“What does your church offer that’s missing at the YMCA? … When you read your church’s bulletin and determine the invitation you offer, you will know whether your church is a community center or the globalizing, wounded arm of the Savior.”
So asked the late American pastor Calvin Miller in his ‘Letters to a Young Pastor’. Not that I claim to be young, you understand.
But it seems to be a good question. What is different about the church? Or, what could or should be different about the church?
And it seems good to ask it today, when we have so many visitors here for Emma’s baptism. I know some of you are churchgoers, but I expect a good number of you aren’t. You join us in the middle of a series where we are thinking about what our vision for a worshipping community is, and if you have any constructive feedback for us, please let us know.
It’s easy, of course, to find fault with the church, and often the fault-finding is deserved. While I sometimes recount that the famous celebrity who grew up along the same road as I did was Bruce Forsyth – and I play with ideas of changing the liturgy to begin with, ‘Nice to see you’ – another local lad was the late broadcaster Adrian Love. He attended the same grammar school as my Dad. Love was a churchgoer in his younger days, but gave it up because he couldn’t abide the persistent atmosphere of gossip in the church.
Against that background, it’s easy to have a romantic view of the early church, but the Apostle Paul would not have had to dictate the words of his that we read a few moments ago had everything been perfect then. So for the next few minutes we’ll consider those words on the basis that there is a gap the church needs to straddle, between how things are now and the vision of how things could be. This isn’t going to be an exercise in slating the church, but it is meant to be a time when we might become restless with things as they are, and develop a longing for how they might be.
Here, then, are three characteristics of a Christian worshipping community:
Firstly, love. I don’t think there is any other way to sum up the first three verses of the reading. Let’s hear them again:
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Verses 12-14)
Compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, bearing with each other, forgiving one another – all united by love. These are the qualities of love, of wanting to do whatever it will take for others to flourish. All of them could be taken as qualities of Jesus’ life – he was compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, patient and forgiving. Paul is calling Christians to love after the pattern of Jesus. It’s not real worship unless we love one another. Our relationships need to be whole, healing and authentic. If I say I’m worshipping God while I’ve got it in for my brother or sister Christian, then I am not truly worshipping at all.
But it’s a bit scary to speak about loving after the pattern of Jesus, isn’t it? Who could possibly do that? We know we fall short. The everyday reality is that we are fallible, failing, sinful people. We don’t make the grade. I was once at a conference where a seminar speaker asked us to take Paul’s famous words about love from 1 Corinthians 13 – ‘love is patient, love is kind, love keeps no record of wrongs’, and so on – and remove the word ‘love’, substituting our own names. Then we had to read it aloud. Most of us tripped into embarrassed laughter at the thought that we were patient and kind, keeping no record of wrongs. The speaker then asked us to remove the word ‘love’ and put in the name ‘Jesus’. Reading the words then made complete sense: ‘Jesus is patient, Jesus is kind,’ and the rest.
We are left, then, with this gap between the kind of people we sadly know ourselves to be and the sort of people we would aspire to be. And if we had to love like Jesus from a standing start straight to self-giving and self-sacrifice, we wouldn’t have a chance.
But it’s not like that. Paul starts with these words:
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved … (Verse 12a)
He can call us to love, because of who we are in God’s sight. We are chosen, holy (set apart) and – perhaps most important of all, dearly loved. The love we are called to demonstrate is not something that is a cold obligation. Rather, Paul says, love because you are loved. When you know you are loved, does that not change the way you live? The knowledge that someone loves you gives you security, and you risk doing things you wouldn’t otherwise have chanced. When you know you are loved, you don’t walk with stooping shoulders but with your head held high.
It’s all that and more in a relationship with Jesus Christ. We don’t love in order to be loved by God: we love because we are already loved. Loved with an everlasting love, the Bible says. Loved to the point of death, death on a Cross. And when we know we are loved like that, we find through God’s Holy Spirit the beginnings of bridging that gap between our weaknesses now and the vision of loving like Jesus.
