Worship as Conversation with God


Acts 2:42

Several Lord’s Day mornings ago we began a new series of morning sermons devoted to the worship we offer the Lord as his people together on the Lord’s Day. This is the worship the Anglicans call Common worship and we Presbyterians are accustomed to call Corporate Worship. I pointed out the last time that, American individualism notwithstanding, according to the Bible it is this worship of the church on the Lord’s Day that is the first and most important engine of Christian discipleship, what more than anything else shapes us as the Christian people we become, for good or ill. It is this power – subtle, constant, and unrelenting – to shape the person, his or her mind and his heart, that makes right worship so important and corrupt worship so damaging. The worship of the church teaches us how to think. It alters the way we feel. It shapes our aspirations, our hopes, and our longings. I mentioned a number of other reasons why Christians ought to be well-informed about the high worship of the church and have intelligent convictions about the content, the shape, and the mode or manner of their Sunday services. American evangelicals, as a class, have thought very little about these things and we live in a day when everyone is doing what is right in his own eyes. How ought we to worship God? It is a question often addressed in Holy Scripture, a question only God himself can answer, and the question we want to consider in this series of sermons.

I chose for my text for this sermon, another introductory sermon in this series, the single verse, Acts 2:42:

“And they [that is, the new believers, the several thousands of brand new Christians, most of whom had come to Christ through Peter’s sermon on Pentecost Sunday]…And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

There has been a longstanding argument about what the four elements listed in Acts 2:42 amount to. Are they separate, distinct things: the earliest Christians after Pentecost would listen to the apostles teach, perhaps at another time they would enjoy fellowship with one another (something perhaps akin to the modern “small group”); they would also share a meal from time to time and at some other time they would gather to pray for the progress of the gospel and for one another. It is possible to understand the verse this way, but all in all not very likely.

What most scholars of early Christianity think and what many commentators on the Book of Acts have concluded is that we have here a short list of the elements of the earliest Christian program of worship. There was what we would today call a sermon, as there was in the Jewish worship of the same time. After the apostles’ preaching (or before it, we don’t know if the order is meaningful at all) there was the fellowship or the sharing (it is at least possible that by “the sharing” is meant the offerings that were given by Christians for the common work of the church and its charity to those in need because that aspect of the church’s fellowship or sharing is going to be elaborated in the next few chapters of the book of Acts). But it is perhaps more probable that this is a reference to the common meal – the agape or love feast – that, early on, before abuses brought it to an end, was almost inseparably connected to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper). Then there is the Supper itself – here referred to as the breaking of bread – and the prayers. The presence of the article, not prayers but “the” prayers, suggests not simply individual prayers offered by Christians, alone or together, but the formal service. Consider, for example, the next use of the term “prayer” in 3:1. The “hour of prayer,” literally, the hour of the prayer, is a reference to the afternoon service at the temple, a service that, of course, included prayers by the people, but a service that was called prayer in its entirety. There were three such services or liturgies at the temple on a typical day, at the third, the sixth, and the ninth hours.

The question of interpretation posed by “the prayers” in 2:42 is this: is this reference a reference to what Christians did in their own services or is the point being made that Christians continued to participate in the “Prayers,” that is, the common worship services of the Jewish church as 3:1 might suggest? We know that later in Acts “ the prayer” is used as an embracive term for Christian public worship. In Acts 6:4 we read the apostles saying that an office of deacon ought to be established in the church so that they might continue in their work of the ministry of the Word and the prayer. The use of “prayer” there is not a reference to the act of praying, as if the apostles needed to guard the amount of time they had to pray for the progress of the gospel. No doubt they were men of prayer and spent hours together in prayer for the progress of the gospel. We know they did. But “the prayer” in Acts 6:4 seems clearly to be a reference to the church’s public worship. The apostles were in effect saying that they had taken over the responsibilities of the ancient priesthood and, these being their primary responsibilities, they mustn’t be distracted from them.

