Committed to Christ Series
We are in week three of a six-week series called Committed to Christ. In this post-Christian culture, many congregations find it critically important to do a series each fall on the basics of following Christ – the marks of discipleship, if you will. What does it mean to be a Christian? How does one belong to The Way? We cannot assume that people know what it means to follow Christ. Our world is as spiritually hungry as ever, but when they come to the church they often get inducted into club membership, rather than invited to grow spiritually. This series focuses on what it means to follow Christ.
My weekly blog posts for these six weeks are going to focus on six marks of discipleship:
- Bible Reading
- Financial Giving
The goals of this series are:
- To engage the entire congregation in praying and growing together in faith
- To develop small groups that grow faith and bond the congregation together in strong
- To welcome newcomers and close the back door of the church
- To grow faith and generosity
The key components of the series are:
- Daily devotions
- Weekly home groups
- Sunday worship
The texts appointed for this coming Sunday in the Revised Common lectionary are posted below. The Gospel reading is a good choice for a theme of worship this week.
October 23, 2016 is Pentecost 23C
Joel 2:23-32 – I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Even on male and female slaves, I will pour out my Spirit.
Sirach 35: 12-17 – The Most High will not show partiality to the poor; but he will listen to the prayer of one who is wronged. He will not ignore the supplication of the orphan, or the widow when she pours out her complaint.
Jeremiah 14: 7-10, 19-22 – Do not spurn us, for your name’s sake; do not dishonor your glorious throne; remember and do not break your covenant with us.
Psalm 65 – Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion; and to you shall vows be performed, O you who answer prayer! To you all flesh shall come. When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us, you forgive our transgressions.
Psalms 84: 1-7 – How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts. My soul has a desire for the courts of the Lord. Even the sparrow finds a home and the swallow a place to rest her young at your altars.
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 – As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation. My time has come. I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.
Luke 18: 9-14 – Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee (warning against hypocrisy)
Two weeks ago we talked about prayer and even gave a number of different strategies for praying. Then, last week we discussed daily Scripture reading as a devotional tool.
One could get the impression from these conversations that prayer and Scripture reading are private matters between God and an individual. One could get the impression that prayer and Scripture reading are things to be done when one is alone and never in community.
True, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says his followers should not be like the hypocrites who like to stand on the street corners and pray, so that they may be seen by others. Instead, his followers are to go into their room, to pray “in secret.” The point of this teaching does not seem to be privacy, but rather a concern with ostentatious praying. We are not to pray to impress others, feigning a shallow righteousness in a boastful way.
Pride is the enemy. Humility is Jesus’ constant call. This is the point of the gospel reading appointed for Pentecost 23C. But we’ll get to that in a moment.
While Jesus does not want his followers standing on the street corners praying out loud simply to impress others, this injunction falls short of an all out prohibition of corporate prayer. In fact, Jesus goes to the synagogue weekly, on the sabbath as a custom. There in the synagogue is frequent corporate prayer and the reading of scripture. Jesus prays with his disciples and even fusses at them for falling asleep, notably in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he is crucified: “Could you not watch and pray with me one hour?” Indeed, the Passover Supper is a meal of prayers.
Praying at meals and eating while at prayer, with Scripture, became a way of life for Jesus’ followers. A vivid depiction of worship in the early church can be found in Acts 2:42-47, perhaps an appropriate first lesson for this Sunday:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
In this passage one finds so much of what it means to be the church.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching. By the time Luke is writing these words in Acts, letters from Paul and those who sat at the feet of Jesus had been circulating for nearly half a century. Since most people were not able to read or afford copies of these letters, they gathered to hear them read. It was the role of the presbyter/elder/pastor to explain and expound upon these texts. The devoted themselves to the teaching of those who had known Jesus in the flesh.
They devoted themselves to fellowship. The word for fellowship is “koinonia.” It means community. They committed themselves to living out their faith in community because the work that God is doing in the world will require all hands on deck. Christianity is a team sport.
They devoted themselves to the breaking of bread and prayers. They gathered to break bread and drink wine in remembrance of Jesus, as he had asked them to do at the Last Supper.
We get a picture of early Christian faith life and worship: Scripture reading, teaching, community, Holy Communion, and prayer.
In addition to this, 1 Corinthians 14:26 says,
What should be done then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.
In the informal house churches, one might select a hymn, another a Scripture reading, and there was the practice of praying in tongues. Whether formal or informal, worship has some basic components, and it is central to living out the Christian faith.
We need each other. We need the mutual support. We need the balance and perspective of others. We need to confess and forgive one another. We need to serve together and give together. Worship is central to following Christ.
The RCL gospel text from Luke 18 spells up the proper posture for worship: humility.
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
One man comes to the Temple with arrogance. He feels morally and spiritually superior. “I thank thee O God that I am not like others… thieves, rogues, adulterers, tax collectors. I fast, I tithe…”
We have folks in our churches like this. Going to a church, being a member of a church, gives them a sense of moral superiority. They are better than the unchurched, immoral idolaters of the world. Their universe is black and white. The drama allows them to be the heroes of their own story.
Rather than muddy the simplistic world of the Pharisees, Jesus accepts the binary scenario but turns it in its head. The other worshipper already knows he is not superior. He is not blinded by self-righteous arrogance. He acknowledges that he is captive to sin, and has fallen short of righteousness and justice. Jesus once again makes a hero out of someone his listeners, the Pharisees, see as a villain: the tax collector. The tax collector is “justified” in God’s sight because he has the proper posture: humility. The tax collector turns out to be more righteous than the religious leaders.
We need worship because we too are broken by sin. We participate in sinful political and social structures from which we cannot extract ourselves. We are captive to addictions and misplaced priorities that are deeply ingrained. We need confession and absolution. It is the only way forward.
Another lesson that might hit home on this day comes from Hebrews 10:
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.
“Not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some…”
But worship is not an end unto itself. We come to hear the news of Christ’s death and resurrection. We come and receive hope and forgiveness, then we are sent forth to love and serve the world in Jesus’ name. How shall we do that? We cannot sit on the mountain top, resting on our laurels. We are called, then sent.
A traditional hymn to sing may be How Good Lord to Be Here. The last stanza says,
How good Lord to be here, but we cannot remain
But since you bid us leave the mount, come with us to the plain.
There are some who will disagree with this, but I believe that if worship does not affect the way we live, then our worship has been in vain. If hearing the gospel of the empty tomb does not drive us to pour out our lives in sacrificial love for the world, then we have not heard the true gospel.
I recently heard a new story about a decommissioned church been turned into apartments. They were interviewing a neighbor who was concerned. “This building used to be a center that cared for children, cared for seniors, fed the hungry, and served the neighborhood. It is doubtful that apartments will fill those purposes.”
The world needs the church, the body of Christ, not superior, but forgiven, fed and sent out into the world with joy to be a healing presence. The world needs community and friends. People need, want, and crave relationships.
Essential to being followers of Christ, are prayer, Scripture reading, and worship, together.
As Bob Crossman says, this would be a good Sunday for a lay testimony: someone besides the pastor who will share the life-changing effects of worship in their life.
Worship is more a gift than an obligation. We come to be filled. We come to receive: forgiveness, hope, the Word, faith, community, and more. We also, then, get the opportunity to give. We love, we serve, and we give generously to the work of the church in the world. Then we are sent to be the presence of Christ in the world.