I had the honor and privilege of preaching in Chapel on Wednesday morning this week. This is the service. The sermon begins around fourteen minutes into the service. The prayers and the poems before the sermon were really good as well. If you have time for this service, enjoy!
I recently read an article entitled Is Attending Church Really Necessary for Christians? I got excited about the title and clicked the link. What I found was woefully inadequate for the actual topic. Unfortunately, I think a lot of people feel like this article, though: Jesus is somehow there, and the Bible says we should gather, so it is important. There is so much more to this issue that I felt compelled to write something on it myself.
First, when dealing with the topic of Church, it is very important to remember that Jesus founded a Church. He did not come and create a group of individuals who gather together every once in a while when they feel like it. He was explicit in Matthew 16:18 when he said that the Gates of Hades will not be able to withstand the Church. He did not say that it would not be able to withstand individuals or believers or disciples or apostles, but the Church. Paul writes in Ephesians 1:22-23, “And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” And again he writes in 1 Timothy 3:15, “if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.” If the Church is what can overcome the Gates of Hades, and the Church is the fullness of Christ, and the Church is the pillar and bulwark of the truth, then there is something absolutely necessary about Church in the life of a Christian.
It is true that Christ is uniquely present in the Church. When the people of God gather to worship, the constituent parts of the Body of Christ are together. Ideally, they are all following the guidance and direction of the Head, Christ. When this happens, the presence of God is among us. This ties in to the injunction in 1 Peter 2:5 that we when we are in Christ we are living stones being put together in the new Temple of the Holy Spirit. No one individual stone can be a full temple in and of itself, and no one Christian can be independent of others.
Part of the reason that Christ is present in Church in a unique way is because it is in the context of corporate worship that we celebrate the sacraments. The presence of God and the grace of God are with us in a very real way through the faithful participation of the people of God in the celebration of the sacraments. Christians may debate how, exactly, Christ shows up when we celebrate Holy Communion, for example, but one thing we cannot deny is that Christ does show up. We have 2000 years of experience to prove that fact.
Perhaps the most important reason the Church as a communal gathering is necessary, though, is because we, as Christians, are supposed to be renewed and transformed into the image and likeness of God. You can see this all throughout the New Testament, but especially in 2 Corinthians 3:18. God is Trinity. God is an eternal communion of three persons. God is eternally in relationship among those three persons. This means that if we are to truly be transformed into the image and likeness of God, and if we are to truly reflect the likeness of God in the world, we must be in community with others. We cannot do this as individual believers who come together only when they feel like it, seeing Church as an optional add-on to their faith-walk with Christ. Our very being as Christians necessitates the fact that we be in community with others who are also being renewed in the image and likeness of Christ.
Jesus also said this in a completely different way on the night in which he was betrayed. In John 13:35 Jesus says, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” We can only have love for one another if we are in community and communion with one another. We can only be in community and communion with one another if we gather together on a regular basis. Therefore, if we do not gather corporately as the Church, we can never hope to show the world that we are truly Jesus’ disciples. Not only our very being as Christians in the image and likeness of the Triune God is at stake, but our growth in grace and relationship with Jesus Christ and our mission to the rest of the world is at stake.
All of this rises and falls on the very reality that Jesus created a Church, a community, through which he chose to transform the world.
It always amazes me how many Christians will tolerate heresy within their churches and denominations. Sure, there can be differences of opinions on many different aspects of the faith which are not heretical, but there are denominations that have people in leadership who deny the divinity of Christ, the Trinity, and other central aspects of God.
The letter to Thyatira, contained within Revelation 2, deals with this issue. Jesus dictates seven letters to seven different churches, and this one has issues like this. Jesus praises the church in Thyatira, and then he follows it up with this:
20 But I have this against you: you put up with that woman, Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet. You allow her to teach and to mislead my servants into committing sexual immorality and eating food sacrificed to idols.
Jesus counts it as a sin for righteous and faithful people to tolerate heresy being taught within the Church.