The responsibilities of the priests, according to Moses, were the preaching of the Word and the superintendence of the worship of God’s people, that is, the public worship of God’s people. [Deut. 33:10] But in the new epoch, those responsibilities were now devolved on what we call the Christian ministry, the first representatives of which were the apostles themselves. So, even Christian worship was referred to as “the prayer” and that makes it perhaps more likely that “the prayers” in Acts 2:42 is likewise a reference not to Jewish worship but to Christian, the new worship service of the church.

One important feature of all of this, from Acts 2:42 through 3:1 to 6:4 is the identification of formal worship with prayer, Prayer with a capital P. The Anglicans were not mistaken in calling their Sunday worship “Prayer” as they do when they entitled their manual of Sunday worship “The Book of Common Prayer.” Worship is a form of prayer. Worship is prayer.

The fact of the matter is that even if none of those uses of prayer for public worship were to be found in the early chapters of Acts, it doesn’t take long to realize that worship has always been prayer, which is to say, worship, including public worship, has always been a kind of, a species of, a particular sort of conversation with God, formal, public, corporate to be sure, but still prayer, still a conversation with God.

And this recognition is terribly important. What is worship? If we are going intelligently to consider the practice of Christian worship we need to know what worship is. And I think, in fact, a great deal of our problem, individually and in the church as a whole, is that we often have a vague and uncertain concept of public worship. We don’t really grasp what this thing is! And, of course, different Christians, in fact, have quite different ideas about what the Sunday service of the church is.

There are many Christians who think of the Sunday service as a meeting of the church for a variety of spiritual purposes: instruction, inspiration, encouragement, and so on. It is in its very nature a meeting of the body of Christ. It is Christians gathering together for mutual benefit. In such services there is very little sense of God being present, of Coram Deo, or of conversation with God himself. Apart from the singing, it is mostly Christians talking to one another. Or, there have been in modern times a great many Christian people who have thought and think today that the Sunday service of the Christian church is first and foremost an evangelistic event. The people it is for before anyone else are unbelievers. The conversation of such a service is that between believers and unbelievers.

There are a great many others for whom the Sunday service is simply whatever it is that they are used to; what they have been familiar with for many years. They haven’t thought about it and have no particular theory as to the nature of this service. To be honest, it is something that they put up with more than something they look forward to and it is rarely or never an event in which he or she is conscious of the presence of God. It is not, in their experience,real conversation with God at all.

There is a famous passage in C.S. Lewis’ Reflections on the Psalms [90-98] in which Lewis recollects his own struggle to understand both the centrality of Christian worship and its nature.  Stop and think about this question. It’s the question Lewis was thinking about. Why do we have to go to church once a week to worship God?  We are supposed to gather of a Sunday and praise the Lord. The church has done this from the beginning. Why? Is God vain? Does he want to hear his praises sung by thousands upon thousands of people all over the world at least once a week? Is God needy? Does he need our praise at regular intervals to feel good about himself? Does he need us to tell him that he is good and great? Or, worse, is divine worship part of some bargain: we flatter God so that he will be more inclined to do something good for us. Well, of course, we know God is not vain and he is not needy; nor is worship an effort on our part to buy God’s favor, at least we very much hope that is not what we are doing! Surely we say, God has a “right” to our praise as our Creator and Redeemer, but, and quite rightly, we don’t find it natural to think of God standing on his rights or demanding that we acknowledge his rights. Were God like that he would not have made the terrible sacrifices for us that he did to save us from our sins. There is a perfect humility in God in fact; a beautiful deference both among the three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but also and even to us. God humbled himself before us in Jesus Christ. God does not stand on his rights. But if not, why then are we required to worship God every week? Well, wrestling with that question, led Lewis to this.

