For All God’s Worth | Notes & Review

Posted on November 23, 2005


N.T. Wright. For All God’s Worth: True Worship and the Calling of the Church. Eerdmans, 1997. (136 pages)


How can you cope with the end of a world and the beginning of another one? How can you put an earthquake into a test-tube, or the sea into a bottle? How can you live with the terrifying thought that the hurricane has become human, that fire has become flesh, that life itself came to life and walked in our midst? Christianity either means that, or it means nothing. It is either the most devastating disclosure of the deepest reality in the world, or it’s a sham, a nonsense, a bit of deceitful play-acting. (1)

Worship is not an optional extra for the Christian, a self-indulgent religious activity. It is the basic Christian stance, and indeed (so Christians claim) the truly human stance. ‘Worship’ derives from ‘worth-ship’: it means giving God all he’s worth. (1)

Christmas is not a reminder that the world is really quite a nice old place. It reminds us that the world is a shockingly bad old place, where wickedness flourishes unchecked. (2)

Either Jesus is the Lord of the world, and all reality makes sense in his light, or he is dangerously irrelevant to the problems and possibilities of today’s world. There is no middle ground. Either Jesus was, and is, the Word of God, or he, and the stories Christians tell about him, are lies. (2)

If the stories are true, this God didn’t stay at a distance himself. (2)

But if we take this God seriously, we find we have to take ourselves seriously as well. (2)

If God is God, these questions are worth asking. If Jesus is the Word of God, the answers might just take your breath away — and offer you God’s breath instead. When that happens, the first result is worship, worshipping God for all he’s worth; and the next result will be mission. That movement, that rhythm, is what this book is all about. (3)

A cathedral, after all, is not a place of retreat from the world, but a place of prayer and of prophecy, a beacon to shine God’s light into the world. (3)

Part One: The God Who is Worthy of Praise

1. Worship

What is the most beautiful thing you have experienced this week? (5)

…worship [is]…to accord worth, true value, to something, to recognize and respect it for the true worth it has. (6)

…just as we don’t very often use the word ‘worship’ in connection with beauty in the natural world, so we don’t very often use the word ‘beauty’ in connection with God. That is our loss, and I suggest we set about making it good. (7)

Why do I want to talk about worship?

First, there are some central passages in scripture which speak of our citizenship in heaven, and which speak of it not least as a constant and delighted experience of worship. …The second reason I want to talk about worship is that it forms the central task of the church, not least of a cathedral. (7)

…if we are not worshipping God, we are nothing. | Worship is humble and glad; worship forgets itself in remembering God; worship celebrates the truth as God’s truth, not its own. True worship doesn’t put on a show or make a fuss; true worship isn’t forced, isn’t half-hearted, doesn’t keep looking at its watch, doesn’t worry what the person in the next pew may be doing. True worship is open to God, adoring God, waiting for God, trusting God even in the dark. (9)

So now our tasks are worship, mission and management, these three; but the greatest of these is worship. (9)

Worship is nothing more nor less than love on its knees before the beloved; just as mission is love on its feet to serve the beloved — and just as the Eucharist, as the climax of worship, is love embracing the beloved and so being strengthened for service. | But this is only true if it’s the true God you’re worshipping. (9)

Put it this way: if your idea of God, if your idea of the salvation offered in Christ, is vague or remote, your idea of worship will be fuzzy and ill-formed. The closer you get to the truth, the clearer becomes the beauty, and the more you will find worship welling up within you. That’s why theology and worship belong together. The one isn’t just a head-trip; the other isn’t just emotion. (10)

People often quote Oscar Wilde’s dictum, that a cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. We live in an age of cynics, where ‘worth’ means ‘price’ and ‘price’ means money and money means power. But the gospel of Jesus Christ puts worth back into the world, worth beyond price, worth beyond worldly power; for the gospel of Jesus Christ summons us to worship, to worth-ship, to lay our lives before the one true and living God, to worship him for all he’s worth. (13)

2. It Is All God’s Work

The true God is the one who became human and died and rose again in order to offer a new way of being human, a way of worship and love. (14-15)

Thus, in a generation whose daily diet is the trivia of muzak and the relentless cacophony of industrial noise, we have the opportunity to celebrate the love of God with some of the greatest music ever written. In doing so, we are not a sub-branch of the musicians’ union, but are creating the conditions for real people to be caught up in a rhythm of worship which is beyond their own power, and which can often refresh the parts other styles cannot reach. (16)

