Lecture 6: Principle 8
Course: Essentials of Worship
Lecture: Principle 8
Principle 8 is another application of Paul’s language to the Corinthians “when you come together.”
It Is Not Simply about “Me and Jesus”
In Principle number 8, we will say it this way — when we come together as a community for worship, we are participating in something much larger than ourselves. We are participating in something much bigger than just you and me and Jesus, or just me and Jesus. One of the great troubling misconceptions about worship today is that worship is primarily about me, how I feel, my own experience of God. Well, again, we can certainly speak about worship as individual response to the faithful and gracious revelation of God, but “when you come together,” Paul says, “No, no, you must come together and discern the body.”
1 Corinthians 11:17ff and the Denial of the “One Body” of Jesus
We do not have time to do it now, but consider, when you have opportunity, 1 Corinthians 11:17 through the end of the chapter. We are most familiar with this passage in terms of Paul’s introduction to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Maybe we could just highlight a couple of ideas here.
Verse 17, “In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good.” What an awful thing to be said about a worship gathering of a church. At the very least, I think, we have to assume that the Corinthians were not unique in missing the mark and that the problems that were happening there have been repeated through history and are being repeated today. Other problems, just as serious or more so, are in our midst even today. What an awful thought, but we should really think about this. In some ways, could some of our meetings actually be doing more harm than good?
In this letter to the Corinthians, Paul goes on to speak about their Lord’s Supper celebration. He says that, in fact, “you think it is the Lord’s Supper that you are celebrating but you are not. You are missing the mark significantly.” Apparently, in Corinth the Lord’s Supper was celebrated in the context of a fellowship meal, probably housed in the homes of some of the richer members of the church.
This Corinthian church was already divided up in so many ways: between those who have certain spiritual gifts and those who did not; between those who followed Peter, those who followed Paul, those who followed Apollos and those who thought of themselves as super-spiritual and said of themselves we follow only Christ; between Jews and Gentiles; between those who accepted certain dietary rules and those who did not.
The church also had divisions between the rich and the poor. Apparently, this was spilling over into their so-called celebrations of the Lord’s Supper. They would meet for a potluck meal and have their Lord’s Supper celebration in that context. Scholars try to piece this together, but apparently, or least possibly, as they gather together for their fellowship meal in the homes of the rich, some of the rich came together first.
So, the homeowner invites some of their closer friends to come early and get a head start on the meal and share their own tasty fare with one another, and then, following along at the scheduled appointed time for the rest of the congregation, would come the poorer members, who would be relegated to dining on only those smaller and lesser things that they were able to bring.
We are guessing a little bit about what that might have looked like, but this much is clear, in Paul’s arguments in 1 Corinthians 11 he says that the way they are doing this meeting together makes their celebration anything but the Lord’s Supper. Verse 21 says, “Because as you eat, you go ahead without waiting for anybody else, so one gets hungry while another gets drunk. Do you despise the church of God and humiliate the poor?,” verse 22.
Somehow the divisions between them were being magnified by their supposed celebration of the Lord’s Supper, which was to be a celebration of unity. Then, he goes on and gives us the words of institution, verse 23 and following, “I received from the Lord what I passed on to you.” Then he goes into the whole narrative of Jesus in the Upper Room, taking bread and breaking it and giving the wine and passing it.
He says, “This is the tradition that was received, (that I received) this is what has been passed on to you, but this is not what you are doing.” We are in the Lord’s Supper to be celebrating the fact that Christ died to make us one body. He has already established, in chapter 10, that the one loaf represents the fact that we are one body and we have been made one body by Christ. He does the same thing in chapter 12 verse 13, “By one Spirit we have all been baptized into one body in spite of our divisions, Jew or Greek, slave or free, we are given one Spirit to drink.”
“Discern the Body”
But the way the Corinthians were celebrating the Lord’s Supper was in a whole different spirit and moving in a whole different direction. Instead of amplifying the beauty of the one body, they were tearing the body apart. Then he says, verse 27, “Those who eat the bread or drink the cup in an unworthy manner are guilty of defiling the body and blood of the Lord. We ought to examine ourselves before we eat the bread and drink the cup.”
It seems, in the context, very clear to me, that the unworthy manner he has in mind is participating in the Lord’s Supper in ways that deny the reality of the one body of Jesus. In verse 29 he says, “Anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.” I would agree with those New Testament scholars who believe that in verse 29 Paul has intentionally eliminated the word blood and simply referred to the body here. Notice in verse 27 and 28, it is eat, drink; bread, cup; body, blood.
