True Worship

Sermon Five in the series 'A Worshipping Life'

Epiphanytide 2018


I've said a lot in the previous weeks about God, and not so much about Jesus Christ. Today Jesus Christ moves to the centre of our consideration of a worshipping life just as he stands at the centre of today's account of his transfiguration on the holy mountain.

The title of today's sermon, 'true worship', might feel uncomfortable in a world of relativity...Another way of thinking about 'true worship' is authentic glorifying; I mean, giving God glory in a way that honours best who he is, how he's involved with us, and what he has done for us. Christians need not disparage or dismiss the insights of other religious traditions and their worship while they nonetheless confess that all worthy insights point to, move humankind toward, the invisible God who becomes visible and accessible in Jesus of Nazareth crucified and risen.

That, of course, is the basic message of the transfiguration of Jesus: how through flesh and blood, through dust and ashes, a 'glimpse of Godhead' is given.[1] The transfiguration of Jesus develops a theme we've touched on throughout this series: how the physical, tangible and sensory is a medium through which the divine draws near, engages us, touches us. All that's been said about signs, symbols, sacraments and sacrifices as material means of access to God in worship applies above all to Jesus, the Jesus whose very humanity is 'the revealing medium of divine truth', whose historical figure is the presence and communication of the eternal God who dwells in inaccessible, uncreated light.[2] No worship is Christian worship unless is it founded on and expresses that core insight.

Here are some valuable words of Evelyn Underhill:

...[T]he particular note of Christianity is struck when, within this awed yet delighted recognition of the Eternal Godhead, we place as the focus of devotion one single revelation in time and space of His essential character--"the effulgence of his glory and the very image of his substance"--made in the person of Jesus Christ.[3]

So, for us Christians in the great cosmic 'landscape' we share with other great religious traditions --the cloud and light that descended upon that holy mountain--our eyes focus on Jesus of Nazareth. 'Certainly that which stands out in Christian worship', Underhill explains,

gives it its special colour, and is commonly most attractive to the religious mind, is devotion to Christ, in His Person, life, teaching, or sacramental presence. Here, in the paradox of the Cross, the self-giving Messiah dying to redeem humanity and living for evermore, it finds a focus of adoring love...[4]

And so our true worship bids us not just "Love God!", "Love God!",[5] but love Jesus.

That's the transformation Christian worship strives to picture to us, and to fuel within us day by day, week by week, month by month, and year by year; from the moment of our baptism until our last, dying breath: to incarnate within the expanse of our lives the Divine Charity, the love, which is God made known in Jesus of Nazareth.[6] To love God, by loving him; to love our neighbour in so far as Jesus is in him.

The more we give into that divine call and pressure to imitate Jesus in expressing the love of God, the more we have little or no use for cosy devotion and self-consolation, but will prefer self-oblation instead.[7] The criterion for true worship becomes less "What do I want or like" and more "How can this worship draw me nearer to the loving, sacrificial, sacred heart of Jesus?".

Transformation through a worshipping life--let's be careful what we pray for!

Having said that, the transformation that God brings about, like the transfiguration of Jesus, is beautiful. Faith, hope, love, joy, peace, they're all hues in the rainbow of transfiguring light.[8]

Worship that's offered 'through Jesus Christ', then, is itself transformed.

Petitions and intercessions for burdened souls and for our deeply troubled world are transformed into hope and action. As they were for the woman with the haemorrhage, the father of the dying daughter, and the man born blind.

Contrition and penitence for things done and left undone in thought, word and deed, are transformed into joy and acceptance, as they were for the woman caught in adultery and the prodigal son.

Our glorification of the Most High is transformed from a 'bounden duty' to something full of 'spirit and truth', as Jesus told the woman by the well.

And our remembrance is transformed from the mere recollection of the night before Jesus was betrayed and that 'Christ has died'--'"Poor Jesus!", as a well-meaning but beguiled woman once said to me about the crucifixion--to a triumphant acclamation that he is risen and will come again in glory.[9]

All such transformations come not by ignoring the full humanity of our Lord and Saviour, but by viewing and re-viewing it, day by day, week by week, indeed throughout a life-time. Why else, do you suppose, do the cycles of readings in the Church's worship read through the Gospels, all four of them, again and again?[10] It's because the whole of God's earthly, human life in Jesus of Nazareth, its historical events and conditions, are 'the vehicle of revelation'. 'Each of them mediates God, disclosing some divine truth or aspect of divine love to us.'[11]

For that reason our cycle of worship follows a sequence by which we worshippers are led into an on-going meditation of the eternal action of God 'for us and for our salvation'. For that reason we pray for ourselves and others by the mystery of Jesus' 'holy Incarnation', by his 'birth childhood and obedience', by his 'baptism, fasting and temptation', by his 'agony and trial', his 'cross and passion', his 'precious death and burial', his 'mighty resurrection', 'glorious ascension', and his 'sending of the Holy Spirit'.[12] All of those, moments in the human life of Christ, moments when God, in Christ, drew near to us in solidarity, in compassion, in forgiveness, in blessing; and so making of our Christian worship not the appeasement of some distant deity but a hope-filled drawing near to the throne of grace (Heb. ).

Many of you, I think, know Holman Hunt's famous painting, which hangs in the chapel of Keble College. It's called 'The Light of the World'. In that night-time scene Jesus, with lantern in hand, stands outside a closed cottage door, and knocks. That door is the human heart, the centre of a person's identity, and he bids each of us open ourself to his transforming presence. The effect of such knocking becomes the posture that informs and enlivens all our worship. For the hidden bed-rock of all Christian worship, alone or with others, simple or complex, contemporary or traditional, is the heart of each believing soul opened to the invisible Father by the invisible Spirit 'through Jesus Christ our Lord'. He knocks at the door of our hearts at all times and in all places, and invites us to find ourselves, as we, by grace, dwell in his transfigured humanity.

To be tucked safely into his side...yes, 'tis good, Lord, to be there. Yes, that is a Christian's true worship.




[1] So, St John Chrysostom in Homily 2 on 'Eutropius and the Vanity of Riches;, in ACCS, New Testament, vol II, p. 117.

[2] Underhill, Worship, pp. 69, 66.

[3] Ibid., p. 62; she quotes Hebrews 1.3 (Revised Version).

[4] Ibid., pp. 66-7.

[5] See last week's sermon.

[6] 1 John 4.8.

[7] Worship, p. 67.

[8] This rainbow is notable in Fra Angelico's fresco of the Transfiguration in the Convent of San Marco, Florence.

[9] The eucharistic acclamation in Common Worship.

[10] Admittedly, the reading is not complete, and the fourth Gospel does not have its own year.

[11] Underhill, Worship, p. 73.

[12] Petitions from our Great Litany, sung throughout Lent.