I’m gonna keep this simple, but hopefully not simplistic. As you consider your corporate gathering of believers (typically on the first day of the week), there are three ways to think about it. You can think of it as an event, a participation, or a transformation.
The Event Model can take on two modes: emotionally-driven or cognitively-driven. The emotionally-driven mindset, of course, could baldly mean that you show up to hear some great music and hear a message. You go to watch and experience something. The cognitively-driven mindset could mean that you highlight the sermon so much that it becomes the point of your showing up. You hear this a lot in evangelical churches that the sermon is the most important aspect of the worship experience. The problem with such thinking, though, betrays an onlooker mentality. That is, I go to church to observe and consider and think and have my thinking changed.
In this model, there is an I-Thou expectation of the worship service. I go to that. I consider that. I am separate from and participate in that. In other words, this kind of approach to the corporate gathering is apart from who I am. I go to there. I leave from there. Sure, we talk about taking the message home with us…but come on! You and I both know we forget what was said within 10 minutes of leaving the building. When we are confronted with traffic on the way to the buffet. And then, we get bored. Bored with our lives. Bored with our faith. We find greater joy in our team winning the game than in our eternal salvation won at the cost of the Son of God.
The Participation Model is a little bit better than the event model. This puts the onus on the believer to come to the service seeking to be engaged in other people at church. For all the talk about this being a need in churches, and people nodding their heads in agreement…this does not happen in reality. People cognitively ascend to this truth, but they don’t fully grasp this truth.
If they do grasp a hold of this participation model, it often devolves into judgmentalism (others aren’t as serious about their faith as you are) or complacency (I asked someone how their walk with God is going and they gave me the cold shoulder). So what’s the problem with this model? Write simply it remains in the realm of I-Thou. That is, I bring something to you. I come to serve you. I am apart from and wholly different from you. At its root, it is simply another (albeit more spiritual rendition) of the event model.
The third, and I believe more biblical model (of course!), is the Tranformational Model. This way of approaching the Sunday morning gathering sheds itself of the event. It doesn’t come in judgment of the service–I didn’t like that song. I liked the sermon. I really engaged with God this morning. Wow, what a wonderful time. Instead, it views Sunday morning as another step in my being conformed into the image of Jesus. It does see it as an event you come to. It is something we participate in. But preeminently it embraces the fact that over time we are being changed by the service itself.
What does this look like? Well, it understands that every time we attend an event or participate in a service, we are slowly changing. You are much more different from the fifth football game you attended, than the first. You understand the language, the traditions, the cheers.
So it is with a church service…and this is where it gets a bit thorny. With the typical evangelical liturgy (and it is a liturgy) of two fast songs, two slow songs, a sermon, and dismissal, we are slowly becoming consumers. Or better put, our already-ingrained consumer mentality is reinforced as we observe (and maybe participate). We watch the stage. We critique the songs–or what the song leader was wearing. We sit down and hear someone wax eloquently–or not.
I fear that much of the problems we see in modern evangelicalism stem from us offering goods and services to people and not inviting them into be transformed. This fact is betrayed in much of the assumptions underlying decisions made on how the liturgy ought to roll. For example, since we need to be engaging and winsome in our communication of the Gospel, we need to play this popular radio song and do a Jesus juke to talk about how real love is only found in Jesus. Of course I’m not saying messages and songs ought to be fuddy-duddy and boring! Stop putting baby in the corner.
What I am saying is that churches ought to be very clear in what they are shaping their people into becoming. We ought to understand that we are in the business of transformation–from one degree of glory to another. Not filling seats. Not being entertaining and relevant at the cost of depth.
This is why at Christ the Redeemer, we have been intentional in our liturgy. We believe that the primary purpose of the Sunday morning gathering is the transformation of people. We have an explicit order to our service that follows the biblical storyline of Creation>Fall>Redemption>Consummation. Over time, people’s being is changed. It unwittingly becomes easier to say “I’m sorry, please forgive me” because you are trained to confess your sin every week. You more readily accept forgiveness because you are trained to hear God’s Word of Forgiveness to you after confessing. You more readily come to fellowship with God in spite of and because of your sin because you are trained that at the Lord’s Table you find satisfaction and rest for your souls.
Yes, Sunday morning is an event. But not merely so. It is something we participate in. But not merely so. It is preeminently another step in our being transformed into the likeness of Jesus. The primary goal of Sunday morning is our transformation through intentional liturgies.
How do you abide in someone you can’t see or touch or audibly listen to? When Jesus told his disciples to abide in him, was it merely for them or is it something we are called to emulate?
To the first question, Jesus most certainly expected his disciples to abide in him despite not being able to touch him and hear him and see him. After all, John 15 (where the speech comes from) is right before his crucifixion. Too often our faith is wedded to too much wooden-ness in understanding. We veer toward, “Yes, but…” Like Thomas who would not believe unless he put his hand in Jesus’ side, so also our faith is not expansive enough. Blessed are those that have not seen and yet believe–which leads to the second question.
Jesus prayed not only for his disciples in the Garden, but for all those who would hear the Good News from his disciples testimony. When he responded to Thomas that those who have not seen and yet believe are makarios (“blessed”), he had you and me in mind. What we see unfold in Scripture after the Resurrection is the kind of effulgent life he wants us to live…and abiding life.
So how do we abide?
I would suggest three ways.
Keeping His Word
Throughout John’s Gospel and his epistles, Jesus tells us that if we love him we will keep his commands. Like a father who loves his child, like an older brother looking out for his younger brother, Jesus tells us how to navigate God’s world. Do we trust him enough to actually follow his steps?
