Rediscovering Church - Part 2

Series: Rediscovering Church

January 30, 2022
Brad Shockley

Episode Notes

We learned that church is about belonging, belonging to a universal and local group of Christians, we learned that we are family.

Another basic truth I’d like us to consider, one that naturally flows out of the first one, is that…

Church is about gathering

There are a lot of groups you can belong to without ever actually meeting in person. Facebook is a perfect example of that. I’m a member of the the Hip Pleasant View Group with 3.5k members, but we’ve never met in person and never will and it would be weird if we did. I’m also a member of the Marvel Community group with 8K members. We haven’t met, never will, but it would be fun if we did. I am also a member of the group Cycling Past 50 with over 31K members. We’ve never gotten together but what a blast that would be.

I share ideals, goals, interests, and even passions with all those groups but they can exist and thrive without  the members ever getting together. When it comes to church, though, when it comes to belonging to God’s family, gathering is a given and a necessity.

Collin Hansen & Jonathan Leeman, in their newly published book, Rediscovering Church (from which I’ve adapted this series), write…

God has always meant for his people to be physically gathered with him. That’s why he created Adam and Eve with physical bodies and walked with them in the garden of Eden. He cast them out from his presence only when they sinned.

God then gathered the people of Israel in the promised land and told them to assemble regularly at the temple where he dwelled (e.g., Deut. 16:16; 31:10–12, 30). Again they sinned, and again he cast them out of the land.

Perhaps the clearest proof of God’s desire to gather with his people is the incarnation. The Son of God took on a body. The one who was with God and who was God (John 1:1–2) put on flesh so that he could be with us (John 1:14). And he promised to build his church—a word that, translated literally, means “assembly” (Matt. 16:18).

Maybe you’ve never wondered why Jesus chose the word “church.” The Jews of Jesus’s day gathered in synagogues, but Jesus didn’t use the word “synagogue.” He used the word “church.” Why? We can answer this by looking backward and forward in the storyline of the Bible. Looking backward, we learn that it was prophesied that Jesus would assemble a people who had been scattered by exile (see Joel 2:16). Looking forward, we understand that Jesus wanted these assemblies—these churches—to anticipate the final assembly where God will dwell with his people once more: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them” (Rev. 21:3; also 7:9ff.).

Our assembled local churches represent God’s presence with man—where heaven comes to earth. “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matt. 18:20; also, v. 17). This doesn’t happen on the internet or in our heads. It happens “when you come together as a church,” to borrow a phrase from Paul, a phrase that suggests there’s a sense in which a church is not a church until it comes together (1 Cor. 11:18).[1]

Now wait a minute, pastor. Last week you said belonging to a church is belonging to family and family is family whether you’re gathered around the Thanksgiving table or miles apart. You said church is people, not a building or a place. Now you’re saying we have to gather together to be a church. You’re contradicting yourself.

Not exactly. Let me explain. Our community loves soccer. Walk the track at the park long enough and you’ll figure that out. There are all these soccer teams. What ultimately makes the team a team? Wearing the same shirt? Having the same coach? Being on the team roster? No, it’s playing together in a game. The soccer team doesn’t stop being a team when they aren’t playing, but if they don’t gather as a team to play, they aren’t really a team.

You see, “regularly gathering together is necessary for a church to be a church, just like a team has to gather to play in order to be a team.”[2]

In one sense a fire or a tornado or an ice storm or a even a pandemic can keep us from being together for a time, but they can not keep us being being a local church. But in another sense what makes PVFBC a local church is our gathering together. Otherwise we’d just be random Christians living out in the community with no real connection. Belonging and gathering is basic to church, it’s not one or the other, it’s both.

The church is about belonging. It just makes sense that the church would also be about gathering. To truly be a church, the physical presence of church family is not an option. This is especially poignant in light of what we are going through with this pandemic. Every denomination’s local congregations are experiencing a decline in attendance. Some are staying away for health reasons (which is fine .. disclaimer), but many others got used to sleeping in on Sunday or felt like they could live without the physical presence aspect of church and decided to just watch online or not watch at all.

I get it.

No, you don’t have to attend church to be a Christian, but can you live the life God intends for his children, for his family, if you don’t rub shoulders with your brothers and sisters? The Bible answers that with a resounding “no.” The church, by its very essence, is intended to gather together.

