“The Kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by all people.” ~ Romans 14:17-18
Most churches are beginning to reopen for in-person Sunday worship. Church leaders are taping off pews, sanitizing doorknobs, and trying to figure out what to do with the kids. There are many questions that come as a church transitions from scattered to gathered in the middle of a global pandemic, some of them seemingly unanswerable. All of us are doing this for the very first time, we’re flying by the seat of our pants. But one question that must be answered is this: Why bother?
Central is reopening for public worship next Sunday May 31. And it will not be like it was in February. In fact, it won’t be like it’s ever been in the 112-year history of this congregation. We’re asking our people in the at-risk categories to stay home. We’re blocking off two out of every three pews so we can maintain nine to twelve feet of distance between us. We’re wearing masks. We’re using those individually packaged “Rip n Sip” communion kits (yuk!). No Bible classes for a while, no children’s programming.
What is that going to look like? How is that going to feel?
Eric Gentry is a CofC preacher in Memphis, Tennessee and he wrote an article a couple of weeks ago asking this question: “Is there something about God, church, worship, or community that we are not experiencing now online that we will experience once we return, even under the restrictive conditions? If so, what is it?”
That’s probably the question we need to answer. Whatever “it” is, if we’re eager to experience “it” together at church, we should probably be able to define “it.” I keep hearing how desperate we all are to be back together in the same room, how we can’t wait to meet again as a church. But do we know why? Because when we do come back together, we’ll do so at the risk of compromising the health of our members and guests. It’ll cost us more money in utilities and cleaning than we’ve been spending for the past two months. And with all of us spread out so far apart and wearing masks and the weird communion, it’s going to be a diminished worship experience. It won’t be the same.
So, let’s work through this.
I believe the desire in us to assemble together on Sunday mornings is so deep and so strong because it is the very essence of who we are as God’s people. The Church is God’s gathered people.
In the account of the inception of the Church of Jesus Christ, the Bible makes clear that the people in Jerusalem that day had come from all over the known world. Acts 2:8-11 lists all the foreigners who were there the countries from where they came. The author doesn’t want you to miss it. God had brought these people together from all over and that’s when he established the Church.
Peter preaches that God’s Holy Spirit had raised Jesus from the grave and that Jesus is alive and reigning at the right hand of God and that the crucified Jesus is indeed both Lord and Christ. And three thousand people were baptized in the name of Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins and they each received the gift of God’s Spirit living inside them. And they responded. Saved by the blood of Jesus Christ, guided by the power of the Spirit, notice how they lived and worshiped and served together.
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.” ~Acts 2:42-47
Our God, in the death and resurrection of Jesus, has saved us and called us to be a gathered together people. Staying away from each other goes against our nature as Christians. It’s like a bird trying not to fly. It’s like Ted Nugent trying not to cuss. It’s not going to last very long. We must be together.
The literal definition of Church in the Bible is an assembly of people. The original Greek word is ekklesia. It means a gathering or assembly of people. You find it 111 times in the New Testament. Everywhere you see the English word “church,” it’s a translation of the Greek word for assembly.
David Watson writes, “The word ekklesia always speaks of the coming together of God’s people in answer to his call, in order to meet with God in the company of each other, and to meet each other in the presence of God.”
Meeting together — it’s the very definition of who we are. We are first and foremost a gathered people.
The Christian faith is an embodied faith. Coming together to share the same space, to breathe the same air, and to eat and drink the same meal embodies our incarnational God. In Christ Jesus, our God joins us in physical bodily form and calls us to also come together in community in one another’s physical, bodily, face to face presence. The things we do together like baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and congregational singing are communal acts meant to be shared and experienced in community. We don’t baptize ourselves. We break bread together. We believe the Church, the assembly of God’s people, is a spiritual reality that is manifest and given its power in physical acts done by physical people in physical proximity.
Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, I’m right there with them!”
I think that’s the “it.”
That’s what is so special about Sunday mornings together. It’s the unique presence of our God with us when his people all physically come together. It’s the powerful presence of God with his people on the Day of Assembly. It’s God himself eating and drinking with his people when they come together at Mount Sinai. It’s the Lord’s glory appearing in the midst of his assembled people during the appointed times. Being together in the same physical space in the presence of God — that’s the deal! That’s what we’re craving.
And you can’t get it online.
It’s happening. John the Baptist is standing out in the desert, right there in the Jordan River, where the world’s resistance to God is meeting the irresistible force of God’s coming. The ax is already at the root of the trees! It’s happening. Get ready. You’d better re-think your priorities. You’d better re-order your lives. Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near! Produce fruit in keeping with repentance! Every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire!
Jesus is coming. And he’s coming to judge. And Jesus is going to judge us according to our fruit that’s in line with our repentance. And repentance doesn’t just mean saying “I’m sorry.” We know this. We experience this when someone we’re close to says “I’m sorry” one too many times and we flip out in frustration. “Stop saying you’re sorry! I don’t want you to be sorry! I want you to change your behavior!”
