created order are given the right, freedom, and dignity of saying “no” to God. My cat doesn’t have that right. The rocks and trees in my backyard don’t have that right. But I do. Worship is about turning our all-too-often “no” into a “yes” to God, letting God change us into His likeness, or divinizing us, and sending us out on the mission of reconciliation. And that is most dangerous work, turning away from the idols and temptations of this worldly life to the often uncomfortable acts of human virtue and flourishing intended for us by God, lived out through our participation in the redemptive work of Jesus the Christ, and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
May we fully embrace this most useless, but supremely important and most dangerous task—the sacrificial worship of God, leading the praise of a reconciled creation.
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