We see this clearly in the book of Hebrews…

19 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.  Hebrews 10:19–25 (ESV)

NT Wright, in his Hebrew for Everyone Commentary he gives a personal illustration to explain these verses…

I watched as my mother came in from shopping, carrying several bulging bags. She called me to help get the rest from the car. I couldn’t think why she’d bought so much food, but I fetched and carried and unloaded as best I could. Then I remembered all the telephone calls the previous week. Normally she wouldn’t make more than two or three calls a day, but there had been perhaps a dozen or two. Then, that evening, she enlisted my help again in tidying the main front rooms of the house, and in polishing a table here and some cutlery there. I was surprised, but didn’t think more of it; I was no doubt living in my own small world, as children do.

But then, the following afternoon, the doorbell began to ring and one person after another came into the house. It was a party! All the shopping, phone calls and polishing had been getting things ready for a celebration. Friends and neighbours were invited. Everything was prepared. Now I saw where it had all been going.

Hebrews has now, if I can put it like this, done the shopping, made the telephone calls and polished the silver. At last the invitation goes out: come to the party! Verse 22 is the primary reason we’ve come all this way—collecting key passages from scripture, marshalling arguments here and there, calling up ideas and images familiar and unfamiliar, shaping and polishing the exposition of Jesus as God’s son, the truly human one, the great high priest, the mediator of the new covenant. Now we see where it’s all been going. ‘Let’s come to worship!’ Verses 19–21 lay out, in summary form, everything we have seen so far: our boldness of access into God’s presence through Jesus’ blood, which takes us on a new, living path into the innermost shrine through the work of our high priest. The result of it all can hardly be anything but an invitation to draw near; and ‘drawing near’ is almost a technical term, in this context, for ‘coming to worship’.[3]

So because of who have as a great high priest in heaven and because of what he’s done on this earth, let’s gather and worship! Let’s gather, holding fast to to the doctrines and teachings handed down by our faith fathers! Let’s gather and stir one another up to good works! Let’s gather and encourage one another!

Those sacred actions make up the fundamentals of who we are as Christians. Worshippers of God. Disciples of his Word. Doers of good works. Encouragers of one another. They are corporate by their very nature. In other words, gathering is required in order to live them out as Jesus intended.

Maybe, though, you’re not sold on that. Maybe you’re like the young lady I met in Hopkinsville, KY, years ago. I was with some ministry friends at a Shoney’s there. We struck up a conversation with our waitress. We eventually asked if she was a Christian. She said yes. So we asked where she went to church. She said she didn’t go to church because that was man made. She explained how she didn’t need to because she was part of God’s church whether she went to church or not.

She was partly right. And we’ve already learned that. Joining a local community of believers isn’t what makes you a Christian because there’s the church universal. It’s all believers of all time, and it does not depend on whether you are part of a local church.

But the Bible — Jesus — makes it very clear the church local, Christians coming together in a city or a neighborhood, is extremely important. So much so he talked about it before it ever existed. We’ve already seen Jesus mention the church universal in…

18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.  Matthew 16:18 (ESV)

But did you know he also talked a bout the church local?

15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.  Matthew 18:15–18 (ESV)

Jesus gave instructions on how to handle problems in the family of faith, assuming his followers would come together as a local church, a local gathering of believers, because how could we take problems to the church universal? If a gathering church was so important Jesus assumed it before it ever existed, how we can deny it now? It is not optional for the believer.

Okay, so back to Hebrews. Verse 25 in particular has been popular these days…

25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.  Hebrews 10:25 (ESV)

Can we talk about that? This has been weaponized and used against churches and individuals who take the pandemic seriously. I lost count of the YouTube pastors I came across who quoted this verse and then declared, “If your church isn’t meeting because of COVID then find another church!” As if it were a law, a black and white command you automatically break if you don’t attend church.

It is wrong to use it that way.

Here’s why and it has to do with two words used in the text.

The writer of Hebrews says do not neglect gathering together. If you study the Greek word that’s translated from, you realize it carries the idea of abandonment. Back where I’m from in Coosa county, Alabama, there was and I’m sure still is a nasty, horrible thing people do with their unwanted dogs and cats. They drive far down a dirt road, deep into the woods, and leave them there. Once they drive off they have no intention of ever coming back, no intention of ever having anything to do with kitty or puppy again. They’ve abandoned them.

Listen, if you are living in a nursing home or are stuck home because of a health issue, you haven’t abandoned gathering with your church family, have you? If you are holding back because of serious health concerns waiting until things are better to return, you haven’t abandoned your church family, have you?

If we cancel for weather or move online for a COVID outbreak or government mandate having to do with health and safety, we haven’t abandoned gathering together, have we?

The writer of Hebrews goes on to say, “as is the habit of some.”

