"Yet, a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and His worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth." [Jn 4:23-24].
In Leo Tolstoy’s Two Old Men, we read of two men named Elisha and Efim who had made a vow together to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem before they died. Each time Elisha wanted to make the journey, Efim, who was ever preoccupied with his personal affairs, always had an excuse as to why they must delay. One day, however, they both decided that they could no longer put the journey off. It was now or never, so off they went.
On their journey, Elisha became very thirsty and wanted to stop at a village in order to get something to drink. Efim, who stopped for nothing or no one, instructed Elisha to stop at a hut, get a drink from one of the villagers, and then catch up with him. Efim was a religious man who had religious places to go and religious things to do. Nothing save death would deter him from making his religious pilgrimage to Jerusalem in order to worship the Lord.
To make a long story short, Elisha ended up helping the family who lived in the hut he had visited. The family was starving, poor, destitute, and dying of illness brought on by their dire circumstances. He gave the family all of the bread that he had. He ran down to the well and brought some water to the family. He stayed many days and helped them out in whatever way that he could. He spent almost all of his money in order to buy them some food and a horse. He even redeemed their cornfield. By the time he got done helping them out, he didn’t have enough money to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem so he had to return home. His friend Efim would have to go alone.
Efim, on the other hand, who was ‘religiously perfect,’ continued on his religious journey. On the way, he stopped to help no one, whether he saw a need or not. Nothing was going to keep him from ‘worshiping’ the Lord in Jerusalem. Finally, the glorious day came when he reached Jerusalem. He spent days lighting candles, saying prayers, and visiting one religious place after another. When he went to visit the Holy Sepulcher, he was forced to remain in the back because the place was so crowded. No matter how hard he tried to press himself forward in order to reach the very front, a force continually pushed him back and would not allow him to reach the front. To his surprise, however, when he looked up at the front, he saw his friend, Elisha, worshiping God in the foremost place! How did he get here ahead of me? I lost him long ago on the journey! When the Mass was over, he tried to find Elisha, but he was nowhere to be found. He completely disappeared!
The next day Efim visited the Holy Sepulcher again. When he tried to get to the front, he was again pressed back and unable to do so. Looking before him, he again saw Elisha in the foremost place under the lamps, close to the very Sepulcher of Christ. How did he get there? Again, when Mass was over, he tried to find Elisha, but there was no Elisha; he evidently had gone away.
When Efim finally returned to his home village many months later, he decided to visit his friend Elisha. He was shocked to learn that Elisha never even made the journey. Who, then, was the "Elisha" that he had seen at the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem standing, praying, and worshiping in the foremost place of worship in front of everyone else?
Suddenly, it dawned on him that God Himself allowed him to see a vision of his friend worshiping in the foremost place of worship while he, in spite of all his religious endeavors and ceremonial perfections, had been pressed to the back. God did this in order to teach Efim the powerful lesson that Elisha’s worship was the worship that He desired and sought. By showing love to others and doing good to them, Elisha carried out the will of the Lord. Efim, however, ‘worshiped’ in the ordinary way by going to a religious place to do religious things, loving no one and assisting no one on his journey. This is why he was pressed to the back while Elisha was moved to the foremost place.
Brothers and sisters, worship of God is more than going to a religious place in order to do religious things. Our Heavenly Father isn’t looking for religious people; He’s looking for sons and daughters who will carry out His will by obeying His commandments, loving others, and doing good to them.
We all know ‘Christians’ who spend all of their time going to church, reading Christian books, attending Bible studies and prayer meetings, and serving on church committees. In their attempt to ‘worship’ the Lord Jesus Christ, they become so religiously busy that they have no time to love others or do good to them. And then, there are people who spend their time loving others and doing good to them, but don’t always have the time to participate in every church activity. These individuals are often looked down upon by the ‘religiously active’ as being less committed to Christ and His Kingdom. But I ask you, whose ‘worship’ is more acceptable and pleasing to God? Which of these have truly learned how to worship the Lord Jesus Christ in spirit and in truth?
Whether we want to accept this truth or not, the sobering reality is that it is possible to become so religiously busy for Christ that we become no earthly good to others. Even more unsettling is the bitter reality that some of the most ‘religious’ people who ever walked this earth have left this world with their names still blotted out of the Book of Life because they never understood the worship that God was seeking. To worship in spirit and in truth is more than studying the Scriptures, going to Mass, and serving on various committees. We are called to love others and to do good to them. We are called to put God’s Word into practice in our lives, not spend our days merely studying that Word. St. James instructed us as follows: "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." [Jas 1:27]. All too often, Christians have a tendency to focus on keeping themselves from being polluted by the world, while conveniently ignoring God’s other command, which is to look after and love orphans, widows, and anyone else who may be in need of our help. As a result, their ‘religion’ remains incomplete, and that which is incomplete is never pleasing to God.
Efim was ‘religiously perfect.’ He did all of the religious things he was supposed to do, but his relationships with people were not what they should be, he didn’t go out of his way to help others, and his chief preoccupation in life was himself and his own personal interests. Yet, he went to Mass. He lit candles. He sang songs to Jesus, and he said his prayers.
Elisha, on the other hand, didn’t always appear to be so religious. In fact, he even struggled with a snuff habit, for which Efim constantly condemned him. Yet, Elisha loved. Elisha served. Elisha reached out, putting other people’s interests above his own. His relationships with other people were what they should be. Wherever he went, people came to life. They were helped. They were healed. They were rescued from the prince of darkness and placed into the hands of the Prince of Peace. Elisha may not have looked like a perfectly religious person on the outside, but oh, how he stole the heart of Christ!
We all would do well today to examine our ‘worship’ before the Lord. To the extent that we truly love others and are doing good to them is to the extent we have truly learned what it means to worship the Lord in spirit and in truth. If we want to be given a foremost place in the courts of Heaven when we come to worship the Lord, we must reject Efim’s ‘ordinary’ worship and emulate the worship of Elisha. It's easy to worship at Efim's altar, isn't it? Anyone can light candles, say prayers, sit in a pew, sing hymns to Jesus, and look dreamily up at the priest when he preaches the Gospel and brings forth his homily. But the man who has truly learned how to love his brother and to show that love by doing good to him, he is the man who has truly learned how to worship the Lord in spirit and in truth.
He is the man who has stolen the heart of God!
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