Christians have a long and colorful history of driving Mr. Webster to distraction. We’re always upending the popular meaning of words. I blame Jesus. He’s the godfather of lexical reversal. After all, it was he who defined the last as first, the least as greatest, and—in his own messianic dictionary—wrote “the cross” as the meaning of “glory.”

His followers have perpetuated this undictionary-like way. St. Lawrence is a classic example. When the Roman emperor commanded that this deacon bring out the treasures of the church, Lawrence asked for a little time to gather the wealth. He then amassed all the poor, blind, lame, widows, and orphans of the city. When the emperor showed up to pocket the church’s riches, Lawrence swept his arm over assembled down-and-outers and said, “My dear emperor, here you go: this is the treasury of the church.” He was martyred, of course, but Lawrence proved his point: when you ask the church for a definition, don’t expect us to bow before your old musty dictionary.

In the church, the main actor in worship is not the Christian but Christ.

Here’s the problem: time and again, we forget, or even reject, our rebellious heritage. We swim with the linguistic flow. Case in point: the verb “to worship.” Way too often, we accept wholeheartedly the meaning, “to show reverence or adoration for a deity.” Yes, that’s certainly part of what it means when Christians worship. We do show reverence to Jesus. We do adore the Father. But that’s a minor meaning of worship in the Christian’s lexicon.

In the church, the main actor in worship is not the Christian but Christ.

A Terrible Theological Habit

In a recent article with Christianity Today, Mark Galli highlighted the tendency of the church today to get this backwards. In “The Temptations of Evangelical Worship,” he writes, “Many evangelicals have gotten into the terrible theological habit of calling only the first part of our services ‘worship,’ that first part in which we sing praises to God in three or four songs. We say things like, ‘Before we listen to the sermon, let’s spend some time in worship.’ As if the singing is about God and the sermon is not about God. This is a confusion of the first order.” Indeed, it is.

Is singing worship? Of course. Is praying worship? Yes. But worship is also the Father washing sinners into the body of Christ through baptism. Worship is Christ streaming his words through our ears and into our hearts as the Scriptures are read, sung, chanted, preached, and taught. Worship is the Spirit gathering us around the altar to receive the body and blood of Jesus in the feast of salvation. Worship is the pastor proclaiming to us that our sins are forgiven, we are reconciled to the Father, and our bodies are the temple of the Spirit.

In other words, worship is faithful reception of the gifts of Christ in the service in which he is active to fill us with his divine life. Even when we sing or pray, what are we really doing? Echoing back to the Father the words he’s first given us. To borrow the language of the Orthodox church, “Thine own of Thine own we offer unto Thee.” In those actions in which we suppose we are the chief doer—like singing and praying—we’re just regifting to God the presents he has already bestowed on us. The Spirit speaks his words to us, and we echo them back in song and supplication.

Two Jewish Women

The brief narrative of Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42 is like a 30-second documentary that highlights our tendency to turn worship on its head. These two Jewish women, and their respective actions regarding Jesus, remind us of what’s most important when the Spirit gathers us to Christ.

Luke writes that Martha was “distracted with much serving.” The Greek verb for “distracted” (perispao) means to be dragged around, to be pulled in every direction. Martha was very busy with the very important business of taking care of this very important visitor. Her sister, Mary, on the other hand, is sitting at the Lord’s feet, soaking in his words. In the rabbinic idiom of the day, to “sit at someone’s feet” was to be their disciple.

Mary was being a disciple not by doing something but receiving something.

On the surface, it looks like Martha is the one wins the discipleship award. She’s on her feet, active, doing things for Jesus. This is her service, her worship, her way of expressing devotion to her Lord. That’s all well and good. Martha’s issue, however, is that she thinks what she’s doing is more important than what Mary is doing. “Tell my sister to help me,” she demands of Jesus. And he responds, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42).

Faith is the foremost act of worship.

The content and focus of Mary’s worship was Christ’s activity. Not what she was doing but what Jesus was doing. Mary reminds me of these lines written by the Reformer Philip Melanchthon, who said faith is “the foremost act of worship…This is how God wants to be known and worshiped, namely, that we receive blessings from him,” (Apology of the Augsburg Confession IV.59). Faith is the foremost act of worship. To revere Christ is to receive his gifts.

Not to Be Served but to Serve

I’m writing this early on a Sunday morning. In a couple of hours, I’ll gather with my fellow believers. On our lips will be hymns and prayers. In our ears will be readings and a sermon. In our mouths will be the Lord’s body and blood. And all of it will be gift, the Lord’s work, the “good portion” that will not be taken away from us.

As with everything else that Jesus has done—his birth, his life, his death, his resurrection, his ascension—so also his worship service will be that place where he comes not to be served but to serve, and to give his life to us.