Soon we will be gathering again for congregational worship. I suspect that certain things come to mind when we think of worship. Maybe singing, maybe praying, maybe preaching, or maybe something else entirely. Here is something that might not come to mind, Christian worship is, and always has been, a resistance movement. The church is a rebellion against the way things are. That has not changed. When we begin to gather together again, we will be gathering as a resistance movement. But we want to be clear, our decision to get together at this time will not be a rebellion against recommendations for health and safety.
The Bible includes some pretty clear examples of rebellion against earthly regimes. Remember the story about Pharaoh and Egypt? Have you heard the stories about how Daniel defied the kings order and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow down? In the New Testament there are times when government appears to be operating for the good and the Bible exhorts us to recognize that. But by the time we get to the Revelation things have changed significantly and governing bodies are being mocked and judged severely.
If we are ever asked or ordered to bow down to the state there is little doubt as to what the expectations for the church will be. After all, we are a resistance movement. But the fact is, we can agree with the government when it makes recommendations for health and safety reasons. Being a people called to love our neighbors, if sheltering in place has indeed limited the spread of the coronavirus then the state has played into our hand.
When we begin meeting again, we will not be congregating in order to defy health organizations or government attempts to keep us safe. The fact is, governors and presidents are not health professionals. They are simply communicating information after listening to their advisors which may include health professionals. Be glad you are not making these decisions and pray for those who are. There have been and will be times for the church to rebel against authorities. Those times do not include the times that the state is attempting to keep citizens safe.
We will meet again for the same reasons we do anything. We will meet because we are called to a greater war than coronavirus. We are involved in a war against strongholds of darkness that can only be defeated by light and love and sticking with the ways of God no matter what gets in the way. The Bible wants to be clear that this war is not against flesh and blood. It is against powers and principalities.
Whether you plan to gather for worship with a physical group of believers or if you are still worshipping with a group that is meeting online, remember, there is something big going on. And you are called to be part of it.
Going to church is not the same as going to Walmart. Never has been, never should be, and must not be in the future. Just because Walmart has figured out ways to get people in and out safely does not make things any easier for the church. Walmart is built for individual consumers while the church is built for relationship. It is far more complicated to return to church than it is to go to Walmart.
We are a couple of months into the COVID-19 pandemic. Some feel anxiety and others suspicion. We do not want to make decisions based on either of those things. We are more interested in serving neighbors and strengthening relationship. In order to do that most effectively, we plan to start gathering in the near future. I am sure some are thinking we should have started to meet sooner while others are considering us a safety risk. I want to be clear, we are not making any decisions lightly. It was difficult to decide not to meet, but we chose to do that. Quite frankly, it is not an easy decision to decide to meet again. Yet, we will choose to do that also.
Here is a certainty. The COVID-19 pandemic in its present form will pass. When this is over, we hope to look back with confidence that our witness was strengthened by what happened. That we will look back at this period of time and see clearly that God was with us and was working in our midst for good. Because of this certainty, we can turn to God today and ask for the discernment and compassion to make good decisions now. We know that not everyone will be on the same time table. But, we remain one with both our most eager and our most cautious sisters and brothers.
At first glance, 212 North High Street may not stand out. There, you will find a fine brick building with plenty of character. The imprint in the concrete near the front steps say it was built in 1912. Multiple things go on here. In just the next few weeks, among other things, the building will serve as the site for a dinner, study sessions, the local food distribution, a board meeting, and a party. Next Thursday evening, we will sit on the front steps and give treats to the neighbors.
But the primary thing that happens here is a gathering on Sunday mornings. We don’t take these gatherings casually; in fact, we believe heaven and earth meet here. We gather with allies to acknowledge who rules the world. We gather to remind ourselves of our role in such an important narrative. We gather to pray, sing, and bless one another for the ongoing journey. We enter sacred space and read words of hope out loud. We are reminded of what is real in contrast to the artificial news we hear so much of the time. On account of these things, I suspect most of our gatherings leave attenders somewhat ‘spirited.’
But recently we were reminded that what we do is not always ‘spirited’, at least not in a sense that feels good. In fact, we were reminded that our gatherings can be sobering. It is hard to feel good when one of your own is hurting. It is easy to talk about retaliating toward a perpetrator. It is difficult to talk about forgiving them. It doesn’t feel good when a friend is pouring out the emotional pain of her soul because of a literal catastrophe.
At first glance, 212 North High Street may not stand out. But there is something going on in those Sunday gatherings where we attempt to “bless those who persecute… rejoice with those who rejoice… mourn with those who mourn.”
We have been exploring worship in recent weeks. We have talked about worship as something that happens in the presence of the Risen Lord. We have discussed worship as where the reign of God is announced. Worship as a place where our stories intersect with God’s story, as a gathering of people we did not choose, as a people God brings together for God’s mission, as something we do in response to the activity of God.
Yesterday, we talked about worship again. Worship as a place where a battle is waged. Worship as an acknowledgement we have an enemy. Ephesians was our catalyst for conversation. In chapter four, Ephesians gives us a list of gifts within the body. Unity is important and we read chapter four and realize we cannot be discipled alone. Following Jesus requires others. As hard as unity is, it is necessary.
