Worship: Union with God

This is the fourth in series about worship in St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. You can read the previous posts here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

Romans 12:9-21

In St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, he teaches us that the true worship of God consists in presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice by serving one another, by loving our neighbor as our self.  We are enabled to do this by being transformed by the renewing of our minds — by realizing that the One true God has become flesh and dwelt among us — so that we will see him reflected in every part of his creation.

St. Athanasius wrote, “Christ was made man that we might be made God.” St. Irenaeus said the same thing, “He who was the Son of God became the Son of Man, that man…might become the son of God.” I love how C.S. Lewis put it, “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses; to remember that the dullest, most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship…there are no ordinary people.” St. Peter writes about us being made partakers of the Divine Nature. Jesus took it a step further when he was accused of blasphemy by quoting the Psalm which says, “You are gods, you sons of the Most High, every  one of you.”

All of this sounds strange to us. When so many of us were brought up on phrases like, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven,” or being told that God is so holy that he can’t even look at sin (taking Habakkuk’s words out of context) so he looks at Jesus instead of at us, or worse, when Martin Luther compares the Christian to a snow-covered dung heap, we can get the impression that being human is not a very noble thing. We might hope that God will save us from being what we are. We can be tempted to turn Christianity into a formula for how to be forgiven and turn worship into thanking God for not giving us what we deserve. It’s a lot like growing up with an abusive parent.

When we reduce Christianity into a system for getting sins forgiven, we turn our good works into a thank-you gift to God or even disregard them as completely unimportant. After all, we can’t earn forgiveness by our works. And if forgiveness is the whole point, then the good works are tangential at best.

In the middle of all that thinking, someone saying that “Christ became man so that we might be made God” sounds like a bunch of woo-woo nonsense. Like blasphemy, really. Like idolatry. We might think of the Mormons saying that “what we are now, God once was and what God is now, we will be.” We might think of the Hindu Brahmins or the Platonists saying that our destiny is to be absorbed into God like a drop of water in an ocean. Or of neo-pagans calling themselves goddesses and saying that we should worship the moon since god is everything and everything is god.

Just, no. Christianity is a lot more obvious than all of that. I’m not God and God’s not me. Christianity is at once more subtle and more profound.

Our union with God is one in which we remain completely and distinctly ourselves. As the author of “The Cloud of Unknowing” wrote in the 14th century, “He is the essence of our being, but we are not his.” He doesn’t change us so that he can love us. He loves us first. Then creates us out of love. The process we are currently experiencing of confessing our sins and being forgiven, of learning to pray, of learning to love another in sincerity; the process of learning not to fear, of subjective awareness of our objective union with God: none of this is about becoming something other than what we are so that God can love (or overlook) us. It is about God continuing his work of creation in us. And since he has made us in the image of the Creator, we are given the task of participating in our own creation. That is why we confess our sins and ask forgiveness; why we push ourselves to more good works; why we set aside time to pray, fast, and give alms. All of the things we normally think of as “practicing our religion” are given as tools to help us become more truly human. When we confess ourselves to me “miserable sinners” in the liturgy, (miserable, btw, means “in need of mercy”) it’s meant to be an honest statement of where we currently are in the process. It’s not a description of what it truly means to be a human being.

Remember that Jesus is truly human. And if he’s human, then to be human is a good thing. We’re not being saved from being human, we’re being saved from sin so that we can finish becoming fully human. Sinner doesn’t describe our true nature any more than chaos describes the true nature of light before it was brought together in the sun and stars on the fourth day of creation.

It was St. Athanasius, again, who said that “the glory of God is mankind, fully alive; and the life of mankind is the vision of God.”

God first loved us, then he created us in his image. In Jesus, God has united himself to us by taking up our flesh and then pouring out his Spirit. That is, objectively, what it means to be human and it’s really, really good.

When we speak of worship, we are talking about the subjective experience of our own objective reality. What would it look like for us to realize that objective reality? Well, it would look like what Paul describes in his letter to the Romans:

“Let love be genuine, abhor what is evil, hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant  [or, steadfast] in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and show hospitality.” This is true worship; presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice.

Now, one might look at that list and realize that there’s nothing particularly Christian about it. That’s true. And that fact should make us question: if true and proper worship means presenting our bodies as living sacrifices — basically, by loving our neighbors as ourselves — is it possible for those who are not Christians to properly worship God? Is their “sacrifice” acceptable to him?

This would seem to line up with what St. John writes, “everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” Perhaps our message to these others should be, “what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you (Acts 17:23).”

To the Christian, though, belongs understanding and enlightenment. The Christian knows that these good works have a telos; an end in mind. That the love of one’s neighbor is eternal life, not futile. We know that God has taken on flesh; that Jesus is the standard of perfection. We have been transformed by the renewing of our minds by the revelation of an incarnate, crucified, and resurrected God.