As a pastor, I often wonder if our worship makes any difference in the ethical lives of my congregants. We Protestant Evangelical types are so good at making spiritual things spiritual and everything else—well, everything else. Part of the pastoral task is to draw the two together or, even better, to help my people live into the reality that there is not a divide at all, and that the ethics of our people are indeed shaped by our worship.
In fact, certain practices of our worship—namely, the practice of the Lord’s Supper—give us a way of shaping the ethical lives of our people. At the same time, these practices of worship, old as the Christian faith itself, offer a healing balm in a modern world characterized by some very broken social dynamics.
Many of the people in our churches are deeply formed by a fragmented world, whether they realize it or not. The modern world is good at categorizing, separating, and splintering, and our people tend to inherit and absorb this philosophy and bring it to church with them. Not all of this fragmentation has been enacted with ill intent. Many well-meaning people have accepted fragmentation as helpful. Think of some of the divides we tend to accept as natural: church and state, individual and communal, sacred and secular. This list could go on, but many of those whom we shepherd think in these terms, which often results in their living in a splintered world. I hear many pastoral colleagues comment on the way their flocks can easily and neatly divide out their “church lives” from the rest of their lives, and immediately we see that the philosophy of the fragmented world has taken up residence in the church.
Theologian John Milbank offers a similar analysis. In the introduction to his monumental Theology and Social Theory, he writes, “Once, there was no ‘secular.’”1 What Milbank goes on to show is that the divide we so readily put between sacred and secular is actually a false divide—and always has been. Once, we recognized this was so. Once, we believed that all the world belonged to God, and we believed that meant there was nothing about our lives that fell into a secular realm that was separate from God. Our modern world is really good at forming our people to believe they live in different spheres, and that Sunday does not have a whole lot to do with Monday. Our people are often formed to believe that one sphere is the sacred sphere, and it deals with everything internal and spiritual. The other sphere is the secular sphere, and that is where external things like work, home, politics, and most everything else happen. Once we start to believe that we can break life apart like this, it makes it easy to turn faith into either nothing more than a kind of feel-good, extracurricular activity, or else a nice supplement to an otherwise complete life.
Of course, we know the pastoral task is complex, mainly because our people rarely, if ever, deal with simple situations at any given time. Such is the case with the modern situation. It gets a bit more complex in the way we understand our relationships with one another. Many of us grew up in a world where we were all individuals, and part of what it meant to be human was to be self-sufficient. In other words, our relationships with others were voluntary. If we had a relationship with another person, it was our choice, and we could end that relationship at any time. We could do this because we believed that, as individuals, we were fundamentally unrelated to others and our lives were not truly wrapped up in the lives of our neighbors. We have been formed to believe that we can be ourselves without needing anyone else.
If this is the case, here is the rub: The way we live together and treat one another is based on the belief that our relationships are optional. We are so deeply formed to believe we are individuals; therefore, ethics is simply a set of principles that govern the way unrelated individuals live around one another. If we stop to consider the modern conversation surrounding ethics, it generally comes down to: Something is unethical if it prevents another person from doing what that person wants to do. The problem is that, if ethics is that simple, then the best-case scenario is that we all live together in a kind of uneasy truce. I may not like what other people do, but since we are ultimately unrelated, all I can really do is let them go about their business—until that business begins to interfere with my own, of course. This kind of ethics can cultivate tolerance, but it cannot reconcile persons to one another.
Christian ethics, on the other hand, has a different goal in mind; a goal we see sketched in Revelation 21. In that beautifully descriptive vision of John the Revelator, we catch a glimpse of what the new creation will look like when God will be all in all. We see a city—larger in size than the known universe at the time John writes—brimming with dazzling ornamentation and enormous gates that stand open as a beacon to all. Yet even more remarkable is that the lives of the people who occupy this city are characterized by a deep and lasting reconciliation. Death, sorrow, and pain are vanquished, and instead, a vital relationship with God the Creator unites all persons by virtue of God’s dwelling with them. God is all in all, and that reality generates peace and reconciliation among the people who dwell in the city with no need of a temple, precisely because God lives in their midst, in a deep and lasting union.
This vision in Revelation is a far more compelling moral vision for the Christian life than what the modern world has to offer. Rather than a tenuous truce, the Christian moral life is aimed at reconciliation, a far deeper result than simply tolerating one another. And, if reconciliation is the aim, it means that we take our relatedness to other persons seriously, and see our relationships with them as the fabric of our moral lives.
These questions, then, remain: What does any of this have to do with worship? How could the Lord’s Supper possibly have any kind of healing effect on the way we understand our relationships with other people? How can this act of worship help us clarify and correct our moral vision?
