Questioning our Worship (I): Why go to Church?

This article is part of a larger series, the introduction to which is here.

I recently had a conversation with a neighbor of mine about going to church on Sunday.

When he found out that I am a “pastor type” he apparently felt the need to justify why he does not really believe in going to church on Sunday. “I can have ‘church’ at home,” he said. “Don’t you agree?”

“Well,” I responded, “certainly lots of people feel that way, and it kind of makes sense, I guess. But I think it is important to consider what the Bible says about things like that.” I went on to allude to I Peter chapter 2 by saying, “One of the images that the Bible gives us of God’s people is that of living stones.”

I continued by saying that if you look at a stone wall of a building one of the interesting things is that the stones are resting upon one another. That is, the stones need each other. A single stone cannot make a wall.

A similar dynamic comes into play when we consider the biblical image of “many members, one body.” Here the many members come together to form a whole organic unity, a complete body. An eye, or a spleen, cannot hope to constitute a healthy human body in all its complexity, as St. Paul teaches in places like I Corinthians 12.

It is the same way with “going to church” and the Christian life. In general is not possible for only one person to worship God by herself, if she never gathers with the community. Our private devotion and meditation (“in your prayer closet”) flows out from the worship of the gathered community, from the “work of the people” (which, as we saw last month, is what “liturgy” literally is).

The bottom line here is that in the Christian life, we need each other. “There are no ‘lone ranger’ Christians.”

I want to bring out, however, a second aspect to all this. There is another reason why staying at home on Sunday to read our Bible (or to watch a “televangelist” on TV) is not full Christian worship in the way the Bible describes it.

What are we doing when we worship God? The collects in our Prayer Book which we say over and over every Sunday give us a strong hint. Almost every one of them ends with some version of “through Jesus Christ … who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit….” You see, worship, at its heart, at its core essence, is a participation in the life and love of the Holy Trinity. It is as if in worship we are entering into a stimulating conversation or a beautiful dance which has already been going on between three Persons who deeply love each other. This loving community hospitably invites us into their joy, into their peace, into their glorious life.

But reading the Bible in my armchair at home, as important as that is, is not conducive to this kind of fellowship with the Divine community, if separated from the worshipping life of the people of God. When I read words on a page in my armchair at home, there is no conversation there: it is just “me, myself, and I” with static words on a page. But in worship on Sunday it is all about conversation, dialogue with God in and through other people. In the responsive psalm the people dialogue with the choir. In the confession and absolution we dialogue with Christ. After Jesus summons us by his Word in the sermon, we respond in conversation in the word of the Creed.

In this way, we are caught up into a Great Conversation with the Divine Community in a way that just cannot happen in my armchair at home. The real purpose of my armchair at home, and the real purpose of my Bible reading, is to re-member and to extend the Great Conversation in which I was caught up last Sunday.

In a sense, then, worship is prior to Scripture in that worship provides the context for Scripture. This makes sense historically, as well, when we realize that the continuous worship of the new covenant church actually predates the writings of the New Testament Scriptures.

The Bible is tremendously important, but its true home, if you will, is not primarily my armchair at home or my home office or study, but rather in the liturgical worship of the church. Out of this fountain, the rest of our Christian life flows.

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“I need you in order to be myself.”

“In coming to see the other correctly, we inescapably alter our understanding of ourselves.  Really taking in the other will involve an identity shift in us.  That is why it is so often resisted and rejected.  We have a deep identity investment in the distorted images we cherish of others … If understanding the other is to be construed as fusion of horizons and not as possessing a science of the object, then the slogan might be:  no understanding the other without a changed understanding of self.  The kind of understanding that ruling groups have of the ruled, that conquerors have of the conquered—most notably in recent centuries in the far-flung European empires—has usually been based on a quiet confidence that the terms they need are already in their vocabulary.  Much of the ‘social science’ of the last century is in this sense just another avatar of an ancient human failing.  And indeed, the satisfactions of ruling, beyond the booty, the unequal exchange, the exploitation of labor, very much includes the reaffirmation of one’s identity that comes from being able to live this fiction without meeting brutal refutation.  Real understanding always has an identity cost—something the ruled have often painfully experienced.  It is a feature of tomorrow’s world that this cost will now be less unequally distributed” (Charles Taylor, “Gadamer on the Human Sciences,” 141).

Thanks to Cynthia Nieslon for this.

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A Brief History of Translation: _arsenokoitai_

It is now clear to me that, in fact, there has been a significant shift in the translation of this Greek term in I Cor 6:9 and in I Tim 1:10. Wyclif’s translation in 1380 is “thei that don lecherie with men” (Webster’s definition of “lechery” is “free indulgence of lust; selfish pleasure”). Tyndale (1534), Coverdale (1535), Cranmer (1539), the Geneva Bible (1557), the KJV (1611), and the ASV (1901) render it “abusers of themselves with [the] mankind.”

In 1946 the RSV changed to “sexual perverts” and in 1973 the NIV translates it as “homosexual offenders.”

Dale B. Martin rightly describes this shift from a “reference to an action that any man [I would say “any person”] might well perform … to a perversion, either an action or a propensity taken to be self-evidently abnormal and diseased.” (Sex and the Single Savior, ch 3)

I think it is horrible to say that male-female sex & sexual desire is “normal,” while (fe)male-(fe)male sex & sexual desire is “abnormal.” This is not a theological statement. What is a theological statementis to say that male-female sex & sexual desire is creational in the sense of God’s creation-intent, while (fe)male-(fe)male sex & sexual desire is anti-creational, in the sense that, as a result of the fall, it runs counter to God’s creational intent.

Thus, I think that this 20th century shift in the translation of this term is deplorable, since it buys into the late 19th century view (documented by Michel Foucault The History of Sexuality) that same-sex attraction is a disease. It is wrong to allow such secular assumptions to creep into our translation of the Church’s sacred text(s).

 

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