In the Greek that carries the idea of customs or traditions. He’s talking about people claiming to be Christians who abandoned gathering together to the point that it’s become a custom. They are able to gather, but they’ve been gone so long they’ve lost a desire to ever return.

He writes this because worshipping God, being discipled in the Word, doing good works, and encouraging one another in the name of Jesus are meant to happen as Christians gather

We should want to do this together because we have such a wonderful high priest, Jesus. We should also do this together because the end is near and evil gets stronger by the hour. He’s warning them and us, not condemning them.

You cannot make this verse mean every time someone misses church they’ve disobeyed a command. Nor can you make it mean every time a church cancels services or moves services online they’ve disobeyed Scripture. It wasn’t intended to be used that way.

But you can lovingly apply it to those who claim to know Christ — like that waitress — but who have made not gathering with their brothers and sisters a habit.

BTW, just showing up for Easter and Christmas (and I’m talking about those who claim to be solid Christians here) is neglecting coming together. It’s a habit. What if you tried to convince someone smoking ten packs of cigarettes a day they needed to drop that habit and they said it’s not a habit because they don’t smoke on Christmas Day and Easter Sunday?

I am not saying that to be mean. I’m saying it because gathering is that important. I genuinely worry about those who make not coming a habit and think all is okay. Satan prowls about like a lion seeking those he can devour. Those farthest from the herd are in the most danger.

Conclusion: We probably need to wrap this up. Let’s look at our Hebrews text one more time in a different translation…

19 And so, dear brothers and sisters, we can boldly enter heaven’s Most Holy Place because of the blood of Jesus. 20 By his death, Jesus opened a new and life-giving way through the curtain into the Most Holy Place. 21 And since we have a great High Priest who rules over God’s house, 22 let us go right into the presence of God with sincere hearts fully trusting him. For our guilty consciences have been sprinkled with Christ’s blood to make us clean, and our bodies have been washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. 24 Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. 25 And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.  Hebrews 10:19–25 (NLT)

Let me close by being very open and honest with folks. I am speaking as your pastor, a shepherd who cares for your soul.

First, let me talk to those who are holding back for safety reasons, those waiting until things get better. I’m with you, and I am so glad you join us online and we are happy to offer that, but be careful because before you know it you may find not gathering together has become a habit. Like the frog slowly boiled to death in the kettle. I’m assuming you have prayed and God has given you the green light to stay away (completely appropriate), but I think now is a good time to pray about at some point God giving you the green light to come back.

Now let me talk to those who went digital but just never returned (or maybe didn’t do digital). There’s no health issues. No safety concerns in the pandemic. You consider yourself part of the church family (and you are), but you’ve enjoyed sleeping in Sunday morning, making Sundays family time, or whatever. Please, will you get your Bible, and as a family read out loud Heb 10:19-25, asking God to give you wisdom? Prayerfully ask yourselves as you read it can you truly worship God, be discipled in the Word, do good works, and encouraging one another in the name of Jesus with our gathering? Can your children be raised up in the faith disconnected from the family of faith? Can your marriage thrive? Can you be what God wants you to be? 

Now some might say that church just isn’t doing it for you anymore. You were able to do without gathering, so why come back? I get that. I do. You know, Flannery O’Conner, that great Southern, short story writer often dealt with writers block. It made her not want to try and write but “she took care to be at her writing desk each morning [anyway] so that, if an idea came, she would be there to receive it.”

A lapsed Catholic named Nancy Mairs writes … that she returned to church in somewhat the same way. Even while uncertain about belief in God, she began attending mass again to prepare ‘a space into which belief could flood.’ She learned that one does not always go to church with belief in hand. Rather, one goes with open hands and sometimes church fills them.” ~ Church: Why Bother?

Don’t feel it? Come any way. Get your kids back in KidsView. You get back in LifeView. Gather with us as we worship, as we grow in the word, as we do good works in Jesus’ name, as we encourage one another and just see what happens.

What fillings, what blessings from God are you missing when you neglect gathering together?

Finally, here’s a question. Have you ever taken God up on his offer to save all those who call on his name? That’s where to all begins

13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”  Romans 10:13 (ESV)

[1] Leeman, J. (2021). Do We Really Need to Gather? In Rediscover Church: Why the Body of Christ Is Essential (pp. 47–48). Crossway.

Christianity is a hands-on faith

[2] Leeman, J. (2021). Do We Really Need to Gather? In Rediscover Church: Why the Body of Christ Is Essential (p. 48). Crossway.

[3] Wright, T. (2004). Hebrews for Everyone (pp. 114–115). Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

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