But Seriously… (3) Worship in spirit and truth

When Jesus met the Samaritan woman she was impressed but also discomfited by his knowledge of the chequered relationships in her past; and she tried to turn the subject aside

“I perceive, sir, that you are a prophet.  Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, and you say Jerusalem is the proper place to worship”.

Jesus told her, “Believe me, woman, the time has come when you shall worship the Father neither merely in this mountain nor merely in Jerusalem.  You (the Samaritans) worship what you do not know; we (Jews) worship what we know, for salvation comes from among the Jews.  But the hour comes – and now is – when genuine worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is looking for such as his worshippers.  God is a spirit and his worshippers must worship on spirit and truth”.

Now here’s a question; for a time (starting around 1700) England had what was called the ‘Test Act’.  Basically, in an attempt to secure loyalty to the state and discourage the nonconformist movement, this law said that to qualify for certain positions in the state and certain benefits, people would be required to partake of Anglican communion.  In other words, you had to formally worship as an Anglican.  Among things covered by this and similar rules was University attendance, whence the fact that the nonconformists had to found colleges of their own, often of a very high standard, some of which still exist now as full modern universities.

These laws obviously taxed the consciences of serious nonconformists.  Many would refuse to conform; others somehow managed to convince themselves it was allowable, and took university places or became mayors, councillors, etc.  But in some ways the effect was worse on the other side.  Serious nonconformists might not engage in this token worship; but of course cynical unbelievers would be quite happy to formally profess faith and make the token gesture of worship in return for power, social position and money.  Does this sound like ‘worship in spirit and truth’?  How can the fellowship of the Lord’s Supper be truly fellowship when people are attending for social and worldly advantage?  And how could serious Christians use the Lord’s Supper in such a way, or tolerate such use?

To be fair most – though not all – modern Anglicans reject such practices.  In his book ‘Anglicanism’, written in 1958, Bishop Stephen Neill quotes a description of the Test Act as ‘an insidious degradation to which the Anglican Church in its alarm submitted, and from which it was not reluctantly delivered until the nineteenth century was well on its course’.  But the question still remains; how can you have a state privileged faith, either compelling worship, or penalising and discriminating against the non-conformist, or encouraging superficial worship for all kinds of insincere motives – and expect to see much of the sincere worship Jesus talks about?  You don’t need a totalitarian set-up with an inquisition or similar to seriously compromise the worship.

In a way Jesus’ point was precisely that he was bringing a ‘new covenant’ going beyond old ways; future worship would no longer be based on your nation and its customs, but on being reborn through faith.  The externals of worship – this place or that, for example, would no longer matter; sacrifices and temples would be superceded, as would distinctions like Jew and Samaritan, Greek and Roman.  Those changed by the spiritual new birth will gather for worship in a new way, as citizens of the kingdom of heaven, people of every earthly nationality now incorporated into the people of God and praising God for their salvation through Jesus’ sacrifice.  And as we saw in the post about new birth (But Seriously) the state can’t properly have anything to do with this.  The state can’t legislate for new birth or for sincere worship; its worldly interference can only confuse and compromise the situation.

I will agree that there will still be some risk of insincerity even when the state is not involved; humans, being sinful, are always finding ways to get it wrong and either kid themselves that they are serving God or cynically act the part because it offers advantage even without the world’s power behind it.  But there is a great deal less risk when the church is as it should be, a ‘kingdom not of this world’:  a body where, if anything, belonging may risk persecution, discrimination, ridicule, and disadvantage within the state.  It is then far more likely that people will sincerely choose membership of the church, and participation in its worship, because they have been truly born again.  As sincere believers they will see spiritual rather than worldly advantage, even spiritual advantage despite material disadvantage.