1. Christian worship is public
2. Christian worship is the service of God to us
3. The Son makes the good confession
4. Rival liturgies
5. The Church names the gods
6. Being made persons in time
What can I do for a Practical theology seminar? Perhaps the best thing is to give you a straight account of the Christian calling and life. This is life together, this is most obvious when Christians are gathered together in worship. So I am going to talk about Christian worship as the demonstration of what Christian life is. I want to persuade you that Christian worship is an act of God, and that God involves us in this act of his, so we are the act in which God makes himself known here in the world. This means a number of things – that the Church is the big fact with which God confronts the world, and that the distinctiveness of the Church that is the single contribution to the world that the Church can make. Just by being different from the world, the Church demonstrates that the world is not yet everything it claims to be. This must also mean that God is also competent to make the Church mean what God says is means, so the shortcomings of the Church don’t ultimately get in God’s, or the world’s, way. Then two other things. One is that Christian worship is a public and political act. The other is that the Church service is making its participants holy. Or to say the same thing with a more ontological twist, the Church service is bringing its participants into existence. We exist only because we, or someone else on our behalf, worships God on earth.
1. Christian worship is public
I have turned ethnographer. I been to explore one of the many different communities in the London borough of Hackney. Though the community I have chosen to present to you seemed to be made of several different groups, it curiously insists that all its members make up one single community, most clearly seen on Sundays. The particular manifestation of this community that I have been examining refer to itself as ‘St Mary’s, Stoke Newington’. On Sunday in the morning the community appears. Its leading members are dressed in white. The first holds above him a large cross, the second and third carry large candles, a fourth carries a large book and is followed by one or two hundred people. At intervals the book is opened and read from, and when this happens the whole assembly bursts into acclamations and song. What do these people themselves think they are doing? How does this event make them the particular community they are?
To get to grips with this community I had to take some decisions. My first was to accept that this community understands itself to be meeting in public. It believes that the entire surrounding community is present, watching and listening to them. The walls of their building are transparent, as it were, so the whole event is visible to the outside world, which makes it like a large demo in a busy concourse or city square.
Secondly I decided that the community thinks what it hears and what it says. The readings, and the songs that respond to them, really tell us what these people understand about themselves. Since the community is only fully visible for an hour and a half, being sociologists of this community is like being sport commentators at a match. We have to provide a running commentary as the Church service takes place before our eyes. This means that we have to listen attend to the actual words and actions of the Christians assembled in worship, and from them set out the narrative of the service. They refer themselves to the words of the book – Scripture – which they listen and repeat in song. This means that the narrative of the Church service is the narrative of Jesus Christ that spells itself out through these readings. In short, Christ is what is going on in the Church service, and these people who hear and sing Scripture are our key to Christ. The unity of Christ and these people is what is being established here. In its worship this community declares that God intends to make us participants in some of his action for the world. So the Church service is the service of God, and remains his service, and yet it also becomes ours. Our action is through and through God’s action, and yet it will become really ours, our action with God. As the Christians see it, their worship is the speech of God that creates their community and their life. This worship creates plurality, it sets all things in motion, and distinguishes every thing from every other thing. God gives his speech to the world in the form of the Church: the Church is the action of God in the world. It witnesses to God who makes good what we start but cannot finish, and undoes what we have done falsely. The worship is God’s own compassionate diagnosis of the world, and the Church tells the world what it does Church interprets the world to itself and. In worshipping God, the Church deconstructs what the world does. The Church service is mocking what the pagans do. Finally, the event of the Church service reverberate in the activities of Christian through the week, so that every Christian is a little Church service continuing wherever each Christian is. These are some of the assumptions I am working on in what follows. As we go along you will be able to identify others. Our job is to provide a commentary on what this assembly is doing. Here are some particular moments of the Church service I want to look at:
Entry – greeting – prayer of humble access – Gloria – reading – psalm – reading – sermon – intercessions – confession – forgiveness & peace.
