Ps 133:3 How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!
I grew up in church…went every Sunday.
My perspective all the way up until the summer of my Sophomore year of college was that…
-church is boring music, boring sermons, boring people
-Worship was counting light bulbs in the sanctuary, day dreaming of things that were important to me: mostly girls and sports
-I saw people in the church I had no interest in knowing, some I was afraid to know…or to be known by.
-So, I acted like I was too cool for them…to keep them away from me.
-When I was old enough to choose my own seat (not with my parents)…I choose the very back where I did my best to sleep my way through the services.
In the summer of 1978 (I was 20)…God broke through the fog and when that summer was over, I went to the same church I had been a part of…but it had completely changed.
The sermons were alive, the words of the songs were powerful to me…I wrote some them down and memorized them.
The people I feared knowing or being known by…were now people I wanted to be around and learn from…some became my mentors.
I wanted to be there every time the doors were open…how did a church change so much in just one summer?
Of course, it didn’t…I did.
My heart fell in love with Christ that summer…and my heart automatically loved his church.
I didn’t have to make it happen.
I did have to learn to live well inside the church…to gain and maintain clear relationships.
I had to learn to follow authority within biblical limits…even when I didn’t fully understand or agree with everything.
I had to pursue relationships…and try to put others interests ahead of mine.
I invested…and my heart followed that investment.
But I have never, since that summer…stopped loving the church…local, gathered church.
The church of real people, meeting in real buildings…doing real life together.
I have never stopped treasuring life with God’s people.
I’ve worshipped in churches in a number of different countries…and in many cities across America.
But I love most of all…my church…this place where God has planted me and my family for 30 years.
Wrote “Life Together” in 1939 while he was teaching in an underground seminary…training pastors for ministry as Germany fell further into Hitler’s darkness.
Hitler’s policy made the “confessing church” illegal…only those who supported the Nazi movement were officially allowed to function.
It was in this context…the church and Christians forced into hiding and under the threat of prison and death that he wrote these words…
“It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world to share God’s Word and sacrament. Not all Christians receive this blessing. The imprisoned, the sick, the scattered lonely, the proclaimers of the Gospel in foreign lands stand alone. They know that visible fellowship is a blessing.”
“It is true, of course that what is an unspeakable gift of God for the lonely individual is easily disregarded and trodden under foot by those who have the gift every day. It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brethren is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us…”
“It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with other Christians”
-Bonhoeffer was Imprisoned in 1943 for a year and half.
-Imagine how he longed during that time, to be back in fellowship with his church
-He was hanged in April 1945 just one month before the War in Germany ended
His book “Life Together” is about how the gathered church, is a grace gift from God…a gift we must not take for granted.
Today, my prayer is that we would remember to treasure the church gathered in visible worship…whatever local body of believers God has blessed us to be planted in.
And that we would learn to bloom where we are planted.
To remember or learn for the first time, why we gather and that gathering is all privilege, all gift…something to be treasured.
This month we are looking at reframing…today…I want to reframe Christians gathering for worship.
The church gathers on Sundays, for the most part, the Lord’s Day…the day commemorating the resurrection of Christ from the dead.
It’s not a requirement to meet on Sundays, just a powerful tradition.
What we are allowed to do week after week is amazing…beyond our imaginations…but it is our lack of holy imagination that allows this amazing opportunity become mundane, ordinary.
Something to be easily and readily discarded when it is convenient for us to do so.
I am not judging anyone listening online…this is a unique year…and online worship has been a gift.
Avoiding public places is a valid choice during this season…and many who stay home long to be here in visible versus virtual fellowship.
But local church worship is not an event to watch…it never has been, never will be.
When Covid has passed…we will continue to put the services online…for our friends overseas and those who are traveling or home ill…but we will do so after our live, gathered worship is over.
I have resisted putting services live online for years…because of my conviction that worship is not an event to watch…but participation in the Body of Christ.
Covid has been a valid reason to adapt my convictions…but this is a temporary adaptation…because steady state for the church must be visible (personal) not virtual fellowship.
If you see in person fellowship as something you can take or leave…and you often do choose to leave it…I want to challenge that position this morning.
I believe is both unbiblical and unhelpful…you will not thrive as you could thrive if you live with that perspective.
Good things in life…are rarely the easy and convenient.