This Christmas, as we celebrate the Incarnation of the Living God, we would do well to remember that differences of opinion are one thing, heresy is something completely different. A good starting point to tell the difference would be a few questions:
- Does this opinion contradict who the Church proclaims God is? Does it deny the Trinity, the divinity of Jesus Christ, the personhood of the Holy Spirit? Does it try to blend the identity of our God with other gods through teachings, rituals, or other corporate events?
- Does this opinion lead people to behavior or condone behavior that the Church has taught is immoral?
If any of these questions can be answered yes, then you may want to take Jesus’ warning to Thyatira seriously for yourself.
Jolly old St. Nicholas did not tolerate heresy. He is famous today for giving gifts to children, but he was also famous during his lifetime in the 300s for punching Arius at the Council in Nicaea in 325 when he heard Arius’ position that Jesus was not God but was created.
Love God. That is the greatest commandment. It is one of the two commandments from which the entire Covenant is formed (the other being to love others). Truly, though, the commandment is a bit abstract. How do we love someone who is completely different from us, even in ways we cannot comprehend, and we have never seen?
John gives us a very simple and basic statement of what it means to love God:
6 This is love: that we live according to his commands. This is the command that you heard from the beginning: live in love.
That is it. To live in love is to live according to God’s commands. In other words, those that truly love God will obey him. Those that seek to love him more fully and completely will seek to obey him more fully and completely in their lives.
Remember, God’s commandments are all-encompassing in our lives. He tells us how we ought to act and react. And he tells us how we ought to treat others around us. The best summation of the commandments given to the followers of Christ are found here: The Sermon on the Mount.
Do not forget as well, that Jesus also gave a commandment to evangelize. I know people who claim to be entirely sanctified and refuse to share the Good News with other people. They think they perfectly love God and others and yet will not even invite other people to church. If they are going to break this fundamental commandment of Christ, then their love is not perfect.
God does not demand perfection from us. He expects growth. When we sin and fall short, we confess those sins and seek his help in truly repenting from them so we do not sin in that manner again. As we grow in our faith, we obey Christ more fully. We systematically overcome sins in our lives and obey him. The Holy Spirit, who lives in us, helps us to do this. The Church, the covenant community Christ set up on earth, is founded to help us do this. As we grow, we begin to love more deeply and fully. This leads to more obedience to Christ’s commandments. It is a beautiful image of a spiraling effect working its way from us to Christ.
Love God by obeying what he set before you. It is really quite simple, and he will help us to do just that.
Have you ever met someone who was a Christian, or at least claimed to be one, and never really changed? They never grew in their faith. They never seemed to have more love of God or neighbor in their hearts. And they always seem to talk about the same subjects when it comes to religion?
This is not what Christianity is supposed to be about. Christianity is about being recreated in the image and likeness of Jesus Christ one step at a time. It is about changing from the inside out, through the power of God, into the person we know we ought to be. It is about allowing God to live in us so that his love can be shed abroad in our lives and the world around us.
Interestingly, the Bible knows it can be difficult for people to get past the initial stages of the faith and grow in Christ. Hebrews encourages Christians:
So let’s press on to maturity, by moving on from the basics about Christ’s word. Let’s not lay a foundation of turning away from dead works, of faith in God, 2 of teaching about ritual ways to wash with water, laying on of hands, the resurrection from the dead, and eternal judgment—all over again. 3 We’re going to press on, if God allows it.
Faith. Not trying to earn our salvation. Arguments over baptism. Arguments over ordination. What the resurrection is. The end of the world. This is like a laundry list of topics most churches and denominations argue over and discuss. Frequently. As a matter of fact, if the majority of Christians stopped preaching, teaching, and discussing these topics, I do believe most pastors would be silent and most congregations could hear a pin drop in them.
