Tim Whitaker Catholic Substance worship

Methodist Bishop Tim Whitaker on the Message of Chronicles for Today

on June 9, 2020

Timothy W. Whitaker is a Retired United Methodist Church bishop who served the Florida Area.

UM Voices is a forum for different voices within the United Methodist Church on pressing issues of denominational concern. UM Voices contributors represent only themselves and not IRD/UMAction. 

The book of Chronicles is divided into two sections, 1 Chronicles and 2 Chronicles, because originally it was so long that it had to be written on two scrolls. When the canon of the Hebrew scriptures was formally established, Chronicles was placed at the very end of all the books of the scriptures and thus was considered to be part of the “Writings” rather than of the “Prophets” which followed the “Law.” Because it is based on the Books of Kings, 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings, and it tells a different version of their story, today Chronicles is logically located in the scriptures between 2 Kings and Ezra.

It is not very easy for most of us to appreciate Chronicles. The anonymous author, the Chronicler, begins his book with nine chapters of genealogies! Even when he tells his narrative, he often includes long lists of names.

The Chronicler was dependent on the Books of Kings for much of his historical information, although he does include considerable data from sources which no longer exist. Nevertheless, the fact that Chronicles tells the same basic story as the Books of Kings can lull the reader of the scriptures into missing its distinctive message.

What is the message of Chronicles? Well, as any other book of the Bible, Chronicles has many messages. The Chronicler was writing after the exile in Babylon, and he was seeking to give guidance to the Jews about rebuilding their community. Moreover, he highlighted the divine covenant with David, even to the point of almost idealizing David even though he did not ignore how his spilling of blood in war defiled him (1 Chronicles 22:6-10).

If we were to say what the main message of Chronicles is, then we would have to say that it concerns the priority of worship.

Commentators are careful to point out how Chronicles emphasizes the role of the temple, the Levites, and the priests in God’s relationship with God’s people. David is celebrated because he is the one who conceived of building the temple, and Solomon is praised for having the wisdom to implement David’s plan for the temple in accordance with divine guidance. The old 1920 edition of Peake’s Commentary on the Bible states rightly, “His main attention is…centered upon what he regarded as the highest things of the Law, namely, ritual and worship, the Temple, its building and furniture down to minute details, the celebration of the festivals, and, most important of all, the ministers and officers….”

While commentators do explain the main concern of the Chronicler, they may not help Jews and Christians today to grasp what this concern means and why it is relevant to the life of the people of God.

Because Orthodox Christians are centered on Divine Liturgy and worship that is patterned on types from the Old Testament, Orthodox commentators are more able to grasp the meaning of the message of Chronicles. An excellent commentary for general readers of all Christian communions is Chronicles of History and Worship:  Orthodox Christian Reflections on the Books of Chronicles by the Antiochian Orthodox priest, Patrick Henry Reardon (Ancient Faith Publishing, 2006).

In his commentary Father Reardon writes, “In the historical perspective of the Chronicler, this liturgical consideration absolutely trumped every other. In his mind, political power and military success said nothing of a kingdom’s final worth. In the last analysis, only the correct worship of God gave significance to a nation’s history. Writing long after the events…, the Chronicler looked back and inquired just what, in those historical events, was of ultimate significance, and he answered:  the orthodox worship of the Lord” (emphasis added). This is the main message of Chronicles.

Reardon emphasizes that “the Bible not only records history, it also creates history. By this I mean that the Bible, as written down, read, and proclaimed in the ongoing community of faith (the Church of both Testaments), influences and directs the course of history. We ourselves are part of the history created by the Holy Scriptures. We are the qahal, the ecclesia, the gathering of those who in the Holy Spirit are assembled to attend to God’s Word. In the history it records, the Bible prolongs that history in those who receive it in faith.”

Since the scriptures create history, as Reardon observers, then the main message of Chronicles that worship is of ultimate significance in the life of a people deserves our attention.

Another Orthodox priest. Father Stephen Freeman, who writes a blog titled Glory to God for All Things, once pointed out how the absence of worship in secular societies such as ours is the reason why we not healed of the traumas of history and life.

Today many Americans are deeply concerned about the traumas caused by our long racial history of slavery, Jim Crow laws, police discrimination against African-Americans, and racism.

In his blog, “The Sins of a Nation,” Father Freeman wrote as follows:

“Among ancient people, the trauma of life was met with liturgy–rituals, both public and private that sought to restore them to their right minds, to appease the wrath of the gods or the spirits of their enemies. The collective psyche of a whole people was set right through various actions and beliefs that worked to make peace and re-establish righteousness.

“Modernity has few such rituals. The secular state, presiding over competing and disparate groups, has almost nothing to which it can appeal that serves as catharsis or repentance, or even thanksgiving. Sport (such as the Super Bowl) comes closest to public liturgy in modern America, but it serves nothing transcendental, nothing permanent. It cannot heal or speak to the needs of a nation.

“The outcome of this lack is an inability for nations and often individuals to be healed of their trauma. The wounds of lost wars or historical sins remain unaddressed, erupting from time to time as renewed trauma in the national psyche.”