In order to thrive in visible fellowship, we must set aside our false idealism…and embrace the reality of the beauty of the church as it is.
It is “over” said…but it remains true…the church is not perfect…but it is amazing.
False idealism is the enemy of the beautiful reality of what the church actually is.
Contrary to popular opinion there is much diversity in the church…diversity of more kinds than race…but including that.
*Heart of Kansas Christmas party: SBC is the most ethnically diverse Christian group in America…10,000 of 44,000 churches are minority lead and minority in makeup.
The church is often criticized for failing to fit into a wished-for idealism.
Listen to Bonhoeffer again…
“Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community…”
By “wish dream” he means taking some ideal of human perfection in the church and judging the actual church by that imaginary standard.
“When a person’s ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going as broken, So, he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.”
“If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches which are there for us all in Christ Jesus.”
This treasure is in jars of clay…God give us eyes to see it…give us hearts to give thanks for it…give us conviction to pursue it relentlessly.
So, let’s ask and answer the question…Why do we gather? What does it matter?
Great question during this season of COVID…a time of solidarity…where not just the persecuted church has faced challenges to gathering…but all churches in every nation have.
Our passage is not from Proverbs but from Hebrews: 10:19-25
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 2and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
Therefore…what is it referring to?
To the beginning of this chapter and to the letter up to this point…to summarize…
The Law could not save us. The same sacrifices made over and over could not save us.
Instead they were an ongoing reminder of our sins…because the blood of bulls and goats could not take away sin.
Christ was the final sacrifice for sins…his was the once for all payment that does not need to be repeated.
Therefore…in light of this reality.
We have confidence (boldness) to go straight into the most holy place…the presence of God himself.
In the old covenant/testament…only priests and only at certain times could go into the presence of God.
Now, because of the sacrifice of Jesus we have direct access to God.
Then in these next few verses we find the main encouragement or exhortation in the book of Hebrews:
We will call this main theme “The foundation for our confidence and the reason that we gather”
FIRST THE FOUNDATION FOR OUR CONFIDENCE:
- Verse 22: We have confidence because of the facts of the gospel.
let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.
We must (can) choose to come near to God…there is no barrier between us and him anymore if we have trusted Christ.
There are three components of this drawing near to God with confidence:
- We come with a sincere (true) heart: No pretending. We come as we are.
-“If we confess our sins, he is faithful to forgive.”
-We come in our mess, we come with our questions, doubts, failures…we come as we are.
-We are not playing at this this is real…we set aside our pretense.
How foolish to try an hide something from God any way.
- We come with full assurance of faith:
-No reason to doubt that God will receive us if we come putting our faith in Christ.
-We have reason to doubt our doubts but not our faith…our confidence is assured…because it is in God not self.
- We come with our hearts sprinkled clean from a guilty conscience:
This is a picture of OT sacrifice where the blood of the sacrificed animal was sprinkled on the altar for the ongoing forgiveness of sins.
-We have had our hearts permanently cleansed by the sacrifice of Christ.
-This is no church “mumbo-jumbo”…this is about a transforming reality.
A guilty conscience…is a life-sucking, soul destroying disease.
Guilt is a weight that can drag us to the bottom of the ocean of despair.
To be forgiven…well, there is no more powerful reality for a human being to experience.
- Bodies washed with pure water:
This is likely an allusion to Baptism.
Baptism doesn’t save us but it is an external symbol of an internal reality of what Christ has done for us…purified us.
Our confidence is based on the facts of the gospel.
- Verse 23:
We can have confidence because God is the author of the gospel.
Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.
It is important that we continue to hold on to the facts of our faith.
To hold unswervingly is especially important because in the world around us values and ideas of what is real are continually shifting.
We don’t hold unswervingly to certain forms of the Christian faith…1950, 1990, or even AD 60.
The church in the NT had as many problems as the church in 2020.
We hold to the facts of the gospel…not to certain cultural forms it has taken throughout the years.
The cultural forms are not always bad and they are inevitable…but we must not confuse them for the facts of faith that are the essence of what we believe.
We have a fixed point of reference…a north star that we resolutely fix our hope on.
Feelings are important but not essential in this life of faith.
“Unswervingly” without “wavering” is a word only used here in the NT.
It is based on the idea of an upright object that is not leaning but remains true perpendicular
So, our hope is like an instrument that we fix on the faithfulness of God to set the course of our lives.
