" Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach 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. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching."
Hebrews Chapter 10, verses 19-25
By and large, the Book of Hebrews is not one of those books you go to in the bible when you're looking for comfort or gentle guidance in the life of discipleship. In this respect it is somewhat akin to the Apocalypse of St John, or the book of Daniel, though much more ignored than either of these. No-one has made a mint out of cartoon versions or a best selling series of books based on Hebrews. To hijack GK Chesterton, 'it has not been tried and found wanting, rather it has been found difficult and not tried". There is hardly an 'easy' verse in it.
So it comes as a relief in the midst of the unremitting obscurity and apparent harshness of the text - (angels, mountains on fire, no sacrifice remaining for backsliders, and people getting sawn in half not being a staple of Sunday school talks or indeed sermons) - to come across verse 25 in the tenth chapter, 'not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some'. Well at least we get that . . . or do we?
Commentators on this passage note its force. My Greek critical commentary heads this verse 'STAY TOGETHER!' and remarks that failure to meet with our fellow Christians is 'associated with apostasy - though the author does not claim a direct causal link between the two'. To which we might heave a hearty sigh of relief as it seems meeting together is less and less understood as Essential to faith in this day and age. There is little sense abroad in the contemporary western church that we'd 'crawl across broken glass to get to church', or that in failing to make corporate worship our Highest Priority, we are cutting out throats - but we should be and we are.
Yesterday is / Today was 'Superbowl Sunday'.
[My apologies for mixing tenses, but living in New Zealand has led to me developing a Douglas Adams sense of tenses, it is a little like the confusion caused by time travel. (See "The lighter side of languages" half way down this article if you wish to know more about this).]
I wake this morning to have found this article on the atheist portal of Patheos. The essence of it is that atheist organisations have hired planes to fly above this culmination of the American Sporting year, trailing banners that proclaim, Nelson Munce like to the gathered Christian fans enjoying lunch in the parking lot, 'HA - HA - football is more important to you than God!'
Now at this point there will be many many readers of this post, who protest loudly that there are a hundred and one Good and Godly Reasons for being at the game rather than being in church. I have been around long enough and read enough material on Contemporary Mission to know them all . . . but I am finding that they are wearing thinner and thinner, and given they've only been around for 20 or so years, that means they're not terribly durable.
Yes, if some Pastor had said to his congregation last week - Look folks I KNOW that it will feel like a living death to you to be dragged away from the worship of the living God in the presence of the Saints, I KNOW that the sacrament is the very lifeblood of the church - but JUST THIS ONCE can we deprive ourselves for the sake of the world, and go 'pester the hell out of those who think that a game of American football is more important that the worship of the Living God', and what is more we will schedule special services either side of this so that we might be revived after this DEPRIVATION. I might perhaps have allowed discussion of the possibility that their might be some mileage in pursuing this line of reasoning, but otherwise I don't think so.
The sense that Very Regular Church Worship is Essential to faith it seems is at best in rapid decline and the arguments against it are almost exclusively nothing more than rationalising our practise as normative.
There is a lot I wish to say about this, but in order not to turn this blog into a book, I'll tackle it as one would eat an elephant, a mouthful at a time . . .
How did we get here?
In the beginning, the presence of Christ was understood solely as the gathered community - 'where two or three are gathered, there am I in the midst'. Most interestingly this verse in Matthew's gospel concerns church discipline and the Risen Christ ( as we must always undertand him when we hear the gospel) says to his church - your authority is mine. It is mind numbingly challenging especially as we have so learnt to dissociate Church with the presence of Christ.
Of course this association between the gathered people of God and the Presence of God goes back to the very beginning in the garden and is then consecutively re-enacted in tabernacle and temple and only finally does the Glory depart as the people refuse to recognise God 'in their midst'. Jesus in saying what he does only restores the link between the gathered people of god and the presence of God.
The Kingdom is among you was the presence of Christ - living and active in his church. Thus Simon Peter and John do what Christ does in healing the lame man. Silver and Gold have I none . . . (yesterday I preached on this). . . the church is present so Christ is present to heal and to save . . .
Then something happened - it may be 'Christendom', but perhaps that is putting it too simply and this isn't the place for exploring what happened - but the result was that The Church became The Thing. Becoming powerful in the worlds wealth. The Glory - the Shekinah - that marked the Presence was superceded by that which is glorious in the eyes of humankind - the Church, empowered by the world outdid the world in Scholarship, in Learning, in building programmes - and in our eyes it looked Very Good (all that we had created). Funnily enough it was one of the great theologians of the church, Thomas Aquinas who allegedly observed that the Shekinah had departed, that Church and Christ were no longer the same - that the earthly kingdom the Church had built did not correspond to the heavenly one Christ announced - that Earth and Heaven were now separate domains. For as the Pope said 'We can no longer say, Silver and Gold have we none' - he is said to have replied 'sadly neither can we say, In the name of Jesus of Nazareth rise up and walk'. Apocryphal it may be, but it hits the mark.
We had built a wonderful edifice - an Empty Church.
And thus having dissociated Church and Christ in practise, and the tide of the church's power ebbing fast, it was all too easy to begin to suggest that we didn't Need Church, we just needed Jesus (ably abetted by our rapidly growing materialist individualism). By and large, within the older Protestant churches almost exclusively, we have abandoned Church as of the Essence. Yes there are some on the fringes who recognise that the call is to community, that in the community of faith Christ is present and that that is all that is necessary, but they are a small minority. For most of us, we like to think we're Christian and we think we can be so with lip service to worshiping together.
We started with Paul being so bold as to assert that the Church was the Body of Christ, and Jesus asserting that His discipline was directly administered through the Church - to a place where for our own glory we dissociated Christ and his Church and majored on Church - to a place now where all we need is Jesus and if there is something more interesting or more pressing, church can be dropped, because it isn't the highest Priority. But I suggest, that in speaking thus we have so lost sight of what the church is, that in effect we are saying Christ and His Life isn't our highest Priority.
In the beginning people faced martyrdom rather than not worshiping Christ in and amongst his people - now we would think it a sort of martyrdom not to be able to go to the football
"Failure to meet with our fellow Christians is 'associated with apostasy - though the author does not claim a direct causal link between the two' "- for most of us in the West, I suggest we think that there is NO link between the two and even if it might be true for some, it certainly isn't for me and my personal Jesus. Apostate because I don't go to church??? HERESY!!!
Or it may be that the atheists have got us Bang to Rights . . .