This is the fourth week in our topical series on the Church. In week one we asked the question: in the big picture, what is the Church for? Answer: to magnify the wisdom of God to the heavenly principalities and powers.
In the next two messages we set forth the proposition that “Life in Christ is a Life in Community.” The fitting response to the Gospel is a new self-identity as a member of Christ’s body. Some Christians don’t make this identification, but that is a serious mistake, because the Christian community is the creation of the Spirit of God.
In those three messages, hopefully it became clear that God is invested into the Church: The Spirit has created, gathered together the Church. The Son promised that on His watch the powers of hell – whether they attack from the outside or subvert from within – wouldn’t prevail against the Church. And at stake among the church is God the Father’s reputation in making good on His intention to bring everything under His Son.
The Church is not unimportant to the Triune God.
The takeaway of these first three sermons is that we must first think about the Church theologically – what God intended by it; how God is working among it.
This morning I’d like for us to consider the question: What does a Church do? Even with 2-3 sermons on this topic we’ll still only be able to answer that question superficially: what does a church do?
I’m going to explain what a church does under two headings: 1) the Church gathers and 2) the Church scatters.
This morning, the Church gathers.
The Church gathers. By at least the end of the first century, as John in Revelation 1:10 attests, the Church recognized one day/ week as “the Lord’s Day.” And we learn from reading church history that, by at least the second century, the “Lord’s Day” was specified as Sunday, since that’s the day of the week when our Lord rose from the grave. And it seems that around that same time the Church took it for granted that Sunday, the Lord’s Day, was when they would habitually gather.
So, when we say that the Church gathers, we’re especially thinking about that at-least-once-week gathering on Sunday. But the Scripture is silent here: our weekly gathering doesn’t have to be on Sunday. And, of course, there are other occasional days besides Sunday when the church gathers.
The Church gathers to worship
But what does a Church do when it gathers? The Church worships God.
Yes, true [responding to an unspoken challenge]: worship needn’t be, shouldn’t be, confined to just one day a week and as the Church gathers. “Whether you eat or drink, to all to the glory of God” – 1 Corinthians 10: 31. Worship should happen 24/7.
But – in terms of the passage we just quoted – the New Testament refers to an eating and drinking that you do at home -that 24/7 worship; and a separate eating and drinking, a corporate worship at the Lord’s Table that happens when the Church gathers – 1 Corinthians 11.
So, although it’s true that all of life is worship, there is a special worship that is corporate, as the Church gathers. And there are special instructions given for this time of worship. For instance, “All things should be done decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40).
When we gather to worship, we are gathering to profess together that God is worthy – worthy of our attention, of our time, of the money we paid to fuel our cars to gather, of the bother of polishing our shoes, of our work to form thoughts about Him, of our poetry and songs.
When we lived in the Boston area, just a few blocks away from our house some folks were filming a movie starring Ben Affleck. My daughters took the time to walk over to see what was going on; they were hoping to spot some stars, perhaps even see the ½ of “Bennifer” himself.
Well, both the weekly worship of God and my daughters walking over to the filming site involve some bother, some going out of the way. But then the differences between these two activities are stark. When we come together to worship, we don’t come as curiosity seekers, but as engaged participants. We come prepared not just to watch and soak in the atmosphere but to work at worship: to corral our thoughts and then direct our thoughts and our voices to God.
And we come together not just once to see what’s going on, but week-by-week because we believe that God is worthy of our long-term attention, and that a lifetime spent praising isn’t time enough. Hallelujah!
The church gathering to worship is no small thing, even though it might look pretty unimpressive. Here’s why that’s true: In Hebrews 12: 22, the Spirit says that when we gather to worship we have not only come to a certain address or geographical spot, but also we’ve actually arrived “to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem….
And the Church folks that we see are not the only attendees! The Hebrews passage relays to us who all has gathered at worship, if only we had eyes to see: You have come… to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”
Without getting into all those phrases, the takeaway is that the worship of the gathered church is a big event, whether it feels so important. Present at the gatherings of the church are God the Father, God the Son, the spirits of those who have died in Christ, the Church universal – those dead in Christ “whose rest is won.”
So the Church gathers to worship – to profess that God is worthy. And this is always a grand event! But, of course, we’re so often caught up in much smaller thoughts, and those thoughts are usually pretty scattered too – about projects, and body aches, and the Super Bowl…. So a large aspect of our worship is calling ourselves away from our immediate concerns and deliberately focusing on God – what kind of Being is he? What has He done? What has He weathered? Has anyone taught Him anything? What are His priorities?
