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While studying this week for our sermon on obedience to Christ’s commands (John 15:10-14, “Obey My Commands”), I’ve come across the text of a sermon from Ephesians 5:21ff preached by William Willimon on the topic of submission. While discussing how the world has subtly attacked the Christian doctrine of submission and declared war on our lives of obedience, Willimon speaks about the importance of our Sunday morning worship gatherings. He calls our worship assemblies “a matter of life and death.”
A couple of years ago, I was invited to preach in the congregation where a friend of mine serves. The congregation is located in the heart of one of our great cities. The congregation is entirely black people who live in the tenement houses in that part of the city. I arrived at eleven o’clock, expecting to participate in about an hour of worship. But I did not rise to preach until nearly twelve-thirty. There were hymns and gospel songs, a great deal of speaking, hand-clapping, singing. We did not have the benediction until nearly one-fifteen. I was exhausted.
“Why do black people stay in church so long?” I asked my friend as we went out to lunch. “Our worship never lasts much over an hour.”
He smiled. Then he explained, “Unemployment runs nearly 50 percent here. For our youth, the unemployment rate is much higher. That means that, when our people go about during the week, everything they see, everything they hear tells them, ‘You are a failure. You are nobody. You are nothing because you do not have a good job, you do not have a fine car, you have no money.’
“So I must gather them here, once a week, and get their heads straight. I get them together, here, in the church, and through the hymns, the prayers, the preaching say, ‘That is a lie. You are somebody. You are royalty! God has bought you with a price and he loves you as his Chosen People!’
“It takes me so long to get them straight because the world perverts them so terribly.”
Paganism is the air we breathe in this current world; consumerism is the water we drink; individualism and imperialism are the oxymoronic values that shape us. These things capture us, they convert our kids, they subvert us Christians. We live in a hostile place for discipleship. That’s what makes our congregations, our communities of faith, and our appointed times of corporate worship, a matter of life and death.
We must regularly speak together about God in a world that lives as if there is no God. We must talk to one another as beloved brothers and sisters in a world which encourages us to live as strangers. We must pray to God to give us what we can’t have by our own efforts in a world that teaches us we are self-sufficient and all-powerful. What we do together on Sundays matters a great deal.