…we should embrace the fact that the very stone of such a building speak of a God who takes human wrath and turns it to his praise; who takes even Christian folly and turns it into wisdom; who takes wickedness done in his own name and brings out of it restoration, reconciliation, and new life. (17-18)

the true God takes our brokenness and in Christ makes us new; that he picks up the pieces of our life, yes, even of our muddled attempts to follow him, and sticks them together again in a new way; that he heals those who are broken in heart, and gives the medicine to heal their sickness; that he promises new life, resurrection life, beyond all our sickness and death. To celebrate precisely here is to celebrate not the wonderful achievements of the church but the healing power of God to build his church with battered and broken building-blocks, including people like you and me. Celebration and healing; it is all God’s work. (18-19)

It is all God’s work: the cross speaks of the God who didn’t send someone else to do the dirty work but came and did it himself; of the God who lived in our midst and died our death; of the God who now entrusts us with that same vocation. Because of the cross, being a Christian, or being a church, does not mean claiming that we’ve got it all together. It means claiming that God’s got it all together; and that we are merely, as Paul says, those who are overwhelmed by his love. (20)

Let them come and see that at the heart of England there is a building whose very stones speak of God’s healing love; that at the heart of that building there is a book whose every page is a work of art celebrating that love; and around that book there is a community of people to the one of whom that book speaks, who know themselves called to live not for their own sakes but for his sake who died and rose again. This is our God, the Servant King; he calls us now to follow him. (21)

3. The God I Want?

…the doctrine of the Trinity, properly understood, is as much a way of saying ‘we don’t know’ as of saying ‘we do know’. (24)

The doctrine of the Trinity affirms the rightness, the propriety, of speaking intelligently about the true God, while at the same time affirming intelligently that the true God must always transcend our grasp of him, even our most intelligent grasp of him. As St Paul says, what matters isn’t so much our knowledge of God as God’s knowledge of us; not, as it were, the god we want but the God who wants us. (25)

…what you believe about God makes a difference to the way you respond to this god, and at the same time to the way you are in the world. (26)

The problem is that when you banish what you call ‘god’ up into the remote stratosphere, other gods come clamouring for attention from closer at hand. There are very few out-and-out atheists in the world… (27)

Christian doctrine isn’t a matter of intellectual algebra. It is directly integrated with the way people behave. If the gods you want, and worship, are the gods from below, the local tribal gods, the gods of power and wealth and pleasure, you will destroy yourself and everyone who gets in the way. (27)

The purpose of an open mind is like the purpose of an open mouth: that it might be shut again on something solid – G.K. Chesterton

But when we hear a good answer we must be prepared to recognize it as such, and not be so keen on keeping all questions open that we shy away from an answer because we so like having an open mind. That is the way to intellectual, as well as spiritual, starvation. (28)

First, the place of doctrine within Christianity is absolutely vital. Christians are not defined by skin colour, by gender, by geographical location, or even, shockingly, by their good behaviour. Nor are they defined by the particular type of religious feelings they may have. They are defined in terms of the god they worship. … We need theology, we need doctrine, because if we don’t have it something else will come in to take its place. And any other defining marks of the church will move us in the direction of idolatry. (28)

Second, despite what is often imagined, the Trinity grows directly out of Jewish monotheism. (28)

Third, the particular words we use to express trinitarian theology are of course negotiable. (29)

Moreover, the doctrine of the Trinity assures us that this work is not in vain. …the doctrine of the Trinity insists that out of this death there comes new life God’s own life given to be the life of the world. (31)

We cannot eat and drink the body and blood of the passionate and compassionate God today, and then refuse to live passionately and compassionately tomorrow. If we say or sing, as we often do, ‘Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit’, we thereby commit ourselves, in love, to the work of making his love known to the world that still stands so sorely in need of it. This is not the god the world wants. This is the God the world needs. (32)

