Posts Tagged With: ritual

Romans 12: True Worship

Today we move from one my most daunting passages to understand to one of my favorites.  Paul is known for structuring his letters with long theological sections about beliefs followed by much more practical sections about ethics.  Romans 12:1 is that pivot point in this book.

We use the word “worship” in many ways.  I have to wonder if most of the time we don’t reduce that word down to far less than what God intended worship to be.  Worship is that thing that happens at the church building.  It is singing and praying and preaching (and dancing and rocking a guitar or drum kit, if you church does that sort of thing).  Worship is what some person “leads.”  Worship has a set soundtrack.  There is a “worship hour.”  Worship has an “order” of set events.  Sure, you can worship anywhere — on a mountain top, down by the lake, in a hospital room, in a flash mob at the local mall — but still we are talking about the same action: singing songs and praying prayers.

Is worship this? . . .

The Roman church Paul was writing had also reduced the idea of worship down to far less than what God intended.  For them it was about religious activities and rituals and sacred days.  It was about symbolic acts like circumcision.  It was about what food was eaten or not.  Worship was a cultural expression and both the Jewish and Gentile Christians wanted to stamp their own ideals onto that expression.  In short, worship was what took place when “the saints meet.”

The word “worship” comes from an Old English word “worth-ship.”  The connotation of this word is to show honor to the inherent worth of the person being worshipped.  It is tied to the ancient practice of “kissing the feet of” the person being honored.  Worship is saying to another you are the one, not me.  You are the focus of life, not me.  You matter.  I adore you and want to do your will.  Can you sing that in a song?  Of course.  Can you pray those sentiments?  Definitely.  But it is so much more than that.

Paul reminds the Roman Christians of this point:

So, my dear family, this is my appeal to you by the mercies of God: offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God.  Worship like this brings your mind into line with God’s. (12:1)

Worship is not a religious activity that takes place in a sacred place at a sacred time.  Worship is to happen everywhere all of the time.  God is not looking for some sacrifice of an animal or a sacrifice of discomfort in circumcision or a sacrifice of diet by avoiding pork or a sacrifice of time by observing the Sabbath.  Or let’s update that today: God is not looking for a sacrifice of time on a Sunday morning or a sacrifice of money put in an offering plate or a sacrifice of career by being an inner-city social worker or a sacrifice of zip code by living frugally and denying our comfort and status.  God wants us — all of us — as the sacrifice.  God wants us to tie our worship to how we live each day, as “living sacrifices.”  God wants acts of worship that are tied deeply to our “mind” and that shape how that mind thinks.  Everything we are and everything we do is intended to be worship.

For the ancient Roman Christians that meant that the most worshipful actions they could take would be to love (12:9-21).  They needed to worry less about what they did to their bodies and more about what they did with their bodies.  They needed to worry less about what food they ate and more about with whom they ate or refused to eat.  They needed to try less to get others to become like them and more so to become like others so they together might become like Christ.  And they most needed to do this with the people they disagreed with most.  Love is the act of worship God wants most.

. . . or is this worship?

How do we get this wrong (or right) too?

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Categories: Romans | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Romans 2: Those Self-Righteous Jews

. . . and then the other shoe dropped.

Yesterday, Paul seemed to be squarely on the side of the Jewish Christians, one more Jew who saw the Gentiles as an inferior people group and unfit for leadership in the Roman church.

Today, in a piece of literary genius, Paul turns the table completely.

So you have no excuse — anyone, whoever you are, who sit in judgment!  When you judge someone else, you condemn yourself, because you, who are behaving as a judge, are doing the same things. (2:1)

Sure, the Jewish Christians would not be practicing idolatry or sexual immorality or robbery of the conventional sorts.  They were not literally like the Gentiles.  But that is the problem with self-righteousness.  It settles for literalism, and congratulates oneself for not doing some specific act of perversion.  Yet the Law had become the Jewish Christians’ idol.  And their adultery was spiritual not sexual.  They were worshipping their own ability to be good, and stealing God’s glory.

