Sermon for 20 July ’08
Week by week by week, something happens in this place that seems so mind-numbingly ordinary that we hardly ever give it any thought at all.
People gather here. What?, you may well say. Of course they do! How else can you go to church? And people gather for all sorts of purposes—for football matches, for parties, to buy the latest iPhone… So what can we say about our gathering? I’m glad you asked that question.
Firstly, we gather to be formed as the Church, here and now, in this place. We say we come to church; but more accurately, we come to be Church—the people of God, the body of Christ, the fellowship of the Spirit—right here and right now.
When does it happen? When do we become the body of Christ at worship? Are there any magic words—does it happen when I say ‘Let us worship God’? Or just when the clock turns 8.30?
Becoming the body of Christ at worship today is a process. I like to think it starts as we arrive at the car park. We say ‘G’day’, we shake hands or hug people, we catch up. All this helps us over the threshold into the worship service.
Early in our married life, before I was up here every Sunday, my wonderful wife used to annoy me tremendously before the service started. We’d sit down, and she’d chat chat chat to the people around her, to the side, front and back. She’d try to draw me into the conversation. But I’d have my head bowed, praying in the ‘headache’ position, trying ever so hard to centre on God. Of course, I was obviously in the right—right?
Then one day, I realised that it was one of those extravert-introvert things. As an introvert, I need to be quiet before worship. As an extravert, Karen needs to remake connections with others. It’s part of forming community, of recognising that she is not here alone. Once she’s done that, she is ready to worship God. I, on the other hand, can happily ignore other people because I already ‘know’ that I’m part of a worshipping community. Tell me, whose way is better? (My answer?—Karen’s!)
The thing is that extraverts and introverts need to be aware of one another’s needs. So introverts—be aware that extraverts need to connect. And extraverts—try to do that without annoying the introverts. You fortunate people who are in the middle, not introvert, not extravert: enjoy.
However we personally do it, when we are gathered we are the body of Christ. We just don’t know who will be the body at worship on any given Sunday. Everyone who is here is part of the body, everyone who the Spirit calls to be here. It doesn’t matter whether you’re here every week, or if you’re here for the first time. Jesus told that parable in which everyone was paid the same, no matter how much work they did; it’s the same here. Being part of this morning’s worshipping Church is a matter of sheer grace. There is a welcome for every person who is here.
Last week, I said, ‘Worship is the primary way we relate to God’. Yet the main thing I’ve been talking about today is how introverts and extraverts approach the worship service. What’s that about?
This God we relate to has declared to us that if we do not love our brother or sister who we have seen, we can’t possibly love the God we haven’t seen. We can’t say we worship God if we do not care for the others gathered here with us. We may sing our songs with gusto and the prayers may be meaningful, but without love for one another the songs are as a noisy cymbal or a clanging bell, and the prayers hit the ceiling and bounce back. We’re gathering together.
To put it another way: when we come together to worship God, what are we doing? We are re-establishing right relationships. Right relationships with God, and with one another. We’re not coming with any forced air of happiness, with a fixed smile on our faces. We’re not pretending we’re better than we are. We come to take our masks off, not put them on.
In most of our services, coming again into right relationships with God means praising God for creation, glorifying God for salvation, adoring God for just being God for us.
Coming again into right relationships with God also means confessing our sin, so that we can be assured again that God is full of mercy and grace towards us. We can’t bypass the fact that we—personally, and as a community—have missed the mark and fallen short.
So far, this is very much like the vision of Isaiah in the great Temple of Jerusalem: he too saw the glory of God, when the hem of God’s robe filled the Temple. And he too was conscious of his sin, and not only his, but the sin of the community.
In most of our services, we take it one step further: coming again into right relationships with God also means passing the peace to one another. Introverts, this can be hard I know, but it’s important! Extraverts, this isn’t another chance for a conversation! It is just what it says—passing the peace of Christ to one another. It’s the high privilege of assuring one another of the peace of Jesus for us.
We have the chance to give the peace of Christ to people we normally wouldn’t have had a chance to meet. And we may have a chance to pass the peace to someone who we need to be reconciled to.
(Sometimes, we may do other things as we gather together: we may need to lament if there has been a tragedy that touches the community. In seasons like Lent and Advent, it may be important to strike a note of repentance or anticipation before we come to praise.)
Gathering to worship God is all about God and God’s people. In other words, it’s all about the web of relationships here in this church today.
Once we have gathered, we then turn to hear the Word of God as the Scriptures are read. Once we are in right relationship with God and with one another, once our hearts are at rest, once we are where we should be, we can hear what God has to say to us.
I once read of a psychiatric institution in England that had a weekly service of Holy Communion. The service would have begun with that prayer we prayed at the beginning, called the Collect for Purity:
to whom all hearts are open,
all desires known,
and from whom no secrets are hidden:
cleanse the thoughts of our hearts
by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit,
that we may perfectly love you,
and worthily magnify your holy name;
through Christ our Lord.
This prayer and the others we pray in public worship have this in common: they say ‘we’, ‘us’. We pray, not ‘I’ pray. In this service in the psychiatric hospital, both staff and patients worshipped together. And that was the only place they ever said ‘we’ across that great divide of staff and patient. The worship of God demands this of us: that we say ‘we’, not ‘us and them’.
When we gather, we become a sign of hope in a fractured world. When we gather, we declare that the divisions that exist in the world are overcome by the coming of God into the world. We begin to share in the victory of Christ and the empowering of the Holy Spirit. When we gather, we take another step in the journey of being formed as disciples of Jesus, and transformed by the Spirit as the people of God. It can be a long journey!—but it’s a journey into life.
And to the triune God be all glory, now and evermore. Amen.