2. Christian worship is the act of God
The Church service starts with a greeting: The Lord be with you. This greeting is passed on to us by Christ. We are addressed by God and we reply. Or rather, Christ standing at the front, replies for us. He is speaking to God, whom we cannot see, while we are lined up behind him. He gives us some cover from direct exposure to God. Nonetheless, one of us is speaking to God, and speaking for us, in the belief that his words come not just from him but from all of us. Everything that follows comes from this conversation.
Praying to the God of gods is the proper action of Christ. The Father calls and Son responds, and this call and response creates a conversation and a work shared between them. Their speech is brings this community into being, so the Church is an offshoot of this heavenly assembly. The assembly that stands behind Christ shares in Christ’s speech and labour. Their being drawn into speech makes this assembly his people. So it is the Father and Son who generate all the conversations that splutter into life on earth in the worship of this community. The worship of God is the act of God’s compassion sets this community to witness and to work, and drives all their socials, visiting, youth work, fair trade campaigning and night shelter.
God makes a people and a politics
God surrounds himself with a company. The company of heaven is the one real and actually existing communion. This company creates communion and plurality where there was none before and it actualises itself on earth, for us, as the Church. God is at work, making a world and bringing into being a people freely at home with him in it. God makes all communities, but one he presently distinguishes from all others as the community now created by his praise. This people is made ready by the Spirit for the Son to show the Father. Their act and ministry, visible in this event, brings plurality into being, and sustains it. God brings a new public into being, a public that can tolerate, give thanks for, and even speak up for, the whole world. God creates a people, and sets them before us. We could call this his service to us. In the Church service God serves us, and he does so by integrating us into the life he shares with his people. He passes on to us their act of worship, and this is his public service, to his Church, and through it to the world. By it he makes each member of his community distinct from every other, and so that they may be free, and freely be with each other. This communion of saints is the company of heaven, on earth. The congregation we see in Church is the end of a procession which starts in heaven. It is the graciousness of God to us that the company of heaven makes the congregation we can see, so when we look round us on Sunday morning we see not a sorry collection of self-absorbed individuals, but the single indivisible people of God.
3. The Son make the good confession
First I am going to consider the Church service as though it were first just going on between the Son, the Spirit and the Father, and so without us. The Son confesses the Father as sole Lord. He refuses to worship or confess any other authority. The Son made this confession here, before us, on earth. He refused to confess any other masters. He withdrew his recognition from every authority in rebellion. He made no concession, and showed no deference. He uttered the No of the Father against every disobedient creature. He regarded all other masters as interlopers, and enemies of God and of man. He named those hard masters and foreign spirits, who impose a vicious authority but themselves acknowledge no discipline, and drove out those who exercise an influence on us that is undue, unaccountable and thus demonic.
The Son extends his words to us, so may we participate in his confession and are prevented from making iniquitous and unsustainable claims that assault his prerogative. The community caught up into his confession need therefore no longer pray to the many gods and vainly beg to them for the justice it wants. At the weekly gathering of his assembly the people of the Son tell all masters that they are no gods.
The Son calls his assembly together
The Son calls together an assembly. He raises his voice and brings into existence a people. His call draws the elements away from the many lords. He loosens the poor from their grasp. He dethrones every master, taking away his reputation and power. They held all things separated, divided and set against each other; they kept the world in a state of civil unrest. This public display of contraries now marching in step under their new head tells the rivals of God that they have been defeated. Now their power to do this has been broken, and they cannot hold onto what they seized and their fall from power is underway.
Scripture is read and the Word making himself audible to us
In this public assembly the book opened, Scripture is read and the Word of God is heard.
The community has to hear kind and comforting words, and hard and disturbing words. To all it says: This is the Word of the Lord: Praise be to thee oh Christ.
