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Author:Rev. C. Bouwman
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Congregation:Smithville Canadian Reformed Church
 Smithville, ON
 www.smithvillecanrc.ca
 
Title:Christ's Church-gathering work requires our one-anotheoring each other
Text:LD 21 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Communion of Saints
 
Preached:2021-04-18
Added:2021-04-29
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 84:1,2  

Ps 137:1,2

Ps 16:1

Hy 1

Hy 49:1,2

1 Corinthians 12:4-13; Hebrews 10:18-39

LD 21

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. C. Bouwman, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


The restrictions we’ve experienced for over a year have put our confession concerning ‘church’ under stress.  I say that because the Biblical term translated as ‘church’ implies a gathering, an assembly – but it’s precisely that gathering, “churching”, that we’ve been prevented from doing in the last while.  The “preventing” has perhaps come from government restrictions, has perhaps also come from illnesses in our families, or even just from feeling vulnerable ourselves to becoming sick. 

However that may be, the question arises whether in fact the will to gather remains alive and well.  Should that willto gather be there?  If so, why?

LD 21 of the Catechism gives us an opportunity to address this question.  I summarize the sermon with this theme:

CHRIST’S CHURCH-GATHERING WORK REQUIRES OUR ONE-ANOTHERING EACH OTHER.

  1. Whose work is the church?
  2. How does Christ build up his church? 
  3. What consequence follows?

1.  Whose work is the church?

I ask this question first because our culture sees ‘church’ (and synagogue & mosque, etc) as a social institution, appreciated by those who are into religion (just as ‘gym’ is a social institution for those who are into fitness).  Since our culture writes ‘religion’ off as outdated, there’s growing sympathy in the community to be rid of social institutions connected to religion.

So I need to stress: the notion of religion is not a human idea.  It is instead the Creator’s idea; people everywhere are dependent on him and need to acknowledge that.  Similarly, the notion of gathering for religious activity is not a human idea; it too is God’s idea.  “Church”, then, is not a social institution.

Satan, however, (and the human heart also) will falsify anything God instituted – including why Christians would gather.  The devil is quite OK with Christians assuming that we have satisfied our obligation to gather when we’ve warmed the pew for the duration of a ‘religious service’.  But God’s intent for his people to gather involves so very much more than warming the pew.  That’s what I need to work out in detail this afternoon.

 

Easter Sunday set before us the glorious C.O.V.I.D. gospel: Christ Only Victorious In Death.  The blessed result of his triumphant work is that sinners receive redemption through the Savior’s blood, namely, forgiveness of sins.  In the words of Q/A 56 of our LD: “…God, because of Christ’s satisfaction” as confirmed through his resurrection “will no more remember my sins, nor my sinful nature….”  Those transgressions of yesterday or of years ago, the ones so vivid to my mind, do not attract God’s righteous judgment; instead of God acting in step with what I deserve he “graciously grant[s] me the righteousness of Christ, that I may never come into condemnation” – not in this life or the life to come.  This is the glory of the gospel: I have peace with God, my sins are forgiven – because Christ Only [was] Victorious In Death.

The Christian delights in the peace that comes with that forgiveness.  That’s also why the child of God is graciousto others around him – even when there are sharp disagreements.  In the circumstances of our daily lives, we repeatedly seek and find each other at the foot of the cross where Christ was Victorious – and forgive each other as Christ has forgiven us.

The people for whom Christ obtained forgiveness of sins live in any generation of human history and in any place across the Planet.  After his blessed resurrection, the Lord ascended into heaven so that he might from his heavenly throne gather his church, that is, bring together those for whom he died – no matter when or where they live.  He moves armies and nations, weather patterns and viruses -and so much more- to cause the good news of his triumph on the cross to come to the ears of these chosen people and break open their hearts so that they believe it.  The things we read about in the news are all pitched to his church-gathering work.  That’s the promise of Eph 1:20-22: God has made Christ Jesus ruler over all “for the church”!

I know: from what our eye sees in today’s world, we conclude that the church is of no significance in the developments of our culture; it’s a “social institution” whose time has gone.  But the Lord reveals that the truth of the matter is very different; the Church is the axel around which the wheel of history turns!  Since that’s the Lord’sperspective, we believe it, and make it our business to read the news in that light – even if we don’t see how particular events contribute to the gathering & wellbeing of his church.  In fact, this is why we remain optimistic and positive in the face of COVID, including its restrictions; these restrictions are all so many tools Christ is using to plough up the ground of so many hearts so that they are made ready to receive the seed of the gospel….  In the words of our LD: “the Son of God … gathers, defends, and preserves … a church chosen to everlasting life.”

