Isaiah warned us and Jesus repeated it – it’s hypocritical to honour the Lord with your lips while your heart is far from Him (Isaiah 29:13; Mark 15:8). It’s something I pray about every Sunday, “As I preach or pray or sing, may my lips and my heart be set on the Lord Jesus.”
But there’s another danger. We can react the other way and disdain anything ‘external’. We say to the world: “I reject ‘works’, I’m all about the inward life.” And so we’re constantly taking our spiritual temperatures. We neglect ritual (as though it always leads to ritualism). And we start to think of faith as a thing - the one really meritorious work!
The faith-works polarity becomes, in our thinking, an internal-external polarity. Internal – good. External – bad. We start to imagine that mental acts are good old grace while physical acts are nasty old law.
But that’s not how it is. There can be a crippling legalism of the heart (ever felt it?) and there can be a wonderful liberation in gospel rituals (ever experienced that?).
No but seriously, take it. Because here is a gospel ritual which, because it is external, brings home the grace of Jesus all the stronger.
We are not (or at least we should not be!) memorialists. Jesus has not left us a mental duty with the bread and wine as mere thought prompters. We have been left a meal. To chew. And to gulp down. There are motions to go through. And they are the same motions we performed last week. And the week before that.
But here’s the thing – these motions are means of God’s grace and not in spite of their externalism but because they are external. Here is a gift that comes to you from outside yourself. And it comes apart from your internal state. But nonetheless it is for you - sinner that you are.
So take it regardless of whether your heart is white-hot with religious zeal. Take it regardless of whether you are really, really mindful of the gravity of it all. And as the minister prays the prayer of consecration and your mind wanders… oh well. Don’t ask him to start again. Go through the motions I say. Your heart is meant to catch up with the motions. That’s why the motions were given. Because our hearts are weak and not to be trusted.
So allow the Word to come to you from beyond. Allow Him to love you first. Don’t disdain ‘going through the motions.’ For many on a Sunday - those grieving or sick or gripped by depression – they need to be carried along by these motions. And for all of us – if we’re going to be people of grace, we need these externals.