Earnest Shackleton’s (Endurance) Captain: Frank Worsley
Navigated a small wooden boat 800 miles across the open Antarctic sea, in constant storms…with a sextant
The island they were aiming for was a postage stamp in the vast sea…if they missed it all would perish.
He could only get a few glimpses of the sun during this more than two-week journey.
He described it like this: “cuddling the mask with one arm, swinging fore and aft around the mask, I would catch the sun when the boat leaped her highest on the crest of a wave..”
He was freezing, they took “one minute” shifts to chip ice off the boat.
They made it and all survived…though it was enormously difficult…because they had a fixed point of reference to guide them…the sun.
Even though that fixed point of reference was very hard to keep in sight…and only occasionally glimpsed through the storm.
Our hope is our sextant…the faithful God is our fixed point of reference.
We continually look to him, in order to set our course…even when it storms, or especially when it is stormy.
Sometimes we feel like we only get occasional glimpses of Him…it is enough to stay on course.
Lest you think this is some kind of “blind faith”
Irrational belief…an infamous blind leap.
Remember this…everyone has hope as their sextant…everyone has placed their hope somewhere…everyone has a point of reference.
So…then, with that reframing…look at your life, or at what you hear from others…how reliable is their point of reference?
How fixed it?
Look around right now…what do you see?
People fixing their hopes on elections, vaccinations, social change…you name it…or just becoming hopeless.
- Verse 24: Our Confidence shows up in our actions toward one another.
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.
Consider: “Consider is not merely “think casually about”
It is a word that means to think carefully, and consistently about.
What we are being told to do here requires concentrated thought.
We are to set aside our favorite “topic of thought” ourselves.
And we are to actively concentrate on thinking about how to encourage one another.
And the goal of this encouragement is to “stir up on another to love and good works.”
This requires thought, effort, intention…if it is to be done well.
God has designed us and life such that we need one another to keep our hopes fixed on him.
The word “spur” or “stir up”…can mean something good, like here.
Or something bad, as in stir up trouble.
So, what this means is that this kind of continual hope in action…revealed in love and good works…it won’t just happen.
It has to be provoked…proactively called out of one another.
We are sometimes surprised and dismayed…that when we fall out of constant fellowship with one another…our faith in action begins to suffer.
Our perspective takes a nose dive.
Why are we surprised when we are forewarned that this is the case?
How can we “provoke” one another to faith and good works if we don’t show up for one another?
NOT… “THEY AREN’T SHOWING UP FOR ME…THEY FAILED ME.”
YOU MUST ASK “AM I SHOWING UP FOR THEM?”
IF WE ALL ASK THAT QUESTION…WE ARE ALL THE BETTER FOR IT.
The cool thing of this “love and good works” duo is that love must have a practical outcome.
It shows up in more than feelings…shows up in tangible changes in our actions.
Finally, to my main point…verse 25
THE REASON THAT WE GATHER
“Let us not give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
Again, how do we accomplish this stirring up if we are not regularly meeting together?
How do we keep our hope “sextants”…set on the constant of God’s faithfulness…if we are not meeting together?
How do we stay encouraged…full of courage…if we are not meeting together?
Encouragement here is “parakaleo”…to call alongside.
The word used for the Holy Spirit is “paraclete”…close kin to this word…comforter.
He is with us…in us.
Jesus doesn’t “live stream” encouragement from heaven.
The Spirit lives in us…providing us this encouragement and comfort.
We, like the Holy Spirit…are to be used of God to encourage, challenge, comfort and remind one another of the truth.
We are to be visible reminders of the invisible God to one another.
We are to provide a ministry of God’s presence to one another.
There is no support in the entire NT for a lone Christian…a believer who is unattached to a local body of believers…a believer who isn’t showing up in person.
The Day, here, refers to the return of Christ…the end of the current age.
We are to always live with the end in view…to keep our eyes on the fact that this current age, our lives…are temporary.
This continual end-of time, end of my time…perspective…provides powerful motivation to keep what matters most…mattering now.
To keep this ongoing “what matters most at the end, matters the most now.” perspective
Requires that we continually meet to stir one another up…to provoke love, faith, and good actions from one another.
Meeting in worship, meeting in groups…meeting one to one.