Now, in verse 29, it is simply recognizing the body. I agree with the scholars who think that the whole context suggests that here Paul is recognizing that the church is the body of the Lord and that our celebration of the Lord’s Supper is, in part, an acknowledgment of that and a celebration of that one body to which we all belong. Paul says that if you do not discern the body in that way you eat and drink judgment upon yourself.
What happens when you do that? Verse 30, “There are many, therefore, who are sick and weak among you.” Because when the body does not love itself, sickness, suffering, and even death occurs. Sadly, of course, we take this passage and usually in our communion services we read it and we wave it in the face of unbelievers and tell them they had better examine themselves before they eat.
Right, but that is a case of right doctrine, wrong text. This text is about a warning to believers who refuse to love each other as they celebrate the Lord’s Supper. From the passage itself I think we can draw this principle, that when we come together we must always discern the body. When we come together for these intentional gatherings of worship as a body, we need to discern the body and submit to the body out of reverence for Christ.
When we come together, it is not just a bunch of individuals gathered to do their own thing before God in the same room; that is not what corporate worship or congregational worship is. It is the gathering of the body. We are just missing this today. One of the very sad things about our corporate worship experience is that we have such a little sense of this today.
Balance of “I” and “We” Songs as well as “Thou” Songs
Here is some evidence of this. Next time you are in a service, just listen to the songs that you are singing with the congregation and pay attention to how many of the songs use that powerful, little, first person, personal, singular pronoun “I.”
I was in a church years ago where we took all of our contemporary praise songs and we put them on overhead transparencies and we kept them in boxes, organized by file folders based on the alphabet. You may know where I am going with this. We continually had to add more file folders to accommodate all the songs that began with the letter “I.” I thank you, I love you, I will praise you, I will serve you, I want you, I need you, and on and on it went.
These days when I sit in services, especially services of contemporary worship, and listen to songs, my experience is that about ninety percent of all the songs that we sing in church are “I-focused” in that way. It is about me and Jesus, me and God. Is that an important and appropriate part of our worship? Absolutely, it is an appropriate part of our worship. If the Psalms, for the example, are the hymnal of Israel, it is inescapable. Most of the Psalms are written in that same kind of language. I will praise you, I will love you; many of the Psalms are written in that kind of language, but not all of them.
It is a continual reminder in the history of Israel, in the culture of ancient Israel, of the community. In our day and age, in many of our cultures, especially in the West, we are radically individualistic already. Our culture is narcissistic already. We are self-absorbed, self-focused people already. This is evident in so many of the things that we do in the church. One of the most obvious symptoms of this, again, is this I-centered singing that we do. The church does not need any help; our people do not need any help in becoming self-centered. We do need help in becoming conscious of the body that we belong to, that we all belong to each other.
I would not advocate throwing out the “I” songs in our service. I would advocate, rather, balance of taking the “I” songs and adding to them some songs that remind us that “We” are the people of God, “We” have come together.
I was in a service not long ago, the first gathering of a community for worship to mark the new school year. Someone was appointed to lead three or four nice praise songs; they were lead well. I was struck by the fact that all three or four of these songs were “I” songs. There was not a single song that reminded this community, on the first day of their gathering themselves together for a new year, academic year, not a single song that challenged them to think about the person standing next to them. Not a single song challenged them to think of themselves as the people of God in that community together, not a single song. We could have been singing them in the privacy of our own car, in our own home, and it would not have made any difference. Nothing called us to discern the body.
I would call us in our churches to correct this imbalance by adding songs that are “We” songs and adding songs that are simply “Thou” songs, so focused on God that the I and the we just kind of are subsumed in deep humility and reference before the great Thou or You of our Lord.
I have a hymnal that I love to use for personal devotional times. It is a pocket hymnal, 850 hymns; I can carry it literally in my pocket. They fit 850 in this little pocket hymnal by leaving out all the music; it is just the words. It is organized topically and organized around the church year. The last organizational section in the hymnal is labeled thus, “Hymns Chiefly for Personal Use.” About fifty hymns at the back of the hymnal are labeled “Hymns Chiefly for Personal Use.” It seems to me we have lost almost all consciousness of this mindset today.
