The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
January 23, 2022
To a degree never seen before, Americans are questioning the value of church and wondering whether it’s worth the bother. Many doing that are good, genuinely spiritual people. Their question deserves an answer.
The quick answer, and a sufficient one for some, is that God has always commanded His people to meet together in His presence. That settles the issue for many, but others seek to know why God commands it.
To grasp God’s purpose in telling us to go to church, it behooves us to grasp what church is.
First and foremost, church is not the creation of human beings, but the creation of the Son of God. In the verses preceding today’s scripture, Ephesians describes church as the community Christ has formed out of the diversity of humanity. In the verses constituting today’s scripture, Ephesians describes church as a “structure” “joined together” and “built together” by Christ to be “a dwelling place for God”.
No doubt some of us, upon hearing that, think of certain churches and think God should’ve been pickier about His real estate!
God’s not being picky about where He makes a home is an expression of His grace and of His hope to redeem even the worst of us.
But, be that as it may, theologians made a distinction, very early on, between the church “invisible” and the church “visible” – that is, between the deep, always authentic reality God sees and the surface, sometimes deceiving reality any human being sees. This distinction clarifies the difference between “true” church Christ meant to bring into existence and the nominal church that’s a mere human institution. This distinction is crucial; but, just as it may be visible to God alone whether an individual is a true Christian or one in name only, it may also be visible to God alone whether a particular church is a true church. It’s sometimes hard to see because, just as Christ makes people better than they used to be but not better than everyone else, Christ makes communities of people better than they used to be but not better than every other one.
Christ Himself recognized that every true church remains a “mixed bag” of humanity. One time, Jesus compared church to “a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind”, and then noted that the separating out of the good fish from the bad has to wait until “the end of the age”. Another time, Jesus compared church to a field in which a farmer had sowed good seeds of wheat but in which an enemy later sowed bad seeds of weeds, and then noted that, until harvest, the farmer has to allow both kinds of plants to grow in his field, lest the uprooting of the one uproot the other.
Just as every true follower of Jesus is a mixed bag of a person in process of increasing their Christ-likeness and decreasing their Christ-unlikeness, so too every true church is a mixed bag of a community in process of increasing its Christ-likeness and decreasing its Christ-unlikeness.
Jesus commanded the members of this mixed-bag community to love each mixed-bag person in it. Jesus told His followers in John 13:34, “Just as I have loved you, you should love one another.” And how did Jesus love mixed bag people like us? By showing up in the flesh, to be with us physically as well as spiritually!
Of course, there are good and legitimate reasons not to show up in the flesh at church: illness or disability, danger of infection, the care of a family member at home or gainful employment elsewhere that can’t be missed. But a major purpose of every Christian is to love fellow Christians well; and to love them well is to be there for them consistently in the fullest way possible – and normally that means being with them, body with body. For, other things being equal, we enlarge our prospects for doing someone good when we’re there for them, not just in spirit, but in the flesh. And let’s not forget that, to enlarge His prospects for doing us good, Jesus had to show up, not just in spirit, but in the flesh.
Jesus created His church and commands His mixed bag people to be together physically whenever possible.
It is the Son of God who gives the church value, and each particular church of His maximizes its value just to the extent that those in it embody His love to others by being there for them, with steadfast faithfulness, and with the hope that, while no church is yet all it should be, any church can more and more become better than it used to be – by Him who loves us as we are but loves us too much to leave us that way.