by Matthew Y. Emerson
Some important works related to Baptist catholicity and liturgy include:
- Steve Harmon, Towards Baptist Catholicity
- Barry Harvey, Can These Bones Live? A Catholic Baptist Engagement with Ecclesiology, Hermeneutics, and Social Theory
- Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World
- James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom
While each of these authors worship and work in different traditions (with only the first two in the Baptist tradition), and while each of them emphasize certain aspects of liturgical life in their books, what struck me in all of their writings is that worship is the means by which Christians encounter reality. In song, prayer, greeting, creedal recitation, confession, preaching, giving, and eating, Christians are participating together in the sign of the coming kingdom, and in doing so they begin to understand what the kingdom, inaugurated but not yet consummated, looks, tastes, and feels like. As Smith in particular is at pains to argue, our worship practices shape what Christians love. What is truly real, Christ’s victorious reign over all things, is encountered through the means of grace, and by encountering it repeatedly Christians are taught to love it.
But “teaching” and “love” aren’t only intellectual; they are emotional, affective, guttural. As we encounter the Kingdom and the King together we learn to long for it together. Seeing reality shows us the true nature of what we usually consider reality, the world in which we live Monday-Saturday. But singing, praying, hearing, and tasting on Sunday train our hearts and minds to know that this world is passing away, and that the world of the last days has been inaugurated at Christ’s first coming and will be immanently consummated at his return. Fellowship with the Triune God is what is to be desired, and worship trains our hearts to love him. His new creation is what is real, and our home is there, not here.
This is not to say that worship is escapism; far from it. The new creation is a renewal of the old, not an annihilation of it followed by a second creation ex nihilo. The signs that Jesus has given us to proclaim his kingdom – bread, wine (or grape juice for us Baptists), and water – are thoroughly entrenched in this creation order, and so there is no hint of a Death Star-like destruction of this world. There is, however, an eschatological upheaval, a transformative act that burns away sin and its effects from creation, and we shouldn’t forget that along with the continuity that comes through Christ’s renewal there is also a discontinuity that comes with his judgment. The liturgical life of the church encapsulates this already/not yet tension, as it uses creational signs to embody the new creation.
In worship, therefore, we are “looking through a glass darkly.” We see and act out the signs of the coming kingdom, the only true kingdom that has already been inaugurated but not yet consummated. Our hearts are trained to love this kingdom and its king instead of this world and its rulers, principalities, and authorities. Worship gives vitality to the believer’s common life; it gives both the heart and the eyes true vision, spectacles that bring the Triune God and his kingdom into focus. It turns the heart and the eyes toward what they are truly meant to love, taste, and see, and turns them away from what can never satisfy. Corporate worship thus fuels, empowers, and directs the life of the believer in their vocation, home, and recreation. The individual life of the believer thus also becomes a sign of the kingdom, as their interaction in the world is patterned after the vision of reality given in the corporate worship of the church.
This is why the liturgical life of the church is so important. Liturgical acts are not boring, repetitive mechanics - when we sing, greet, recite, give, preach, pray, and eat, we train our hearts and minds to love God and love others. These acts help us see and love reality, instead of seeing and loving what is illusory and transitory.