Jesus declared in John 4:23-24 that “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” In my last article, I showed how using liturgy in worship enables us to worship in God “in truth,” as the language of the prayers and liturgy of the best Prayer Books in the Anglican tradition are steeped in and drawn from Scripture (click here for the full post). Let us now turn to the question of whether liturgy can facilitate worshipping God “in spirit.”
Much debate has occurred over what exactly Jesus meant by “in spirit and truth.” At a bare minimum, his charge implies that worship cannot simply be mental assent to things which are true, with no involvement of the heart. This type of heartless religious observance often characterized Israel’s worship of God; He had instructed them at Sinai as to the ins and outs of the sacrificial system, while calling them to love Him with their whole hearts. As time progressed, the sacrifices kept being offered physically, even long after the hearts of the Israelites had strayed to other gods. This empty worship earned them the rebuke of the prophets. Isaiah, for instance, critiqued the Israelites as a people who honored God with their lips, but their hearts were far from Him (Isaiah 29:13).
The contention that liturgical worship leads to same place as Israelite worship is where many opponents of liturgical worship take their stand, as I myself once did. Such worship, they contend, results in a dead faith. It is not without reason that the nickname “the frozen chosen” has been put upon those within the Episcopal tradition! Reliance upon written prayers and pre-formed service orders can result in the mindless reading of prayers and creeds. This can be as true for the clergy as for the people, with nary a heart engaged in the proceedings. While this critique can be valid, it need not be so. To see a prescription for this malady, let us look at one point of revival in Israel’s history, found during the ministry of Ezra.
In Nehemiah 8, the people of God had returned to the land after being in exile, and were gathered together in Jerusalem. There Ezra read to them from the Torah. Nehemiah 8:8-9 recounts that after the reading, the Levites “helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” This text is often used as a reference to the role and importance of preaching, and rightly so! But consider also that a portion of the Law, Genesis-Deuteronomy, contains the liturgies for Israel’s worship of God. They heard the stories of Creation and Fall, God’s preserving Noah through the Flood, His choosing of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, His mighty deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt, and His preservation of His people through the wilderness. They heard also of all the moral laws given with the covenant at Sinai. And they heard about all of the different sacrifices and rituals they were commanded to offer up and partake in for their right worship of God. The explanation of the Levites would have needed to cover all these things. So, it was not just the explanation of doctrines and recounting of narrative, but a meaningful explanation of worship practices and liturgies as well.
Personally, I have found such explanations to be vital for worshipping God in a liturgical setting. As I have better understood the flow of the liturgy, the underlying purpose of each prayer and how each part flows together into the whole, it has greatly strengthened my heart’s personal engagement with liturgical worship. Understanding how the opening prayers and responses of a Holy Communion service, for example, repeatedly emphasize the need for the human heart to be shaped to desire God, His Word, and His ways, has helped me to pray with a heart that is engaged (for the full liturgy on this section, click here). The more I have learned the origins and purpose of each part of the liturgy, the more I am able to be engaged in worship in both spirit and in truth.
For the final, and more important corrective to dead ritual, let us return to John 4. Jesus’ words do not merely speak of engaging our hearts and minds in worship, but that above all our worship must be empowered by God’s Spirit. In regards to this text, Craig Keener notes that “only religion born from the Spirit, utterly dependent on God’s empowerment, can please God.”[i] Our hearts can only engage in true worship when they are enlivened by the Holy Spirit. After all, in John 15:5 Jesus said that apart from Him we can do nothing, which must include offering pleasing worship to God! Without the Spirit’s indwelling our prayers and praises, they are empty, regardless of their beauty and source. Education on the purposes, meaning, and flow of the liturgy is important, but it is useless without a lively faith and the Spirit’s movement.
Whenever you approach God in worship, I commend to you the following prayer, known as the Collect for Purity, which we use in our Holy Communion services at the very beginning of the service. Its words are beautiful, but more than this, it acknowledges our need for God to cleanse and direct our hearts and desires before we can offer Him true worship:
Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Help us, O Lord, to worship the Father in spirit and in truth.
[i] Keener, Craig. The Gospel of John: A Commentary. Volume 1, 618.