This is part three in a series on worship. You can read part one here and part two here.
We mistake St. Paul right off the bat if we think of him as a theologian writhing a theological treatise to the congregation in Rome.
He was educated. He had studied under Gamaliel, one of the greatest Jewish Rabbis. But even after such studies, Paul is violent and bloodthirsty. So zealous in his knowledge of religion that he’s willing to kill peaceful people in order to defend it. But then something happens.
He has a direct experience of God. He sees blinding, flashing lights. He hears voices. It leaves him so stunned that he can’t eat or drink for three days. Almost immediately afterwards, he wanders off to live alone in a desert for three years. He later writes about being translated into heaven.
St. Paul was a mystic. A person who had a direct, overwhelming, and life-changing encounter with God. He’s an educated and well-informed mystic; but a mystic nonetheless.
And as we would expect from a mystic, we find that his writings are not so much how to properly think about certain doctrines. Rather, he’s writing about direct experience of God. Or, rather, since our theologians will rightly point out that we are always experiencing God “in [whom] we live and move and have our being,” Paul is writing about awareness of our direct experience of God.
Let me pause for a bit and point out that we are always experiencing God. He’s like science, in that you can acknowledge or deny him, but you can’t get away from him. So when we’re talking about being with God, we really mean being aware of the fact that we’re with him. When we’re talking about knowing or experiencing God, we really mean being consciously aware of the objective experience of him. We mean bringing our minds back to our present moment and present place and recognizing it for what it is. God is. And “in him we live and move and have our being.” Our problem is that we get distracted. We get dazzled like driving through a snowstorm at night when we end up staring at the snowfall in the headlights instead of paying attention to the road.
So the main theme of Paul’s letter to the Romans is worship, the direct experience of God. and the little group of people he was writing to were already familiar with the idea. For all of them, worship meant to sacrifice an animal and eat it both to show and to enact union with a god. Some of his original audience were Jewish and had a history of going to the Temple in Jerusalem to make sacrifices to worship YHWH. Some of his original audience were Gentiles and had a history of sacrificing in the various pagan temples in Rome. For all of them, religion meant, primarily, public worship. And worship meant sacrifice; plain and simple. And the point of the sacrifice was union with a god.
Paul leaves all of that in place, but he gives new meaning to it. He sort of redefines the words based on the revelation that had been given to him through his direct, mystical experiences.
He can sum up the content of that revelation so succinctly in three words, “Jesus is Lord.” That’s his Gospel. What those three words mean is this: that the man, Jesus, has actually done all of the things that YHWH had promised to do for his people, the Jews. That’s why Paul calls him Lord, the word used in the Greek Scriptures to refer to YHWH himself. In Jesus, God had shown himself faithful to Israel.
Jesus had also done what Israel had failed to do. He had been faithful to God. This is why Paul calls him Christ and Son of God, both titles of the Davidic King. As a king, Jesus had represented the Jewish nation and had been faithful on their behalf. So now, everyone who would acknowledge Jesus as Lord and Christ would be represented by him; would share in Jesus’s perfect faithfulness to God by being faithful to him, by living in his kingdom. They would be marked out as God’s chosen people, not by circumcision, kosher food, and resting on Saturday — the “works of the Law” — but by faithfulness to Jesus.
So he makes this long and convincing argument that the true People of God, the true Israel, are those who are “in Christ,” whether Jew or Gentile. But that whole argument about faithfulness to Jesus being the only true marker of the fact that we will be declared right or justified; that’s not an end in itself. It’s all leading up to the real, central point of his letter which is true and proper worship: the sacrifice which brings unity with God, the subjective experience of our objective reality of being with God.
But like we said above, he’s given all of these words a new meaning — or perhaps, rather, he’s revealed the true meaning that was always hidden in the system all along. The revelation is of an incarnate God. A human being. And this revelation necessarily changes what is meant by worship.
Here’s the crux of his whole letter: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”
An incarnate worship for an incarnate God. Paul spends the next four chapters encouraging us to live as an intentional community of peace and prayer. Our spiritual worship is our life together as a community.
