Beloved in Christ,
Over the past year, my pastoral letters to you have largely focused on the spiritual life, especially the disciplines of a daily life of prayer and scripture study. With that groundwork, I now want to turn our attention to the spiritual discipline which undergirds all others – our participation in the worship of God on the Lord’s day with the gathered body (I likely should have begun with this topic in the first place!).
There are many conceptions of what Christian worship is, or ought to be, in the wider evangelical world. In my mind, the best way to understand Christian worship is through two different, though related phrases. First, we should say that Christian worship is a time and place of holy adoration to which we are summoned by Christ our King. But that is not the only description we should use. For Christian worship is also a time and place of rich nourishment to which we are invited by Christ our Host.
A time and place of adoration as well nourishment. A summons as well as an invitation. A God who is both King as well as Host. In my estimation, we must hold each of these realities in tension with one another if we are to properly understand Christian worship, and to abandon one description for the sake of another will lead to a subtle narrowing of the full meaning of our gathered worship.
One of the places where these realities are most clearly held in tension with one another is that great psalm that has had such a prominent role in the worship of God’s people throughout the centuries: Psalm 95, especially verses 6 & 7, which read: “Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the LORD our maker! For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.”
We are summoned to bow down and adore God our King and Maker; but we are also invited to receive nourishment from God our Host and Shepherd — for we are not his distant subjects who admire him from afar, but the people of his pasture, even the sheep of his hand. You may not properly adore God the King without receiving nourishment from God the Host, and you cannot be fed by the hand of God the Host without also kneeling before God the King.
So what does it mean that God is a King who summons us into his presence to adore him? It means that for the Christian, worship is not something we “make time for” based merely our subjective sense of our need of spiritual encouragement. It is not an activity which competes with the other commitments on our family’s calendar. Rather, the gathered worship of God’s people is a event in time and space to which we are summoned by our King, and we renew our covenant with him by giving him the adoration and praise he is due.
To put it bluntly: this means that regular participation in gathered worship, for the Christian, is not something that is optional. It is an objective and clear marker of our right relationship with God in much the same way that sexual faithfulness is an objective and clear marker of a right relationship between a husband and wife. In both cases, the objective marker is not sufficient evidence of health in the relationship — there may be other problems that are harder to see. But the objective marker is, in both cases, a necessary condition of health. It is impossible to have a healthy relationship with your spouse if you are not sexually faithful to them, and it is impossible to have a healthy relationship with your Maker if you do not regularly gather with his people to worship him. To believe otherwise is, quite frankly (again, in both cases) a strange invention of the modern world.
For Jesus Christ, our Risen King, has summoned us to his presence to adore him; not at our convenience, but at a particular time and place on His day – the day of his Resurrection. On occasion, there may be something which providentially prevents us from responding to his summons – sickness or other circumstances outside our control. But Jesus is our King, and he summons us week by week to adore him— and if we are his, then we will come.
But (and this is an important but!) do not get the wrong idea. When we gather on Sunday mornings, it is not simply to give our vassal Lord our adoration and allegiance. For Jesus is not only a King who summons us to his presence to adore him. He is also a Host who invites us to be fed by his hand. What does it mean that God, especially in the person of Christ, is a host who invites us to his table? It means that week by week, he lays out a sumptuous feast that contains all that his people need in this world — the assurance of the forgiveness of their sins, the wisdom of God’s word, the confidence their prayers are heard by their heavenly Father, the blessing of God almighty to be placed on their heads, even the body and blood of Christ himself given for them in bread and wine.
We must not forget this truth: Christ is not only King, he is also Host, and we are not only those who kneel before him, we are also those who are fed by his very hand. And when we grow to understand that Jesus is not only our King but also our Host, when we see with the eyes of faith the table that he lays for us week by week, our presence before him becomes less and less an obligation owed, and more and more a delight to be savored and embraced. For after all, as the prophet Isaiah reminds us, our God is one who desires not only our lips and mouths, but also our hearts. And so he stands before us each week as Host, inviting us to come and open our hearts to him so they may receive the object of their true longing.
The place where these two images of adoration and nourishment, Host and King, come together most clearly in our weekly worship is in that practice instituted by Jesus himself — the ancient meal we call eucharist. For when God is not only our Risen King but also our Host, and when he stands, lovely before us, to receive our adoration and offer even his own flesh and blood to feed the hunger of our hearts, what response can we give other than thanksgiving?
And so each week he says: “Lift up your hearts!” and we respond, with thanksgiving on our lips: “We lift them to the Lord!” For he is Jesus, the Risen Son of God. He is not only our King but also our Host — he has prepared for us a table and made himself the feast.
Let’s follow him together.
In the Peace of Christ,