4. God on the Same Scale

The people of Israel have got so used to the map of their own present experience — their tragedy, their hopelessness, their forgottenness, their exile — that they have imagined that their god is somehow contained on the same map. They have tamed their god; they have him like a pet, on the end of a lead, and he can’t do them any good. And the prophet unfolds before them this huge, sprawling map of the untameable God — the creator, the Lord of the world, the gentle shepherd, the returning king — and says: Now, here is the one you can lean on. here is the one you can trust. He has dealt with your sin, your failure, your tragedy. From now on he will reveal his glory, and he will reveal it in saving you and shepherding you. (36)

And if that is true in our praying and thinking — if it is true that we have to be stripped of our own noisy jumble of thoughts in order to hear afresh the word of the triune God — it is just as true in our living. We are summoned, again and again, to be found by God where he has promised to meet us, that is, in the wilderness. (40)

5. The Glory of the Lord

John was dangerous. | Well, of course he was. He was a voice, a voice that would not be silent; a voice in the wilderness, a voice of warning, a voice of promise, a voice in which some came to believe they had heard the voice of God. Voices like that are threatening to those with vested interests. (42)

Voices that tell uncomfortable truths usually get silenced. (43)

What will it look like when God comes back to Jerusalem [to woo and win his people]? Isaiah’s answer is that it will not be a blaze of glory. It will not be in the form of a great military display of power. It will be in the life of one who takes upon himself the form of a servant, and is obedient unto death. This is how God will comfort his people; this is how the bridegroom will return to Zion; this is why Advent is good news, why we know that God is a shepherd who carries the lambs in his bosom, and gently leads those that are with young. To a world besotted with the love of power, Isaiah’s God reveals himself in the power of love. (47)

There are quite enough fierce bullies in the world already without having one up in the sky as well. (48)

And our calling, therefore, as those who celebrate his strange and beautiful coming, is once again to be a voice. The church is here to be the Voice to the world; the Voice that does not claim great things for itself, but simply urges the world to get ready for the God who comes in the power and judgment of love. We are to live, and we are to speak, in such a way as to do for our generation, more or less, what John did for his: to demonstrate and to announce that there is a different way of being human, the way of love, the way of God, and so to bring the world the news (good news for the weary, bad news for the bullies) that the creator of the world is also the comforter of the world… (50)

6. The Face of Love

I want to suggest to you that if the little letter from Paul to Philemon, one of the shortest books in the New Testament, was the only scrap of evidence that we had about early Christianity, we would still have to conclude that something very remarkable had happened in the first century which had radically changed the way people looked at themselves, at one another, and at the world. (52)

When we try to say that the cross means this, or that, or the other thing, we usually end up doing something analogous to playing a Beethoven symphony on a mouth-organ. We bring it down to the level of our own thinking and feeling, instead of allowing it to lift our thinking and feeling — yes, and our praying and living and loving — up to its own level. (53)

…the cross of Jesus changed the world. (53)

…evil is something more than simply the sum total of individual acts of wrongdoing. Evil exerts a destructive power which goes beyond even those who implement it. (54)

It is not merely a theological or spiritual truth that Jesus bore the sin of the world: on the first Good Friday, it was politically and historically true. That is why it changed the world. (54)

…the greatest empire the world had ever seen, the highest religion the world had ever known — did their worst to Jesus. And he prayed, ‘Father forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing.’ (55)

Just as evil is more than the sum total of individual acts of wrongdoing, so Jesus’ victory over evil is more than the sum total of subsequent individual acts of selfless love. … It is the faith that on the cross Jesus in principle won the victory over sin, violence, pride, arrogance and even death itself, and that that victory can now be implemented. (55)

God became on the cross what God always was. … It isn’t just that the cross reveals God’s love in the most striking way. It reveals it because it enacts it. It becomes part of, indeed the most central part of, the personal history of God. (57)

7. No Bones About It

…belief in Jesus’ resurrection was never simply belief in a life after death. …Easter faith always was the belief that Jesus went through death into a new sort of bodily existence, in which his original body was transformed into a body with new characteristics and properties. (63-64)

The message of the resurrection is that this present world matters; that the problems and pains of this present world matter; that the living God has made a decisive bridgehead into this present world with his healing and all-conquering love; and that, in the name of this strong love, all the evils, all the injustice and all the pains of the present world must now be addressed with the news that healing, justice and love have won the day. …Easter Day was the first great answer to that prayer. (65)