Perhaps the reason we do not have so many more people living out the Christian faith in such obvious ways as to be considered salt of the earth people or living saints is because they are not moving past the basics about Christ’s word. Perhaps if we spent more time trying to grow deeper in our faith and less time talking or arguing about these topics, we would see more changed lives. Perhaps if we tried to seriously become disciples of Jesus and less time trying to prove why other groups of Christians are wrong, we would see the Kingdom of God come with power.
Just a thought.
Paul’s opinion of women is a difficult topic for people in the Church who do not take the time to dig into it fully. So many people get an idea or opinion on their own and then go to the Bible and find texts to support their opinion, or they read the Bible in such a way that they get passages in short snippets and out of context, which can say something completely different.
Take the passage in Romans 7, for example. There are people who read this and think that a defeated struggle against sin is what Paul experienced in his life, doing what he did not want to do. Yet that thought runs absolutely counter to everything Paul preached and taught throughout the rest of that letter, as well as everything else he taught. When we remember that Romans is a letter that was meant to be read all at once, we can see that Paul, in Romans 7, is using this language to describe someone who knows s/he needs a savior, but is not yet in Christ. The life for those who are in Christ is described both before and after this chapter. In context, Romans 7 says something completely different than what many claim it means.
The same is true for the status or allowed roles for women in the Church in 1 Timothy 2:
11 A wife should learn quietly with complete submission. 12 I don’t allow a wife to teach or to control her husband. Instead, she should be a quiet listener.
This seems fairly straightforward, yet it is completely contrary to Paul’s injunctions to women in 1 Corinthians that when they pray or prophesy in Church their heads should be covered. It also ignores the women deacons and apostles commended by Paul in Romans 16. Not to mention the fact that this flies completely in the face of the spiritual truth Paul loudly proclaimed in Galatians that in Christ there is neither male nor female.
This passage is a part of a particular letter written to a particular person in response to a particular issue. It needs to be read as a letter–all at once. When that happens, one can see this passage is linked to a larger issue throughout the letter:
(1:3-5) 3 When I left for Macedonia, I asked you to stay behind in Ephesus so that you could instruct certain individuals not to spread wrong teaching. 4 They shouldn’t pay attention to myths and endless genealogies. Their teaching only causes useless guessing games instead of faithfulness to God’s way of doing things. 5 The goal of instruction is love from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith.
(2:11-12) 11 A wife should learn quietly with complete submission. 12 I don’t allow a wife to teach or to control her husband. Instead, she should be a quiet listener.
(4:6-7) 6 If you point these things out to the believers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus who has been trained by the words of faith and the good teaching that you’ve carefully followed. 7 But stay away from the godless myths that are passed down from the older women.
(6:20-21) 20 Timothy, protect what has been given to you in trust. Avoid godless and pointless discussions and the contradictory claims of so-called “knowledge.” 21 When some people adopted this false knowledge, they missed the goal of faith.
Certain women in Ephesus were teaching myths that were contrary to the faith. They were teaching these things in the Church and Paul left Timothy to put an end to it. It is these women that are forbidden to teach in the Church and are told to learn from their husbands, because they themselves do not know enough yet to be teachers. Otherwise they would not have gotten tangled up in these godless myths.
When we find a passage in Scripture that does not seem to make sense with the rest of the tone of the Bible, we must try to read it in context and see if it says what it seems to say. Many times, by reading the passage in the full context in which it was written, we will find that it agrees with everything else we read in the Bible. Paul’s opinion of women is case in point.
There are many different opinions about how God works in our lives. There are many different opinions about why God works in our lives. Paul gives a wonderful summation of this idea at the end of 1 Thessalonians:
23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
God will sanctify us entirely and make us blameless. These two verses open a whole realm of discussion. On being sanctified entirely, you can read more here. On being blameless, you can read more here.
The point, though, is that this is a work that God will do in us. If we endeavor to live for Christ more every day, following his teaching and leading, God will do this. Bit by bit, step by step, grace by grace, and glory to glory we will be transformed by God in this manner.
That is Good News!