Worse yet, these Jewish Christians had narrowly defined “good.”  For them, good meant being of Jewish heritage, being among those chosen by God to have the Law, knowing that Law, being able to teach that Law, following the rituals of that Law like circumcision, food laws, and holidays.  Good meant being a good Jew.  So defined, yes, they were very good, and their Gentile brothers and sisters did not measure up.

Paul sets the Jewish Christians in Rome straight.  Good is not defined by hearing the law or having the law, but by doing it (2:13).  Paul goes one further: “Jew” — as in the people cherished by God — isn’t nearly as much about ethnicity as obedience.  Circumcision isn’t about getting rid of unclean flesh as much as it is about getting rid of an unclean heart (2:28-29).  Therefore, an uncircumcised but morally upright Gentile with a tender heart might actually be a better Jew, than someone who can trace their heritage back to Abraham.

If you are a Jewish Christian in this Roman church you have just been put in your place.  These chapters might be a rough start to a letter, but we can be assured that Paul had everyone’s attention at this point.

Do we ever do this same thing?  How so?

Categories: Romans | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Matthew 15: What Makes One Unclean?

Today’s post is more of a question than a thought.  Even if you are not the kind to give a comment I would love your input on this one.  Please consider.

Jesus argues with the Jewish religious leaders again in today’s chapter.  Today, the issue is eating with unwashed hands, an elaborate tradition they had developed in an effort to remain a ceremonially clean people.  Notice that is ceremonially clean.  They hadn’t developed this ritual to remain a physically healthier group.  Jesus’ disciples evidently weren’t as meticulous about this tradition as the Jewish religious leaders would have liked.  Jesus points out the error in their logic:

What makes someone unclean isn’t what goes into the mouth.  It’s what comes out of the mouth that makes someone unclean. (15:11)

What comes out of the mouth begins in the heart, and that’s what makes someone unclean.  Out of the heart, you see, come evil plots, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, and blasphemy.  These are the things that make someone unclean.  But eating with unwashed hands doesn’t make a person unclean. (15:18-20)

In fact, a tradition could make a person unclean if it caused them to nullify or trespass against God’s law.  The Pharisees were doing exactly that with their unwillingness to honor their parents by devoting money to God needed to help their parents (15:3-6).  God’s desire is for honor, not donations.

So, I am wondering today what, if any, are the “traditions” we have in our churches today that miss the point and maybe even cause us to work against what God is really looking for?  What are the “unwashed hands” that we get up in arms about even though these are not the things that really cause moral problems?  

What do you think?  

Categories: Matthew | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Hebrews 13: True Sacrifice

“Just give me something to do!  Enough with the philosophy, tell me what to do!”

This exhortation is one I have heard a lot in my life as a teacher, especially when teaching busy, pragmatic adults.  My teenage students have a much higher tolerance for the theoretical, ironically.

The book of Hebrews ends well for those who are looking for something to do.

Our part, then, is this: to bring, through him, a continual sacrifice of praise to God — that is, mouths that confess his name, and do so fruitfully.  Don’t neglect to do good, and to let “fellowship” mean what it says.  God really enjoys sacrifices of that kind!  (13:15-16)

There is a real threat that religion — any religion — will replace the true relational worship God is truly seeking.  For the Hebrews, that meant substituting law observance and religious rituals for a true faith in and imitation of Jesus.  For us that substitution might come in a variety of forms:

  • Letting our assurance rest in our baptism or church involvement
  • Defining our goodness by charitable giving
  • Assuming that Bible reading, prayer, and listening to Christian music are the activities God most want from us
  • Thinking that the greatest things we do for God happen in a church building

This has been a common chorus as we have meditated on Hebrews.

Notice what the Hebrews author says are the sacrifices that God truly desires: praise, witness, goodness done to others, and fellowship.  In other words, love God and love others.  The sacrifices God most desires are relational, not ritual.  They are the sacrifices of will, time, and energy.  It could be that the best sacrifice we could give today would be to forgive a friend who has wronged us or to take the risk involved in mentioning Jesus to someone.

As we finish Hebrews today, summarize in one sentence the overall message you have heard God speak into your life from this book.     

Categories: Hebrews | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

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