“Don’t be conformed to the world.” He actually uses the word aeon, which literally means “age.” It’s the same word that we translate as “eternal” when we’re talking about eternal life; what we mean is the life of the age to come. Don’t be conformed to this present age: the age of running down to Jerusalem or the nearest pagan temple. The age of needing to go somewhere special and do something special in order to catch that fleeting feeling of having connected with God. Instead he tells us to be changed by making our minds new.
We throw the word repent around a lot in Church. To repent, of course, doesn’t mean “to pent again.” It also doesn’t mean to make sure that we feel really bad about the things we’ve done. It doesn’t mean to tell God or a priest that you’re sorry (although that can help). It doesn’t mean to be sorry (although that can be a good thing too). The Greek word that’s used in the New Testament is metanoia and means, quite literally, “to change your mind.” Be transformed by having a new mind.
True worship, that subjective awareness of our objective experience of and unity with God, is amazing. Hopefully we’ve all had some of those experiences: a beautiful liturgy done reverently and well; the soul-stirring thrill of a large crowd singing old hymns in four-part harmony; the passion of a gifted preacher; the catharsis of praying in tongues for an hour at a time; the ecstasy of dancing and singing at a charismatic church; even doubling over with uncontrollable laughter. I promise, I’ve done all of those things and I’ll tell you, they’re all good. I love them. I love them like I love a malted milkshake at King Kone. It’s good. When you’re experiencing that stuff, you get sort of taken out of yourself; lost in the presence of God. And when you’re in the middle of that, you can really feel the connection between yourself and God and between yourself and the people around you.
Let me make clear, that connection is an objective reality. These different religious practices are about subjectively experiencing that objective reality.
There are other ways too, that people have that experience: that’s what the folks up in Kentucky are doing when they pick up copperheads and drink strychnine; there’s guys in the Philippines who nail themselves to crosses; I know a guy who became a Baptist minister after meeting Jesus on an acid trip (he quit doing acid, btw); I read about a guy who had this experience during the guitar solo at an Eddie Van Halen concert. I’m not liable to try any of these.
The thing about all of those things is, just like the old sacrifices, they don’t last. The best they can do is lead to what Paul is talking about: having our minds renewed and presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice. They might lead to these two things, but they aren’t the same as these two things. Both of these things flow from the realization of an incarnate God. And they have their merit because they are joined to our Lord’s sacrifice: his faithful obedience unto death.
God had joined himself to his creation. “If the dough offered as first-fruits is holy, so is the whole lump; and if the root is holy, so are the branches.” Don’t get caught up in the trap of trying to achieve special mystical experiences. I mean, be glad about them when you have them, but renew your mind. Learn to recognize God where he is. “In him we live and move and have our being.”
God had ordained that trees should grow and that the Caddo River should flow. He’s given us friends and families. Meals to share. Knowledge to learn. Clothes to wear. Forests. Lakes. Beer. Hunting. Sports. Board-games. Science. Work. Business. Dance. Houses. Everything that is good: that is, everything that is created and creative. “Every good and perfect gift is from above and comes down from the Father of Lights in whom is no darkness nor shadow of turning.”
If we want to look for God, we don’t need to look somewhere else. We look in our present place in the present moment. Remember that we are always in his presence because we are in the world he created; the world he has eternally joined himself to, breathing the same spirit. Having our minds renewed means paying attention, not allowing distractions to make us forget that we live and move and have our being in him.
And from that renewed mind we can see what it means to worship, to rightly sacrifice. It means, briefly, to love our neighbor as ourselves. To use whatever gifts we’ve been given in service to one another. Speaking the word of God in proportion to our faithfulness. Meeting one another’s needs with liberality. Teaching. Encouraging. Helping one another. When our minds are renewed, we can see that a proper and holy sacrifice may look like giving five bucks to someone who needs it. Or washing dishes after supper. Or giving a glass of cold water to someone who’s thirsty. Or voting for laws that guarantee clean water for everyone. Or teaching someone how to get food and prepare it.
The whole mystery of Christianity is that the Divine has become earthly. So we see our spirituality worked out in what is mundane.
Every week, we celebrate Communion. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, it is sometimes called. And it is holy. It is worship. But in the simplicity of sharing one piece of bread and sharing one cup of wine, we are shown the mystery that every meal we eat is holy. In any and every way that we love our neighbor, we are true mystics, directly experiencing God himself.