From the Christian perspective, the worship that heals and saves is the worship that is centered on the redemption of the world by the offering of Jesus Christ on the cross. He is the true fulfillment of the covenant made with King David. Father Freeman writes, “The death of Christ on the Cross becomes the public liturgy for the sin burden of Israel” and also “of the whole world.”

As the American people are caught up in social unrest over an act of police brutality that resulted in the death of another African-American man–unrest that is expressed mostly by lawful peaceful assembly and free speech, but also by nihilistic violent anarchy along with usual hoodlum criminality–we may perceive how much we need the healing that can only come from the right worship of God.

There is some healing that can come from peaceful protest. It provides release of pent-up passions for justice, demands the attention of the state, and gives hope that constructive reform can occur.

The primary purpose of peaceful protest is usually a call for the people to unite to enact particular reforms. In the protests occurring today, there seem to be a variety of messages, from an expression of a mere sentiment that we want justice to political agendas of demanding a just trial of the policemen involved in the death of Mr. George Floyd in Minneapolis or demanding “defunding the police.” With so many mixed messages, it is impossible for the sum total of the protests to bring unity or healing to the nation.

The main deficiency of mass protests is that they cannot bring the healing that is truly needed because they are public liturgies that, in the words of Father Freeman, serve “nothing transcendent.” For all their value, mass protests do not constitute worship nor worship that is centered on our redemption through Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

It is especially trying that the nation needs worship now when most of the churches are closed because Christians have cooperated with officials of the state to avoid assembling together in a pandemic.

At least, perhaps a general sense that worship is needed now will convince many that worship should always be included in the list of “essential” services classified by public health officials.

In this anomaly of a pandemic, those Christians who are beginning to assemble again can pray for the nation and, of course, all Christians can intercede for the nation in personal prayer.

It is common for Christian leaders to issue public statements during times of crises. It is habitual among mainline Christians to describe such statements as “prophetic.”

Public statements by bishops, judicatory leaders, and others can be a way to witness to the world, but these kinds of statements often tend to deal with only part of the complex social reality of the moment and thus may be unbalanced. At the end of ethicist Paul Ramsey’s important critique of Christian public statements, Who Speaks For the Church? (Abingdon, 1967), he counsels, “Christians should be speaking more about order as a terminal political value along with justice, without the naive assumption that these are bound to go together without weight given to both. More about the need for the rule of law as well as revolutionary change. Of serving human liberty as well as the war on poverty, without the presumption that there is an ‘invisible hand’ that links these together in the absence of specific attention to each. About the individual and community values at stake in destroying the illusion that government will provide a solution for every irritant and distress, as well as what government can and should do. Of the responsible use of political power as well as the limits upon it. Of how involvement in the world’s problems means tragic involvement.”

In light of the important main message of Chronicles, Christian leaders’ public statements during crises should be as liturgical as they are “prophetic.” In other words, when Christians speak to the world we should speak out of the church’s liturgy, from our worship of the one God who so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. When we speak liturgically then our message will contain a sense of the transcendence of God, an awareness of the radical sinfulness of humankind fallen from the glory of being originally created good in the image of God, and the possibility by faith of being regenerated in an ongoing restoration to our original nature. Such a liturgically oriented message entails the complexity of reality that can avoid sounding unbalanced or narrowly moralistic.

As someone who has issued and signed many public statements, I confess to having failed to do justice to the complexity of social reality and to speak from the church’s liturgy. Our statements will never be perfect, but we do need to reassess how we speak to the world.

One of the wonderful particular emphases of the Chronicler is his appeal to “all Israel,” e.g. 1 Chronicles 11.1. He envisioned all of the tribes of Israel, both those from the defeated northern tribes as well as the tribes in and around Jerusalem, to be reunited in the worship of the one God. In its own worship, and in all of its public statements, the church can invite all to the healing that comes from worshiping the one God who has come as one of us to be the one Lord who offered himself for our salvation.

  1. Comment by Lawrence Kreh on June 9, 2020 at 10:54 pm

    Good article, but my experience is different. I grew up in Birmingham in the segregated 1950s and 60s. Almost EVERYONE worshipped on Sundays, so much so that people talked about the Sunday rush hour. But rigid racial segregation persisted and African Americans were not allowed to worship in my 3000+ member Methodist Church until the 1970s.
    Indeed, MLK Jrs Letter from the Birmingham Jail was written to clergy who were “moderates” but wanted slower change. It was the demonstrations and protests and boycotts of African Americans that got the attention of white Christians. It was Billy Graham who would not conduct the Birmingham Crusade to a segregated audience when the color barrier was broken for large public meetings.
    However, I do believe that the religious roots shared by both black and white Christians helped the city avoid the chaos and rioting experienced in more secular cities like Detroit, Chicago, and LA.)
    My point: Worship is core to our faith, but it’s not enough in itself to confront and change injustice. It also can take a prophetic message.

  2. Comment by Dan W on June 10, 2020 at 2:33 pm

    I was born into the segregated South, but restaurants, schools and public buildings were desegregated by the time I was old enough to attend school. I do not remember seeing “separate but equal” facilities – they had been removed by the time I was old enough to be aware of these things. Maybe all of the worship and prayer of the folks in the 1950s and early 1960s prepared us for these changes?

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