Sunday, March 24, 2019

God is not improved. . . but we are. . .

Reading something the other day I came across a reference to St. Thomas Aquinas who said that God is not improved by our worship but we are.  It is true wisdom.  God is not enlarged by our worship of Him nor is He somehow improved by it.  We cannot add to Him nor can we subtract from Him.  But we are enlarged by His gracious gifts and improved by His work in us and we are added to by His mercy and diminished by the lack of it.

In other words, the benefit of worship is not in the worship but in the doing of what the Lord asks us to do (hear, eat, drink, pray...) because He is at work in them even more than we are.  Let me put it another way.  Worship does not provide other things -- it is not a means to get something greater or more profound.  Worship provides its own reward in the God who comes to us where He has promised, delivers to us the grace our Lord has earned, and shows to us the mercy that forgives our sins, redeems our life from the grave, and saves us to be His own now and forevermore.

We are a pragmatic people.  Perhaps that, too, is the fruit of sin's work in our hearts.  We think in practical terms.  If we go to church, we think we ought to get something for it.  If we read God's Word, we expect to get something for it.  If we receive His sacrament, we feel like there ought to be some tangible benefit or blessing.  If we pray, we figure the least God can do is to give us what we prayed for.  But this is not only simplistic, it is wrong.  It misses the whole thing in favor of some hidden outcome or delight that is beyond the gathering around Word and Table in prayer and praise.  The blessing is not something added to the gift.  The gift IS the blessing.

We have become, in essence, too practical.  We have reduced worship to a liturgical utilitarianism that forgets and ultimately denies that God is in what is happening and that His gift there IS the blessing.  It is the point of view of those who believe that God's Word is but words and that the blessing is in us in hearing them and not in the Word.  There is no efficacy in this Word, no living voice, and no personal address.  Its value to us lies in the instruction that leads us closer to what we want and not necessarily to what God wills.  It is the point of view of those who believe that the water does nothing but signs that which is not present -- the gift is beyond the splash and the Word itself.  Or the bread and wine are nothing but bread and wine that symbolize something which is not really present in that bread and wine -- a spiritual communion which is signed in the eating and drinking but essentially different from it.  Whatever that point of view is, it is surely not Lutheran and not worthy of the catholic claims of our Augustana.  Nor does it hold any commonality with the vibrant confession of the ancient church.  God is not out there somewhere to be imagined in our minds and hearts as we meditate on His Word or see the symbolism of His sacraments but in His Word and in His Sacraments.  He is there doing what He has promised to do and giving what is signed and symbolized.  If we point beyond them (except in the sense of their perfect fulfillment in the eschaton) we lose what is present and real now.

Worship is not a program of the church with goals and purposes and aims beyond what happens in the hearing of the Word read and preached, the receiving of the blessed Sacrament, and the response of prayer and praise that accompanies the baptized receiving the means of grace.  Worship is the end and not simply a means to an end because God is where He has promised to be and doing what He has pledged to do.

I well recall once having a dinner meeting in which nothing was accomplished.  At the end of it I said in frustration that it was a waste of time since we had nothing to show for it all.  At that point a small voice reminded me that we had eaten a good meal and we had done it together, that this meal began with prayer and ended with it, and that this was not nothing.  Worship is not nothing.  It is where we meet the Lord as He has chosen and bidden us.  It is wherein He comes to us and, though He is not improved or enhanced by it all, we are -- richer than eye can see or mind imagine.  Once we begin to remember this, we will stop trying to measure the success of Sunday morning through statistics and begin to appreciate that God has come to us this day, replete with all His gifts and blessings, but none more sublime than His presence among sinners.

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