50 Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53 and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
1 Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. 3 He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4 having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
5 For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you”? Or again, “I will be his Father, and he will be my Son”? 6 And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God’s angels worship him.”
For the past few weeks, we’ve been talking about WORSHIP — what it is, why we do it, what scripture has to say about it, and how it works here at First Presbyterian Church..
I got to thinking about how our early (9am) service includes a lot of people who are relatively new to our church; they are *finding* faith, or at least finding faith again in a new place.
Our second service (11am) is a traditional service–it includes a lot of folks who are interested in *keeping* or holding onto the faith and the traditions they grew up with.
I’ve always wanted to start yet another worship service specifically designed for those who grew up in the church but at some point along the way *lost* their faith and have never quite recovered.
And then there’s always a need for a worship service that reaches out to those who are experiencing grief or loss in their lives.
That would be a total of four worship services, and just so no one gets confused about which is which, I’ve already come up with the perfect name for each service: We would call them “Finders, Keepers, Losers, Weepers.”
I’m just kidding. Mostly. But we really are talking about worship at First Presbyterian Church, using the acronym WORSHIP, which stands for Welcoming, Orderly, Reformed, Sacred, Honest, Intelligent, and Public.
Today we come to the letter S, which stands for Sacred. It’s also the letter that is right in the very middle of the word worship, and so I want to speak today about how that sacredness is at the very heart of what it means to worship, and everything else — the welcome, the order, the reformed, the honesty, the intelligence, and the public nature of worship all flow outward from this one aspect: Our worship is sacred.
In a minute, I’ll unpack that word, “sacred” some more, but before I do that I need to take one step backward. When I was putting together this acronym for WORSHIP, most of the letters (and the values they represent) came pretty easily. But not this one. Why? Because what I really wanted to place at the heart of our worship, as self-professed Christians…is Christ. And truly, Jesus Christ IS at the center of all that we do, in worship and in every other aspect of our church. But as fun as it is to say “Worchip,” that didn’t quite fit the acronym. I do think there’s a logical connection between Christ and the Sacred, which ultimately makes the acronym work, and which I’ll get to…eventually.
But first, let’s start with Jesus Christ, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end of everything we do.
According to the World Christian Encyclopedia, there are over 33,000 distinct groups in our world who self-identify as Christians. This list includes everything from Roman Catholic, to Presbyterian, Baptist and Lutheran, to Mormon, Jehovah’s Witness and Seventh Day Adventist.
Despite their many, many differences (many of them would deny each other as Christians at all) what is the one thing that all of them share in common?
Just one thing. They all acknowledge, to greater or lesser degrees, that there is something special, something unique about a man who lived and died 2,000 years ago in the Middle East named Jesus. And one other thing–because of his special uniqueness, they all accord him a title, “Christ” or (in the original Greek) Christos, which simply means messiah, the chosen one, the anointed one, or the “special” one.
As Presbyterians, we certainly stand in that tradition, and so our worship reflects that. But let me make an important point here: If you ask twenty people in our world today the question, “who was (or is) Jesus?” you will get twenty different answers–everything ranging from the classic “Jesus is the son of God who died for our sins and was raised from the dead so that we could have eternal life” to something more like “Jesus was a good man and enlightened teacher who preached about loving your neighbor, and that’s it.”
I want to make the case that BOTH of those approaches (and everything in between) are legitimate, thoughtful, and welcome viewpoints here at First Presbyterian Church. It’s true that the first one is more reflective of our 16th century reformed heritage (where we’ve come from), while the second one is reflective of our 21st century scientific rationalism (where we’re headed) that rejects supernatural explanations and meta-narratives. But BOTH approaches are faithful and “Christian” in that they seek to learn more about who this person, Jesus, was and how his life and teachings can be in some way (supernatural or psychological) transformative to us in our lives today.
That’s why we are not Unitarian Universalists, who pursue and equally embrace all religious traditions and beliefs. No disrespect intended to our UU brothers and sisters, and those who have chosen to follow that path.
But it’s also why we are not Fundamentalist or Evangelical Christians, who have taken the stance that they are right in their understanding of who Jesus was and what Christianity is, and that everyone who disagrees with them (within Christianity and without) is wrong and condemned to eternal damnation.
