Have we lost the proper focus of Christian gathering? Do we re-present our Saviour to our souls each week as nourishment or do we gather to tickle the ears and say “well done my soul”?
We human beings inhabit a universe that is both stunningly beautiful and shockingly strange all at once. It’s a wonder we can actually get up each day and make our coffee, check the news, shower and line-up dutifully on the highway or subway platform as we head into the office or school without being slapped silly by the reality around us. We are warmed by a sun with billions of years of fuel that exists in a universe of Black holes denser than the mind can imagine. Physicists, many who deny the non-material, now tell us that time and space are in illusory and that two physical particles can be in two places in the universe at once. And, all of this concrete reality is understood to have arisen from absolutely nothing, in a singularity so mind-binding that only pure mathematics can describe it. How did we get to be part of all of this dizzying reality? And what a privilege for humans to ponder and observe and ask “why”, while the rest of life on earth apparently lives only to survive?
One of the many wonders of creation is time itself. Time is the ethereal filmstrip on which the events of our lives are imprinted. When we think about time, is it not true that two moments can be separated by many decades and yet connect in a way that make them seem inseparable? For those who experience emotional elation or trauma, time seems to be a thin veil indeed when we meditate for a moment on this events. They appear to us as apparitions in the here and now, despite the fact that months or years have elapsed. In this way, as much as we are bound by agendas and calendars, our lived-sense of time is more elastic and relative. Not just in the mathematical sense that Einstein indeed helped us all understand, but in the emotional and experiential sense as a human being. Moments of fear and panic from years past can instantly sneak up behind us and pounce. In those moments we are connected to and pulled back by an event that marked our very being and soul. This ability to experientially time-travel takes on a greater weight as we approach middle age. But what is universal is that our distance in years from an event in no ways means it has to be less impactful or less real as something which occurred in time and space and is now etched in our history. If you doubt this, simply spend a few brief moments talking to a survivor war, or some other traumatic event. Usually, tears well up as they will describe how the events of that time are as real as if they occurred yesterday.
What is the value of reflection on this reality and what is the connection to the church of Christ? Having established that events can be so impactful that they seemed like they occurred only yesterday, I would like us to move to an instructive corollary. The corollary is that at no time as we reflect on the past do we seriously question that certain events happened. We now live in the shadow of these events. We accept and recall them as real and as markers and moments in our lives. To the degree that they changed who we are today, we accept the role these moments played in forming us and we allow them to inform out lives in the here-and-now. Your personal history is a concrete reality that has marked your life. We cannot doubt, short of some sort of mind-bending philosophical idealism, the reality that went with these happenings. Where are we headed with this line of thinking? Simply put, as Christians we need to enter into a full acceptance that the historical events around the life of the God Man, Jesus our Lord, are as real in history as the very events of our own lives. Not equivalent in significance or influential as mythical sources of daily wisdom, but as equivalent as these real events of our personal timelines. True Christian’s are those who embrace the reality that Christ’s life unfolded in time and place. This fact has now created a wake in time and an impact on history, individual people and nations forever.
As Christians we understand this at some level, and so understand what it is to which we witness. And yet my experience over decades of church attendance is that at times it seems there is a certain air of, “but this is somehow different than reality” about how we see and describe the life of our Saviour. Although we would never say it this way, it is not always clear that believers live as if the events we speak about actually happened in the same way your marriage or the birth of our children happened. And that’s the point we are trying to bring home. If you are a parent, when you think back to the birth of your children you know that this was a concrete happening in time and place. It is never doubted. But I maintain that in the Church there is a real sense in which we gather and pray and open the Word of God and leave and forget the bedrock reality that stands behind the claim. If you stopped many Christians after church and asked them what they are doing their answer belies the very mature of the underlying problem. They may say that since they believe in God they have gathered to encourage each other and learn more about His Word and worship Him. Yes, indeed – this is true. But would they also go on to say that they gathered as a Holy Memorial and Witness to the actual events of the life of the God-Man and to re-present that reality to their souls while workshop the God who intervened in history to save us? In this sense, the church-event as a gathering is meant to be a sort of time travel, which is really no time travel at all when we keep the eyes of our soul open.
