by the Rev. Stephen Setzer.
I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately … that phrase, a sacrifice of praise.
It appears in Hebrews when the author admonishes the Christian community: “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise — the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased” (Heb. 13:15–16).
This phrase contains two words that are immensely important for anyone interested in understanding what it means to worship God — sacrifice and praise.
The word praise has always been a bit difficult for me to understand, mostly because it’s somewhat subjective and open to many different interpretations. For example, I was raised in a little Baptist church in the hills of North Carolina. Praise for us usually happened at that mysterious point of convergence among the music and the preaching and the shouting. You were never quite sure how it happened, but you knew when it happened, because Sister Judy would start to screamin’ and then Brother Roy would get blessed and start to runnin’ laps around the inside of the church. Pretty soon others would join in, and the place would get so raucous that babies cried out in fear. I never blamed those babies either. Praisin’ like that got scary at times.
Praise in our Episcopal tradition, of course, looks much different from the praise I just described. And yet it’s not as though the Episcopal tradition of worship is uniform. Even across our own diocese, worship varies from parish to parish, and this says nothing of the variety of worship that separates Anglican parishes throughout the Communion. In some places you will find austere, ancient buildings with incense wafting upward with colorful light from stained glass piercing the smoke. In other places you will find simple, cinderblock buildings with loud music blasting from speakers and volunteer voices blending local tradition within Anglican liturgy. The latter I experienced every Sunday for a year in Central Honduras with Father Luis. It was praise, it was different, and I loved it.
In his excellent book on worship, The Spirit of the Liturgy, Pope Benedict XVI writes, “Worship gives us a share in heaven’s mode of existence, in the world of God, and allows light to fall from that divine world into ours. In this sense, worship … has the character of anticipation.” 1
Anticipation of heaven’s existence. I like that.
A few weeks ago I had a conversation about worship with a friend who serves at one of the largest parishes in the Episcopal Church. At a certain point Father Bob said, “I always like to remind people that the largest churches in the world are in South Korea, and they’re filled with Pentecostal Christians. That means that when we get to heaven, we’re all gonna be singing their songs at some point!”
And you know, he’s right. Not necessarily in a literal sense, but he’s right in a spiritual sense. Because for praise to be real, for praise to be right, for praise to be the kind of thing that truly anticipates heaven’s existence, it will require sacrifice, meaning we may have to give up something of value for the sake of someone else. What this means is that for our praise to be real, we may have to sacrifice what we think real praise is.
Praise will always be seasoned with subjectivity, but sacrifice is like a real person standing in front of you, looking you straight in the eyes. Sacrificing means, “I love what I have, but I love you more. I will lay down what I have for the sake of you.” We say this because we love the person behind the praise more than the praise itself.
I’m sometimes guilty of holding on too tightly to the things that I love. Sometimes this is dangerous depending on the thing, but it’s always dangerous in relationships and it’s always dangerous in praise and these are not mutually exclusive. Relationships and praise go hand in hand, which is precisely the reason why the writer of Hebrews goes on to say, “And do not forget to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased” (Heb. 13:16).
When I look back on my childhood and think of Sister Judy and Brother Roy, who recently went home to be with the Lord, I think of people who were beloved children of God. I imagine that Brother Roy has already taken a lap or two around the throne of God in a fit of praise. I imagine also that he’s had to lay some things down in the sacrifice of praise and for the love of others he never thought he’d see in heaven. I imagine that in the end we’re going to have to lay down almost everything for the sake of the one who laid down his life for us.
I suppose that’s why the writer of Hebrews starts off by saying, “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise” (Heb. 13:15).
1 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, trans. John Saward (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 21.
The Rev. Stephen Setzer is the associate rector at Christ Church, Christiana Hundred. He is currently working toward a Doctor of Divinity degree at Fuller Theological Seminary. email@example.com