‘No restrictions on communal worship.’ That’s how the news broadcasts are describing the situation in England. And that is good news we’d all say! I’m waiting for the fine print from the GOV.UK website to know whether there are any caveats. We wait and see.
In the meantime, however, is it true that there are no restrictions on communal worship? When we return to pre-COVID-19 times, are we returning to a worship-free-for-all? We might smile a little wryly even at what might constitute a Lutheran free-for-all but our theology of worship re-flects an article of faith that communal worship is re-stricted by Jesus himself. We understand that if wor-ship begins with us then it is idolatry. Instead we find ourselves in a long line – a nearly 2,000 years old long line – who have received from Jesus what they need to live with him and follow him. Jesus deter-mines how we worship God by making it clear that we are the recipients of God’s gifts, we are the beneficiar-ies of God’s grace, and that in worship Jesus deter-mines what he wants to give us – forgiveness, his Word, his ears so that he acts on our prayers, himself in the meal, and his blessings as we go out again into our lives in the world.
I have been told in the past that I’m just making this up and saying it like this to keep my ‘pastor power’ and restricting people’s worship. That’s a hard charge to defend in some ways because, as I said, this is fundamentally about faith – how Christians respond to Jesus’ com-mands to baptise, to preach, to pray, to eat in ‘remembrance of me’, and to go out blessed. Often the ‘worship battles’ have come down to the rhythm or beat of the music or the words of songs or the role of the worship leader and this is where, I think, we might have been more clear in the past about worship.
Yes, God establishes how we worship – that is our faith position – because if it starts with us, it is idolatry. And Jesus established a pattern of worship echoing synagogue and temple – today we might say Word and Sacrament – and there is an order to it where God gives and we receive. I don’t think Jesus has a favourite setting of the Divine Service in our Lutheran Service Book! (We have five settings listed!) What is important are not the actual words whether in 21st century English or 7th century Latin but that they clearly present Jesus and his gifts – that they are clear and do what they say – so that everyone’s focus remains on Jesus and not who is speaking or singing.
Of course human beings always want to take the place of God. And that is dangerous in wor-ship, dangerous for pastors(!), and might result in God becoming the audience of our worship of him (because we are important enough to worship God). However in God’s presence we are always recipients. God doesn’t need anything from us. He is the Giver and we receive – forgiveness, guidance, strength, comfort, personal assurance, healing even, and blessings.
There are no restrictions on communal worship because God wants all people to be saved and come to him. But there are restrictions from, our point of view, in the same way as when we follow Jesus because then we … follow him and not go wherever we wish ‘unrestricted’. Our communal wor-ship is not our creation but a time of God’s gracious presence with us, on his terms, in his words, so that we are served and blessed.