In my first talk I said that that the Christian community is gathered. The Lord God brings us here before all these other people and holds us together, making us one. This community is an entity of love, and our identity is hidden somewhere in it. In the second talk I said that this community is brought into being as it reads Scripture and hears the Word of God. This community may hear God as God. In this, the third of these talks, I am going to talk about Christian worship and in particular why Christians sing.
Christians sing. We sing because we can. We have been freed to do so. We may address God because he has addressed us and so opened the lines of communication. Like calves let out of their stalls after a long winter’s confinement we kick up and frolic about, enjoying our new freedom. The whole body feels it.
Oh Lord open thou our lips
And our mouths shall shew forth thy praise
That is how our worship begins each morning and evening, according to the Prayer Book.
We sing sentences and acclamations
The Lord be with you
And also with you
This is the day that Lord has made
Let us rejoice and be glad in it
Christ is risen
He is risen indeed, Alleluia
Let us bless the Lord
Thanks be to God
These Christian acclamations have come down to us from the beginning. They are our sound bites. So if you ask us to say in the simplest terms what we stand for, we can do so. We can confess the whole Christian faith in one line:
Let us confess the mystery of faith
Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again
2. Jesus sings
We sing because Christ sings. Our song is his first. Every Christian worship service is the worship and service of Christ, so what we take to be the words of the Church, and so our words, are first his. This worship is made by Christ’s worship of God: this worship is his worship of God. This liturgy and service is his love song to God. The hymns and songs we sing echo this love song of Christ. But it is also for our benefit. The service is the service of Christ to God, and also to us. These songs and hymns are the way we are able to join him in this worship. Christ stands at the front, while we stand behind him and sing along with him. This is the pattern of all our worship. Christ not only leads us, but he carries us, in this worship. So Christ lets us join in with him and he takes us with him, so this worship is not only his love song to God but also to us.
Christ sings and prays for those who cannot do so for themselves. He sings the songs of lament for mankind, and indeed he sings them so we can hear them, and we must sing them too. So we have the privilege of lamenting with those who lament, and of singing songs of gladness when those who rejoice once their laments have been heard.
3. The fellowship of the Holy Spirit
Renew us by thy Holy Spirit,
inspire us with thy love,
and unite us in the body of thy Son
Jesus is Christ. ‘Christ’ means literally that he is anointed, that is that he has been anointed king and lord. The Holy Spirit does this anointing. He appoints him king for us, our king, our Saviour.
The Holy Spirit makes Jesus known – as our Lord – and he also keeps him beyond the reach of our knowledge and of our power. In the incarnation, the Holy Spirit put Jesus into our hands and into our power, as this man, first as this infant and then as this servant. But then he raised him, this anointing becoming clear, and so took Christ out of our power. Now we have been put into his power, so that Christ knows us, but we do not know him, at least not on our own terms. This means that, when the Spirit gives him to us, Christ may be known, but when the Spirit does not give him to us, Christ is absolutely transcendent of us and unknowable to us.
The Holy Spirit brings us into the company of Jesus Christ and makes us part of his company. He always glorifies Christ, so that in this company we may know Christ, and know his as lord, that is, as our lord. The fellowship of the Holy Spirit is a communion of love: in it each of us subordinates himself to every other. The Spirit brings all opposites and all rivals together and brings them together around Christ, in love and in mutual service. In the holy communion of this fellowship, the Holy Spirit, who always glorifies Christ, and allows us to do so to.
The Holy Spirit teaches us to pray and so how to speak to one another, and how to sing and make our response to God. The words of the Son and the breath of the Spirit become our breath; their speech and life animates us and enables us to ask for what we need and give thanks for what we have received.
So we sing
Be still for the presence of the Lord, the holy one is here… Be still for the power of the Lord is moving in this place. He comes to cleanse and heal, to minister his grace…
The Holy Spirit brings us here before all these other people and holds this disparate and implausible community together, making it one body. The Church is the one evidence of himself, that the Spirit gives of us work in the world. His work is always to draw us into Christ’s kingdom so he is king and lord also for us. The Spirit brings us into tune with the many other members of this communion, harmonising these many voices of ours.
4. The gifts of the Spirit
Come Holy Spirit, our souls inspire, and lighten with celestial fire; thou the anointing Spirit art, who dost thy seven-fold gifts impart (NEH 138)
The Holy Spirit brings us Christ and reveals Christ to us, bit by slow bit. He conceals Christ from us so that we may receive only as much of him as we are ready for. He gives Christ to us as those little packets of holiness. We know these as those various characteristics that we call the gifts of the Spirit. These are ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control’. This is how the apostle Paul lists them in Galatians (5.22).
As we are brought together by the Holy Spirit, so we acquire a new character, or rather our own character is redeemed and transformed so that we are changed from in-turned beings to people who can love. We sing
Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me
Break me, melt me, mould me, fill me
Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me
We can talk about this change in terms of these qualities or virtues – this peace, patience, self-control. Altogether these gifts relate to this communion, that is, this entity of love into which we are drawn around Christ.
So we sing
Gracious Spirit, Holy Ghost,
taught by thee we covet most,
of thy gifts at Pentecost,
holy heavenly, love.
Love is kind and suffers long,
love is meek and thinks no wrong,
love than death itself more strong;
therefore, give us love.
We are being made members of a holy communion. We love, and therefore we are able to exercise patience or long-suffering – because Christ is patient and long-suffering with us, and we forget how to be anything but patient with each other. Altogether these gifts of the Spirit describe Christ. They also describe us we will be, joined with him, and bound together in love in this holy communion that is the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. I suppose we could as well call it the ‘fellowship of Christ’ or the ‘fellowship that the Holy Spirit gathers around Christ’.
The gifts of the Spirit build the body of Christ. That is, the gifts the Spirit gives you are to be exercised by you in service of the rest of us – so the fruit of your gifts may be shared by us. Bound together by this love we are together equipped and prepared to be servants of the world.
And we say
It is right to give him thanks and praise
We give him this thanks and praise when the whole congregation – made up of all the most contrary and unlikely elements, the young, old, this and that class, ethnicity and lifestyle – is present. When the whole congregation is present it is Pentecost, and we are animated by the Spirit to sing and pray. But it is for the sake of the world we are being made this public event of the gathering and reconciliation of all parts of the world. The Lord God creates this universal Spirit-filled gathering that we call the Church, and this service of true worship, and he does for us and for the whole world. This worship starts before we arrive and continues after we have left, and it goes on uninterruptedly out of our earshot. For Christ lifts the world to God. We are caught up into this act of his, so we are involved in this lifting up of the world to God. It is an extraordinary thing, that we are the people who may say
Lift up your hearts
We lift them up unto the Lord