This explicit teaching is what is called the Revealed Will of God. While God is constantly working in his world for his own purposes, part of that working is his condescension to tell us how to understand his world. That is, unlike the gods of the Ancient Near East, Yahweh determined to tell his people how to live. His Law is gracious and kind to reveal his ways to us.
All the Law hangs on Jesus’ admonition to love God and people.
Throughout the New Testament we see what it looks like to abide in Christ when we hear the Apostles telling people to put others before their own whims and preferences. We see this worked out as the Spirit comes at Pentecost and the Church extends to the uttermost parts of the world.
Led By the Spirit
It is no accident that John 16’s (continued) discourse on the preferment of the Spirit’s coming follows on the heels of Jesus’ command to abide in him. While the Law is gracious and good, we botch it up with our self-seeking and short-sightedness. We need the Spirit of God to guide us into all truth.
As I shared in my sermon on Sunday, there are three witnesses: water, blood, and Spirit. The first two speak to the doctrinal clarity and objective reality of who Jesus is. The third is the subjective application of these truths into the life of the believer.
Unfortunately the Spirit is equated with emotionalism and awkward and outlandish activity by those claiming to be Spirit-led. This is an unfortunate state of affairs, indeed. While the Spirit blows where he will, and does things outside our meager understanding, this does not necessarily mean that his working in incomprehensible or outlandish or alien (more on this in the third point).
What are some ways we can be led by the Spirit?
Well, he inspired the text of Scripture and has clearly spoken there. Go there.
In Ephesians 5.18, we are told to be filled with the Spirit. How? The participles that follow this command tell us how: Addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. The Spirit is guiding and directing God’s people. Go there.
It would be good to reflect on each of these four participles and consider how you might be filled with the Spirit in ever-increasing measure. Are you speaking God’s songs over people? Are you singing to soothe the angst in your own heart? Are you grateful? Are you putting others’ needs before your own–considering them more significant than yourself?
Being Attune to God’s Working
One of my charges as a pastor is to help us see God’s continual work in the world. It is easy to wax on about God’s omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence but to deny his power and that this means right here right now. He is not all these characteristics merely in heaven. While you may say, “Obviously!” In fact, many of us affirm these aspects of God yet we live life as though he is not at work in the mundane stuff of life. We talk about him and his superintendent work int he world…but we fail to see his work in my making coffee or standing in line or talking to a stranger.
The shift in our lives happens when we see him always at work. Always. In the mundane. In the suffering and pain. In the exciting. That is God working and shaping you.
Every conversation. Every. Conversation. Is opportunity to hear God speak to you. For him to shape you. Every appointment is a “divine appointment.” He graciously guides our footsteps. The person in the checkout line needs to hear of God’s grace. Your co-worker needs to know that God loves him. The annoying neighbor needs to see God’s mercy. Your family needs to experience peace in your words and actions. These are all God’s ever-present work. His beckoning us to abide in his word and his world.
Israel found itself in the wilderness complaining against God for his ways of redeeming them. For the mundane activities he had them take part in (i.e., walking around in circles).
Side note: If you and I were led in the wilderness for 40 years we would be murmuring as well. We get in a tizzy when we have to do anything mundane for more than an hour typically.
So Israel complains and God sends serpents to bite them in judgment (see Numbers 21 for the full account). This act of judgment reminds us of the serpent in the Garden who is ever present with us. He tempts us to murmur and blame others rather than confessing and growing and trusting. These serpents become a vivid reminder of what each of our little speakings of our minds are really saying. That is, when we speak out against a circumstance or a person, we are setting ourselves up as the arbiter of right and wrong. Of truth. We are the ones to whom others ought to ask for permission.
But the act of healing did not come by taking a potion or jumping in a river or screaming out loud, “I’m sorry” followed by self-flagellation. The act of redemption came in the simple form of looking. Looking. Not reaching out. Not even crying out. Merely looking away from the self and to Another. There is no strength required. A mere acknowledgment of something outside of ourselves that needs to redeem.
What is fascinating further about this act of redemption is the object to which Israel was to look. They were to look to…a serpent. The Act of Rebellion against their Maker that started in the Garden is turned on its head. The Serpent is powerless to hold sway the delights of rebellion. He becomes the tool in God’s hands of redemption.
God doesn’t just say, “Stay away from serpents.” He doesn’t rid the earth of what would be deemed evil. Surely, the Adversary is not redeemer. That is not what we see in the text! Rather, we see that those things connected with and that can easily be lumped in with the hopeless, in this case a serpent, God redeems this seemingly hopeless object. He doesn’t merely get rid of the evil, he redeems the evil.
This is scandalous and you might find yourself saying, “Matt, you go too far!”
Do I? I venture to say that you have not entirely grasped who you are. You were an object of wrath. You were children of the Adversary. You delighted in your own desires and your universe orbited around your wants. God, being rich in mercy, took you out of that darkness. He didn’t merely remove you from the filth. He transferred you into the kingdom of his Beloved Son. The One he loved from before the foundation of the world. He not only transferred you into that kingdom. He has given you all the privileges of that kingdom. He has made you a son and daughter!
God is not in the business of just getting rid of his adversaries, but to those who will merely look to the Son who was also lifted up, he will give you the inheritance of his Beloved Son. No more to be destroyed. No more to be reviled and written off as hopeless. He gives you all that he has and all that he is.