(This is the second message in a series, A Contagious Church.)
The inauguration last week was an amazing event. Whatever your political views, the pomp and ceremony and tradition and meaning of the day all said something great—not about any one man, but about the country. We sat down and watched the whole thing…then watched it again right afterwards. It was a complicated event. I printed off the media guide without checking how big it was—121 pages later I had everything I needed to know about the inaugurations of American presidents. What struck me was the high value placed on the continuity of these ceremonies going all the way back to George Washington.
Commentators kept referring to the peaceful transfer of power, and that really is one of the amazing things about these transitions, no matter who becomes president. The handing over of military power, economic influence and (if we’re honest) the coolest office in the world is something that Americans are proud of with good reason.
Today we continue our series on what it means to be a church that is alive and contagious. The key sentence for us over the next few weeks, and feel free to memorize it, is this:
A contagious church is built on a foundation of Jesus Christ, and expressed through Fellowship, Worship, Discipleship and Mission.
Each one of those qualities or practices helps to shape us into the people that God calls us to be, and each one helps us share that life in a generous and contagious way with other people. Last week we talked about Fellowship, and today we continue with a look at Worship, what we do to celebrate the power and presence and work of God in our lives.
3Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. 4For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— 6to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. 7In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace 8that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. 9And made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, 10to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.
11In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. 13And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession—to the praise of his glory.
The city of Ephesus is in modern day Turkey, near the city of Izmir. The Ephesians were part of a network of early churches that were always under threat from persecution or heresy or both. The letter is a summary of Paul’s teaching, designed to unify these struggling churches. It may have been a message read for baptism services. This entire passage is actually one long sentence—a string of phrases where God is in control, where Christ is the link between God and his creation, and where we are the receivers of God’s blessings through Christ.
Take a look at our text.
The very first line is a Christian version of a traditional Jewish prayer called the berakhah. The function of the berakhah in Jewish worship is to acknowledge God as the source of all blessing. It’s traditionally said over a meal. This is a very Jewish way to begin the letter, and connects Paul and the early church to their Jewish origins.
In the fifth verse Paul talks about our adoption as children of God. This one is interesting because there was no real provision for adoption in Jewish law. The sort of adoption Paul is talking about here is a Roman concept, where an orphan would be taken into a family and given full inheritance rights. That’s important, because Paul’s ministry, and this letter, were to the whole world, not just the people of any one faith or ethnic group.
The passage ends with a confirmation of our own adoption, including the gift of an inheritance directly from God: ‘The promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession.’
There is a natural flow in our text today, from God’s plan to the work of Christ to the impact of that work on each of our lives. Paul’s letter begins with a statement of God’s power, his presence through Jesus Christ, and his work in our lives. That’s an important thing to remember as we think about why we worship this morning.
In honor of the inauguration of a new president this week, I want us to think about worship in a new way. I want us to reflect on the practice of worship as a radical transfer of power from ourselves to God.
If you look at the dictionary definition of worship, you’ll see that it’s a verb first. We get into trouble when we start referring to worship as a noun. The danger is that it becomes about style, rather than substance. It becomes more about what worship looks and sounds like, rather than what it means. Worship is contagious when we remember to keep it active and meaningful—when we focus more on what it means than how we do it.
One of the major statements of Christian faith in the last 50 years was the Confession of 1967, one of the creeds of the Presbyterian denomination that I grew up in. Here’s what that confession says about worship in the church:
‘The church gathers to praise God, to hear his word for humankind, to baptize and join in the Lord’s Supper, to pray for and present the world to him in worship, to enjoy fellowship, to receive instruction, strength and comfort…[In worship we are] tested, renewed and reformed.’
Worship is when we acknowledge God’s sovereignty in our lives, our families, our church and our world. It’s when we transfer the power in our lives over the God every day. When we do that, we are tested, renewed and reformed.
How does that happen? Remember the natural flow in our text today, from God’s plan to the work of Christ to the impact of that work on each of our lives. We worship when we sing and pray and live in the shadow of God’s power, his presence, and his work in our lives.
The call to us as individuals and as a church family is to be intentional about what we do here. It’s not enough to have good quality music. It’s not enough to have the occasional interesting sermon. It’s not enough for any of us to go through the motions of being churchgoers.
We worship best when we’re intentional about practicing the presence of God—of trusting in faith that God is who he says he is, and that he’ll do what he promised to do.
We worship best when we understand the meaning of Christ’s ministry and sacrifice—when we live in the joy of the redemption and forgiveness we experience through our lives in Christ.
We worship best when we allow God’s Holy Spirit to work within in us and through us and to make us into instruments of his blessings to each other and the world around us.
Notice that none of that had anything to do with forms or style or what kind of music we use here. Here’s the point: anything that helps us grow in our understanding of God’s plan, that helps to remind us of the sacrifice Christ made to accomplish that plan, and that gets us into a place where the Holy Spirit can empower us for service—anything that pushes us in that direction is a part of our worship. When we live and love and serve like that, we’ll know we’re truly worshipping.
The best part of that is that it’ll be contagious. If we have a story to tell and transformed lives to back it up, our worship—our active expression of faith and trust in God—will spread to people we meet and to others that we don’t even know.
My prayer for us this year is not that we’ll make some radical changes to our style of worship.
My prayer for us is that whatever we do here, it will become a joyful noise—a reckless love song that melts our hearts—and an authentic act of praise to the one who made us and redeemed us and gives us strength for this long hard journey.