WORSHIP AND OBEDIENCE

Sermon delivered on the Second Sunday after Easter (Easter 2), the 10th April 2016 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands in the service of the Holy Eucharist.

Scriptures: Acts 9: 1-20     Revelation 5: 11-14     S. John 21: 1-19

S. John 21:7 “The disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that, he wrapped his coat about him ... and plunged into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat ...”

Today we address the connection between Worship and Obedience, and in some ways we also are dealing with issues of Drama and Reality. A child or a teenager is sometimes said to “act up” when he is under pressure; we are saying that what he is doing can be regarded more as drama than as reality: he is putting on something of a show, perhaps to gain attention, or to feel valued.

There are a number of scriptures that tell us of a kind of “worship” that is an acting up, in that the worship part is played, but not lived out. Our Lord’s parable of the publican and the Pharisee is one example, in which the Pharisee plays a certain part that is unreal. The Pharisee thanks God that he is not like other men, when the reality is that he is typical of many others, in spite of all the drama of tithing and fasting. His stance at the front of the assembly is an act, a show of goodness, but the heart of the person is not submitted or obedient, and therefore the drama is only an act and not reality. Connected with this thought is the observation that the Greek word for actor gives us our word hypocrite.

However, all worship could be said to be dramatic in some sense, a form of drama; but it does not follow that worship is essentially hypocritical, though that is always an easy stick for people to pick up and beat worshippers with. The action of the Holy Eucharist that we are engaged in is highly dramatic. In our second Lesson from the Revelation to St. John the Divine, the worship, too, of the One who sits upon the throne and of the Lamb who opened the scroll containing the purposes of God for the future is portrayed dramatically. The various characters in the drama all play their parts, and as readers we stand apart looking in at the scene, although as worshippers, we also are part of the drama. One important thing to consider is: does our involvement in the drama of worship change us? Does it help us in our change to being the new people we are called to become?

An essential part of our worship is to identify the object of worship. For the truth is, humans are always worshippers, yet we are not always clear about who or what we are worshipping. To worship, to put one’s unquestioning trust in someone or something or a set of things is one of the inbuilt things of being human. Men and women do this to some degree even when we take two steps of a walk. We do not have to think twice or take a look to see whether the ground is still there for the second step. The absolute assumptions held by some who discourse on what is considered to be “hard science” may also demonstrate that sort of unquestioning sort of trust, even a worship of human knowledge or philosophy. But when we identify the object of our worship as the One on the throne, or God, we affirm that even should there be an earthquake, literally or metaphorically, and even should our trust in the currently accepted paradigms of science or in the current state of the law, or in our current understanding of human rights, or in the current condition of our bank statements … prove unfounded, and the ground we expected to step upon, or the thought patterns we expected to adhere to, have shifted, we ourselves can remain steady. In the Lesson from Acts describing S. Paul’s experience on the Damascus road, Saul sees a great light, falls to the ground and hears a voice, and he immediately acknowledges the source of that voice as “Lord”. “Who are you, Lord?” he asks, “you who have become for me the Lord over my current paradigm, my world of enforcement of the purity of the practice of the Law, you who have mastered my obsession with capturing and shaming and destroying these heretics of my race.” Saul’s mental furniture had gone crashing to the ground due to the spiritual earthquake he was encountering. With the mustard-seed of faith, though, he ascribes to the First Cause of the light, the voice and his own sudden incapacity, the title of “Lord”. Only this did he have left unshaken to worship. Responding to this faith, the Lord says: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting”. How can one imagine the mixture of relief and horror he must have felt? - horror that his magnificent obsession, his magnum opus had been hugely misconceived, along with relief that he was still alive after being divinely intercepted.

So Saul, up to then one of the greatest worshippers of pharisaic order, worships anew, and the new object of his worship is identified as the risen Jesus, and all that was high drama indeed (for it is recorded that the men travelling with him stood speechless), but the next element of the account is particularly important to us in our quest to find out how worship can truly change us. For the story did not end with Saul stretched out on the ground worshipping Jesus as Lord, remarkable as that was in itself. As so often in the Scriptures, with the revelation or identification of the One to be worshipped comes the direction or command: “Rise and enter the city, and you will be told what to do.” Nothing complicated about that, at first. With the first faltering steps that Saul took in obedience to that command, his new-found faith became embodied in an entirely new course of life. The first command was not difficult for Saul to understand; he was already on the way to the city. The difference was that it was now the Lord who commanded him to go there, and that resulted in a 180-degree spiritual divergence of life, the difference between what he had conceived to be the need to persecute Christians, and now being himself submitted to baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In this way the drama of Saul’s worship on the Damascus Road became confirmed as the beginning of the new reality of the Apostle St. Paul, and of all his labours and writings. It was the point of his life where the worship first gave forth obedience to divine direction. This is a picture of what real rather than hypocritical worship does to us. And we can see a pattern from the Gospel today that confirms this: a figure from the shore, unidentified at first, gives a direction, the direction is obeyed, and the clue to the author of such a direction is given when the direction itself yields overwhelming success. The fishers suddenly catch an enormous quantity of fish, even though they have previously laboured all night without any success. After that comes the figure's identification as “the Lord” by the Beloved Disciple, and then the impulsive move made by Peter in putting on his outer garment out of respect and jumping from the boat to swim towards Him - an act of worship, we could say. The other disciples too worshipped in their rather more measured way of following Peter in the boat, dragging the net full of the fish that had been caught. One worships in one way, another in another. There was no doubt about the identity of the Object of worship, and no doubt too about the worship that was offered. What the Lord concentrates on next is how constant and real will be the obedience of those who have worshipped Him. If Peter truly loves Him, and love, faith and worship surely cannot be separated, he must care for His sheep, a command that is made three times slightly differently. And if Peter truly loves Him, his obedience of care for His own must be to the death, no less, just as it will be for S. Paul and others as well. The Lord calls us too, if we truly love Him, to an obedience of care for His own, an obedience that supersedes our reliance upon our customary paradigms, and indeed, to such obedience to the death, if that is what it takes. Are we happy to engage in such a love, and such obedience? If we do really worship Him, we will be content with love's implications, and in every case find it blessed to obey.