An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Putting you life where your mouth is

A sermon based on Ephesians 4:25-5:2 by Nathan Nettleton

In the past week we passed the one year mark since we commenced this Sunday evening worship service. Anniversaries are useful times to ask whether we made the right decisions and whether we are still living in the spirit of those decisions.

When we decided to go down this track, we did so because we were convinced that worship mattered – that worship was absolutely central to our life together as a church and to the lives of each one of us as individuals. We took the bold decision of saying that worship wasn’t something we could just compromise on and try to please everyone. It wasn’t an easy decision and it did cost us some friends.

But a year down the track, I don’t hear too many voices calling for us to go back. Our worship life seems to me to have matured and deepened. We have grown into the approach we adopted and it has increasingly become a part of us. The patterns and prayers have begun to sink deep roots into us and take on a life of their own within the secret places of our hearts.

But on an anniversary, when we look back and ask, “Has it worked?” the first question that comes up is “How do you judge the value of something like this?” Feeling good about something is not necessarily a reliable guide to its lasting value and benefit. Any junkie, in the euphoric rush just after a hit, will tell you that heroin is the greatest thing in the world! Track the impact on their lives over a couple of years though, and it’s a different picture. So if we’re asking “Has it worked?”, then probably the answer is that time will tell, but it’s too early to tell much yet. The question remains though – what are we looking for?

A lot of people – and I’m nearly one of them – would say that the question is wrong. They would say that worship is not something you do because of any results you are anticipating from it. It is not a means to an end – rather it is something you do because it is the only fitting response a creature can make to its creator. They would say that if you start looking for benefits from worship then you’ve turned it all around backwards and made it into just another self-help technique. And they’re right. Well almost. They’re right that we don’t worship for what we get out of it. We worship because of who God is and because of what we have experienced of God in Christ. If worship made absolutely no difference to anything in the world except to God, then we’d still be right to do it and to do it to the absolute best of our ability.

But maybe they’re just a little bit wrong because surely if we commit ourselves to doing as best we can that which is our ultimate purpose in life, then the implications will begin to shape our whole lives. And maybe they’re a little bit wrong because what happens in here is not the sum total of our worship. What we do in here each Sunday is directly related to what we offer to God in the rest of our lives. What we do here makes sense and is a true offering to God in as much as it expresses and symbolises the offering of our whole lives to God, our bodies, minds and spirits. If it doesn’t, if what we do here doesn’t relate to how we live, or even contradicts how we live, then it is a hypocrisy and a blasphemy, no matter how well we perform the liturgy.

We would be doing exactly what Paul, in the reading we heard from Ephesians, warns us against doing – we would be grieving the Holy Spirit. We would be making God embarrassed to be identified with us. We would be announcing our relationship with God here on Sundays, and then declaring by our behaviour through the week that those who relate to God are hypocrites and charlatans. We would bring shame and grief on our God.

Now, it is true that we always fall short of what we proclaim in our worship. You’ve all heard me say that we deliberately proclaim a reality that is way beyond what we can yet live up to in order that we might continue to grow into it, so there is no doubt that there is a credibility gap. The question is, though, whether or not the gap is closing. And that’s where we are back to asking what I think are legitimate questions about whether the chosen path of our worship life is bearing fruit.

Ephesians, like most of Paul’s letters, starts with some solid theological discussion and then it moves to a section that is just down-to-earth practical. Paul is saying, in essence, that because of all these wonderful things about God and God’s love for us, these are the practical implications for how we should live and behave and relate to one another. In this one he starts by saying there should be no deceit or pretence in our relationships with one another. Anger is often okay, he says, but be careful that it doesn’t become an excuse for actions that are not okay. Work honestly. Make sure that what you say is not destructive, but generous and life-giving. No bitterness, no vindictiveness, no back stabbing, no mud-slinging, etc etc. Instead, set about becoming big-hearted, compassionate, tolerant, forgiving. Set about modelling yourself on God – the God you have seen in Christ. All no-nonsense, straight-forward stuff, and all stuff that we can look at ourselves and ask whether or not we are becoming increasingly like that.

Our liturgy, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, makes the same movement each week. There is the reading of scripture to listen to and meditate on. There is the table we gather at, symbolically offering ourselves to God and receiving God’s self-giving to us. And then in the final movement of our worship we do something that we should never mistake as just a wind down. We link up what we’ve been doing in here with what we will do all week out there. We make a rather daunting statement of total commitment to God and then express it in some simple action statements. “We go out into the world and make it our first work to love. We bear witness with our words and our lives that the Reign of God has come.” There are usually some additional lines drawn from the scripture readings for the day, but they have basically the same thrust. These are the practical implications of what we’ve been saying and doing in here.

The true value of the shared worship we are developing in here will be measured over the coming years by the extent to which those implied practical expressions become true of the whole of our lives. Because it is that whole picture – the whole of our lives – that is the totality of our worship. Paul summarises it with a classic image of worship. He says that the life lived in love, in Christ-like self-giving love, is a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. If you aspire to offer true worship to God, the most pleasing gift that can be given to God is a life lived in love, a generous, self-giving love. And unless we’re growing into that, then what we are doing in here will be shown to be a lot of rubbish.


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