“But the most obvious fact about praise (for our purposes you can substitute the word “worship” for “praise”) – whether of God or anything – strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honour. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise unless (sometimes even if) shyness or the fear of boring others is deliberately brought in to check it. The world rings with praise – lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favourite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favourite game – praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians or scholars. I had not noticed how the humblest, and at the same time most balanced and capacious, minds praised most, while the cranks, misfits and malcontents praised least. … Except where intolerably adverse circumstances interfere, praise almost seems to be inner health made audible. … I had not noticed either that just as men spontaneously praise whatever they value, so they spontaneously urge us to join them in praising it: ‘Isn’t she lovely? Wasn’t it glorious? Don’t you think that magnificent?” The Psalmists in telling everyone to praise God are doing what all men do when they speak of what they care about. My whole, more general, difficulty about the praise of God depended on my absurdly denying to us, as regards the supremely Valuable, what we delight to do, what indeed we can’t help doing, about everything else we value.” [93-95]

In other words, Lewis is saying, there is something about worship that is very ordinary, that belongs to the nature of everyday human life. To put it in another way, there is something about worship that belongs to what we know to be the very best of human life and experience. And, — and this is my point this morning – in the same way, the fact that worship is prayer, that is, worship is conversation, confirms this beautiful truth in another way. Right worship, in other words, is the sort of conversation – in this case with God – we know ought to characterize the conversation between any friends, any loved ones, any members of a family. And God is both our friend and our father and we are his children; we belong to his family. The conversation of Sunday worship is only a type of the conversation that is or ought to be happening everywhere in human life.

Take, for example, the conversation that ought to characterize the relationship of husband and wife in marriage. As we learn at the very beginning of the Bible’s revelation of marriage, in Eden before the entrance of sin, the conversation of love in marriage is the conversation of worship. In Genesis 2 we are treated to a snapshot of a perfect and perfectly happy marriage. Not a video tape, not a movie; just a snapshot. But what a revealing snapshot! There are Adam and Eve lying next to one another. Eve has just been created and Adam has just awakened from his long nap. He sees the gorgeous creature lying next to him and realizes immediately that God has made up what was lacking in his life. He was lonely and now he had a partner suitable for him, and not just any partner, but one who was the perfect fulfillment of his life as a male human being.

And what did Adam do as the instinctive compulsion of his sinless and loving heart? Well, he did what Lewis said all human beings do in regard to the things they value. He opened his mouth and worshipped his wife. “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh, she shall be called woman for she was taken out of man.” He told God and he told her how perfectly satisfied he was with the gift God had given him. “You are,” he said to Eve, in so many words, “so perfect for me that I not only gladly welcome you into my own life, I can’t wait to be your partner in every part of our life together. I am yours and you are mine and we have become family.” Adam said that out loud. No doubt the single sentence that is quoted in Gen. 2:23 is a summary of a great deal more that Adam said to Eve, declaring his love, his gratitude, her beauty, goodness, and perfect suitability to him and his delight in her.

He was like the husband of that woman described in Proverbs 31. The Lord’s blessing of that woman was that she had a husband who rose up and praised her: “Many women do noble things but you surpass them all.” That is what love does. No, it is more than that. That is what love is!
So much of love is speech in human life. Words are the most powerful tools that we wield. It is with words that a husband can send his wife out of the house six inches off the ground in the morning. It is with words that he can make her glad to be alive. It is with words of appreciation, compliment, gratitude, and celebration that he can knit the two of them together with a bond that is impossible to break.

Is this not true? Is it not the case that relationships are sustained, deepened, preserved, and perfected, and purified by loving, appreciative, and celebratory, that is worshipping speech? And is it not true that when the power of love is first felt in the soul and then every time thereafter, it demands expression in words and acts? Love always says things and does things!

And so, predictably, what happened when sin entered human life? Man stopped speaking or, now when he speaks, he utters words that are indifferent or angry or cruel or cutting or dismissive. The next speech to come out of Adam’s mouth after his celebration of his wife and declaration of love for her, his first recorded speech about her after the entrance of sin was this: “the woman you gave me, gave me to eat and I did eat.” Celebration has become passing the buck and attributing blame. A husband has this wonderful power over his wife’s heart, a power he was given by God with which to bless his wife, to make her happy, but sin shuts him up, or makes him unwilling to use this power for his wife’s happiness and blessing. This is the story of human life, is it not? So much potential for love and joy in human relationships; so much pain and disappointment instead.

