Community and Worship

(1 Samuel 3:1-20, 1 Corinthians 14:12-20) As many as 1 million older people are starving in their homes because of loneliness and isolation, according to a cross-party parliamentary report. There is always a degree of hype around such headlines. But if it’s anywhere near true, it’s a real sign of how, paradoxically, when we are bound ever more tightly together in a global community, people are becoming ever more disconnected from one another.

Our faith should pull us in the opposite direction. But more and more, religion is seen as an entirely personal, and largely individualistic, thing. Yes, we worship together. But, on the whole, we come, do we not, to express our relationship with God, and to seek the strength, inspiration, guidance we need.

That’s not how St Paul sees it. The whole thrust of his argument in Ch.14 is based on the premise that the worship of God should serve to build up the people of God in, and as, a community. The dismissal of the house of Eli we heard about in the OT, was because the ministry of the priests of that house had become self-serving, instead of something offered in the service of, in solidarity with, the whole people of God.

And here’s a different kind of fragmentation. And another paradox. While our lifestyle choices, emotional wellbeing and physical health, so we are told, affect each other, the medicine that is telling us that is organised and practiced as a set of discrete specialities.

Back in the Corinthian church there were certain individuals who were displaying their spiritual gifting by speaking in tongues. And it is these Paul is taking issue with, on the grounds that while it may be a fine way of communing with God, speaking in tongues does nothing to instruct or edify or build up the church. Hence Paul’s declaration: ‘I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with the mind also.’

“Also” is the key word. We need both, mind and spirit, equally. So, of course, the foundation of our faith and worship, and the resourcing of our Christian life, must be based on a spiritual connection with God. Something that is personal and of the heart. And has an emotional content. But equally, lest it be just superstition or mere nonsense, it is important that our faith is also thought out, has some rhyme and reason and relevance. Has something to say, as it were, to the everyday and intellectual world in which we live.

It’s also. Both and. A matter of being enriched in our faith and prayer and worship in mind and in spirit. And holding the two in tension. And maintaining the right balance.

It’s easy to caricature, and even look down upon, what we might think to be the cheap emotion of ‘happy clappy’ churches. But a more reverential and traditional form of worship can have its imperfections too, all too easily becoming dry, impersonal, and unaffecting. Our faith and worship should be a natural and joyous response of praise and gratitude to God, but that makes no sense if we don’t know or understand or can’t articulate what God has done for us and why we should be thankful.

In fact if either mind or spirit are taken too far – so it becomes a matter of how I feel, or it’s about what makes sense to me – if it’s all about me, in other words – it becomes not true religion, but idolatry.

Our physical coming together is also important. Though we are many, and may be different, in our coming together we signal that we are one body in Christ. We declare that Christ is bigger than any one of us. We recognise that it is in and through the body that we are enriched and grow.

Let me also say, in relation to the body, that posture and movement are also important to the way we approach God, and in the way we reognise our corporate identity as God’s people. Which is to say that, in my view, we are diminished when we each does our own thing, and don’t all for example kneel for the confession, when we stand up or sit down in a haphazard fashion, when we fall out of line in procession.

I don’t want to be taken to be criticising anyone behind me in this. On the contrary, at its best a choir offers a fine illustration of what I have been trying to say, in that choral singing requires and only works when everyone plays their part and pulls their weight, and there is a blend and balance of voices present, and the various parts are in unison or harmony together as the music requires.

And second, it is no accident that the RSCM motto is Paul’s text: “I will sing with the spirit, but I will sing with the mind also.” Because the music will literally be lifeless if it is not done with authenticity and feeling and enjoyment. But the art of delivering choral music also requires control and understanding and awareness, or it will all fall apart in an outpouring of sound and passion signifying very little.

So in choral singing there is a little model of what it might be to be church, in which the whole matters more than the parts, where it is in contributing and offering that the participants gain and receive, and where body, mind and spirit all must work together and contribute if the result is to be something good.

Which basically means that we should all join the church choir. No, though as Lent approaches we may want to consider whether there are steps we can take to enhance our life with God, especially in the area we are weakest – whether that be in terms of our personal relationship with God, or in the study and understanding of our faith – spirit or mind.

Even more we might want to think about the difference our faith makes to others. About how we contribute to the worship, ministry and mission of the church. On the grounds that God has not called us here to satisfy ourselves, for our own enjoyment or well-being. But God has called us to be his church. To show to a fragmented and fragmenting world what it is to be in community together. And to care for each other physically, emotionally and spiritually.