On Trinity Sunday (June 3, 2012) the so-called Athanasian Creed will be recited in many churches. It is noteworthy that this Creed, which seems to offend many sensibilities today, does not begin with a statement of belief but an affirmation of worship. It says that salvation is a matter of clinging to the catholic faith (“cling” strikes me as a desperate image – like holding on to a lifeline). And it defines the catholic faith as the worship of the Holy Trinity. “Now this is the catholic faith: We worship one God in trinity and the Trinity in unity.”
What does God want from his people? He wants worship. To serve God is to worship him. When Moses was ordered back to Egypt to deliver Israel from slavery, the sign of accomplishment would be that Israel would serve God on his holy mountain rather than serve the false god Pharaoh (Exodus 3:12). When the Samaritan woman whom Jesus met at the well brought up the issue of the proper place of worship, Jesus replied that “the hour is coming, and is now here [in Jesus], when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him (John 4:23). We usually focus on the meaning of “spirit and truth,” but even more fundamentally the Father seeks worshipers.
We glorify God by growing in conformity with God’s character, which means being in that union with God that he brings about in word and sacrament.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism’s first question is, “What is the chief end of man?” Answer: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” We glorify God by growing in conformity with God’s character, which means being in that union with God that he brings about in word and sacrament. Failure to worship God, especially the true God, the Holy Trinity, is a sin because we “fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We cannot participate in God’s glory if we do not glorify him.
God realized that we get taken up with many other things in daily life, so he instituted in his Torah a day of complete cessation from those things – a sabbath. While we should worship God every day, God himself has instituted a fixed day of public worship. Early Christians moved beyond the seventh day sabbath to worship their Lord Christ on Sunday, in honor of his resurrection on the first day of the week. Hence it came to be called “the Lord’s Day” (Revelation 1:10). Some church fathers even called it the eighth day, because to be taken up in the Spirit of the risen Christ present in the Eucharist is to go beyond the time of this world and enter eternity. The great Orthodox theologian, Alexander Schmemann, spoke of taking “a journey into the dimension of the kingdom” every Lord’s Day when the church gathers at the Lord’s table to break bread with the crucified and risen Lord.
Many people today are trying to recover the value of a sabbath, a day of rest. But the purpose of the third commandment is not just negative – a prohibition on working; it is positive – it established a fixed day of worship. Luther teaches in his Small Catechism that “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not despise God’s Word or preaching, but instead keep that Word holy and gladly hear and learn it.”
But surveys are indicating what our own pastoral and parochial experience confirms: average worship attendance has been declining precipitously in the last several years. Some of the reasons for this are evident. The mainline churches have a disproportionately aging population. Our senior members have lived longer and healthier lives than previous generations; but now many are experiencing the inevitable infirmities of age that keep them from attending worship. Family and youth activities have taken up the weekends of families, making their church attendance sporadic. As our society moves 24/7 many of our members have jobs that prevent them from attending worship at its stated times. Members move away and their places are not being taken by newcomers. Our own members are not quickly joining new congregations, and neither are those who move into our communities. Our students who go away from home to colleges and universities do not regularly attend worship away from home, even though (in my experience) they seem happy to return to their home church on Christmas Eve and other times when visiting at home. Young adults are not joining churches, preferring to be “spiritual but not religious”.
Churches and campus ministries make a herculean effort to provide times other than on Sunday morning for worship. Truth be told, the obligations of daily life have always posed challenges to worship attendance. The first three centuries Sunday was a work day until Emperor Constantine made it a day of rest through the Roman Empire in 321 (which was also a benefit to Sun worshipers). The public church during and after the fourth century made numerous times of worship available, including a daily Eucharist and daily prayer offices. We know that the churches of Leipzig during J. S. Bach’s time as cantor provided weekday Communion services for servants who had household duties on Sundays. Catholic parishes provide Saturday evening masses, which fulfills the Sunday obligation because the liturgical day begins on the eve of the day before (Vespers). Some parishes, like First Lutheran in downtown Pittsburgh, have daily Eucharist at Noon for downtown workers. Daily worship can play a role in accommodating worshipers if it is possible to staff them with celebrants and officiants/presiding ministers. Holy Spirit in Lincolnshire has had Monday evening Communion services in the woods during the summer months for people who go out of town on weekends. There are all kinds of possibilities.
But I have to wonder if something even deeper isn’t at work here: a modern incapacity for worship, for getting out of ourselves to express sheer devotion to another.
But I have to wonder if something even deeper isn’t at work here: a modern incapacity for worship, for getting out of ourselves to express sheer devotion to another. We are all products of the Age of Rationalism with its ethos of practical usefulness. We do things because they accomplish something, not for the sake of the thing itself. Our parish worship planning constantly frets about what kind of impact we are having on worshipers. The whole purpose of the movement to replace traditional worship with contemporary worship has been to make a greater impact on worshipers. We use worship to accomplish programmatic ends other than the worship of God, whether evangelistic, educational, social action, or whatever. We have allowed other systems of parish life to intrude on worship. Sometimes it seems as if anything can intrude on worship, which then communicates the notion that worship for its own sake isn’t so important. We have not inculcated in our members the notion that we are created to worship God, and that God expects our worship.
I have no recipe for turning around this situation other than getting back to those basics in our teaching and practice. Perhaps an apologetic exercise would be to reflect with our members on other areas of life in which they show devotion out of love for the other or even for the activity. We need to inculcate into our members a devotional habit, and worship is a matter of showing devotion to God. I think pastors have no more urgent task than to inculcate in our members the notion that we are created to worship God, and that God expects our worship.
Trinity Sunday is a great occasion on which to remind our people of this. For all that God has done for us “we surely ought to thank and praise, serve and obey him.” The Athanasian Creed works well chanted antiphonally. (Many will have to get it out of their discarded LBWs or download the text since ELW didn’t have space for it.) Then get the people deeply into the worship of the Holy Trinity by chanting the Te Deum Laudamus or by singing one of several hymns based on it. And so we will demonstrate that the lex credendi (rule of belief) and the lex orandi (rule of prayer) are one and the same. “We worship one God in trinity and the Trinity in unity.”
People will be traveling over weekends this summer. Pastors might set up a bulletin board on which members of the congregation can tack the worship bulletins they bring back from the churches they have visited. Sabbath is not a rest from worship, and certainly the Lord’s Day isn’t.
Romano Guardini long ago wrote in The Spirit of the Liturgy that the liturgy is “the playground of the Kingdom of God.” We usually think of liturgy as “the work of the people” or “public service.” We can also think of it as play. That might be a concept for people to tease out when they drop in to worship on their vacations. It’s a good concept to apply to worship because we don’t play in order to accomplish something. We play for the enjoyment of it. So, too, we are to glorify God and enjoy him forever.