Nothing is more powerful in human affairs than words and nothing is more important to healthy, happy relationships than loving, appreciative, celebratory speech. Show me a woman whose husband demonstrates his love for and admiration of her with his words, with the words he speaks to her and the words he speaks to others, and I’ll show you a happily married woman who is almost always deeply satisfied with her life. And what is true in marriage is true in the home. Nothing builds stronger or healthier relationships between parents and children, nothing so blesses a child than loving, celebratory speech: parents praising and loving their children with their words, celebrating their achievements, honoring them.

And, indeed, the power of loving and appreciative and celebratory speech to fill one’s own life and the life of others with blessing, happiness, and fruitfulness, as the fuel of a good and happy life, is proved in every kind of relationship in human life. Everyone wants to work for a boss who speaks to his employees in complimentary ways, who celebrates their achievements, and who expresses his gratitude for their good work. Friendships are superficial or deep depending on the measure of this kind of conversation, not only because loving and celebratory speech inevitably deepens the relationship and leads to more intimate exchanges but because that kind of speech builds loyalty and gratitude between people which is the substance of a genuine and valuable relationship between two people.

So now we return to the original question: why do Christians have to worship God together once a week. Is God vain? Does he need our positive reinforcement? Of course not. God lived in eternity past without us and in the perfect fellowship of his triune life. He has no need for us.
He has appointed worship because the kind of conversation that worship entails is the means of preserving, purifying, and deepening any human relationship, including the relationship between men and God.

It should be no surprise that, if the language of worship is fundamental to every deep and loving relationship, God should require that language of us for the sake of our relationship with him and should, in turn, offer that language to us for the sake of our relationship with him which is what happens in worship.. The life of God’s people ought to ring with worship, the worship of one another, the worship of God, and so God has appointed worship as part of the expression of our relationship with him.

One of the most influential books on worship written in the last half-century is the Eastern Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World. And one of the emphases of that great book is that the worship of the church on the Lords’ Day is not something separated from life, as if it operated on different principles than our so-called secular life. In Holy Scripture the church’s worship is a concentration of ordinary life and ordinary life ought to be the overflow of our worship together in the house of the Lord. The principles, the realities, the patterns of the one and the other are, or ought to be, the same. We ought to find the hunger for God that man expresses in so many ways in his life in our worship and the communion with God we express in worship we ought to find in every conceivable way in our daily lives.

Take another example. We live in a sinful world. People are guilty of moral failures. We are guilty of moral failures every day. Some of them directly affect our relationships with others. We speak an unkind word, we show ourselves indifferent to another’s hurt, we neglect to keep a commitment that we made, we betray a trust in word or in deed; whatever it may be. In the Christian world, we have come to terms, or we ought to have come to terms with our propensity to sin and to sin against one another. We understand our propensity to sin and to sin against one another. It is the dismal reality of life which we must confront hourly and daily.

And in Christ we have learned the solution to our sins against one another. God forgives our sins when, in faith in the Lord Jesus and confidence in his saving work on the cross, we confess our sins to him and repent of them. And what is true of our forgiveness with God is also true of the forgiveness we seek from or offer to one another. We cannot undo the sins we have committed, but we can confess them to one another – as the Scripture requires us to do – and ask for and receive their forgiveness. And a forgiven sin is, in some ways, at least in the world of grace, more valuable to human relationships than even a sin never committed.

We know the wonderful power of confession both in the positive and the negative. Consider it in an instance of the negative form of this truth. If a husband has been unkind or cruel to his wife, if he has been thoughtless or angry with her, when he recovers himself and begins acting better towards her, but then simply moves on, acting as if nothing had happened, what happens? It causes the sin and its offense to live on, if not to grow in its power and pain. On the other hand, what healing and renewal can be found in an honest, heartfelt confession of one’s sin? “Honey, I have no excuse for my behavior. I love you and so it disgusts me when I act in any way that does not communicate that love or my regard for you. And I acted in just such a way and I am disgusted with myself. What I said, what I did was terribly wrong. Please forgive me. Please forgive me and let me seek to prove my love for you in treating you better than I did.” What Christian wife is not going to feel that such a confession has purified their relationship and placed it once again on a happy, solid footing? How wonderfully powerful confession and repentance is in the purifying of relationships! God has taught us that in his forgiveness of our sins.

