Saturday, July 16, 2011

Discerning the Body in Worship

In Christian gatherings and in private Christian devotion, there is a tendency to focus and attend on the unseen, perhaps in a fairly exclusive manner. I don’t want to be too harsh on the idea—after all, do we not worship that which is unseen? “Who hopes for what he sees?” Not only do I not wish to denigrate the needed Christian preoccupation with that which lies beyond the senses, beyond the empirical realm (in a world that often displays little ability to envision anything more than this), it is my ardent desire to see Christians develop a heightened ability to attend upon the presence—and the unfathomable glory—of the invisible, living God, particularly at gathered worship.

But this is related to my complaint. Attending upon God at gathered worship does not necessarily mean closing one’s eyes, waving one’s hands, and drawing one’s mind to the one-on-one, ‘me and my God’ exchange taking place. (Not that I have any problem with eye-closing per se… but do you ever close your eyes to listen not only to your voice, but to a multitude of voices, praising God’s name “with one accord”?) Rather than a basically dualistic dichotomization of the spiritual and the immediately material, would not the church benefit from having eyes to see the Spirit of God also at work precisely in the visible ‘worship event’? We have a whole host of ways of describing how God is present, immanent within his world despite the world’s refusal to know and worship him—but then, is not the presence of a worshiping community, one that is visible to all alike, exactly one such means of God’s immanence? If we are the Spirit-constituted body of the Messiah, then we are the visible sign to the world, to the rulers, to the principalities and powers, that a different lord runs the world, and one who is present in it at that. Christian worship, then, is not meant to invite us only into an invisible encounter with God, but also into a recognition of the display of that God’s glory in the midst of the visible people of God, gathered in the name of their risen lord.

As an Anglican, I think (hopefully without any hint of pride in my tradition or condescension toward others) that I see this vividly displayed when we gather for Sunday worship, in a way that is perhaps missed in some worshiping communities whose philosophies about liturgy are more truncated. (Mind you, every church has a liturgy, whether they realize this or not—they have some modus operandi when it comes to worship services that is generally consistent at every gathering and reflects a particular attitude toward what Christian worship is meant to be.) The liturgy—with or without all the ‘smells and bells’ that one finds in many Anglican churches—is all about facilitating a direct, Spirit-led encounter between God and his people, understood as a collective whole. One is free to ‘keep one’s eyes open,’ as it were, to what is going on all around, to the delicate interplay of the visible with the invisible. What do I see at a ‘typical’ (I use the word cautiously) service in my tradition? I see the people of God, enjoying the presence of God, and am myself taken up into this marvelous event: worshiping his name through song, listening to his word being read, professing our shared faith through the creed, confessing our sins together, and going to the Lord’s table as one, to celebrate our identity as the already-but-not-yet-raised-from-the-dead Body of Christ.

This idea of discerning the invisible in the visible shows up in remarkable ways in scripture, and I’ll focus on one instance in particular: in 1 Corinthians 11 Paul writes, “Whoever eats and drinks without recognizing the Body eats and drinks judgment on himself” (v. 29). For centuries this has been co-opted by various people in the interminable debates about the mode of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper, but increasingly today it is recognized among scholars and interpreters that Paul’s point here has to do not with the invisible presence of Jesus ‘in the bread’ and ‘in the wine’, but rather with his presence at the supper, his presence among the gathered community—that is, the Body. If one does not attend in the slightest to the reality of this Body in worship—as the Corinthians were failing to do, “each one going ahead with his own meal”—true worship is not being offered. To 'discern the Body,' especially in the Lord’s supper, is to recognize the unique presence of God among a Spirit-constituted, called-out people, and to welcome his presence there whenever this people is gathered for worship.

This is not to say that most evangelicals are facing condemnation or are failing to offer true worship. Who among us doesn’t know the great joy of gathering in a room full of people and praising the name of God together? I am saying, simply, that the truly remarkable, visible reality when the people of God are gathered in the name of Jesus is something we haven’t devoted enough attention to, and it ought to be a part of our imaginative landscape when we approach God in worship week by week. In our emphasis on the unseen in worship, we are sometimes tempted to operate with a conception of the worshiping church as a constellation of tenuously-connected individuals whose worship, vertically speaking, may be quite attuned, but equally may often be, horizontally, quite disconnected. Food for your thought, next time you worship: the Spirit has gathered these people as living members of Jesus’ body, and you have been gathered with them; God walks among you (2 Cor. 6:16), and part of having no good apart from God is seeing “the saints in the land, the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight” (Ps. 16:1-2). It doesn't mean you should be worshiping them—it just means you should be worshiping with them.