And besides those questions, eventually in our worship we are confronted with this question: is God satisfied with simply our weekly coming together to think about Him? Do I owe anything else to Him?
The Church gathers to learn what to obey
And asking that question brings us to another thing the Church does when it gathers: it learns to do everything that God commands. Matthew 28: 19,20, the resurrected Jesus the Son of God says: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”
The Church gathers to worship God. And in ascribing to God His greatness we come to understand that we are not God. That we are under the dominion of God. That, therefore, God should be obeyed. And so, it’s an easy move from gathering to worship to also gathering to learn what to obey.
And what the Church discovers as it learns to obey is that God has directions for everything, and certainly not just the “spiritual” things: How to work. How to live among family. How to speak. How to plan. About sexual boundaries. About living under the state. Etc Etc
Some questions naturally arise at this point in the sermon: is there so much to learn about what God commands for us to do that we need at-least weekly gatherings for the rest of our life? And we’ll return to that question next week; but for now let me say that: we forget how to obey, how to live toward God. We’re in this world, we’re in our own heads, and the world isn’t obeying, and our own selves don’t feel like obeying – and we’re easily turned by these and forgetful of God. So, yes, weekly meetings!
And a question from our previous point about gathering to worship: so far these reasons for gathering seem a little oppressive and one could even get cynical: do all the work to come together so that you can talk and think about how great God is. Really? Is that that important? Is that necessary? Does God really need that affirmation?
Here’s the quick reply: we are created to bear the image of God, and an important piece of that is acknowledging who He is and thanking Him. So, coming together to worship isn’t actually an add-on to our humanity, but essential to it. And if God is truly the greatest of Beings, it would be wrong…false for him not to want to be acknowledged as the greatest.
One final question: we do all the work to come together and then we must listen to a bunch of God’s rules for us? I don’t like anyone telling me what to do!
Well, as you get older, if you’re thinking and learning, some truth alights on you: we’re all bound to some order.
None of us is free – even if you get to the place where you’re only doing what you want to do, you’re still not free, you’re enthralled to your wants.
And you might say: fine, I’m not free but at least I’m only serving myself.
And the easy rejoinder is: how’s that going? What fruit are you getting from that?
The Christian belief is that none of us is absolutely free. And Jesus, the God-Man, is the best Master there is. Serving Him, obeying Him, is where there is life, real life. Lasting fruitfulness. There’s a great paradox: Serve Jesus, and you’re free indeed. Free from absolute statism. Free from the tyranny of the self. Free from the silliness of following the crowd. ETC.
So, there’s good reasons to gather to worship and learn to obey God in all the ways that we’re supposed to.
The Church gathers to encourage
Review: The Church gathers. It gathers to worship. From that stance of worship, it gathers to learn how to obey God. We admitted that from the outside this might appear oppressive, but gathering along these lines turns out to be encouraging. In fact, to be encouraged is part of why the Church gathers.
Hebrews 10: 24, 25 – And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another [as we meet together], and all the more as you see the Day [Christ returns] drawing near.
We gather for encouragement. We gather to encourage one another. Much of this encouragement happens as we worship and as we learn to do all that God commands. There’s something deeply encouraging in, weekly, recalling that there’s something – SOMEONE – much bigger than ourselves. And there’s something deeply encouraging about gaining clarification of how we’re supposed to live.
The encouragement continues: just being bodily next to people, especially to those that we share this bond of faith in God, is encouraging.
I don’t know exactly how it was in CT, but when COVID emerged we were in MA. As memory serves, Governor Baker ordered that no groups over 15 could gather, and for the next couple of months our church – like many others – met over Zoom.
Zooming was ok, but something was lacking. And that something could be summarized by 2 Corinthians 13: 12 – Greet one another with a holy kiss. When the Church gathers, it gathers physically. Bodies are in proximity. Maybe we’re too 21st century and western for the intimacy of the holy kiss, but at least we hold out our hands to shake other hands, we lean forward to hug. We feel, we smell, we see, we hear the resonance of voices right next to each other – all that’s deeply comforting.
The encouragement of worship, of learning commandments, from being in the presence of each other. And the encouragement keeps going as we learn from each other. A lot of this is just through observation. We see Christian husbands and wives interacting and without their noticing we take from them little bits of instruction; we hear parents talking to their kids and of their kids and we learn something. We just watch how people sing and listen to the Word and gain little tips and helps.