As hard as that is, things get harder still because we have an enemy. We are not paranoid. There is actually a plot designed to destroy us. A plot that requires us to reckon with principalities and powers and authorities and forces of darkness. We have an enemy and that makes it important to take seriously chapter six.
“Be strong… stand firm… put on the full armor…” This is no appendix, not some add on to the letter as it comes to a conclusion. This makes sense of the rest of the letter. Living in a pagan world is hard. Together, we war against an enemy. To sign up for what we do in worship is nothing less than war.
It is easy to think of this war as optional. It is easy to think we can stay on the sideline while others fight against darkness on our behalf. Just as Christ gave gifts to the church in chapter four “so that the body of Christ may be built up” is a corporate statement, so is “put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground.” We are in this together.
I once heard Greg Boyd tell a story that highlighted this thought well. Since I can’t remember the details of Boyd’s story, I am taking some liberty with it here.
This story starts on July 1, 1863. Imagine you are on vacation. You, the family, and some family friends are enjoying a cottage in a wooded area near Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, PA. You have been coming here for years now. It is peaceful and relaxing. A fine place to stay during a hot part of the summer.
But on that morning, July 1, 1863, you are awakened by a knock on the door. You open it to find General Meade of the Union Army. He is requesting your cottage and asking you and your family to share resources and join the fight. The Confederate Army is on the way and fighting is inevitable.
However, you have vacation plans. You have chicken marinating in the refrigerator and have already planned a corn hole tournament. This has always been your time. You tell the General you will not be participating in his fight but wish him luck in the war.
Think about this scenario. You are on the battlefield. War is going on all around you. You are literally caught in the crossfire. To ignore this and cheer from the sideline is foolish. Ephesians states clearly, we have an enemy. Together, we are at war. To ignore this due to busyness or disinterest does not make it go away. We are caught in the crossfire. To cheer from the sideline is foolish.
I love this potential scene given by Scot McKnight of one of Paul’s house churches.
“Lets transport ourselves back to one of Paul’s house churches and imagine yet again the make-up of that group – the morally unkosher sitting with the unpowerful standing with an arm around the financially drained, addressed by an apostle who was being chased daily by opponents of the gospel. In that context, with all those people around, hear again the grand Yes of God.
‘Who can be against us?’ Paul tauntingly thunders. The answer, No one!”
Ben Witherington creates an interesting story about life in Corinth and one of the things I find most interesting is the description of Christian worship. A Week in the Life of Corinth is the tale of a fictional character by the name of Nicanor, a former slave. Upon visiting the strange new religious cult for the first time, he understandably has some questions.
“What sort of religion met under cloak of darkness in a home, and without priests, temples or sacrifices? And then there was all that singing and apparently some kind of prophesying, and then a sort of fervent speech in a language Nicanor had never heard before or since. It had given him chills…” His skepticism helps us understand how unusual first century worship would have been for first timers who encountered Christians.
Later, we follow Nicanor as he makes his way into a worship service. He was “just along for the ride.” Or so he thought. The reader is listening as Nicanor processes what is going on. And his questions keep coming.
“But would a god not only take on the form of a servant, but submit to a rebellious slave’s death on a cross… This totally inverted the normal notions of honor and shame… Nicanor was going to have to ask some questions about these things, but now his curiosity was piqued.”
And then my favorite, “The one question that presented itself immediately was, ‘How could such loving and honest and kind people, who otherwise seemed in their right minds and not prone to religious mania, believe such a tale? Unless of course there is some sort of compelling evidence that it is true.’”
It was Sunday morning and we were gathered for worship. There had already been some excitement in town that morning. A herd of cows had escaped from a nearby pasture and had been wandering around in the borough. Most had been returned to where they came from, but some had spent the night in town and were yet to be found. Sounds like just another day in Duncannon.
During morning announcements, Crystal shared she had seen a cow that morning. She had texted her son who told her she should have invited it to church, then it would be a “holy cow.” She reported she did not, so there was no “holy cow” in worship. She then went on to say there would however be holy communion. I heard Joel who was seated near the front quickly reply “Holy Cow-munion?” (great word Joel)! Moments like these may not be what some think of when they think of worship, but for some reason they make me very glad to be part of this group.
Peter Oakes has uncovered a house church in Pompeii. Not really, but he does give some valuable information about who might have worshipped in a first century house church. He tells us that the church may have looked like this;
– A craftworker who served as host, along with his wife and children, some male slaves, a female slave, and a dependent relative.
– Tenants who lived in the house along with their families, slaves, and dependents.
– Some family members of a householder who does not participate in the church.
– Some slaves of owners who do not attend.
– Some homeless people.
– Migrant workers who have rented some small rooms in the home.
It is helpful for us to get this picture of a first century Roman congregation. It helps us to see the diversity of social class, economic class, and ethnicity of this people who were considered as One in Christ. Scot McKnight makes a reference to Oakes study and later goes on to say, “The church is God’s grand experiment, in which differents get connected, unlikes form a fellowship, and the formerly segregated are integrated… They are to be one in Christ Jesus.”
God, Thank you for the way you fellowship as Father, Son, and Spirit. Thank you for your desire to pull us into your fellowship. Help us be open to your invitation. Give us the desire to become more connected to you that we may grow to know the fullness of your joy… Amen