Secondly, peace. Now – the love we have just described puts us on the road to peace, especially when we bear with each other and forgive one another. We start demonstrating a measure of reconciliation that is deeply appealing to broken and suffering people.
But Paul speaks of peace in another way in verse 15:
Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace.
When Paul says, ‘Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, the Greek word translated ‘rule’ is one that means an umpire or a referee. Christ’s peace is to blow the whistle in the church. When there are disagreements or even disputes – and we’d be naïve to think we won’t have them – then it is the peace of Christ that stops play or calls a foul. When there is something good – dare I say when we have scored a goal? – it is Christ’s peace that marks the fact and the style of our celebrations.
But if we really stretch the metaphor even further beyond what Paul had in mind, it might be worth asking, what kind of referee or umpire are we dealing with? Unfortunately, we often treat Christ and his peace like a football referee. We think we can argue him out of the decision he has made. We think we can show dissent and get away with it. And I know, of course, that Colin Stone would be deeply disappointed if I didn’t make an allusion to Chelsea players in this respect! How tragic it is that in the church we too often dissent from what the peace of Christ decrees. We don’t get our way, so we throw our toys out of the pram. Some aspect of church life doesn’t suit our tastes, so we break our relationships to go elsewhere. We don’t like what one individual does, so we bad mouth them behind their backs.
But what if we were dealing not with a football referee but a rugby referee, where dissent is punished by moving the kick ten metres nearer your goal? And therefore what if we allowed every aspect of Christ’s peace to rule our lives as a community? Not just peace in the sense of quietness, but the desire to overcome conflict, the desire to see harmony flourish, a commitment to justice in our relationships, strong resolve to work for healing in every area of life? I dare you to believe that spiritually we can hear Christ blowing the whistle on some of our behaviour, and that if only we were to treat him as the rugby referee whose will must be obeyed rather than the football referee who is constantly challenged, then we would take further steps towards being the worshipping community we long to be. We would be one in heart and mind as we come before God.
Thirdly and finally, thankfulness. When Paul finally gets onto the subject of worship in explicit words in the last couple of verses, note how words that suggest thankfulness (or gratitude) keep recurring:
And be thankful. 16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Verses 15b-17, italics mine.)
Where do we fall short when it comes to thankfulness? This is serious, because thanksgiving is central to our worshipping life. But – when we are ungrateful for all the good things God has given us, something is wrong. When we take our material and spiritual blessings for granted, things are going awry. When we become so detached from our brothers and sisters in Christ that our first instinct is to look for what we can grumble about, then we have departed from God’s vision for us as a worshipping community. Sadly, some people in our churches are known for their expertise in moaning.
What would begin to change us? How would we grow in thankfulness as a Christian community? It isn’t enough to be told to be thankful: there has to be a reason. Paul’s answer is that it’s to do with ‘the message of Christ’. As we dwell on all aspects of Christ’s life and ministry, it leads us to thankfulness. We are grateful for his coming. We give thanks for his life and teaching. We express gratitude for his suffering on our behalf. We offer thanksgiving because he conquered the grave. It is a case of turning our eyes on Jesus. Reflecting on Jesus rather than on our own petty dissatisfactions will begin to transform us.
But how can we do that? Not on our own, according to Paul. It’s something where we need one another. He envisages the wonders of Jesus being embedded in every style of worship the church offers – psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. And he anticipates not our style of worship where it’s all led from the front and one person chooses almost everything, but a group of people who together say to one another, ‘I think this hymn (or psalm, or spiritual song) will encourage you.’
And from there, it starts to fan out to the whole of our lives. Whatever you do, says Paul, do it in thankfulness, is how he ends. Our life as the worshipping community doesn’t end when I pronounce the blessing at the end of the service. That is but the beginning. When we are thankful for all that Christ has done, a light shines on all parts of life.
In fact, there was a church where the exit had a sign over the arch. As the congregation left the building, there were the words, ‘Servants’ Entrance’. Because we go as a worshipping community from this place with love, peace and thankfulness into the world.