First, the Lord’s Supper is an act of worshiping God. This may seem like stating the obvious, but it is actually an important aspect of understanding the ways in which our worship can form our ethics. As an act of worship, we render our allegiance to God, whom we confess to be worthy of worship. Worshiping anything or anyone not worthy of worship is called idolatry, so it becomes important for us to direct our worship toward the correct place if we are going to attempt to let our worship help us with our moral vision. It is also significant that, as an act of worship to God, God is the God of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. In other words, the unity that the Lord’s Supper offers is built on the worship of this same God. If we worship different gods, we are bound to wind up back at the very problem we are trying to get away from, and end up a fragmented people once again.
Second, the Lord’s Supper is a means of God’s grace redeeming us in God’s own image. That image is triune and, thus, relational. Obviously, there are limits to us saying that humans need to look like God, but our own Wesleyan theological tradition teaches us that restoration in God’s image is a matter of “salve-ation,” or, being healed from the sin that separates us from God and from one another. As we are restored in the image of God, being reconciled to one another in love is a natural result because this is what we were created for.
In his extraordinarily helpful book on worship, Brent Peterson shows that we were Created to Worship God, and that as we do so, the image of God is restored in us such that we love others, becoming what we were meant to be—fully human. “Through communal worship,” Peterson writes, “God continues to sanctify people, healing them from the disease of sin so that they can live a life of loving and being loved abundantly.”² As we are redeemed from sin, the image of what we have been created to be—beings in relationship—is restored more fully. As that image is restored, then, we begin to see that a healed humanity is a humanity that reflects the triune love of God. A fully restored humanity is a humanity reconciled to other humans, one that is never satisfied with an uneasy truce because we have caught a glimpse of what God is making humanity to be in the New Jerusalem, and we long for the reconciliation we have seen there.
Third, the Lord’s Supper teaches us that the shape of the Christian life cannot be characterized by fragmentation. We gather around the table together as Christ’s body, rather than as individuals whose lives have nothing to do with one another. One of my college professors remarked once that in his younger days, his frustration with various aspects of his church led him to think he could leave the congregation and go the Christian faith alone. “If you can believe it,” he said, “I actually served myself communion alone in my room.” There were awkward chuckles from my fellow students as the irony began to sink in: Something called communion cannot be done alone. It is community-oriented by its very nature.
When my wife and I were dating and newly married, we made our church home in a wonderful, vibrant congregation of Nazarenes who could not be more different from one another. We were both young and old, hailing from different backgrounds, loyal to different cultures, and composed of different racial identities. Some had experienced poverty firsthand while others had never wanted for anything. By most accounts, because of those differences, none of us belonged in the same room together—until we worshiped. Every week, our pastor concluded his sermon and invited us to the table that had been prepared with the feast of God’s gifts. A song usually broke out as a line formed, and as we each received the broken body and spilled blood of our Lord, I realized that—as different as we were from one another—we were being given to one another as we gathered around the table. Though I may have been fantastically different from the others who gathered to worship God, my life was bound to theirs as we together received the love of God poured out upon us. I was different from those in that church, but I was not separate from them, especially as we gathered around the Lord’s table.
In the act of worship that we call the Lord’s Supper, we are reminded that the tale told by modern philosophy is a false one. We are not fragmented from one another, nor are we at our best when isolated. When we are restored to the image of God, we are restored to understand that our relationships with others are deeply a part of who we have been created to be. We have been created to love and worship God, and when we do, we are inclined to see that God gives us the gifts of one another, and commands us to love those gifts. That command is not simply an exercise of God’s fiat but a word spoken for our own salvation—that we might become, by God’s grace, what we have been created to be.
By our worship, then, those in our pastoral care can begin to see the world in terms given to them by the practices of the church, rather than by the fragmentation philosophy of modern society. As we go about our worship, it has the potential to render the world relational for our people, to show forth the reality that we are not isolated individuals but members of Christ’s body and that, as such, our ethics can be so much more than a set of principles designed to mandate tolerance. Rather, we can truly be reconciled to one another.
If Christian ethics really does provide a deeper, fuller, and richer understanding of the moral life, our practices of worship—including the Lord’s Supper—help us not only to imagine that deeper moral life but also to embody it. Our worship also has a formative component allowing us to see the world differently and to be shaped by God’s mercy. Our worship can both help us see the world differently and live within that world. It is a world in which God’s purposes are upheld and our relationships with God and our neighbors become the foundation for our ethical lives.
Therefore, Monday has everything to do with Sunday.
TIMOTHY R. GAINES serves as co-lead pastor at the Bakersfield First Church of the Nazarene in Bakersfield, CA. He also serves as an adjunct professor in theology at Nazarene Theological Seminary, and his academic research focuses on theology and ethics.
¹ John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1993), 9.
² Brent Peterson, Created to Worship: The Invitation to Become Fully Human (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 2012), 36.