Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, not your son or daughter, nor your manservant nor maidservant, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the Lord mad the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but He rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. - Ex. 20:8-11
What is worship? Does reading my Bible alone and praying count as worship?
Do we have to gather in a special place to worship? With all the disruptions social distancing has brought about, our understanding of what “counts” as worship is one of the many things under review. The governmental mandate to limit gatherings to less than 10 people - or canceling congregating in any number larger than your immediate household - has let to an explosion of creativity by worship leaders. Preaching from the rooftop while congregants sit in their enclosed cars listening through an FM broadcast, live stream (Zoom et. al.) services “participated” in at home, YouTube of worship services to be watched whenever it is convenient, and a host of other ways to proclaim what the Lord has done have become the new normal. But are the other ways of “doing Church” worship? That’s a hard question to answer with many parts
Let’s start with the day and time and the mindset that says “I’ll do it when it’s convenient for me.” From a purely legalistic perspective (I.e. the Pharisees), even Christians do not worship because they do it on the wrong day. The Sabbath is the seventh day of the week, which would be Saturday. While our culture (and many calendars) consider Sunday the last part of the week-end, Sunday is actually the first day of the week and so not the Sabbath day of Exodus 20. Christians have always gathered on the first day of the week as that is the day Christ rose from the dead. We often refer to it as “the Lord’s day” and maybe we should rename it SONday. So does it really matter what day we worship on? St. Paul was confronted with this question and sets out his thinking in Romans 14:5. He says all days are now holy in Christ and no one day is better (or worse) than another so whichever day you - plural - pick is fine. The point being pick one day, as a group, and stick to it. Regularity and frequency is more important than slavish observance of the Law. That one person watches the video on Sunday and another Wednesday and a third listens to the podcast on Friday and yet all claim to worshiping is patently false. Worship is a corporate event (see Psalms of Ascent - #s 120 to 134) and cannot be done alone. It necessitates some form of coming together or gathering for it to be truly worship. Those who are self centered and worship “when it works for me” (emphasis on me) have denied the fellowship which a key component of both worship and discipleship. So we could change our worship time to Wednesday night - if everyone thought that was time which works best, then Wednesday would be the new Sabbath day. Whatever it is, the key component is that it is a group decision. Churches that have 2 services on different days and times with different styles (more on that later) are really two churches using the same building and administrative structure.
Can I worship from home? Do we have to meet in a building set apart (consecrated / made holy) for that purpose for it to be worship? WHERE we worship God is an important issue and one that has been wrestled with since man first turned his eyes towards the heavens and sought his Creator. Adam and Eve walked and talked with God in the Garden in Eden. Abraham and the patriarchs built an alter wherever they were encamped, usually on a mountaintop. The “high places” were always seen as holy - maybe because as one rises in elevation one got closer to God’s dwelling place? But then there was that whole Tower of Babel incident. Throughout Christian history churches would often be built on the highest peak around or they would create a “mountain peak” known as a steeple to reach up into the heavens. And it’s not only Christians who have this concept of the high places being holy. It is no accident that the Greeks (and Romans) had their gods and goddesses living on Mt. Olympus. Many of the Buddhist temples are on mountain peaks. Maybe this has something to do with being “a city on a hill” or it’s just that a towering building on a high place has better visibility. We can think of Redeemer with its 53 foot peak and 2/3 of the sanctuary being devoted to roof space. Once the exodus came, God’s people worshiped wherever they pitched their tents, especially THE tent - the Tabernacle. Once God’s people entered the promised land, the high places of Shiloh, Shechem, Bethel, Hebron, and finally Mt. Zion / Jerusalem became places for worship. After the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple complex, God’s people had trouble adjusting to worship (see Psalm 137). For New Testament Christians, the place of worship was wherever they could meet without the Romans breaking down the doors - usually in people’s homes or by a river or in the woods. It wasn’t until Constantine gave the church the use of old Roman basilicae in 325 AD that Christians had church buildings (and the floor plan hasn’t changed in 1700 years).
So does where we worship God really matter? Isn’t Jesus “wherever two or three are gathered in my name”? Well, yes and no. The key part of Matthew 18:20 cited above is “in my name”. So whether it is 37 Newton-Sparta Road or 121 Spring Street or Jerusalem, the key thing is gathering en masse in Jesus’ name. So one person opening their Bible or downloading a podcast is not worship. A group of Christians getting together for _____, but not calling on Jesus’ name is not worship.
Worship requires God’s presence amongst the worshipers. But isn’t God present everywhere? Well, yes, in one sense. God is present everywhere, but that’s not what we’re talking about with God’s presence in worship. This is what we call God’s sacramental presence, where He comes among us to give us His gifts of Word and Sacrament. BOTH are necessary for it to be His sacramental presence. So unless you are baptizing in your kitchen sink - which, I suppose, could be done in cases of emergency - and / or you have a duly called and ordained servant of the Word to preach, teach, and administer the Sacrament as a steward of the mysteries of God, then it’s not worship nor is the space where it’s happening a church in the proper use of the Word. But we’ll cover content and style more next week.
Meanwhile, we endure our “Babylonian Captivity” for a few more weeks, longing for the day when we too “rejoice with those who said to me ‘Let us go up to the House of the Lord’” (Psalm 122:1). Soon our worship will resume and we will celebrate our Lord’s resurrection properly. If current projections hold true and Gov. Murphy holds to his plan to start easing restrictions by May 15, we might be able to gather in Christ’s name around His gifts on May 17 or 24. Hopefully the curve is flattening and with some alterations to keep everyone safe we’ll go up to the house of the Lord soon. Until that time, continue to pray for our front line health care workers, those afflicted with the Corona virus, and our nation as a whole. Keep reading your Bibles (I’d recommend going through Romans or the letters to the Corinthians for starters) and doing all that is necessary so when the angel of death / Corvid-19 passes over we may leave our time of captivity with joy.
- Peace in Christ;
Pastor Brian Handrich graduated from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis in 1997. He first served a dual parish in northeast Nebraska before coming to Flemington, New Jersey in 2002.