The reader does not decide on the Scripture he reads. The action of passing on the word of God is an instinct of this community, the instinctive act of someone handed something too hot to hold who unthinkingly throws it to his neighbour. He speaks to us and against us, and so to and against himself. The Scripture asks whether we have heard and passed on Word of God, or not heard it and prevented others from doing so. The gospel that bring this community into existence also proclaims itself against this community. It is hung up for public judgment, so the watching world can see that it is condemned as often as it is approved. In this event of Christian worship truthful speech erupts into the world.
The Word tests this community before the world for the sake of world. He interrupts the self-aggrandisement of the Church, and takes back from the Church the praise it has withheld, and it establishes the reputation and power of the Son over the Church. By the Spirit the Son readdresses our misdirected speech-acts. The recognition that we grasped for ourselves at is wrested away from us, and the praise that we foolishly gave away to those not worth of it, is given back to us, in order that we be properly established as the creatures who receive their praise, with their being, from God. Thus to the fascination of the world, in the service the Church is humbled and humiliated by its own Lord. Despite the reluctance of the Church, the Son’s praise of the Father is in its mouth long before its members become aware of it. The Spirit co-opts all the strange sounds we make and from them makes us join the appeal of the Son to God. By the Spirit we also confess that we have taken praise that we should have passed on and so by default attempted to set ourselves up without God, without care for his creatures, and so have held out against him. We have to make this statement publicly, to him and to them. This is why we enter his court room with a prayer of humble access –
Almighty God to whom all hearts are open all desire known and from whom no secrets are hidden, cleanse the thought of our heart by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit that we may perfectly love you and worthily magnify your holy name through Christ our Lord
This is also is why we give a confession of our sins to one another publicly and ask forgiveness, from one another, and from God.
Almighty God, our heavenly Father,
we have sinned against you
and against our neighbour
in thought and word and deed,
through negligence, through weakness,
through our own deliberate fault.
We are truly sorry and repent of all our sins.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
who died for us,
forgive us all that is past
and grant that we may serve you in newness of life
to the glory of your name.
The Spirit puts his breath into us and we sing psalms and hymns
The Son speaks first. He asks the Father. He prays, and we pray behind him. He speaks, and we breathe in what he has spoken. He gives us breath; his words breathe in us and animate us. Our speech is his speech first. He asks the Father, and the Father hears him and provides him with what he asks for. He animates us with his prayers, so we are asking the Father before we know what we are doing, then animated by this asking, we learn to speak out for those who cannot speak for themselves. Christ teaches us to see the world labouring, see what is missing and to intervene to provide it.
The Spirit is the life and breath of Christ. The Spirit pushes open our lungs, raises our chest, pumps our heart, fills our vessels with that same life. The breath inflates and contracts in us, transmitting to us this the motion so it becomes our own, and it animates us and renews and drives us to sing and as an extension of this worship, to serve it, and provide what it needs.
The Holy Spirit fills the world with his voice and words, flooding and baptising it with his praise of the Son. He separated the world from all the other authorities from which it had been sourcing its life, so with regard to them the world is put to death, and is now filled with the new breath that only recognises the Son. This breath animates us to ask and thank, to pray and sing with him in response to the Father. The words spoken together in the service are words of the company of heaven, defying the gods dethroned by Christ. Their breath animates the Christian crowd, that sings hymns declaring the victory of Christ, publicly demonstrating the powerlessness of his rivals. The crowd in heaven and on earth cheer on those isolated Christians now running the race where it is most fiercely contested and the breath of this crowd fills each Christian and keeps them connected to the whole communion.