No. Here at First Presbyterian Church, we have chosen to center our worship around the person of Jesus Christ, to explore that path, wherever it might lead us, and whatever conclusions about Christ it might lead us to. Some of us are “Classic Reformed Christians,” some of us are “Recovering Catholic Christians” some of us are “Buddhist Christians,” “Heathen Christians,” “agnostic Christians” or even “atheistic Christians.” But the Christian part reflects our commitment to the one thing that holds us together–we’re all trying to figure out who this Jesus guy was is, and what that means for the way we live our lives.
So unquestionably, unashamedly, and unwaveringly Jesus Christ is at the center of our worship. But as intelligent, thoughtful people, it’s up to each of you to work out what that means.
A big part of the story of Jesus is his willing sacrifice of his life at the end of his ministry. Some people may doubt the story of the resurrection, or the miracles, or the virgin birth. But Jesus’ death on a Roman cross is one of the few things almost universally acknowledged and attested in historical sources outside of Christianity.
And that’s where we (finally) make our transition to the sacred.
Sacred is simply the old Latin word for “Holy.” And sacrifice is the composite of the Latin words “sacer” (holy) and “facio” (to make or do). So to sacrifice is simply to “make something holy.” The idea that death has the power to make something holy may seem counterintuitive at first, but think about it:
-The willing death of over 200,000 American soldiers on the beaches of Normandy in World War II consecrated–made holy–not just the ground over which they fought, but for an entire generation of young Americans and Europeans who lived through that war, the very ideals of freedom, democracy, and liberation became more sacred, more holy than they otherwise would have been.
-When my father passed away suddenly at the age of 48, all the things that he taught his four children, all the things he valued, and even many of the things he owned took on a sacred, holy character for me and my siblings.
-Joan of Arc, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Harvey Milk…the pages of history are full of courageous leaders whose causes were consecrated and made sacred in their death.
So too, our worship, when centered on the life of Jesus Christ, becomes sacred and holy through the sacrifice of his life for the sake our ours.
Our worship is sacred. I want to wrap things up by contrasting that word, sacred, with two other “S” words that get thrown around a lot today in connection with faith and religion.
The first is the word “secular.” To many, the word secular is simply the opposite of sacred. As in “sacred music is church music” and “secular music is…everything else. Not church music.” But originally, the word secular had a different meaning. The Latin word saecularis meant something belonging to a particular age, usually the current one. A modern equivalent might be “trendy” or “fashionable.”
If you’ve spent any amount of time worshiping at First Presbyterian Church, you already know that we are anything BUT trendy or fashionable. Nerdy, yes. A little bit weird? I like to think of us as quaintly retro. But the point here is that our worship is not secular–it doesn’t follow the prevailing trends in our culture (or in church culture), jumping from one to the next. It is sacred–unflinchingly tied to a 2,000 year old tradition that was unpopular and ostracized from its earliest days.
And the second “S” word is…spiritual. Now, spirituality is not, in itself, a bad thing. Jesus spoke often of God’s spirit, and the Apostle Paul acknowledged that we are spiritual beings. But there’s a recent trend these days for people to identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” Usually, what that means is, “I believe in God, but I don’t go to church.” Or, “I’m open to the idea of faith, but I’m skeptical about organized, institutional religion.”
That’s understandable. The church is made up of human beings, and we’ve made a lot of mistakes through the years.
But spirituality, divorced from community, wanders aimlessly and alone. For all its faults, flaws and human failings, the church is still the best place for flawed human beings to seek out what is good, what is pure, what is holy…together, helping each other and holding each other accountable.
St. Augustine recognized this a long time ago, in the 5th century, when he wrote that “The church is a whore…but she’s my mother.”
So our worship is not secular. Nor is it spiritual, at least not primarily. Rather, our worship is sacred. And not because of anything that we have done or contributed to it…but because it begins, and ends, with Jesus Christ, who is (in the words of our scripture passage from Hebrews) the reflection of God’s glory and the imprint of God’s being, who sustains us all by his word, and who is worshiped by the angels in heaven. May we worship him, too.