The St. Paul’s Pulpit
Worship as Witness
Delivered on May 13, 2018, by
Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph. D. at
St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Baton Rouge, LA
And said unto them, Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day: And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And ye are witnesses of these things. And, behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you: but tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be endued with power from on high. And he led them out as far as to Bethany, and he lifted up his hands, and blessed them. And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy: And were continually in the temple, praising and blessing God. Amen. (Luke 24:46-53)
When I was a teen-ager, I was in a church organization that was like the boy scouts for church young people. We earned badges by doing things like tying knots, making campfires, and memorizing Bible verses. To get the highest badge, which was to us something like becoming an Eagle Scout to us, we had to witness to someone. When I heard that requirement, my hopes for earning the badge were dashed. My other friends were also worried that they would never get that badge because of that requirement. The whole idea of witnessing was terrifying to us. But I finally got up the nerve to share the gospel with a classmate who was an unbeliever, and I earned my badge. I admit, I did it to earn the badge, and I was glad when it was over. For many of us who were brought up in certain traditions, the thought of witnessing sent fear through us. Books were written about how to take the fear out of witnessing. But over the years I have discovered that the problem was not fear. The problem was that the whole idea of that kind of witnessing was artificial, unnatural, and was not healthy for the witness, the prospect, and in the long run, not healthy for the church itself. This morning, let me demonstrate for you the best way to be a witness.
Thursday was Ascension Day, and we have just read Luke’s account of the Ascension. Luke is the only one of the gospel writers who actually records the Ascension for us, and he does so in both the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts. We have seen in our study of Luke 24 and the first chapter of Acts that Jesus spent 40 days with his disciples after his resurrection, teaching them and eating with them. Before he ascends to the Father he tells them that they must preach repentance and remission of sins in his name among all nations. Jesus said in Luke 24:48, “Ye are witnesses of these things.” In Acts 1:8, Luke records Jesus as saying, “But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.” Then, Luke tells us that he leads them out to Bethany, lifts up his hands and blesses them, and he was carried up into heaven. If you look at our text for this morning, what is the first thing the disciples do after he was carried up into heaven? The next words are, “and they worshiped him.” Then, they go back to Jerusalem to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit. But what do they do between the Ascension and the day of Pentecost? We read, “And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy: And were continually in the temple, praising and blessing God. Amen.” From the time Jesus ascended until the day of Pentecost, they were worshiping. Then, the Holy Spirit is poured out upon them on the day of Pentecost. What do they do after the Holy Spirit is poured out upon them? Just after we are told of the events of the day of Pentecost and the baptism of 3000 converts, the next words are, “And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles. And all that believed were together, and had all things common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart. Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.” (Acts 2:42-46). What is the characteristic, the dominant characteristic of the church right after the Holy Spirit is poured out? Worship! The church is a worshiping community. They continued stedfastly in the apostles doctrine and fellowship; that is, they are constantly listening to the teaching of the apostles and living their lives accordingly. They continue in fellowship, frequently meeting together as a church family. They partake of the Lord’s Supper, and they are continually praying with one another. They continue to go to the temple, and they observe the Lord’s Supper in the house churches that are, no doubt, springing up all over Jerusalem. And they continue to praise God. Notice that while they are doing all this meeting together–praying, praising God, and observing the sacrament of Holy Communion–that God continues to add new converts to the church on a daily basis. The new church was a worshiping church and a witnessing church. My point is that a worshiping Jesus is a witnessing church, or if I might say it a little clearer: worship is witnessing. Meeting together, hearing the teaching of the word of God, praising God, praying together, and observing Holy Communion is our witness to the world, and when do this properly, the Lord adds to the church. Witness is worship. Worship is witness. For the rest of this year, what I plan to do is to teach you how to prepare yourself for worship so that when we meet together for worship, our worship will be a witness. But before I do that, I need to explain what happens in a worship service; that is, what actually happens during the sacrament of Holy Communion. Once you understand what really happens during the celebration of our liturgy, then you will have the proper motivation to prepare yourselves for worship. When you realize that what you do here on Sunday morning is not only the most important thing in your life, but that what you do here on Sunday morning is the most important thing you can do to shape the history of the world, then you will prepare yourself properly to come here on Sunday morning and engage in this life-changing, world-changing event.