When I was roofing houses a million years ago there was an old crusty guy who worked with us. We just called him Tommy. I don’t remember his last name. He was originally from New York and I always felt like he had mafia ties. Anytime anybody ever said “I’m sorry” about anything, Tommy would say, “Don’t be sorry, just don’t do it no more!”
The word “repent” means to turn around, to start going in a different direction. It means to make a brand new start.
What John the Baptist is preaching sounds a lot like the Old Testament prophets, calling God’s people into a right relationship with the Lord that has to impact every part of their lives. Repentance is a change in your attitude toward God that changes all your actions and the overall direction of your life. But as much as this sounds like the Old Testament, there’s a distinctly new element to this. He calls the people to repent because the Kingdom of Heaven is near. The Messiah is coming. The Kingdom is here. It’s happening. Repent.
But if I’m told over and over again I need to repent, I need to change, I need to orient my life toward God, nothing significant ever happens. Nothing really changes. It’s like being told I need to exercise and lose weight. I know those things. My doctor tells me. My family tells me. I know I need to exercise and lose weight. But I still wind up at Whataburger twice a week!
I don’t need a preacher telling me to change. I don’t need some prophet telling me to get my life right, or else. I need some power from outside myself to make me different. It’s got to be something besides me. Because with just me, it’s not happening. I can’t do it.
Thank goodness this is not about New Year’s resolutions. This is about change.
You can’t do it. I can’t do it. This change we need is not tied up in your commitments or your identity. This is not about your family or your nation or your church. It has nothing to do with your education, your zip code, or your bank account. I was raised in the Church; I’m a Christian. Give me a break! Out of these stones God can raise up as many Christians as he wants! This call to repentance is universal. It’s not just for sinners or backsliders or non-Christians. This is a call to repentance for all of Israel, including the religious leaders. Including you. And me. All of us.
And, praise God, John the Baptist points to that great power from outside us that is coming. He isn’t talking about some new self-help promotion or a New Year’s resolution. He points us to the only source of real, lasting, significant change: the Holy Spirit. The coming Lord who is more powerful than me will baptize you with the promised Holy Spirit! A power that can make a new creation out of stubborn people like us, stones like us, who have no way to save ourselves. The power that is coming is not our power — not the power of our deeds or our inner resolve or our spiritual disciplines or even our faith and repentance. It’s God power. We are able to repent and bear fruit because of God’s power in the coming Lord Jesus and his Holy Spirit!
We can’t trust the powers of this world to make us children of Abraham. We can’t tell ourselves we have better genes or better morals or better theology or better attitudes or better humility or better works. It is God through Christ who is making children of Abraham. He is making people brand new for his Kingdom. Stones like you and me. It’s happening.
We are being changed. We are being weaned away from our possessions and turning more toward being possessed by the everlasting love of God. We are becoming less interested in blessings for ourselves and more interested in serving others with the grace and mercy of our Lord. We are in the process of becoming more thankful and less self-righteous and sure. We are gradually becoming less preoccupied with our own privileges and prejudices and seeing ourselves more and more in solidarity with all human beings who, like us, can receive grace only from the hand of God.
It’s happening. God does not sleep. He’s wide awake and he’s bringing his Kingdom to us. The new heavens and new earth where everything that’s wrong is made right and everything that’s broken in you and in those around you is fixed. It’s not some fuzzy, far-off dream. It is the Word of the Lord. The God who came to us in Christ Jesus is unveiling his Kingdom in all its glory. He is bringing justice and joy to the whole world. The Kingdom of Heaven is near.
You can talk too much about the Holy Spirit. You can focus on the Spirit too much. We don’t want to give too much attention to the Holy Spirit. That leads to who knows what. Where are you going with this? Where is this headed?
We know exactly where this is headed. We know what this leads to. If we’ll pay more attention to the Spirit, if we’ll listen to the Spirit, if we’ll give God’s Holy Spirit total control over our churches, we already know the result.
“The fruit (result) of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” ~Galatians 5:22-23
I’m going out on a limb here, but, I think the Church could use a little more love and joy and peace. I believe Christians need more patience and kindness and goodness and faithfulness. Am I wrong? We could all stand to gain and demonstrate more gentleness and self-control. When the Spirit accomplishes that in the Church, that’s so much more powerful than speaking in tongues or healings or spiritual trances. When the Holy Spirit produces this kind of result in God’s Church, the whole world might flip out!
Near the end of the fourth Gospel, the resurrected Jesus says to his gathered followers, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” I am sending you to do the things I’ve done in the ways I’ve done them. I’m commissioning you to heal the sick and proclaim the Kingdom of God. I’m charging you to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile, to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”
And, with that, he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
We do not have the abilities on our own to do what Jesus did in the ways he did them. Church is the Body of Christ — the real, tangible, concrete, physical, flesh-and-blood presence of Jesus in the world. That’s the call. That’s the charge. That’s the point of the Church, our mission.
But how? We can’t.
