The most important thing I've ever learned about worship

My favorite passage about worship comes from Luke 24, the final chapter in Luke’s account of the life of Jesus:gospel-choir-md “While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, ‘Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.’ When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, ‘Do you have anything here to eat?" They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence. He said to them, ‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’ Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, ‘This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations… While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.” (Luke 24.36-53)

The sequence is fascinating to me.

The Risen, Resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples, just as he promised him that he would. They clearly recognize him, and yet, instead of being able to embrace and celebrate his presence, they are initially filled with fear. “They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost.”

If there was anyone who should have been prepared to step into the presence of Jesus (or better said, have Jesus step into their presence), it should have been the disciples. They knew his heart and his intentions better than anyone. They had spent three straight years with him. They had been told exactly how the sequence would happen, and they had been assured of his ultimate triumph over death.

Yet fear was still their initial response to seeing Jesus. Why?

The honesty of this account has had a tremendous impact on my understanding of worship, both as an individual and as a pastor.

I have to admit that the corporate dimension of worship is not something that has always come naturally to me.  Having grown up the son of a pastor, you’d figure that I already have a predisposed appreciation for this.  But the reality was the opposite. I rarely experienced the corporate gatherings of church as a worshipful, life-changing event.  It felt more like something that was mandated as a requirement to remain part of the Christian community.

But as my faith began to mature during my twenties, I began to interact with the idea of corporate worship from a new perspective. I began to wonder why there was such an emphasis on worship throughout the Bible. I began to wonder what it was that God desired for us when we assembled together. I began to wonder how I could informally evaluate what a “successful” communal gathering entailed.

I came up with a lot of theories based on my reading of Scripture, but it was this passage in Luke that really provoked something deep within me.  It’s a text that I find myself coming back to repeatedly these days.

When I read this final account in the book of Luke, I find myself asking a number of questions.

  • What was it that produced such a heartfelt and authentic sense of praise and worship in the disciples?
  • What was it about this particular encounter that lifted them to a new level of understanding and response to Jesus?
  • What was it about the atmosphere that made it so conducive for worship?
  • And why was it that their first response was fear? Why did they not worship immediately?

That last question is always what jumps out to me when I read the passage. It’s fascinating to see what the precondition was for one of the most powerful worship experiences the disciples would ever have. It wasn’t what most of us would expect. In our day and age we might think of a bellowing choir or the apex of a great song that creates the ripest condition for authentic and transformational worship. Those might work, but it’s not what happens here.

Interestingly, the catalyst of this worship moment was fear.  It was doubt.  It was a troubled mind.

Does that seem surprising? It does to me.

Yet that’s exactly how Luke describes the emotional state of the disciples when Jesus arrives.  On one hand they were eager and expectant for him, begging him to reveal himself.  On the other hand they were completely unprepared for him when he actually got there.

That is exactly what is so compelling to me about this account.

I think this is a good description of what happens when there is authentic, life transforming worship.  We come into an environment longing for, searching for, and expecting to meet Jesus.  And yet, when Jesus actually shows up, we are unprepared for him in all of his glory.

And that’s actually a good thing.

When we pray to Jesus, when we worship Jesus, when we call on Jesus… we are not praying to, worshipping, or calling upon just a historical figure or Sunday school story. We are praying to, worshipping, and calling upon the Risen and Resurrected Jesus – the same Jesus who split history into two, who came as the incarnation of God, who met the powers of sin and death at their head, and who kicked open a doorway to life for every saint and sinner who was willing to follow him there.

If this is the Jesus that shows up – when this is the Jesus that shows up – what should our expected response be? If it is the real Jesus that enters into our midst, then how can we have any response but the one that the disciples show here?  It is the most beautiful and authentic response imaginable. They are terrified and undone. Just as they should be.

Why?

Because they are seeing Jesus in a fuller way than they have ever seen him before.

They knew Jesus before this moment, but they didn’t know this full of a version of Jesus. They knew the man that walked with them and taught them, not the one who had literally just conquered death and taken his rightful seat at the throne of the entire universe.

It was all just a bit overwhelming for them to initially digest.

I get that.

I love what Jesus does next.  He doesn’t shame them for their fear, doubt, or unbelief.  In fact, he seems to expect it.

Instead, he comforts and assures them. He lets them know he is the same Jesus that they had always loved and worshipped. He then eats with them, which is so cool. It is a tactile reminder of the intimacy that they share with him.

From there he moves to connect their hearts and their minds, their emotions and their intellect:

‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’ Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, ‘This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations…

And with this we see the elements that tend to integrate when there is a powerful, authentic, and life transforming worship experience:

  • We gather together, searching for and seeking Jesus
  • Jesus enters our presence
  • We get a glimpse of the power and presence of Jesus that goes beyond anything we’ve personally experienced
  • We have a sense of awe and wonder – and that can even manifest as fear, doubt, uncertainty
  • The Spirit of God works within us to more fully see Jesus, and to open our minds to how all of Scripture is pointing to the death, resurrection, and person of Jesus
  • We are filled with joy, and find ourselves instinctively responding to the goodness of God through praise and worship

I said that this text has influenced how I think of worship more than any other, and here are some of the reasons why:

It helps me remember that when I come into a communal gathering, there is nothing more important that I can be doing than seeking the presence of Jesus.

It helps me remember that even though I can (and do) seek Jesus in my 1-1 times, there is something sacred about a communal gathering. The collective seeking of the presence of God does something in the supernatural realm to cultivate and ripen the atm0sphere.

It helps me remember that Jesus is more than a set of propositional ideas or doctrines.  Instead, he is a living, breathing, active, glorious, amazing, electrifying reality that is not only active in the world at large, but also in very specific ways in my and our own lives

It reminds me that it is nearly impossible to have any type of authentic encounter with Jesus that leaves me unchanged.  Seeing even a glimpse of the presence and glory of God creates a sense of awe, and that awe creates all kinds of emotions.  That is ok – Jesus is not only alright with that, he expects it, and meets us in that place. Ultimately this should lead to life transformation.

It reminds me that there is no competition between the emotional, experiential element of worship and the intellectual, thoughtful elements of worship. In fact, they are completely integrated, and in different ways they should both be present.  Seeing even a glimpse of Jesus should create an emotional response, and yet, it shouldn’t stop there.  The Spirit of God is in the business of opening up our minds to Scripture, and that’s what helps us make sense of the fullness of God and accurately apply that to our own lives.

Seeing a fuller version of Jesus should elicit new levels of joy within me, and authentic joy should naturally translate into authentic praise and worship.