Court of justice
The kindness of God provides justice for the world. The Church service is a court of justice in session. The voice of God summons to it all the voices that make up the cacophony of this world. Those who exercise influence over us are interrogated, and those whose influence is undue, unaccountable and thus demonic are named and dismissed. The Word of God silences malicious voices and drives out the most vicious. The people brought into being in this assembly have the right to address the king of creation. They have to exercise this right, so repeatedly ask for his justice and continued provision. They weekly celebrate and confirm the expulsion of these other influences, so that they do not return. The community has to learn its freedom here, and receive more of it at each weekly assembly. The freedom it does not use atrophies so its members start to become victims again. But the liturgical taunting, in which it tells the gods that they are not gods, is good for us, and it is good for them. By this weekly confession of their powerlessness we are prevented from ourselves making iniquitous and unsustainable claims – from becoming making themselves little divinities that lord over others, and put themselves between them and God. By this service of proper worship of God, the Son unstitches all that in the course of the week we have stitched prematurely closed, and disavows whatever we have illegitimately claimed. The liturgy is his undoing of what we have falsely done, and it is a making good and finishing of what we started but abandoned. It is a binding and loosing.
The worship of creatures
The people of this world give themselves away to beings less than themselves. They subordinate themselves to parts of creation rather than to God, as an act of hospitality to them, made all creation. They promote products of the generosity of God to a separate status they should never be given. They are first victims of a too-small account of the truth, and which they promote so it gathers adherents who drive each other into duplicity. They attribute their half-truth with effects, so this abstraction becomes an agent, a god. They revere, follow and comply with a by-product of their own action, so what starts as an unintended consequence becomes a little god who feeds off them. We alienate from themselves the properties that are intended for us, and by setting out to exercise these properties autonomously, they hand themselves over to all sorts of unidentified mediating powers. Each of these, each god, is a parody of the life intended for us. But moderns do not believe that they are not under any external power or discipline. They are not aware of any disciplines or regimes precisely because these disciplines are the media of their own perception. They cannot see them because they are looking through them in order to see everything else. The delusion of freedom, the fiction of the Western tradition, is the chief of these powers. But the Western individual is not free at all. Freedom is the illusionary goal that entices all to surrender themselves to intermediary goals, the worship of parts, the unnamed imperatives and autonomous mechanisms that created by the pursuit of the illusory autonomy.
The service of the Christian community formed by true worship also creates the public Christian confession. Christian theology can identify those who are not Christian. It can even give them a name. It can call them pagans. This is not what they will call themselves, but that doesn’t make this an unsuitable name. It is not uncivil to name them in this way because pagan means no more than non-Christian. We must indicate something of the pagan form of life by comparing it with the Christian form of life. We can contrast the pagan liturgy with the Christian liturgy, but we can only do this from the vantage point of the Christian liturgy, as we understand it to be the act of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
4. Rival liturgies
Every god is a representation of the human. Each is an image, an idol (eidolon), of what it is asserted I might become. They are presenting sketches of my future self; so offer me selves to try on. It is our own action of giving ourselves away that creates them. Though each entity is at first no more than our belief in it, through the power of habit it grows to constrict our whole way of life. We emulate, and we spend our time selecting and re-selecting who to emulate. Those we choose are thereby appointed as our superiors: they are superior only inasmuch as we emulate them rather than their rivals. Human life is a constant engagement in the process of sifting images of what it is to be human, setting them one before another, some to be discarded, some to be emulated.
We can see this most easily by looking at the trivial compulsions that make the minor gods. Look at the ever-changing faces of Woman. The Greeks called her Demeter or Aphrodite: we have lots of names for her. For me was Madonna, then Kylie, now Beyoncé. Each of these is one of her faces, representing a bunch of her qualities. Her message to me is that if I earn enough respect in the market, she will reward me. All her many faces and definitions of the Feminine, seem to make one representation to me, which is at first ‘You can have me’, and then the price ‘you must give me more of yourself before I give myself to you’. She speaks to me on television to tell me that youth and beauty demand a daily routine of self-anointing, and that she means that she is worth it. She then she tells me that I have not paid enough, that my worship has been inadequate, that I am not worthy of her, and that she is withdrawing her favours. Each beautiful figure that prances and pouts across the screen represents a different equation of Woman. This stream of ever-new media faces, of criteria, continually alters and determine the moral field in which even the most culturally sophisticated of us navigates and within which we negotiate our own identity.