That answers our first question: whose work is the Church; the church is Christ’s work.  And it brings us to our second question:

2.  How does Christ build up his church?  

I want to answer that question on two levels.  The first is the well-known word of Rom 10:14: “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed?  And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?  And how are they to hear without someone preaching?”  The point is -as we confess it in Q/A 54- that the Lord gathers, defends and preserves his church “by his Spirit and Word”. 

That reality has a consequence we’ve taken for granted for years.  For decades we’ve heard (from this pulpit too) that the church is the workshop of the Holy Spirit.  The point of the expression was that the Holy Spirit uses the preaching of the gospel as it occurs week after week in church to work and strengthen faith.  It’s why we repeatedly sang over the years the words of Ps 84: “Your holy courts I long to see; faint with desire, I long to be where pilgrims join in celebration.”  Or the words of Ps 122: “My heart exulted!  I was glad when I heard eager voices call, ‘Come, let us go now, one and all, to Zion, to the house of God.”  It was also why for decades, if we were absent from church, the elders made it their business to connect with us to ensure we were OK.  In fact, it was understood that even holidays should be built around church, in the sense that you planned your time away and your destination in such a way that you could be in church – this church, where you belonged.  That was the emphasis for years, and that emphasis was Biblically correct.

But with the passage of time we’ve seen a change on this point.  Growing affluence played a role as opportunity to travel further and stay away longer became more common place.  We resorted first to tapes…, and of late to livestream.  This past year restrictions hit us all so that we’ll all learned to livestream – even from our homes.  The result is that it’s begun to grow on us not to go to the church building twice each Sunday for church, or maybe not even once.  In fact, many of us have gotten accustomed to livestreaming, and some of us find that we can even concentrate better on the sermon from the quiet of our living room.  There is, of course, the added advantage: we have the option to choose when we “go to church” and even what preacher we listen to.  And who will check up on us….

Obviously, this affects our understanding of what ‘church’ is, let alone our understanding of what the Lord’s church-gathering work is – for we are not physically gathering together.  So the question becomes: could you live with livestream for the long haul?  Would you like to??

That brings me to the second level of the question we’re addressing in this second point: how does Christ build up his church?  I mentioned already Ps 84 and Ps 122, about the longing of the saints of long ago to gather in Jerusalem around the temple to hear the gospel.  In turns out that there came a time in Israel’s history when the people could notgather in Jerusalem – for the temple had been destroyed, the city of Jerusalem burned down, and the people exiled to far off Babylon.  How -do you think- did the exiles respond?

Consider the words of Ps 137:1: “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.”  Zion, of course, is the temple where sacrifices were made to atone for sin and where the Levites explained the significance of the sacrifices; we’d say: preached the Word.  In far-off Babylon, instead of singing their songs of praise to God their Rock and Savior, the exiles cried – and hung their lyres (their accompaniment to their singing) on the willows.  And they spoke of what really bugged them: v.5: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem [where the gospel of the forgiveness of sins per Q/A 56 was proclaimed in the temple], let my right hand forget its skill” – and that’s a reference to its ability to pluck the strings of the lyre to accompany the singing.  And v. 6: “Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not … set Jerusalem above my highest joy” – and with your tongue stuck to the roof of your mouth you can’t sing.  Yet even as they longed for togetherness in Jerusalem around the proclamation of the gospel, what did the exiles do?  Back to v. 1: “we sat down” (by a river or perhaps irrigation ditch).  Notice the plural “we”; they were together!  For the people of God are not isolated individuals, scattered in a home here and a home there; the people of God are one people, one body, sharing one gospel in midst of life’s common struggle against sin, and so they support each other, they one-another each other, they have fellowship with one another.  It’s the same emphasis as Ps 16 has; we’ll sing it shortly.

That OT concept of togetherness comes back powerfully in the NT, in a passage as 1 Cor 12: though there are varieties of gifts from the same Spirit, each has received their particular gift “for the common good” (v. 7).  A body has many members, with no two parts exactly identical, yet every part having a distinct role to play for the good of the whole body.  It’s so obvious from daily life and from Scripture itself: togetherness serves the wider good.  It’s Q/A 55: concerning the communion of saints Scripture has taught us that “believers, all and everyone, as members of Christ have communion with him and share in all his treasures and gifts.”  We also believe “that everyone is duty-bound to use his gifts readily and cheerfully for the benefit and well-being of the other members.”

Here I want to draw your attention particularly to Heb 10:25a, where we read those words that have received so much profile in the last number of months: “not neglecting to meet together.”  It is imperative that we notice that the action word here is not a command (as if it read: “do not neglect to meet together”), but the action word is a participle, an action word ending in “i-n-g”: “not neglecting to meet together.”  The point of the participle is to make clear that v. 25a serves a bigger goal than simply instructing us to “meet together”.  The apostle has something bigger in mind – and if we meet together without that bigger purpose in mind, we’ve failed to grasp the reason for meeting together.  What that bigger picture is?  That’s v. 24: “let us consider how to stir up one another in love and good works.”

