“But the hour is coming, and is now here,
when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth;
and indeed the Father seeks such people to worship him.
God is Spirit, and those who worship him
must worship in Spirit and truth.”
Some interpretations of this passage (beginning in the 17th century) saw it as a rejection of ritual worship. It meant for them, and has come to mean for others, that the form that congregational worship takes is unimportant because it is really about the interior disposition of the worshiper, not about the particular actions. Clearly, Jesus is disconnecting worship from the physical location of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem (or, for that matter, the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim). Jews would have prayed anywhere: at the city gates, in their homes, or in the synagogue. Worship, however, was tied to the ritual sacrifices at the temple. Worship was always about sacrifice or offering, about atonement for sin or thanksgiving for blessings. In this interpretation, those things are unimportant, but sound doctrine and emotional conviction become the hallmarks of “real” worship. Distilled through the centuries, we see this today as a Sunday service with 30-45 minutes of singing (to capture the emotional conviction) and 30-45 minutes of preaching (to present sound doctrine). Other ritual is understood to be dead or legalistic and traps the participants in a merely outward system of empty religion.
We have something to learn from this, but I’ll get to that in a minute. Notice, first, that there is a Trinitarian dimension to worship: worship is of the Father in the Holy Spirit and in the truth (Jesus, according to the same gospel writer, is the Truth in person). This worship originates from God, not from the worshiper. It is God’s work and, then, the people’s work. Worship is no longer tied to a geographic location, for God is at work everywhere. There remains a connection, however, to sacrifice and offering. The New Testament is riddled with references to the history and tradition of sacrificial offerings. What the sacrifice of bulls, goats, lambs, or doves prefigured over and over again was the one sacrifice of Jesus, himself, on the cross. Jesus, himself, taking from the Jewish tradition, instituted a new ritual at the last supper, the offering of bread and wine, the bread of life and the cup of salvation, which made present his one sacrifice on the cross. His flesh is real food and his blood is real drink, made present in the Lord’s Supper. Our offering at mass is to the Father, of the one sacrifice of Jesus, as the work of the Holy Spirit. Our ritual always has this Trinitarian dimension.
Our ritual can also become empty and lifeless. It’s not that sound doctrine and emotional conviction are unimportant. On the contrary, we always proclaim the scriptures from the Table of the Word (again, there is an element here of Jesus, the Word made flesh), as we always make our offering from the Table of the Eucharist (which means “thanksgiving”). But that, too, can seem empty. Not on God’s part, as his work, but on ours. God always does his part. The question of emotional conviction, however, is an important one. It is actually much deeper than simple emotionalism or trying to create a particular emotional response within us. Although emotions are not all of who we are, they are a significant part. That is all of our emotions, not just the good feels. When the bread and wine are offered at mass, each of us is called to also offer our very selves: all that we are, whatever we’re going through, however we feel. Valid worship doesn’t depend on how we feel about it (God is at work), but it’s effectiveness in our lives does depend on whether or not we are fully, consciously, and actively engaged. We can let our experience of ritual worship be dead and lifeless if we just go through the motions or, by being fully engaged, by offering our whole selves, we can let God’s work transform us in Sprit and truth. The Father seeks such people to worship him.