I would have been unsatisfied with Jesus’ answer to the question.
“The hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father … true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.”
What does “in spirit and truth” mean? Obviously change is coming. But what stays and what goes?
On the one hand, Jesus dismantled one of the Jews’ most important traditions – the centralization of the temple. Modern journalists would have called him an iconoclast. Jesus said the location of our worship is not important, because God is Spirit. This was a major blow to the Jewish institution.
On the other hand, Jesus emphasized the essentiality of truth. Our methods and traditions are still important to God. As Leon said, “We worship as God says to worship.” So the temple complex is out of the picture, but that doesn’t mean we throw out the whole playbook.
I think God intended us to feel some tension between “spirit” and “truth.” We need both, yet we tend to draw more heavily on one or the other.
I get caught up in the details. I rarely listen to a sermon without imagining the preacher’s outline and privately critiquing his style. I evaluate the song selection – were there too many fast songs, slow songs, old songs, new songs? As a teenager, I would count how many times one of our beloved elders said the word, “um” during his closing prayer. There is a great danger in this kind of thinking. Methods are important, but if we preoccupy ourselves with a formula, then the spirit suffers.
More recently, I feel as if I am fighting a frustrating battle against the spiritual heirs of the Jewish Temple Institution. We’ve launched a new church congregation in Huambo that meets in homes. We often hear this critique from outsiders: “How can you be a church, if you have no building? You’ll never grow.”
I want to prove them wrong. In fact, I usually respond by quoting Jesus, “Neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem!” I want our Angolan friends to question their cherished traditions, so I challenge their beliefs. One friend recently told me, “You like to stir up the dust too much.” He’s right. Tradition serves an important function and we ought to be careful curators of the traditions God gave us.
I struggle to balance spirit and truth. I feel as if I am always fighting one side or the other. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Perhaps God intended us to struggle so that we might grow and mature.
After hearing anew this message from John 4, I am resolved to take a deeper look inside my own thoughts and practices. With each worship experience I want to be sure that “spirit” and “truth” both receive equal importance. I want to be the kind of “true worshipper” that God seeks.