At our church in Newton we had this strange creature called John Lahoud. He was in his 50s and 60s, a math teacher at UMASS Lowell. So far, not so strange. But then I’m betting he’s the only person on the planet to have been a student at Harvard and willingly leave that school to enter Slippery Rock College in rural PA…because they had a P.E. major. John ran 100-mile races, like Western States in CA. And John was a vegan, went to bed every day around 5 and awoke at midnight. And upon rising every day he runs for two hours, and then he lifts weights…and then works out again two more times during the day. John is a quiet man but when he speaks its often through quotes Shakespeare and Star Trek. He has the most orderly mind I know. So picture a short, lightweight Lebanese fellow, who loves bodybuilding and working out and reading and discipline. And he brought that same discipline, even a kind of severity, into loving the Lord and loving His Church. He loved theology. He loved people in his Lahoud-ian way. Every week after the service he met with my son, Kai, and prayed alongside him through the angsts and lusts of the teenage years.
Here’s the point: every week I’d gather with John Lahoud, and just by being next to him I’d be reminded about self-control and what’s possible with discipline and that you don’t have to do what everyone else does, follow their schedule. I’d learn that loving isn’t necessarily connected with being warm or even nice. But has to do with attention and prayer and opening up one’s walk with God to one another. What an encouragement John was to me and the Church he gathered with.
And so it goes. Week after week in the gatherings we gather with, brush up against, learn from one another… and as time passes these people who between the gatherings are daily interacting with the Lord and upon whose face the glory of the Lord shines – they make a deep impression on you. You’re transformed by the Spirit through them. You come to realize in your bones: you are not alone – the Lord is with you in the faces and bodies and relationships of those with whom you gather. How encouraging.
Romans 14: 1- As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. Now, Paul goes on to explain what he means by that, and you should examine that later. For our purposes this morning I’ll just highlight his main point: part of the encouragement of being together is the basic fact that the Church is taught to simply welcome each other.
That’s our default position toward one another – welcome. Hello, my brother and sister in Christ. We don’t share the same backgrounds or personality; we very well might not share the same opinions about things the Bible doesn’t come down clearly about: eating meat offered to idols, or the practice of yoga, or Sabbath observance, or the age of the earth, or the best schooling option or Trump vs Desantis (or whoever your people are) or Broncos vs Patriots…
But we’re still tight. I see you. And I see you as a fellow servant of Christ who is answerable, not to me, but to our common Lord. And our relationship isn’t going to proceed along the lines of nagging each other to conform to our own exact set of beliefs. Welcome, my fellow servant.
Do you see why that’s encouraging? A unity around something that is WAY bigger than anyone, and that gives space for dissimilarity. Like Cheers, Church is where everyone knows your name; sees you in Christ; takes you seriously as God’s project, but not theirs; and is striving to connect, meet you on the common ground of belief in the Gospel.
And we lean into the encouragement from being with one other more and more “as [we] see the Day drawing near.” In one of the hymns he wrote, Isaac Watts asks, “Is this vile world a friend of grace to help me on to God?” At work, at school, browsing the internet, picking up groceries, is it easy to trust and obey God?
And, of course, the answer to Mr. Watts is “NO!!” Rubbing shoulders with the world iswearing on our faith. Things that had seemed to true and so precious start to appear distant, contrived, untrue. If this was true when Hebrews was written, if this was true when Isaac Watts wrote his poem, this is especially the case today, when secularism has set into the very structures of society. Believing is so hard!
But then we gather together with our brothers and sisters to hear the word and sing and pray (that’s next week’s sermon) – and something magical happens. We’re given strength to keep running…or at least walking. The wind of the Spirit blows through us again, and as a congregation we mount up with wings like eagles. Together we remember that our God has made promises to us, and our future is certain. And we feel convicted again that our Christianity is no pipe dream, no opiate for the masses, because Christ has died and risen again, and we are in Christ, and so the earth is our inheritance and God has a job for us to do now…and all not because of works we have done but according to His grace He has reclaimed us, saved us, brought us into His plans of renewal.
Hallelujah for these gatherings that keep our faith alive. Honest question: how do professing Christians keep believing without this weekly encouragement? And why would we want to exist with our faith in such a flaccid state that occurs when there isn’t the weekly encouragement of straining our eyes together toward “that Day”?
The Church gathers to worship. Have you set your mind on God today? Are you refreshed by considering His greatness and His great salvation?
The Church gathers to learn all the ways we’re supposed to obey. Are you learning? Are you listening? Is your behavior different from those who don’t gather to hear the commandments?
The Church gathers for encouragement. Are you praying that you’ll be a conduit of encouragement week after week? Do you leave energized or is there something going wrong when gathering? Talk to me about this!