The thing is this: Christ gathers his church and uses our stirring-each-other-up to make that church a church, one body where each serves the other.  Let me back up for a second to show you the apostle’s line of thinking.  His argument in the previous chapters is summed up in 10:18: because of Christ’s sacrificial work on the cross (where he fulfilled the sacrifices of the Old Testament temple), sinners receive forgiveness of sins – as we’ve confessed in Q/A 56.  Three consequences follow (as is clear from the word “therefore” in v. 19):

  1. “Let us draw near”, v. 22 – meaning that the people of God may approach the throne of God in prayer (be it together as well as on own own);
  2. “Let us hold fast our confession”, v. 23 – meaning that in the difficulties of life we’re not to give up on the faith; 
  3. “Let us consider each other”, be conscience of each other, be mindful of each other, so as to “stir up one another”, excite one another “to love and good works”.  The “love and good works” mentioned here is what having received forgiveness of sins of sins looks like in daily life; we show the same love God showed and the same good works Jesus displayed on the cross in our interactions with others.  But here’s the thing: how is one to go about stimulating each other to deeds of such love?  That’s v. 25: the means to achieve that goal is “not neglecting to meet together…, but encouraging one another.”  Meeting together is not a goal in itself, butis a means to achieve a goal: stirring up…, encouraging.

From this two consequences follow.  The first is this: This passage is not first of all about the need to come to church in sense of: be here to warm your piece of pew.  This passage is instead about getting in each other’s space with a view to mutual encouragement, helping each other in the temptations and struggles of life to stay focused on the victory of Jesus Christ on the cross.  The second is this: the stirring up the apostle desires here is not to happen only on Sunday but any time during the week.  That also means that the gathering meant here is not limited to Sunday.  What we read of the Pentecost church is instructive: “day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes…” (Acts 2:46).  And that sort of day-by-day togetherness with a view to exciting each other to excel in the service of the Lord is the more urgent, says the apostle, “as you see the Day drawing near”, v. 25b.

This material raises a question I’d like to lay before you.  For years we gathered Sunday by Sunday, and often as well during the week in other settings.  What were our conversations commonly about?  Did we commonly speak about the stuff of v. 24, viz, the glories of forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ so that we also stirred each other up to acts of forgiving one another in word and deed?  I dare say we all know the true answer to that question.

The Day of Christ’s return is nearer today than it’s ever been in the history of the world.  And that, of course, makes the command to consider how to stir each other up to words and deeds of forgiveness more urgent than ever.  Now the Lord God puts us in circumstances where all 600 members of this congregation cannot assemble in one place.  So we’re compelled to think: why have we wanted to go to church in first place?  Did I used to go because it was the done thing – part of our CanRC sub-culture?  And so simply keep a piece of pew warm?  Let’s face it: if that were our purpose, we can just as well keep a piece of couch warm and content ourselves with livestreaming.  Did I go to catch up on latest trivia?  If that were the case, we can do that better via social media.  Or did we used to go to one another each other, ie, to stir up & be stirred up, to excite each other and be stimulated in the service of Lord, specifically to give legs and feet to the forgiveness we’ve received in Jesus Christ?  For such stirring requires looking each other in eye, having a heart-to-heart conversation….  And to do that well we need to have heard the same sermon, prayed the same prayer, consciously sung the same songs together.  That leaves little space for choosing the preacher of your choice from around the world….  You see, this is the communion of saints in action, meeting together for the goal of one-anothering each other.

But that’s where we find ourselves frustrated by today’s restrictions.  So we come briefly to our last point:

3.  What consequence follows

In the midst of today’s restrictions it is tempting for us to focus on our present inability to gather – and get frustrated….  But that serves only to distract our attention from where it needs to be. 

The apostle Paul spent years in the custody of the Roman penal system.  Obviously he was greatly restricted in his ability to gather with the saints in whatever town the apostle was.  He simply was not able to act according to the instruction of Heb 10:25a in sense of gathering together.

So what, do you think, did Paul do?  From his prison cell he called for pen and ink, and did what he could to reach into the lives of countless saints (over centuries!); he wrote numerous letters in an effort to stir up fellow saints to love & good works.

My point: in his restrictions the apostle was creative, and he used whatever opportunities were available to him.  In our modern day we have many more means available to achieve the same goal he pursued: stirring each other up to love and good works.  

Am I with any of this minimizing gathering?  Not at all!  But I’m saying that gathering has a purpose, namely, to stir each other up.  Through today’s restrictions, the Lord presses that purpose upon us.  

So we do well to refocus on that purpose.




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. C. Bouwman, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2021, Rev. C. Bouwman

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