Every Sunday morning however the Christians meet together to tell Aphrodite of her defeat, to tell the world that this idol-figure of Woman is no more. Together the whole Christian congregation, the youthful and attractive in league with the old and unattractive, reveal to the world that Aphrodite is a fiction. They announce this with all the glee of children telling each other that there is no Father Christmas. She has been invented by those who want to master us in order to siphon off from us some of the life we have been given. The Christians say that our youth and our beauty is not sourced from her, but from our Lord. Our youth will be restored only when we have gone through a comprehensive programme of being publicly worn out, of gathering marks and scars, of taking and absorbing all the punishment the world doles out to itself, and so being made a public display of God’s ambitions for the world. Aphrodite is being taken out of us, and she is growing less with our every act of confession of Christ.
Or there are the many faces of Man, whom the ancients called variously called Adonis, Apollo, Baal. Apollo is the one I have to be, cool, but with a touch of Mars and cunning Odysseus. Each face of Man the television flashes at me represents a new package of his characteristics, another way of catching my eye. It alternately holds me here transfixed to the screen, and propels me back down to the shopping centre to purchase the latest issue of his cultic tokens. How many ways there are for me to be a man. I have to be the protagonist of my narrative, but what sort? Should I be the serious passion-free man of self-control, untouched by the neuroses of my peers? He is the man I must be, the cool one, who is still amid all the misdirected the franticness. I have to be the utterly self-possessed man. I am the protagonist, alone in my drama against a world full of cut-outs.
But on Sunday morning I am torn out of my narrative again. I am given a smaller role in which Jesus Christ is the protagonist. The Christians meet to taunt this Apollo-Adonis and every Sunday they bully the memory of this god out of me and by their praise of Christ they put a better set of instincts and responses in its place.
5. The Church names the gods
Glory be to God on high, and in earth peace, good will towards men…
For thou art holy thou only art the Lord, thou only o Christ with the Holy Spirit
art most high in the glory of God the Father
The liturgy is the proclamation of the God of Israel against all other gods. It is the event in which he names and exposes them. He names them and their time is up. So the Church must remind the world of the victory that has taken their authority away from all illegitimate powers. To protect and comfort the world the Church must be able to put names on foreign gods. This is what is taking place in every Church service. Whenever it is in session the Christian community speaks out to the world, saying, ‘Look, here are your gods. See how powerless and illusory they are.’ Now what gods could these be?
Christian worship gives a number of collective names to them. It calls them the world, Death, the flesh, Satan, or Egypt. But we must also give them names that identify them individually, to demonstrate the particularity of each local power parasitical on us. It is down to the Christians to name some of the forces, addictions and anonymous lordships that have got their teeth into this society of ours.
The news and entertainment service of the media is the liturgy of the pagan tradition. Entertainment, instant, constant and inconsequential, is the mode of pagan religion, full of gaiety and carelessness, envy and fear. Its Media present us with stock figures, narratives, crises and outcomes. It provides a stream of events that reproduce all the moments of the Western tradition, played out in differing modes – epic, comic, romantic, deathly. It continually re-runs these moments as the whole truth. All together the whole media show represents our capitulation to the fiction that we can do without each other, are already free, mature and independent, and have no need to learn anything from anybody. The divine liturgy that makes itself heard in the assembly of the Church is an antidote for what passes for news and for service in the world. The divine liturgy is the true news service, that gives us the ability to discern what is new and to be renewed by it. It is true enlightenment, real education, and hard information because it is a digest of the news exchanged between the Son and the Father. The liturgy broadcasts us news about the labouring and misery of the world: it opens our voices and eyes to this misery.
The gods of modernity are images and practices and narratives that exert a pull. They do so because they are not given a name and held to account. The gods do not name themselves; if they did they would have no power and not be gods. Names are power, and they do not intend to give themselves away. Cultural studies cannot name them. The Christians have to name to them, for naming the powers is the business of exorcism, the event in which a power is pushed out by a stronger power. Every work of Christian witness must attempt to contrast the God of Jesus Christ with the gods of the present market. This is the fierce, merciless cult that demands that we be attractive, youthful, dynamic, powerful, and that we spend our youth serving this monster and this fiction.
