Sometimes people think that worship is playing pretend. And they can think that my job as a pastor is to be the keeper of an inspirational fairy tale.
Life is busy, life is rushed, life is complex, and modern life is debilitating. People die, people suffer, people deal with the cynical corporate world. Come to church to escape that. Take a moment to get away from reality. Find inspiration in imagining a better world where everything is peaceful. Cope with life’s pain and sorrow by gathering in a peaceful place where we can pretend things are okay. Put on a mask, and cover up your sorrows or cynicism. Life is harsh, but in here, we don’t have to think about that stuff. We all know we have to go back out into the “real” world where we will again have to face life as it really is; but here and now we can pretend otherwise and allow ourselves to feel better.
And in fact, people often think that Christian worship as just that, a form of escapism.
And yet escapism is the exact opposite of Christian worship.
Christian worship aims directly at our actual human experience, and does not ask us to hide from it or ignore it. In fact, it shines a light directly on reality and reveals the world as it actually is. And it answers the actual questions of the human heart. It speaks to us where we are, without asking us to pretend we are something we are not.
In the Gospel and the Catholic Church, Archbishop Michael Ramsey argued that everything we do on Sundays, and as the church of Jesus Christ is all about the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
If that is the case, then rather than avoiding suffering and reality, we are embracing it head on. Death, suffering, and sorrow, along with life and salvation and redemption.
Consider that part of the human experience is to sense a need to appease gods and to be made pure.
So we are washed in the cleansing waters of baptism. We gather around the holy table. We eat at the Holy Table of the one who ended all sacrifice by the one sacrifice of himself. When we gather for communion, we are receiving the real presence of Christ himself, the final sacrifice. This real human need, this desire to appease God, is satisfied. There is nothing more real than that. There is nothing more full-out honest than to lay our sins upon God himself. We would be playing pretend if instead we tried to avoid or ignore the human desire to sacrifice. Rather than ignoring our desire to make a sacrifice or be cleansed, our worship shows us where to direct it.
Part of the human experience is to feel that something is broken in the world, and that somehow I’m a part of that.
So we confess our sins. We don’t need to pretend anymore. We don’t need to feel shame, we release our shame in God’s redeeming love. That release allows us to be honest and real. It would be a fairy tale if we instead pretended we had no sin.
To be human is to desire grace and peace, and to hope they exist.
We speak words of peace and grace in worship. But peace and grace are not unreal illusions or fantasies in Jesus Christ. They are finally made real, and they are made real within us as human beings, not despite us. Peace and grace are infused in us, as sinners who are also saints. We are a community of worshippers, human beings. This satisfies a real longing of the human heart for relationship and reconciliation. This speaks to a real human need for community and communion with others. And even as it builds this community of grace, it doesn’t ask us to make believe that this community is already perfected. Instead, it calls us to grow in grace together.
To be human is to look back to history and to wonder where we fit. To wonder who we are.
We listen to God’s word written. We hear it as God’s people. We hear a Bible that tells us of the misdeeds and mighty deeds of our spiritual ancestors. It doesn’t sugar coat anything. It invites us to see ourselves as God’s people too. With all of our foibles and follies, yet still we are one communion and a family. This story shows us who made us, it shows us who loves us, and it directs us to a purpose – human flourishing – made possible by God’s reconciliation working through humans like us.
Finally, to be human is to face death, and yet to sense immortality.
There is no hiding from death when we see our God nailed to a Roman Cross. And yet both the death of Jesus and the joy of his resurrection connects with our human experience. Instead of using the afterlife as a false crutch to cope with life here, the Resurrection show us One who has gone before us into that life, and who will guide us now and forever. We would be pretending if we ignored death and sorrow, and also if we ignored joy and immortality. Our Faith and worship answers both together in Christ Jesus.
Alexander Schmemann, in For the Life of the World observed that “Christianity often appears to preach that if men will try hard enough, to live Christian Lives, the crucifixion can somehow be reversed. This is because Christianity has forgotten itself, forgotten that it must always, first of all, stand at the cross.” When our worship stands at the cross, it is honest, real, and fully embracing of human experience.
The Gospel is about real, human experience. It is about redeeming our real, honest-to-god lives. The cross is the ultimate symbol of reality.
As we approach Christmas, we are reminded once again how earthy and human our Faith is. Jesus was born to poor parents, and placed in an animal feeding trough. This is no fairy tale. The poverty and powerlessness that Mary and Joseph experienced has been shared by the vast majority of people who have lived on this earth. The incarnation is God made flesh, and dwelling among us as we are.
Christian worship is about reality. It is real people gathered around a real table, facing real life. As a pastor, my calling is to face reality, and to lead others in facing reality together. To “go there” together, and to find that in Jesus Christ, God has already “gone there” and that he is waiting to meet us. In fact, he never left.
Greg Goebel is the founder and editor of AnglicanPastor and Canon to the Ordinary of Anglican Diocese of the South.