But that being so, how perfectly reasonable that confession of her sins to God should be a part of the church’s worship. Here we come into the presence of the Lord. We have sinned against him again in virtually every conceivable way through the past week. He knows our sins. He knows them better than we do ourselves. When we pray in one of our prayers of confession, “Lord, forgive our sins and our secret sins” – a prayer we find first in Holy Scripture itself – we are asking him to forgive not those sins that we know about that others do not – though, true enough, many of our sins are of that type – in the Bible “secret sins” are the sins that God knows about but that we have failed to recognize, the sins we, in our hardness of heart, do not even know we have committed, but that God knows all too well. He knows not only all the things you have done, including all the things you’ve forgotten that you did. He knows all the things you should have done and could have done and never even thought to do. He looks upon the heart; he knows all.

And here we come into his presence. Are we to act as if we have committed no sins against him? Are we to move on as if nothing happened? Are we going to behave as if everything is as it ought to be? Are we going to move on as if we committed no offenses against God? Doing that with our wives or our children or our friends would destroy our relationship with them. It would be dishonorable to do so. A refusal to confess and repent always destroys trust and love. What relationship can be sustained when offenses are ignored and not honestly and sincerely confessed? Well, so in our relationship with God. In our worship we do what we have learned we must do in all our relationships. Or maybe it’s the other way around. In all our other relationships we have learned to do what we have learned we must do in our relationship with God. We confess our sins and ask for their forgiveness; we purify our relationship with our Triune God by an honest reckoning with the offenses we have committed against him. Here too, worship becomes simply the practice of right relationship, as with others, so with God. The principles are the same and so the practices as well. This too is how worship is prayer, simply the right kind of conversation with our heavenly Father, with Christ our Savior and with the Holy Spirit our comforter.

Or take another example. What friendship does not sooner rather than later involve a meal? As Alexander Schmemann points out in For the Life of the World, we eat for many other reasons than simply the nourishment of our bodies. Some of our most enjoyable and most important conversations take place over food and across a table. A meal is one of life’s most important instruments of fellowship and human connection. It should not surprise us, therefore, that there is a meal in this conversation the church has with God every Lord’s Day. Worship is a concentration of life. You find in it what you find in any proper conversation between two friends and in any true relationship. Or one last example. Who loves, really loves, who does not express that love with gifts. Whether birthdays, Christmas, Mother’s Day, anniversaries, or just to say “I’m sorry,” or “I love you.” We give gifts; whether the gift is a piece of jewelry or simply doing the dishes so that she doesn’t have to. Love gives! So who should be surprised that when we come to church to meet with God and have this loving conversation with our heavenly Father we exchange gifts?

Worship is not some strange thing, some oddly different thing that we do once or twice a week and that stands alone and apart from everything else we do. Not at all. Worship is a concentration of what we do and we ought always to be doing in every one of our relationships of love and friendship. It is a conversation like much of our conversation ought to be. It is fellowship, honest, intimate, fruitful, like all our fellowship, or at least much of it, ought to be.

The only difference is that it is the conversation of the church together, the fellowship of the bride with the groom. You are not the bride of Christ, but we together are his bride. You are not the people of God, but when we gather together we are God’s people. You are not the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ, but you are part of that kingdom, a member of it, and when you gather with other believers of a Lord’s Day for worship, it is the kingdom that has gathered to know its Lord, to speak to him, to hear him in return, to rejoice in his goodness, to give him our gifts, to share a meal, to receive his blessing, and to bask in his presence. That, my brothers and sisters, is no burdensome obligation. That is as much a burden as wings are a burden to a bird! To love and be loved we all know is the high point of life, the deepest joy, the greatest satisfaction, and that is what Christian worship is to be every Lord’s Day.

How wonderful of the Lord to make his worship on the Lord’s Day so valuable for us and so perfectly a pattern for us to follow in all our other relationships. We not only get the good of the right kind of conversation with God. We learn how to make all our other relationships holy and happy and full of goodness and light. How like our Father to do that for us.