In his letter to the Christians at Rome, Saint Paul suggested that an ethical life of compassion, service, peace and justice is the single form of worship that God desires. According to Paul, it is the only form of worship that God deems good, acceptable and perfect.
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)
Here is how Eugene Patterson paraphrases these two verses:
So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.
In an unpublished essay, Dr. Lesly Massey, a Disciple of Christ pastor in Dallas, Texas, quoted Ernst Käsemann (1906-1998), an eminent Lutheran theologian who was a part of the Confessing Church in Germany during the reign of Adolf Hitler. Käsemann, who after World War II spurred a renewed quest to understand the historical Jesus, saw in Romans 12:1 an unequivocal summary of Paul’s view of worship as a follower of Christ.
Christian worship does not consist of what is practiced at sacred sites, at sacred times, and with sacred acts. It is the offering of bodily existence in the otherwise profane sphere, as something constantly demanded. This takes place in daily life, whereby every Christian is simultaneously sacrifice and priest.
Les Massey comments:
In other words, Paul does not define worship in terms of rituals or ceremonies performed by Christians when assembled together, and therefore segregated from routine life. On the contrary, true worship is offered through the believer’s daily life by means of a noble ethos practiced openly in the world. God’s will is accomplished through that which is seemingly profane, and with such God is well pleased…
In a sense, Romans 12:1 illustrates Paul’s inclination to decentralize religion, specifically the Christian’s life of service to God, removing the holy presence from a stone temple and placing it within each believer, and within all believers as a community of faith and the true temple of God…
True worship, therefore, amounts to an approach to mundane activities that gives evidence of an inner conversion and transformation by the living presence of Christ. This to Paul was the appropriate response to divine grace, and the only sensible, beneficial, and proper means of honoring God. In order to “worship” God one must offer a “service to God.” The interests of God, the will of God, are not “served” by rituals, symbols, gestures, ceremonies, or platitudes. Paul was convinced, from his understanding of the teaching of Jesus, that God cannot be patronized by human lip-service. Rather, God is served by noble and exemplary living motives, attitudes, perspectives, choices, and actions that demonstrate divine love and goodness in the world.
Many of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible declared that human justice was the form of worship that a God of justice desired.
And the biblical writers repeatedly stated that God loved justice. This is especially true in the Psalms:
“The LORD loves justice.” (Psalm 37:28)
“The LORD is a lover of justice.” (Psalm 99:1, 4)
“The LORD is righteous, he loves justice.” (Psalm 11:7)
“The LORD loves righteousness and justice.” (Psalm 33:5)
But we find it also in the books of the prophets:
“For I the LORD love justice.” (Isaiah 61:8)
“I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight.” (Jeremiah 9:24)
John Dominic Crossan writes:
There was an ancient prophetic tradition in which God insisted not just on justice and worship, but on justice over worship. God had repeatedly said, “I reject your worship because of your lack of justice,” but never, ever, ever, “I reject your justice because of your lack of worship.”
The Hebrew bible went even further, not just suggesting that justice was more important than worship, but that justice was worship. Here is what the Hebrew Bible tells us about true worship:
Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see them naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58:6-7)
If you oppress poor people, you insult the God who made them; but kindness shown to the poor is an act of worship. (Proverbs 14:31)
I hate, I despise your worship, and I take no delight in your religious gatherings… Spare me the din of your praise singing; let me hear none of your strumming on guitars. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:21,23-24)
I desire love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. (Hosea 6:6)
With what shall I come before the Lord and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings… with ten thousands of rivers of oil?… He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:6-8)
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord;… Trample my courts no more;… I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity;… even though you make many prayers, I will not listen;… Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;… cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:11-17)