In prayer, worship, song and fellowship we must be trying to live in the shadow of light cast by the life of our Saviour. We must be placing ourselves beside the cradle and the cross, or in the Garden and say to our souls, “This is why everything is now different.” Something Real Happened. And we should do this in the same sense that we reflect on our birth, marriage and the like – as real moments in God’s world. The Apostle Paul expressed this in his letters when he often reminded the new Christian’s of his time that they were witnesses to real events that no-one can deny. Just as you were a witness to a real event in your life. But somehow in light of this we still gather and listen to the typical worship band warmup to a typical sermon with a monthly celebration of the Last Supper and never fully enter into this mindset. When we gather there should be a sense of deep occasion and although I am struggling to articulate it, here is one small analogy that at least directionally for me.
When my Father died, at the next few family gathering ,as we said grace before our meal we would say something like, “And today we remember Dad and think of the great man he was at this time and how he is missed by us all”. For me, and those who loved him, there was a moment where the reality of his existence in time and the gap between the “now” and “then” of his life collapsed and we remembered a life lived and its impact on us as if it was yesterday. We were “re-presenting” Dad to ourselves to both honour him and encourage us to live as he lived. And this felt so very real because it was. He indeed was born in time, he died, he raised a family, and he served his country and God. That reality of even a human life matters! How much more the Grand Life that saves all lives who trust in Him. How much more the life of which Athanasius said,“ Can anyone, in face of this, still doubt that He has risen and lives, or rather that He is Himself the Life? Does a dead man prick the consciences of men…?”
Should church not feel more like this as we gather? God bless my Catholic and Orthodox brothers for at times better understanding this truth. My weary soul has tired of singing and expository preaching that seems to lack the deep sense of the reality of Christ in Life and Christ in Death. Should church not be about in effect stepping back in time to bring foreword to our souls the historical reality of it all. From there we can step forward to focus on “the what now” (i.e. how then should we live), but I fear that too many churches only live in the “what is now and next” and have not spend enough time re-presenting the “what then” without which “the what now” is be utterly meaningless. Would that I bring this sort of heart to worship each week and be met by others who are also desiring to be taken back in time before we are taking forward into our daily lives. We must be expecting to deeply recall a Life truly lived on this earth that forever changed the course of history and the future. Would that the Pastor, rather than preaching a discourse again, just once dropped their weekly preparation and just stand in front of the congregation and say something like “Today we have gathered to remember our Saviour. His life and love. His humility and His servant heart. His purity and His obedience. His compassion and His forgiving heart. His pain. His willingness to redeem and repair. His real presence with is today. Let us today kneel together in silence as we remember a life lived to redeem the unredeemable world and then let us go and show others His love and tell them why when asked.” At that moment those who are true believers would fall to their knees with thankful hearts. And would we not leave feeling more impacted than hearing yet another four points on why it is important we read the bible and pray? Or more exegesis on Hebrews? Are these other things not also part of our growth in the Faith? Yes, yes and yes indeed. But I would argue that we must first do some spiritual time -ravel to first ground and link our faith in a reality. When we do not begin here, and if the Author and Finisher of our Faith is not regularly re-presented, _ecco homo_, behold, then we flounder and begin to look a lot like just another self-help group who study the Bible. And please do not kid yourselves that the world of unbelievers does not see this.
Let’s pray that Church becomes more like this and less like an intellectual and musical display of human hope. This can never be enough for the world or our own souls.
Dear Lord Jesus, come quickly,
And yet while we live in this dark and sometimes hopeless looking gap in time,
May we re-present You to our parched and thirsty souls
And call others to the same joyful ecstasy,
as you haunt us daily until that happy day we see you come again in time.
And my I yet say to my heart again, “Cheer up dear heart, why again so forlorn?”
Jesus Came, Jesus Lived, Jesus Died so that you, dear heart, can be again-born.