He knows. He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
The Holy Spirit transforms our inabilities. God’s Spirit teaches us things we could never come up with on our own. The Bible says we can’t even make the Christian confession — Jesus is Lord! — except by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit transforms our inabilities and provides the gifts and the powers to do things we could never do by ourselves.
“Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.” ~Mark 13:11
No one naturally loves his enemies. No one naturally turns the other cheek. Nobody naturally lays down his rights or would rather be wronged than to fight for what is hers. Jesus says those are exactly the kinds of things that separate Christians from just good people. Those are the things that are required if we are to be his Church. And the Holy Spirit infuses us with the abilities and the power to do it. The Spirit forms in us the character traits we need to live like our Lord. He gives us strength so we can follow the way of the weakness. He gives us power so we can take care of the helpless. He gives us peace so we can endure the hostility.
If being a Christian is just about being a good citizen and giving to charities and not cussing too much — you don’t need the Holy Spirit for that. This is about following Jesus. You can’t be a follower of Jesus without the fellowship of the Spirit who transforms our inabilities and provides us the power to live like people without the Holy Spirit don’t. Can’t.
And it takes time. This kind of transformation doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process. Sometimes it feels like it’s happening and other times it doesn’t feel like anything’s happening. It’s hard to measure. It’s difficult to track. God doesn’t send us quarterly reports. But we know his Spirit is working on us. Changing us. Transforming us. We know that we all reflect the Lord’s glory and are being transformed into his likeness in ever-increasing glory which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
Loving your neighbor is different from just being a good guy. The peace that passes all understanding is not the same as the peace of having your mortgage paid off. Turning the other cheek is not even in the same universe as self defense or protecting what’s yours. Doing justice is more than forwarding a Facebook petition. Showing mercy is more than sponsoring a co-worker in a 5K.
The fellowship of the Spirit is where our abilities are transformed together and how the Kingdom of God is made real in a broken and dying world.
“I will ask the Father, and he will give y’all another Counselor to be with y’all forever — the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But y’all will know him, for he lives with y’all and will be in y’all. I will not leave y’all as orphans; I will come to y’all. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but y’all will see me. Because I live, y’all also will live. On that day y’all will realize that I am in my Father, and y’all are in me, and I am in y’all.” ~John 14:16-20
Jesus is Emmanuel. God with us. God near us. That’s Jesus. Our Father takes that one dramatic step further with his Holy Spirit. God in us. God inside us.
The pronouns used by Jesus are plural, not singular. This is communal. It’s corporate. The Holy Spirit binds us together in a shared fellowship. Together.
Thirty years ago, a sociologist named Robert Bellah wrote an influential book called Habits of the Heart. He documented what he described as an American phenomenon: ontological individualism. It’s this belief, he says, is unique to us in the United States: an individual is his or her own source of meaning. Nobody can tell me what to do. Nobody can teach me anything I can’t learn on my own. I don’t need anybody. I don’t depend on anybody. The whole thing is about me. That’s a very American mindset. Bellah says most Americans barely have the vocabulary, much less the desire, to express commitment or passion for anything other than themselves.
The Church of the Lord Jesus Christ is not for individuals. It transcends our identities and surpasses our abilities as individuals. It’s a group thing. It’s the fellowship of the Spirit.
Jesus says, “I will not leave y’all as orphans.” That’s family language. By the Holy Spirit, he says, “I will come to y’all.” Family. Community.
“We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body — whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free — and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” ~ 1 Corinthians 12:13
When we talk about the work of the Spirit, we usually focus on the Spirit’s relation to the individual Christian. We talk about how the Spirit is active in a person’s life or how a woman or man uses particular Holy Spirit gifts. According to Jesus, though, our emphasis should be on the Spirit’s corporate work. We should pay more attention to the indwelling and empowering of the Spirit in and through the Church.
“If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in y’all, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to y’all’s mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in y’all.” ~Romans 8:11
“Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in y’all?” ~ 1 Corinthians 3:16
The Church is a community where no one reaches his full spiritual potential and no one fulfills her true spiritual calling apart from the group. Each member of the fellowship contributes something special to the group so that all together the Holy Spirit does so much more for the Kingdom than any of us could do by ourselves. The Church attains to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ together.
“To each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good…” ~1 Corinthians 12:7
Some religions teach that meditating or praying in solitude is the highest form of spirituality. But that is not Christianity. The fellowship of the Spirit is not about private Christian growth or individual spiritual formation. What the Spirit gives us is intended for serving the common good, the whole fellowship together.
The Spirit is the one who brings us together. And when we’re together, bound to one another by the Spirit of God, the Church is bigger than we think. It transcends our individual abilities. It’s better than we can see, it’s wider and deeper, it’s richer and longer-lasting and farther-reaching. It’s more than our physical senses can begin to detect. It’s holy.
The Holy Spirit is our guarantee, our down payment of what’s coming. The fellowship of the Spirit is a taste of everything that’s going to be revealed. The Holy Spirit promises us together that, yes, God will act. Yes, God will speak. God will save. God will fulfill. Our God will live with us and in us forever and ever. Hallelujah! Amen.