Most of our contemporary hymnody is written in the prayer closet of an individual composer and comes directly from the prayer closet into the sanctuary. We do not have this sense of awareness anymore that there is a difference between singing in the prayer closet and singing in the sanctuary with the people of God; at least there ought to be a difference.
When we come together, I need to be aware of the fact that I am part of something bigger than just me and Jesus. It is not just “I", there is a “We” component. And then, beyond this, the “We” needs to get ever larger; my “We” consciousness needs to expand. The “We” that I am part of is not only the “We” that is gathered on that particular day of assembly; it is not only my local congregation. It turns out that the “We” is even bigger.
I am part of the believers who are gathered all across town, different denominations, different ethnic groups. I am part of the believers who are gathered all around the country. I am part of the believers who are gathered all around the globe. I need to have this consciousness.
Sadly, we are not far removed at all from the experience that Billy Graham described in a Readers Digest article in 1960, when he said, “Eleven o’clock Sunday morning, the most segregated hour in America.” Well, here we are nearly forty-five years later and we are still there. Still, on Sunday, our ethnic division stares us in the face, but not only ethnicity and race, all kinds of ways that we have divided ourselves. Some of these divisions are based on conviction, some of them are based on convenience. The reality is, we have lost consciousness of the fact that we belong to the one body of Jesus Christ. We need to discern the body and we need to help our people to discern the body.
Jesus established the one church, and the church historically referred to this church as one, holy, apostolic, and catholic church. That we are catholic, of course, predates any distinction between Protestant and Catholic or Protestant and Roman Catholic. Catholic is an ancient word of the church that reminds us that the one church that Jesus established knows no bounds of nation or ethnicity; it is a universal church. We are one with that church and we need to get that global consciousness.
We are one with the suffering church. We need to be thoughtful of them and praying for them when we gather together for worship. As Paul encouraged the Corinthians in their gatherings to be conscious of the Jewish believers suffering in Jerusalem, we need to be reminded of the suffering saints around the globe today.
We need to be reminded that there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all. Jesus did not establish multiple churches. We will not have our own private rooms in glory. We are part of one church. May God humble us and correct us from our divisive tendencies.
The “We” gets even bigger when you contemplate further, because it is not only the “We” in the local community or even the “We” in the global community, but it is the “We” that spans the ages. We are one with the believers who have gone before us. They speak to us as faithful witnesses of the greatness of God and we need to listen to them. That is why I think it is so critical that we sing not only contemporary, cutting edge, new songs, but we join ourselves to the hymnody of the ages, the creeds and confessions and prayers of the ages.
They can be ours as well, because God is not the God of the dead; He is the God of the living. Abraham is alive, Jacob is alive, Paul is alive, Peter is alive, Mary is alive, Martin Luther is alive, Calvin and Augustine are alive. These are still part of the one church of Jesus Christ, and we are part of that church; we have joined them and so we listen to them.
In a class on worship I taught a couple of years ago, one of the assignments was for the students to visit other worship experiences and report on what they saw and experienced there. One student went to a service and came back and wrote his paper and was noting to me something about the kinds of song that they sang in that church.
He said the music featured a good balance of old songs and new songs. Then he put dates in parentheses to help me out to understand what he meant. After old songs, he wrote “early 1990’s", and after new songs, he wrote “late 1990’s"; this was a few years ago. I remember reading that, laughing and shaking my head, and thinking, oh my, if old songs are early 90’s, what are the songs that are still resonating in my own heart? I think we need to get a lot deeper in our understanding than that.
So, I belong to the local church, the global church, the ancient church, and I belong also to the future church; a church that is yet to be born, that is yet to come, those who have yet to come to faith, those who will come after us. That is in the spirit of Psalm 78, where the psalmist said, “We will pass the tales of God’s mighty deeds on to the future generations.”
In the contemporary church, we need to think not only about being “relevant,” whatever that word may mean to the needs of today, but we also need to be thinking about leaving a timeless legacy for our children and their children and their children, to future generations of those who are yet to know the Lord.
Well, a lot of thoughts on this principle #8 — when we come together we need to discern the body. We are part of something much bigger than just me and Jesus. God help us to understand it. One Scripture that I find very helpful here is Revelation 7:9-10, “Then after this I looked and I saw standing before the throne of God people from every nation, tribe, and tongue, standing in white robes with palm branches in their hand and saying together in one loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God.’” This is the church in all its vast diversity, beautiful diversity, still evident diversity, and yet absolutely united in the praise of God. That is a picture of the church that we need to keep before us as we gather together.