Sermon 14                                      

Love & Worship God

John 13:34

May 6, 2007


Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen. 

We who believe in Jesus Christ, crucified and raised from the dead for our salvation – we are not left to bask in the glory of it all. No, newness of life instead is awaiting us. For we know that when we live with Christ and believe in his death and resurrection, we are expected to “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).

John 13:34 tells us today what that means. We are to “love one another” just as Jesus did. This love is the hallmark of our new life in Christ. It replaces indifference, selfishness and hate (1 John 2:9). In love there’s no complicated philosophy of life or theory of reality. Instead it’s just a simple command to love. Once we believe in Jesus’ death and resurrection, love is what gets us started on this new life in Christ. It’s that simple and straightforward.

Costly Love

True enough – but there’s a curve or two thrown in here as well. The first curve is that we aren’t free to make up our own definition of this love. It’s not some sort of designer love, if you will, for us to fashion. Years ago we learned weird definitions for love – coming from this designer approach. Cars, we were told, “love Shell gasoline.” “Yellow is the color of love” [Robert Solomon, Love (1981) p. 16]. And in Erich Segal’s best seller, Love Story (1970) we were told that love means never “having to say you’re sorry.”

But this isn’t what the Bible says. There we learn that we are to love the way Jesus did. He is our example – not the gasoline marketers or the best selling novels. We are to love following Jesus’ example – and that example was to sacrifice for the well-being of others – deserving or not. Jesus taught that there’s no greater love than to “lay down one’s life” for another person (John 15:13). At the very least this will mean suffering losses in order to help others. Losses of time, money, comfort, ease, reputation and popularity we must suffer – all for the good of the other person.

So Christian love is costly, painful and demanding. No sentimental infatuation here. Nor is there any erotic joy rooted in sexual gratification. Christian love can actually therefore be unattractive. It’s painful and costly and not obviously something we’d want to do. But there’s even more that’s troubling beside this.


Loving God Too

When Jesus loved he did far more than give people a helping hand. He also laid down his life for the sins of the world. And when he did, God the Father loved him for it (John 10:17). In response Jesus said, “I love the Father” too (John 14:31). So if we are to love as Jesus did, then we too must love God the Father.

But this is tough. For we look around the world in which we live and see all the suffering that God allows to happen, and we wonder if we can love such a seemingly heartless God. But in the face of these unsettling facts we are told to love God anyway. Jesus loved him and so should we. Period. Following his example, we should just love God, be done with it and quit all the fussing.

Now this second love seems much more difficult than the first. Making sacrifices for our neighbors has a certain plausibility to it. But loving God when he lets babies starve to death in the third world and die of cancer in the industrialized world, seems over the top. It stretches us to the point of breaking our human sensibilities.

Why God Loves Us

How then shall we love as Jesus loved – both toward our neighbors and most of all toward God? If there are these impediments of mandatory sacrifice regarding our neighbor and unchecked evil regarding God, can we love them at all?

For Christians we never measure up to the commands of God by trying harder. Our way is not to reach deeper into our reserves of strength. Our way is to look to the Savior Jesus Christ (Hebrews 12:2). He is the one who can lift us up out of our failures, misgivings, hesitations and doubts. He is the savior, after all. And saving is just what we need! But we cannot save ourselves (Romans 7:24). Our sinfulness is too massive to permit it.

So find hope in Christ. In him the love of God shines down on us – in spite of all the pain and suffering in the world. This is because Jesus said that whoever “loves me will be loved by my Father” (John 14:21). There’s no other way. The only way to the Father is through the Son (John 14:6). All other ways are false and, against such “profane novelties,” we must firmly stand [adversus omnes profanas novitates vigilare debet] [ St. Augustine , On the Merits and Remission of Sin (412) §I.28:56].

For God doesn’t love us because we’re lovable (Luther’s Work 30:301; 31:57)! No, to the contrary, God instead loves the unlovable – those who are “ungodly” (Romans 5:6). This is because we suffer from sheer ungodliness (Mark 7:21-22; Romans 1: 28-32; Galatians 5:16-24; 2 Timothy 3:2-5). So if we’re waiting for God to love us because we’re so lovable, we’ll be waiting forever. No, we need more mercy than that. We need a “love unknown, our Savior’s love to me, love to the loveless shown, that they might lovely be” [Lutheran Book of Worship (1978) hymn 94].

And that’s the unheard of love Christ Jesus provides – which in turn makes us lovable – but only after the fact. So he comes for the sick – those whose souls have rotted because of sin and are in despair over it (Mark 2:17). He comes for those in desperate need. To them he brings salvation – or sight to the blind. But to the supposedly healthy – those who think they’re fine when they aren’t (Revelation 3:17) – he pokes out their eyes and blinds them (John 9:39). But both the truly sick and the feigned healthy must admit they can’t save themselves. Indeed, no one can “give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of his life is costly and can never suffice” (Psalm 49:7-8). That’s the deep, rare truth about us.