You see, the bodily resurrection of Jesus isn’t a take-it-or-leave-it thing, as though some Christians are welcome to believe it and others are welcome not to believe it. Take it away, and the whole picture is totally different. Take it away, and Karl Marx was probably right to accuse Christianity of ignoring the problems of the material world. Take it away, and Sigmund Freud was probably right to say that Christianity was a religion for wimps. Put it back, and you have a faith that can take on the postmodern world that looks to Marx, Freud and Nietzsche as its prophets, and you can beat them at their own game with the Easter news that the foolishness of God is wiser than mend, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (67)

Part Two: Reflecting God’s Image in the World

8. Remember

Vision without action would indeed be escapism; action without vision is blundering folly. (71)

Many movements in the modern church try to make the worship of God more accessible; often all they succeed in doing is to trivialize it. (73)

Church music is meant to be a polished silver chalice, in which the strong wine of God’s love is given to the rest of us. It is meant to be a burnished brazier which allows the congregation to warm themselves at God’s fire. …what matters is that in worship we should enter the presence of the living God. And the music, if it is appropriate, can be a vital element in that awesome event. (73)

…we too need to cultivate a memory that works forwards as well as backwards. (74)

9. Doing What He Was Told

One of the reasons Herod the Great could afford to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem (here’s something I bet you didn’t know) was because he built a new harbour and forced all sea traffic to go through it, paying him a tax for the privilege. (75)

It’s remarkable how many people are frightened of looking inside themselves, because of what they suspect they’ll find. (77)

When we come to worship, and to the Eucharist in particular, we come into the presence of Almighty God, and to feast at his table, not because we are good people, but because we are forgiven sinners. (79)

This is as basic to Christianity as the ball is to football. And, just as you have a rotten game of football if people ignore the ball and simply tackle the opposition, or even the crowd, so you have a pretty poor time in church if you forget for a moment that we are here because we don’t deserve to be. (79)

Everybody gave Levi money; Jesus gave him something else. He gave him back his humanity. (82)

10. Bethany

As so often in Christian theology, the best definition is not an abstract formula but a human being, indeed the human being, Jesus. (85)

This is the Bethany Jesus; should we be surprised to find that the Lord of the world has the right to turn the world upside down? (86)

11. When I Am Weak

This struck me then, and strikes me still, as faintly absurd. It makes sense only in a society where too many people take themselves too seriously. I sometimes think that every time one has to make up a curriculum vitae, for a job or whatever, one ought at the same time to make up, at least for one’s own benefit, an inverted list: the exams I didn’t pass, the jobs I didn’t get, the short story no one would publish. (93)

Very well, get a load of this. I am the most superior apostle imaginable — because I’m a habitual jailbird; I’ve lost count of my beatings; I’ve been through humiliating punishments, I’ve been stoned, three times I’ve been shipwrecked, I’ve been constantly in danger, and I’m always anxious about all the churches. Paul’s curriculum vitae is upside-down. (95)

The church, after all, needs leaders who can break new ground for others to follow. The church needs teachers who can expound the scriptures an find fresh ways of presenting the story of God’s love. But, above all, the church needs healers who can be channels of God’s peace and love, who can be for her today what Paul was for Corinth, a wise and faithful friend who wounds in order to heal, who tells the truth not to hurt but to mend, who rejoices with the joyful and weeps with the mourners, who teases and plays, who agonizes and prays, who shares the priestly and healing work of Christ. The church doesn’t need people who know it all, or can do it all, or want to control it all. (100)

We don’t need people to yell at these situations or bully them. We don’t need people to back off and pretend it’s somebody else’s problem. We need Christian people to work as healers: as healing judges and prison staff, as healing teachers and administrators, as healing shopkeepers and bankers, as healing musicians and artists, as healing writers and scientists, as healing diplomats and politicians. We need people who will hold on to Christ firmly with one hand and reach out with the other, with wit and skill and cheerfulness, with compassion and sorrow and tenderness, to the places where our world is in pain. We need people who will use all their god-given skills, as Paul used his, to analyse where things have gone wrong, to come to the place of pain, and to hold over the wound the only medicine which will really heal, which is the love of Christ made incarnate once more, the strange love of God turned into your flesh and mine, your smile and mine, your tears and mine, your patient analysis and mine, your frustration and mine, your joy and mine. | This isn’t a matter of having all the answers or taking control of the world. Indeed, it’s just the opposite. When I am weak, then I am strong. (101)