But back to my description of the early church as a worshiping community. Just after we are told that the early church was worshiping daily in the temple and from house to house, we go to chapter 3, and in the first verse we are told, “Now Peter and John went up together into the temple at the hour of prayer, being the ninth hour.” Notice that Peter and John are still going to the temple to worship. They are not only going to the temple on a daily basis but they are observing the hours of prayer—they were going together “into the temple at the hour of prayer.” Then, in Acts 5:42 we read, “And daily in the temple, and in every house, they ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ.” Daily they are worshiping and daily they are teaching the word of God. Throughout the book of Acts we see the Christians constantly gathering together. In Acts 20:7, we read, “And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight.” Notice that the disciples come together on the first day of the week, Sunday, to break bread which means they celebrated Holy Communion. Paul preaches all night long, until midnight—and you think my sermons are long. But notice again that we have this combination of Word and Sacrament. They break bread, they observe Holy Communion, and Paul instructs them from the word. Thus, the apostolic example has been set for us—Christians meet together on the first day of the week to celebrate the Holy Sacrament. The book of Acts shows us that the Christian community is a worshiping community, a worship that includes meeting together as a body, the teaching of the word of God, prayers, and the Sacrament of Holy Communion. It is this worshiping community that reaches the world for Jesus Christ.
In the last chapter of the book of Luke and the first chapter of the book of Acts, Jesus commands his disciples to be witnesses. We see that these witnesses are worshipers. In our day, in an effort to reach the unchurched masses, we have separated witness from worship. We look upon worship as something that Christians do to strengthen their own private spiritual lives, while witnessing is something that we do out there in the world, and I preached it that way for many, many years. But what I want to impress upon you is that worship is witness. When we come here to this place to worship we are witnessing. The very act of getting dressed, walking out of the house to get into our cars so that our neighbors see us going to church is an act of witness, for after all, those of us who love fishing, sports, lounging on the beach, spending the weekend in a hotel getting room service, staying home and watching the World Cup, could be doing those things, just as the rest of the rest of the world is doing. But going to church is a witness, and don’t think it doesn’t cause people to think, because it does. For just a moment, when people see you going to church, it passes through their minds that perhaps they should be going to church as well, and maybe just for a split second, there is a conviction of guilt. Just coming to worship is a witness.
We witness by showing the world that worship is a priority in our lives. But once we get here, it is so important for us to learn to worship in the proper way so that we can bear witness in the most powerful way. By worshiping in the proper way, our very worship is the means that God uses to bring the lost to himself. Perhaps the clearest statement on this truth is found in I Corinthians 14. In I Corinthians 12-14, St. Paul is talking about the various gifts of the spirit, and he says that of all the spiritual gifts, prophecy is the most important. In I Corinthians 14 he says that if an unbeliever walks into a worship service and everyone is speaking in an unknown, that unbeliever is going to think you are all crazy. But Paul says that if you prophesy, there will be a different response on the part of the unbeliever. He says, “But if all prophesy, and there come in one that believeth not, or one unlearned, he is convinced of all, he is judged of all: And thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest; and so falling down on his face he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth” (I Corinthians 14:24-25). In this context notice now Paul defines prophecy. Prophecy is not predicting future events. Prophecy is speaking in such a way that the secrets of hearts are made manifest. As F. F. Bruce says in his commentary on I Corinthians, “the unbeliever or outsider who would be put off by an outburst of tongues will be impressed if, on entering a church meeting, he hears all the members speaking words in a language he knows, which pierce direct to his heart and conscience, expose his inmost secrets, and convict him of sin” (133). Our liturgy provides all of us with the opportunity to prophesy. When we read the word of God together, when we pray together, when we say the creed together, we are prophesying, and through the power of the Holy Spirit, our words through the liturgy have the power to bring people who attend our church under conviction of sin. When the minister of the gospel preaches the word of God, he is prophesying, and many times his words will “pierce direct” to the heart of the unbeliever, and the secrets of the unbeliever’s heart will be exposed. I believe that all ministers in the apostolic succession receive this gift when the bishop lays hands on them in the ordination service. I say it with all humility, but I believe that I