So Christ saves us by suffering in our place. He is our substitute, Ich trit an deine stat, he says, “I am your substitute,” I stand in your place (LW 22:167). God punishes him (Isaiah 53:4-5, 10) instead of us, so that we won’t have to be punished in hell – if only we believe in him (Romans 3:26). He stands in our place. And by so doing God’s justice (Romans 8:4) is satisfied. So as Lutherans teach, this “satisfaction… consists not of the… sinful works which we do, but of the suffering and blood of the innocent Lamb of God who takes away… sin,” Jesus Christ our Lord [The Book of Concord, ed. T. Tappert (1580; 1959) p. 309].


Worshipping Rightly

Now our love for God doesn’t spin around on itself, going nowhere, and that’s it, nothing more. No, it instead changes us – transforming us into the likeness of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18). Faith apart from works, therefore, is dead (James 2:26). Part of what this means is that if we love God and his ways, then we will want to praise him. Indeed, because I love his ways “exceedingly,…. my lips will pour forth praise” (Psalm 119:167-171).

     But not every way of praising or worshipping the one true God will do. It must be “in spirit and truth” (John 4:24) to be pleasing to the Lord. So worship that is in the flesh – that is, wallowing in our self-centeredness, and also basking in falsehood – that is, in our self-made theories on what’s possible and what’s probable – all such worship is false. It’s not worship in spirit and truth.

But what would faithful worship look like? Here is a set of Biblical principles that can make worship right. They are a baker’s dozen in number. No such list is in the Bible. But when the Bible is read rein und fein, or in “purity and refinement” (LW 41:219), this is what I think you’d find. If these thirteen key points are missing from your worship, then it’s godless. Worshipping without them means you’re blaspheming God rather than glorifying him in you worship. And Lutherans defend this harsh judgment because false worship “is no laughing matter” (BC, p. 369).


Exalting Jesus’ Death

The first point is that Jesus dead on the cross helps make worship right. Right worship must focus on that central image. Jesus dead on the cross should be all around you where you worship. No empty, abstract cross will do. But a crucifix is needed – a cross with Jesus’ dead body on it. Front and center it must be in every part of worship. It can’t be pushed off to the side into a minor role. Many new churches have even gotten rid of the cross all together (see Charles Trueheart, “Welcome to the Next Church ,” The Atlantic Monthly, August 1996). This is blasphemy, for if you’re not a “Crosstian,” then neither are you a Christian (LW 5:274).

So flee from such churches as fast as you can! They’re not worshipping in spirit and truth. For a faithful church carries Jesus’ dead body with it every where it goes (2 Corinthians 4:10). It always, clearly and emphatically, proclaims Christ’s death (1 Corinthians 11:26) – meaning, quite explicitly, that Jesus paid the price for our sins on the cross (2 Peter 2:1; 1 Corinthians 6:20). Jesus crucified is our one – and only – message (1 Corinthians 1:23, 2:2). Therefore Jesus dead on the cross “deserves to be praised to the utmost and to have every honor given to it” (LW 13:319). This includes dying to ourselves – that is, denying and hating ourselves (Luke 9:23; 14:26) – because we believe Christ has died for us (2 Corinthians 5:14). So measure everything by the cross – crux probat omnia [A. E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross (1985) p. 164]. If you don’t, you’re not worshipping in spirit and truth.


Condemning Sin

You must also be terrified in church. Guard your step, we’re told, when you go to worship (Ecclesiastes 5:1). You can get hurt in there! For in church the preaching of the law of God makes your sin “sinful beyond measure” (Romans 7:13). This is part of right worship – having our noses rubbed in our sinfulness. This shame teaches us to fear God and his punishments. It also teaches us to distrust our ability to clear ourselves. This drives us to deny ourselves – to “die to finitude (to its pleasures, it preoccupations, its projects, its diversions),… and realize how empty is that with which busyness fills up life, how trivial is that which is the lust of the eye and the craving of the carnal heart” [Søren Kierkegaard, Christian Discourses (1848) Kierkegaard’s Writings 17:172].

So don’t use worship to cover-up your wretchedness. Any worship that does that is demonic. Against this the Spirit of God emboldens us to admit how truly bad we are. So take no part in “the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (Ephesians 5:11). Say with Luther, pecca fortiter, or “sin boldly” – which doesn’t mean to sin with abandon, but rather to admit your degeneration and doom, and say I am fortissimus peccator, or a “mighty sinner” (LW 48:282 and my “Only the Remorse of Judas,” The Bride of Christ, Pascha 1995). For God wants us to be “humble… and tremble” at his word (Isaiah 66:2), to say “I despise myself” (Job 42:6) and “I am nothing” (2 Corinthians 12:11).

God’s Holy Words

Also there’s no right worship without the Holy Scriptures being read – from both the Old and New Testaments. Both Law and Gospel are required in worship – readings from “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). For we are only blessed when we “hear the Word of God and keep it” (Luke 11:28).

So the Word of God must stand at the center of our worship – with everything else revolving around it. The whole Word of God, and not our words, is what matters in worship. These Holy Words of God must be read with clarity and boldness from the lectern and preached with fire (Jeremiah 23:29) and conviction from the pulpit. For Holy Scripture is a word that cuts deeply into us (Hosea 6:5; Hebrews 4:12) that we might live with God forever.