12. Getting Back on the Road

It isn’t just that if we really try hard in our doctrinal discussions we might come up with a formula which enables us to bury the hatchet from centuries of acrimonious debate about justification; justification is itself the doctrine that tells us that we should bury the hatchet and, moreover, tells us how we might do it. (105)

For Paul, therefore, to step back even for a second into a world where one id defined in terms of race, geography, cultic taboos and the rest is to transgress against love, against the light and truth of the gospel, and against grace. (108)

The understandable Reformation emphasis on ‘faith’ as opposed to ‘works’ has often, paradoxically, emasculated the clear thrust of Pauline theology: that we should express our unity by working together with one mind for the spread of the gospel, that is, for the announcement of the Lordship of Jesus Christ to all the world, not least to the principalities and powers that keep people locked up within their local and tribal divisions. (110)

What do you think would reveal to the world today the power, the presence, and the glory of God? Well, how about the coming together of all those who name the name of Christ, in love, and unity, and mission? That might take a miracle, I hear someone say. Well — isn’t that, once more, what Jesus seems to have specialized in? (111)

13. The Older Brother

The first thing to say is that without Jews and Judaism Christianity wouldn’t exist in the first place. (113) Jesus only makes sense as a Jew. (114)

Take away the Jewish hope and Christianity is left looking like the grin on the Cheshire Cat when the cat itself has gone. And the grin becomes increasingly sinister. (115)

And if violent anti-Jewish activity breaks out again, then we as Christians must make the right response this time. We must stand up and say that it is blasphemous. Anti-Jewish behaviour is a pagan vice to which Christians should be opposed as much as they should be to extortion, or fornication, or witchcraft. To the extent that Christians have connived at anti-Judaism, they have accommodated their faith to paganism. (120)

14. Living Truth

We are the true revolutionaries; all other groups are deluded. (128)

The whole shape and format of the Sermon [on the mount] says: we are the people through whom the one true God is going to establish his kingdom. Let’s get on and do it. (128)

Jesus is calling and challenging his contemporaries to be the people of God in a truly radical new way. (129)

The Sermon on the Mount, and the Beatitudes at its head, is doubly revolutionary, doubly subversive. (129)

…what would it look like if the church were to announce this same message to the world today? (131)

We have to learn how to translate Jesus’ message to his contemporaries so that it becomes our message to our contemporaries. The Sermon isn’t just Jesus’ challenge to the church. It ought to be the church’s challenge to the world. (132)

If we are addressing Gentiles, as we mostly will be, we are not called to remind people that they are Israel, the light of the world and the salt of the earth. …But we can and must assume that our hearers are human beings, made in the image of God, designed to tremble at his word, to respond gladly to his love, and to reflect his wise care and justice into his world. …Our task is to speak the language they speak, in symbol and story as well as in articulate theory;… (133)

The message must be so related to the actual needs and problems of the day that the rulers of the world will think we are being subversive. (134)

Blessed are the poor in spirit; yours is the kingdom of heaven! What could the church do, not just say, that would make the poor in spirit believe that? Blessed are the mourners; they shall be comforted! How will the mourners believe that, if we are not God’s agents in bringing that comfort Blessed are the meek; they shall inherit the earth. How will the meek ever believe such nonsense if the church does not stand up for their rights against the rich and the powerful, in the name of the crucified Messiah who had nowhere to lay his head? Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for God’s justice; how will that message get through, unless we are prepared to stand alongside those who are denied justice and go on making a fuss until they get it? Blessed are the merciful; how are people to believe that, in a world where mercy is weakness, unless we visit the prisoner and welcome the prodigal? Blessed are the pure in heart; how will people believe that, in a world where impurity is big business, unless we ourselves are worshipping the living God until our own hearts are set on fire and scorched through with his purity? Blessed are the peacemakers; how will we ever learn that, in a world where war in one country means business for another, unless the church stands in the middle and says that there is a different way of being human, a different way of ordering our common life? Blessed are those who are persecuted and insulted for the kingdom’s sake, for Jesus’ sake; how will that message ever get across if the church is so anxious not to court bad publicity that it refuses ever to say or do anything that might get it into trouble either with the authorities, for being so subversive, or with the revolutionaries, for insisting that the true revolution begins at the foot of the cross? (134-135)

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