Each cult tells us what we want to hear. Each tells us that we are beautiful, competent, successful and will remain so as long as we are in possession of the token of its cult, and are assisted by whatever service the cult claims to provide. Each cult tells me that I am an individual, to believe in myself, that I may be whatever I want to be. It tells me I am free. This single untruth unites all cults. I desire to be an individual so I take the cultic token – and desire to have more of it, and immediately I am made dependent. We believe that we are purely actors, each protagonist of his own narrative. We cannot concede that we are acted on. Our belief that we are solely agents has made us victims. It draws us into the orbit of many competing centres of power without allowing us to say this. We are without means to resist as long as we alien from ourselves the name given to us by God by which we can take the real passivity, and freedom set out for us within his worship.
The man against all others
Who shall we model ourselves on, who try to be like? Whoever we choose will be our pattern until we come to choose again. But this is precisely the point. We are incapable to not choosing and re-choosing and not being satisfied by any choice and able to stick to it and grow into it. We are stuck in a loop of choosing and re-choosing. For all our choosing, we do not choose, and are incapable of exercising choice. We are only a slave dreaming of being a king who endlessly exercises choice. The effect of all apparent choosing is that we alien our faculty of choice, give away our freedom. The action of every man who considers himself an individual, not required to worship God, serves only to prefer the form of freedom to the reality
The liturgy forces this community of the Christians to warn us publicly that we do not know God, and we do not know his creature, humankind. It says that God can keep his creature, humankind, hidden from us, so we go on living a impoverished parallel life in complete ignorance of his proper definition. All we can confess in public in Church with our fellow Christians is that we know that we do not know him, because he tells us so. The unknowable God is his own secret. He does not stop taunting us with this secret. He will not let that issue go away, or leave us to reconstruct ourselves without him. He will not be content until we know that he knows us and wants us. The cross of Jesus Christ is the act by which God refutes all our certainty and nullifies our knowledge of ourselves. God takes it on himself to represent and protect the unprotected. But readings name us not as merely victims, but as perpetrators, co-conspirators who connive and are complicit, who have hidden the effect of our purchasing decisions from ourselves, and keep the knowledge of our actions at arm’s length. The liturgy of the pagans represents the act of the man who intends to make himself autonomous, who raises himself above his peers. The Christian liturgy shows that this self-assertion of one man over another is not is not necessary or rational. This is not just the rebellion of man against God but it is aggression against all men who God regards us his men, his creatures. We are all in rebellion and denial about all others. It is because we have set ourselves again one that God has stepped in to protect one another, so we now measure ourselves against him. So then there are two liturgies, and they are in competition. There is the liturgy of the man determined to exert himself against all others – the pagan liturgy, and there is the liturgy of God who is for all men, and is determined that all men should be brought into that peace and contentment that he has established for them in his company. He gives them forgiveness and his Peace.
The peace of the Lord be always with you. And also with you.
The worship gives us our rest
Theology is the sociology of the people of the first morning. It is the ethnology of that ethnic group, that becomes visible early on Sunday mornings. This group appears to the world on Sunday morning. In fact the meeting of this group is never interrupted by any other time. Their meeting is one single meeting, unbroken by any other event. It is this meeting that generates all the time that the world understands as the rest of the week. But the days of the week are down-time, in which the world is protected from gathering call of God so it is not exhausted by it. All weekly time is given so the world can recover from the shock of the sight of all God’s people and of all creation gathered and made one – of this preview of the coming gathered world. The Sunday morning ethnic group exists in two modes, visible to the world, and invisible to the world. It has an attack mode and a rest-and-recuperation mode. In the week it is in attack mode, out on patrol or arrayed in its battle stations in the wilderness, no man’s land. On Sunday morning it is debriefed, rested and re-supplied before being sent back out again. This Sunday morning sets out all the things the following six days could be.
