“Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed” Mark 1:35
In this series we are trying to think about what people really believe about the church, and, hopefully, if we followed the teaching of Scripture, what we should believe. This week we shall think about worship. Worship in its fullest sense is about everything we do, about giving God his worth in all we think and say and do, but we are going to think about worship in the sense it is usually understood, the service in church Sunday by Sunday.
Most people who attend worship attend the sort of worship they like. Isn’t that true? We go where we feel that what happens fits in with our idea of what worship is, if we are particular, we would say we go where what happens matches our understanding of what Scripture says worship is.
Opportunities for clergy to attend other churches are usually not frequent but one August morning five years ago I was on holiday and I went along to the 8.00 am Holy Communion service in the church in my home village—it was the only service of the day in the parish. The clergyman stood up and said, “Good morning everyone. Because of the swine flu the archbishops have announced that wine at Holy Communion will be received by intinction (this means dipping wafers into the chalice, he didn’t explain what it was, though) and that there should be no sharing of the peace. The old colonels were right after all”. This seemed to please the congregation of a dozen mostly retired people because two or three shouted, ‘Hear, hear’. He did not explain why old colonels would be happy about this, perhaps the congregation were in on the joke. He then began the service, not once giving a page number or explaining anything; maybe it is assumed that anyone who might casually wander in would automatically know all that was necessary.
Being at that service, to be honest, was not an experience I would wish to repeat, yet for those gathered there, it was proper worship. Why else would they be up so early on a Sunday morning? Why else would they have been coming to this place for so many years.
One of the things I remember from coming to live in Ireland more than thirty years ago was my disappointment that worship in most churches did not match my idea of what worship should be; my disappointment that my expectations of what worship should be like were not shared by the people around me. One of the things I have earned in the three decades since is that worship can take very many and very diverse forms, but what matters is not what is on the outside, but what is on the inside.
I think this was brought home to me most forcefully in the Philippines in October 2001. Visiting one of the Filipino villages, an Irish Presbyterian minister and I, were asked to celebrate Mass in a little community hall built from concrete blocks with a corrugated iron roof.
We explained that this was not possible; we were not Roman Catholic clergy and would not wish to mislead people. Our interpreter explained to the people and turned to us, ‘nevertheless’, he said, ‘we would like to have a Holy Communion service’. There was only a Mass in the village once every three or four months and many of the people could not afford to travel elsewhere.
We agreed and said we would need half an hour to prepare something. We wrote the congregational responses from the Church of Ireland Prayer Book on large sheets of paper and stuck them to the wall. We found a Bible in Ilongo, the local language, for people to read the Epistle and the Gospel. We said the Creed in our own languages and people stood up to say their own prayers at the time of the intercessions. My Presbyterian colleague read verses from the 11th chapter of Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians as the Communion prayer.
The altar was an old table someone had brought from somewhere. A candle had been found and stuck in a glass. The bread was three little sweetbreads that someone had been keeping for a special occasion; the wine was rum, made from sugar cane that grew around the village, shared around in a china cup. Hymns the whole congregation knew were sung in the local language. There were about forty of us gathered under the light of a single unshaded light bulb. The hall was open on two sides – the wall rising to no more than three feet and mystified bypassers looked in at us.
To have looked at the scene through the eyes of everyday life would have been to have seen a gathering of poor people – some without shoes – and two Europeans – in a building that wasn’t much better than a farm shed.
Yet there was there a sense that this was something special, that this was a place of holiness, that this was worship.
The experience was a lesson that holiness and worship are not about the form of service nor about where it takes place, they are about meeting with God and giving him the worship he is due. We may find that attending services in church are occasions where we meet with God, but that does not mean God is not met elsewhere. A farmer I knew in the North once told me that she felt that if she did not meet with God on her farm during the week, she did not think she would meet with him when she came to church on a Sunday—that if her daily life was not part of her worship, then the Sunday service would not have meaning for her.
If we read Jesus’ words in John Chapter 4 we are told that where worship takes place is not what is important; what is important is that God is worshipped in spirit and in truth. When we look at Saint Mark Chapter 1 Verse 35, we see Jesus setting an example.
Saint Mark tells us, “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed”.
“Very early in the morning, while it was still dark” – Jesus deliberately sets aside specific time to be with the father. This was a time when there would be no distractions, nothing else competing for attention. It’s not so much the time of day that is important, it is the attitude, the state of mind. Do we come to worship with that degree of deliberateness? Is this to be a time that is completely set aside? Or is there a whole load of other stuff going on in our minds? What’s for lunch? What’s happening this afternoon?
“Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place” – he removes himself from a place where there would have been numerous things to divert his thoughts. This was the house of Simon and Andrew; there would have been rope and fishing tackle to make him think of the men he had called. There would have been the kitchenware on which Simon’s mother in law had prepared a meal, prompting thoughts of her healing. Jesus goes to seek a place apart.
For us a place apart might mean being in a church, or it might mean somewhere else. The important point is that we try to find a place where there are not the physical distractions that so quickly draw our thoughts to other things.
When Jesus reaches his place apart we are told that, “he prayed”. An earnest seeking after God; I wonder how often we really attempt this. We might make time, we might make a place, for most of us the time is Sunday morning and the place is in church, but do we ever pray with the sincerity, with the intensity, with the commitment, Jesus shows in this spot outside of Capernaum.
There used to be a bishop in the North who would say, ‘it’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it’. What service you had in church wasn’t important, what mattered was the spirit in which it was conducted. Our Communion service in that little Filipino village was a pale and pathetic effort in contrast with the liturgies of the great cathedrals, but its power came through the spirit in which it took place.
There is no set way of worshipping God, it is possible for us to believe very different things and still be right. What matters is that we learn from Jesus. May we find time for God. May we find a place apart for God. Most of all; may we pray to this God. When we worship him in spirit and in truth, then he will hear us.