Digging Deeply

And we cannot pass over these Holy Words of God lightly. They cannot be stated quickly and then skipped over to get to some human interest story of greater value. Instead we must dwell on these Holy Words. We must bore down into them for they are God’s “deep thoughts” (Psalm 92.5). We must explore their ramifications and existential implications – that is to say, what they require of us. Skipping over them quickly won’t give us that.

            So we must slowly ponder God’s Word in worship – thinking it over, meditating on it again and again (Psalm 1:2), wondering about it endlessly, and planning our life around it forevermore.


Classic Witnesses

In addition to God’s Holy Word we need to hear from his faithful witnesses. For the church is “built  upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets” – those who were witnesses to Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:20). Chief among these witnesses for Lutherans – outside of the Biblical ones – is Martin Luther (1483-1546), our “most eminent teacher” (BC, p. 576). Next in line would be St. Augustine (354-430) who led Luther to Christ (LW 22:512). After him would come the church fathers (see Robert Payne, The Holy Fire: The Story of the Fathers of the Eastern Church, 1957, 1980 and BC, pp. 47, 95, 107, 175, 329) and the doctors of the church (see Bernard McGinn, The Doctors of the Church: Thirty-three Men and Women Who Shaped Christianity, 1999).

Then would follow those who derive their thought from these classic witnesses – such as Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), Oscar Romero (1917-1980) and Alexander Schmemann (1921-1983). Trying to worship without these great witnesses, by instead favoring the fads and fashions of the current culture, will only make the vainglory of those worshipping worse.


Weekly Communion

Faithful worship celebrates the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper every week (Acts 20:7, BC, pp. 249, 577). This is a key to keeping Christ’s sacrificial death central in worship (1 Corinthians 11:26). Any and all efforts to decentralize this sacrament must be vehemently and diligently opposed [contra David Luecke, Evangelical Style and Lutheran Substance (1988) p. 108].


Fearing God

Worship isn’t a time for self-expression and entertainment (BC, p. 378). No, worship isn’t some sort of carnival. Rather it must be sober, somber and serious. Even its joy cannot be without some sorrow (2 Corinthians 6:10). For worship should only be offered “with reverence and awe,” because the One whom we worship is “a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:28-29). Therefore this Holy One is to be feared in our worship (Matthew 10:28; Revelation 1:17).


Demarcating the Holy

How we live our lives in the world cannot be brought into worship willy-nilly. No, the common cannot be mixed with the holy (Ezekiel 22:26; 2 Corinthians 6:17). So secular music isn’t automatically sacred music. It must first be corrected, developed and refined before it can be used in church (LW 53:324). This distinction also justifies the use of vestments and liturgical speech in worship. If they’re missing, then worship has caved in to worldliness (John 15:19; 1 John 2:15; James 4:4). And that will kill it.



Worship must not be ugly either, for the Lord God loves beauty (Psalm 96:6). So neither the visually chaotic (Jeremiah 4:23-26; 1 Corinthians 14:33, 40) nor cheap (Exodus 38:24-31; Mark 14:6) can adorn our worship. Clashing colors and patterns are ugly. And using cheap materials poorly constructed doesn’t match the grandeur of the faith we confess. All ugly churches belong to the devil. And this is true for whatever sort of beauty you might prefer.

Towering Halls

Our churches must also be imposing structures that intimidate us by their size, vaulted ceilings, artistic details and darkness. Being in them should “shame” us and bring us to repentance (Ezekiel 43:10; 1 Corinthians 14:24-25; LW 17:324). They aren’t to be homey like our residences (Exodus 33:7; LW 11:66), with low ceilings and muffled sounds [Walter Brueggemann, Hopeful Imagination (1986) p. 54]. Sound should instead echo and thunder where we worship – making church a mundhaus or “mouth-house” [Sermons of Martin Luther, ed. N. Lenker (1905, 1988) 1:44].


Singing With Majesty

The hymns and music in worship must be elevating – properly matching the depth of the Holy Scriptures they are to elaborate and convey. Only then can we “sing honor and glory and blessing to God” (Revelation 5:12). So simple, repetitious camp songs are too flimsy for worshiping the King of the universe (Psalm 99:4-5). And rock and blues are too sexy or sensual for church [Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, A New Song for the Lord (1995) pp. 121-123].



Our faith is “free” – but our Christian life is “costly” (Ephesians 2:8; Luke 14:28). So at worship, for instance, you must bring in a full one-tenth of your total income – which is the tithe – otherwise you’re robbing God (Malachi 3:7-10; Matthew 23:23). Each of us should therefore press on toward this goal (Philippians 3:12-14) – knowing that tithing goes along with true worship (Genesis 28:20-22). It’s not some tricky money-making scheme or legalistic ploy.


Let Justice Roll Down

Finally, true worship leads to working for God’s righteousness – letting justice “roll down like mighty waters” (Amos 5:23-24). For indeed, faith requires good works (James 2.26). If this is missing from worship, then God isn’t being glorified. For the God whom we worship loves justice (Isaiah 61:8) – and so therefore must we.


(printed as preached with a few changes)