Thursday, September 27, 2007

Why are we here?

Have you ever wondered why do we do the things we do as a people? Why do we gather together? Why do we meet every Sunday? What are the purposes behind it all?

Part of our problem is we are a people caught in the middle.

One night you fall into a deep sleep. You wake in the dark—inky blackness all around you and the feeling of floating. You reach out your hand and beneath you is water. Beside you is water—all around is water. Your bed has become a raft. You don’t remember who or where you are. The dawn breaks and you see you are on a raft floating with the current of a wide swift moving river. The banks are obscured.

It does little good to speak of getting to the source of the stream or the end of the stream. You are in the middle. You can’t start at the source, you aren’t there. You can’t start at the end. You are not there either. You are in the middle.

This is where we find ourselves, isn’t it: somewhere in the middle. This thing called Christianity started nearly 2,000 years ago—and its stream didn’t just start in the first century. Christianity is part of a larger story of the people of God. The end hasn’t happened yet, and there is no telling when it will. It could be today or tomorrow or another 2,000 years.

So this idea of gathering as a people of God did not originate with us—and sometimes we struggle with the whole purpose of it all. That is why there are often so many debates on how we do this thing called “church” —that is where there are so many arguments and battles over it. While we cannot start at the beginning because we aren’t there, we do have one advantage over our imaginary self who is still dreaming of riding the river: we can remember by telling the stories.

Clearly this is one of the primary reasons why we gather together as the people of God: to tell the stories, to remember God’s mighty act of deliverance, and by remembering we remember who we are and how we belong to each other. This is one of the primary tasks of the people of God. From early on God expected his people to remember the stories of his actions of deliverance. From Abraham and Noah to Moses and Joshua; God’s call was: Remember! Build this altar, eat this meal, build this monument, recite these commands—and when your children ask you "Why?" say: We were slaves in Egypt when God delivered us with a mighty hand.

When Israel lost her way and began to follow after idols and to treat each other in less-than-compassionate ways God sent his prophets to say: Remember! Remember it was I who called you out of Egypt! I delivered you with a mighty hand! Don’t forget!

And then God did a new thing—a new thing that was really an old thing—consistent with what he was doing all along. He became flesh, lived among us, was rejected, crucified but then came back to life! All of this was to bring man into relationship with him—to create a new family out of a divided earth. And afterwards, what did he do? He established ways to remember the story! Baptism and Supper—a ritual where a person enters into a relationship with God by this physical memorial of going into water, being buried and rising up out of it; and a thanksgiving meal, like the Passover, where his people remember his mighty act of deliverance and celebrate together as one people. And isn’t interesting how every letter written in the New Testament calls us back to remember the story of God’s intervention through Jesus. It affects the way we treat each other, outsiders, and how we live our lives.

These stories are meant to change us to be more and more like Jesus. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:18: We who with unveiled faces all contemplate the Lord’s glory are being transformed from one degree of glory to another. Paul’s constant refrain is found clearly in Philippians 2:5 – Have this attitude among you that Christ Jesus had…and then he reminds us of the story! He says it again in Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, the entire book of Colossians—do I have to mention every book in the New Testament? I could!

So, we come here to tell and remember the stories—to reflect on the writings of the Bible.

In connection with this, we also come to break bread—every week. We’ve been discussing this for three or four weeks now. The Lord’s Supper serves several purposes—one of which is to celebrate our unity as a people of God and as a thanksgiving feast. The other is to remember and to proclaim the Lord’s death.

Some have wondered not only why do we gather to observe this supper—but why every week? Quite simply for the same reason we reflect on the stories of Scripture every week: to remember who we are and whose we are. To give us a connection; remember we are floating in the middle of a stream—we need some sort of point of reference.

The supper does this. It is a concrete way to proclaim Jesus, his resurrection, and the unity of his people. Truth is: if our lives are to be informed and shaped by the life of Jesus—if our assembling together involves telling the story of God’s mighty act of deliverance through the cross and empty tomb—why would I want to disregard the one thing we do together that is designed to celebrate that very act of deliverance? Jesus said: “Do this to remember me.”

So we gather to break bread and celebrate God.

But celebration is not only done through the breaking of bread. It is done through praise, singing, and prayer. The last few weeks we’ve discussed how the Lord’s supper is not an altar—but that doesn’t mean there are no sacrifices made here. The sacrifices made in our assemblies are what the Hebrew writer would describe as the “fruit of our lips”—Hebrews 13:15-16:
Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that confess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.
These sacrifices are not limited to the assembly to be sure. But they certainly belong here.

Notice "doing good and sharing with others" are considered religious sacrifices. We gather here to help each other out. This is one element we’ve not focused on so much when examining the New Testament Church, especially in the book of Acts. According to Acts 2:42-47: the early church gathered together, ate common meals, and shared whatever was needed. They shared food, goods and money. Again, Hebrews 3 and Hebrews 10, they shared encouragement. The Hebrew writer (along with Paul in 1 Corinthians 10-12 and the author of Acts) describes the assembly as an interactive gathering where God's people encourage one another face-to-face.

The assembly is not a place to hide from each other. Believe it or not people do that. That is why sometimes people like huge mega-churches. This isn’t a criticism of mega-churches or those who attend them! It is a challenge to those who chose a crowd as their place to hide from relationships. The assembly is a place where we should be actively helping each other hang in with God. The assembly is a time when we should be crying with each other, laughing with each other, hugging, encouraging and lifting each other up. It is a place where we should be making it a point to know and to be known. Why: because we need each other, because the world is hard and we are fragile.
As the people of God we gather every week for a reason. We gather to tell the stories—to be changed by the stories, to break the bread, to praise our common Father and Savior, and to help each other live.

So, may you find your point of reference in the middle of this stream. May the story of God’s love and rescue fill your heart up. May it change you into the image of Christ. And may you join the family celebration—praising God and helping each other. May you offer sacrifices of praise: loving each other, speaking words of encouragement, doing good for each other.

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