The liturgy of the Son is curative. It articulates the recovery of sensation. It drives the improvement of our better performance. We become better transmitters of what we have received. The liturgy removes all the tics of the pagans from us: it strips and de-bugs us and installs in us a new less autistic action.
The whole company speaks and sings for us
The company of heaven is the train and procession that accompany the Son, and which he regards as his own body, inseparable from himself. Their service started long before we arrived. This crowd in heaven is already looking forward to our coming, and are already celebrating our coming. Their celebration spills over to us. Their acclamations are in the liturgy every Sunday. In the eucharistic community that stands around the throne we see the whole audience and company brought into being by the speaking of God. They are words of God now freed to become also hearers of God. They are the witnesses that the Word of God establishes for himself. They are the witness and testament that is both old and new, original and ever-renewed. We have said that the company of heaven is the speaker of the Church, and that the Church is the speaking, speech-act, of this company. Now we can put this the other way around.
The Church in liturgy and doctrine is the first and only native speaker of the language of the company of heaven, interpreted to us by the communion of saints. The Spirit is that language. The Spirit speaks many languages. By speaking them the Spirit sustains these languages and the language groups that inhabit them. Theology is a maintenance regime that keeps the liturgy as a functioning language and so preserves for those speakers that the liturgy animates and brings into being, the possibility of reaching one another, and of bringing one another to the attention of God. Our liturgical bringing one another to the attention of God is the mode by which God draws our attention to one another. It is because we are forced to pray, and to do so for one another, that others are forced on our attention in the first place. It is in having our attention drawn to one another that we return to God, via one another, the being God has given us for this purpose. It is in returning thanks to God for others that these others come to be. Thanksgiving is drawing one another into being.
The liturgy is a maintenance regime. It maintains the language by which I reach you and you respond to me. Let us take this to be the English language in this case. It preserves for the speakers of this language the possibility of reaching one another. It is for the sake of the English language, and for all who can reach each other only within this language, that we attend to what they say in heaven, as it is audible in the Sunday morning liturgy. English is a pidgin version of the Sunday morning liturgy, as the Sunday morning liturgy is itself a pidgin version of Spirit, the language of heaven. The company of heaven can speak such pidgin languages with fluency. By speaking it, to us, to God, to God with us and for us, they maintain this as language in which the Father hears and attends to the Son. The company of heaven is not in the least cramped by their willingness to speak our language as the mode of speaking their language. They glorify God without loss even in the most debased dialect; that company speaks all dialects, remembering vanished languages and those not yet spoken.
Let us pray for the Church and for the world and let us thank God for his goodness to us
The communion of saints represents us in heaven. They sustain for us what being we have there. They are led by the Son in praying us into being. They ask God that we be made complete and be given to them. They ask for us, and their asking for us, and the Father’s approval of their request, is all the being we have. They not only pray us into existence, but pray us into being social and vocal. All the life we are given is the life they receive from the Son, and that life consists in looking forward to, and asking for, what it is still lacking. We will become as adept as seeking from the Son as he is adept at seeking from the Father. We have said that we are to make requests. Asking and thanking is the whole form of the action and the life given to us. We are to ferry requests for those who do not make requests for themselves, because they have not heard that there is anything to be wished for or anyone to ask. We are taught to pray for their release and to do this by giving thanks for this release and beginning to celebrate it publicly so they can see it. The very act of our praying is the outworking of God’s act in releasing us. This thankfulness is how we take up what we are given, and begin to comprehend the dimensions of it. Now we are praying not to the many non-gods, that is, to those of us who have got able ourselves and hold the world to ransom. We are shaken free of these tyrants and their regimes. The principle tyrant for us is the consumer who, motivated by fear of all others must exercise his choice is isolation, without regard to their common good. The speech by which we confess that Jesus is Lord is sound of the all the other lords and parasites leaving, or taking up a more modest and truthful place.