When I have officiated funerals…I see people’s eye’s become clear…for a moment…then the fog of life quickly sets back in.
We worship together weekly…so we don’t have to wait for funerals…others or our own…to see clearly what life is to be about.
Persecutor: Soviet Naval officer, named Sergei who persecuted Christians.
How much of his story is true is debated…there was much disinformation during the days of the USSR/Cold War.
One of the things Sergei said was that a turning point for him was when he went to an underground church meeting looking to beat the Christians gathered in worship.
He encountered a young woman there who surprised him.
He could not understand why she would be there…he had been taught that faith was insanity.
Yet here was an attractive woman about his age…it puzzled him…and made him mad.
He beat her thinking he would cure her of her insanity.
A few weeks later at another location…where he had gone to break up worship.
He encountered this same young woman in worship again…he protected her from his buddies who really wanted to punish her.
“Why” he wondered “would she risk so much just to attend a Christian worship service?”
Why indeed…it set him on a new course…he eventually became a believer.
Why in Acts 8 was Saul…able to continually find believers meeting in house churches?
Even though they heard he was dragging men and women off and putting them in prison?
Why do believers in Iran, Syria, Iraq…on and on it does…meet together for worship and fellowship though it could cost them so very much?
Why are churches in America…so intent on meeting in person…why don’t they just stay home, let Covid pass?
Maybe these are the wrong questions.
Maybe the question is, why do believers in places like Wichita…when clearly worship in community is vital to their spiritual, mental, relational, and even physical well-being so easily it?
Here are some responses I have heard and my perspective on those responses:
- I don’t need to go to church to be close to God.
-That’s not what the Bible says.
-That’s not what lots of personal experience bears out.
-You can veer off course by one degree and the difference is imperceptible until one day you find yourself 180 degrees off from where you need to be.
*I have seen this proven out…many, many times.
- I can be a part of the virtual church
Virtual church is, in my mind, an oxymoron…meaningless words.
Church is personal.
You can gain some information and encouragement by watching an event delivered to a screen electronically…but you cannot grow in real relationship leading to real transformation without personal interaction.
I believe God will provide the grace where personal interaction is impossible(illness, travel, and other circumstances)…but where possible just not preferrable…I don’t believe the grace will be there.
I don’t believe he will give grace (his power and blessing) to what he has said he doesn’t approve of.
- I am NOT encouraged by group or by worship when I do attend.
-I am sorry…I am.
-Many I know of are.
-Perhaps you have had some bad experiences…I’m sorry for that.
-But you must be open to the possibility that it is on you.
-That others are experiencing what you could experience if you would change your approach.
-Do you want to be justified in feeling left out…or do you want to join in?
-There is no conspiracy to keep you out.
IN ADDITION YOU WILL BE A MUCH HAPPIER PERSON IF YOU LEARN TO MOVE THROUGH LIFE ASKING THE QUESTION: “WHAT CAN I GIVE HERE…RATHER THAN…WHAT AM I GETTING HERE?”
**You will find yourself experiencing more joy in your own life if you spend much of your own “thought time/energy”…considering, reflecting deeply on… “How do I encourage others towards love and good actions”?
To do this…you need to know others, they need to trust you…for that to happen…you have to show up.
I hope you don’t feel rebuked…or critiqued…that was not my intention.
If you feel challenged…that’s great…I have felt that way this week as I thought, prayed, and wrote this down.
As I studied Hebrews 10…I was greatly challenged and inspired.
As I wrote down my introduction and remembered what God did over forty years ago…I became emotional as I sat all alone at my desk.
I remembered that when my heart began to love to Christ…I began his church as well…that thought, that reality…remains a precious thing to me to this day.
There is no pressure for you to come to in person to worship…if you have Covid related concerns.
I support you in your decision.
But if you stay home…or if you are here but phase in and out…because it is convenient, or you have other priorities.
Please rise up…go to work against these thoughts and motives…they are not to be embraced but combated.
Take this as I intend it…this is me hoping to spur you on to love and good deeds
“Hey Terry, what about me?”
“I’m here…week after week…I love the church.”
“Anything for me in all this?”
Yeah, all of it is for all of us.
Rejoice that God has in his grace given you a love for his church…and a desire to show up with his people.
Turn your thoughts to this week away from self and reflect deeply on how you can provoke others towards love and faith in action.