have that gift to a degree, not because I can look into your hearts and see all your secrets, but because I preach the word of God, and the word of God itself exposes the hearts of the hearers. So many of you have remarked that I have this ability, although you may not have called it the gift of prophecy, but that is what it is. How many of you have said, “Have you bugged our house?” “Were you listening to our conversation on the way to church this morning?” Throughout my ministry, since I was a boy of 15, people have always made those kinds of statements to me after hearing my sermons The point is that Paul says the proper effect of worship service is when an unbeliever comes to a Christian worship service, the secrets of his heart will be exposed. This point is crucial. What will this unbeliever do when the secrets of his heart are exposed in the worship service? He will fall down on his face and worship God. Do you see that? When we worship God the way we are supposed to do, it will cause an unbeliever to fall on his face and worship God. Worship is witness. When Christians truly worship God in a Christian worship service, the unbeliever miraculously becomes a worshiper. When was the last time you saw that happen in a worship service? Here is this cold, hard-hearted unbeliever who comes into a worship service, a rebel against God, and before he leaves, he is a worshiper of God. How does that happen? Next week, Pentecost, I will be preaching a sermon on how this miracle takes place, but when the Holy Spirit is moving and acting in a worship service, this conviction of sin takes place. St. Paul says that this unbeliever will fall down on his face and worship God, and what will he do then? He will report that God is in you of a truth. This is one of the great effects of true worship. We want it to be obvious to everyone, even to an unbeliever, that God is in this place. Even an unbeliever will say, “God is in that place, because when I went there, the secrets of my heart were exposed, and I was convicted on my sin. That could not have happened unless God had been among those people.” When people in Baton Rouge talk about St. Paul’s we want them to say, “God is among those people.” They will say that God is among us if we truly become a worshiping community. Worship is the most powerful form of witness. Notice that Paul says this unbeliever, who miraculously becomes a worshiper, will “report” that God is in you of a truth. Report to whom? The word “report” means to announce or to proclaim. This person will go home and tell. He will tell his family, his friends, and acquaintances that God is among you. In other words, he will become a witness. He will become like the woman at the well who went home and said, “Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did” (John 4:29). Jesus exposed the sins of her life, and she knew that he was a prophet (John 14:19). When we worship God as we should, an unbeliever becomes a new worshiper, and the new worshiper becomes a new witness.
When people come to this place, they will see in the way that we conduct ourselves, that God is really in this place. They will see that this is heaven on earth, that the glory of God Himself is revealed in this place, and that the glorious God of the universe brings a little bit of heaven to earth and reveals his glory to those who worship him here.
I was reading a book a while back by Kallistos Ware, an Eastern Orthodox theologian, called, The Inner Kingdom. In the book he describes what attracted him to the Eastern Orthodox church, and it is one of the most powerful statements about how worship itself attracts people to the church. After describing his first experience in an Orthodox church, he writes,
I am grateful that my initial contact with Orthodoxy was not through reading books, nor yet through meeting members of the Orthodox Church in a social context, but through attending an act of worship. The Church, according to Orthodox understanding, is primarily a liturgical community, which expresses its true self through invocation and doxology. Worship comes first, doctrine and disciple second. I was fortunate then, then, to discover Orthodoxy first of all by participating in an act of corporate prayer. I encountered the Orthodox Church not as a theory or an ideology, but as a concrete and specific fact, as a worshiping presence. (3) Let me Anglicize that statement and apply it to our congregation. We want people to be attracted to St. Paul’s because we are a worshiping people. We want people to join St. Paul’s because we are a worshiping presence in the city of Baton Rouge. I want us to be a friendly church, but I don’t want people join us because we are friendly. I want people to like me, but we don’t want people to join St. Paul’s because they like the minister. My mother was talking to a man years ago who was explaining why he went to a certain church in this city, and he said, “I go to that church because they have something going on every night.” We don’t want people to join us because we are a social club for the bored and lonely. We want them to join us because we worship God in spirit and truth. St. Paul’s is a liturgical community—we are a worshiping community. We want people to join us because when they walk into this place, they know immediately that God is here. We are going to pray that in the coming months and years, we as a congregation will truly become worshipers, for worshipers are witnesses. Amen.