5. Being made persons in time
The worship the of the whole company of God is bringing a people into being on earth. The exchange of the Father and the Son calls them together. Our own competing projects and time is interrupted by this worship. All past and all future meet and combine here as Sunday morning. On Sunday morning all times, past and future, make themselves present. They individuate themselves enough to become audible to us. The fullness of their time bulges out into our worldly time. All their reconciled and united times expand into the world to make this time that we know as Sunday morning. This eschatological time of the eucharist presents itself to us in this serial form, Sunday after Sunday, each readying us for the next thicker and stronger dose of real time, real time.
The Christian community is teacher and prophet to the society it is set in. They are to warn their society of the dangers of its inaction and urge people not to be so helpless and reactive, not to be pushed around or manipulated. It show them how not to make the automatic deference to the anonymous powers. The Christians are sent out to open a crisis of identity and to demonstrate to the world that it does not yet know what it will be. They are to increase the discomfort of the world and prevent it from taking shelter from question of identity under any particular regime. The Christian community that does this will be exposed to the fury of every local overlord.
The confession of the Lord is the disavowing and dismissal of the old lords. Now all men must be commanded to throw over their old leaders and change sides. This trial of strength continues in every public assembly, where the new troops of the king are to confront every leader in the hearing of his own people. The Christian witnesses are to read out the accusation of God against each leader who lays hands on them, and give him one chance to confess the God of Israel. In each place they will be taken to the public assembly and on account of Christ they you will stand before governors and kings, as witnesses to them. Then they must say whatever is given them at the time. In the reading for last Sunday Stephen, standing before the Sanhedrin saw the glory of God, and sees that this authority is still at war against God, and he says so thereby declaring the sentence – and sentence which the Sanhedrin confirms by carrying it out against God’s spokesman. The court that arraigns Stephen judges God, and carries out the judgment of God on themselves. Thus the community gathered in worship is the message and embassy of God to the authorities in each place. When these authorities fail to hear them, the Christians can go over their heads and direct their complaints straight to God: if they have to do this the authorities are convicted of failing in their office, and it is taken away from them. We call this process of public trial and contest Christian discipleship or suffering. We don’t bring any peace, until the world takes the peace given by God.
In this paper I have tried to set out the biggest possible definition of what is going on in Church. Perhaps you think such theology is so high that takes place too far above our everyday lives and so is the opposite of practical. But look, I have referred to what the Christians themselves do. I haven’t examined particular topics of current concern to Christians. But I have taken the Christian community as a whole, on its own terms, for it really does sing and celebrate these things in the words that I have paraphrased and summarised here. But it is simply telling us who are. We are learning our identity from it. It identifies us as disciples, who by being put under the authority and discipline of Christ are freed from the discipline imposed by all other masters. This means that we can freely obey others, treat ourselves as their servants. This is not a general truth. It is a controversial statement. If you conclude that none of this has been practical you will ask me to translate this stuff about worship into practice. Yet the Christian life is not divided into theory and practice. Would we have God doing the theory and we doing the practice? Would we have God telling us what to do and while under our own steam we get on with all our busy righteous activism? The practice I commend to you is singing God’s worship. This is life lived publicly in the truth, and it is the best thing we can do, even for other people.
It is the whole point and purpose of Christian existence here in the world – to say that the world is not yet what it will be, it does not know itself as it thinks it does, it does not control of its own definition and future as it think it is. The Church is not just one of many communities in the world. Of course the Church looks smaller and more questionable than the world, which willingly supplies criteria for finding the Church problematic. All Christians spend much energy being cross at the Church, and as long as they do this they misspend energy which is not really theirs to misspend. But the Church is bigger than the world, for the Church contains the future of the world. After all, our definition of the Church is Christ and all his company, in heaven and on earth. The whole future of the world is latent in heaven, and heaven is waiting for us to take and unpack what is available for us there. The present world that we know is always shrinking. But the Church insists to the world that it does not yet know itself for what it is, so it is the Church that holds the world open.