The Gospel of the Group
Yesterday'd sermon pointed to the deep and tender relationship that Paul enjoyed with the church at Thessalonica, “For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown….Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and joy” (1 Thess 2:19–20). This relationship was all the more surprising because it had developed in the mere 2-3 weeks Paul had in Thessalonica before being forced out. We contrasted that relationship with the view of many Christians have of the church as simply a place to “go to worship” rather than a group of people with whom to develop relationships. We suggested that too many of us see church in the same way we might see a movie theater—
When you go to a theater, you just want to just sit and focus on the show down front. It makes the experience more enjoyable if the theater is full of people-- when they clap and cheer and boo and boo-woo at the appropriate times, it makes the experience better. But the last thing most of us want at a theater is for some stranger to start talking to us. No, that would distract us from the show down front.
Isn't that the way many see church? The point of going to church is to worship God...period. Sure, we need other people to be there to worship (or else the singing would sound terrible), but the point of being there is to give praises to God. To get too involved with the people around you just might distract you from the worship. Some people absolutely freak out if someone leads a song or reads a scripture during communion (both communal acts) because that distracts them from their me and God time. The point of going to church is to focus on God, not to interact with people.
The only problem with that is it’s totally wrong. It’s more than just wrong; it’s totally unbiblical. The New Testament never really gives a lot of detail about exactly what the church did when they came together. Paul has some things to say about the chaos that was going on at Corinth, but his point is that whatever they did in worship (and however they did it), it was to “be done so that the church may be built up” (1 Cor 14:26). The Hebrew writer in telling believers not to give up meeting together said that their meeting together was to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds” and was to be “encouraging one another” (Heb 10:24-25). We aren't told exactly how to conduct the service—high church, low church or somewhere-in-between-church. We certainly aren't told that worship is to be a "me-and-God" private and personal experience. What we are told is that whatever we do, it is to encourage and build up each other.
In a way, today’s reading from Matthew 16 stresses this corporate importance of the church. Jesus in this text forces the apostles to deal with His identity. He asks them, "Who do people say the Son of Man is?" The apostles respond with a variety of answers. Jesus then asks, "Who do you say that I am?" Peter gives his famous response in Matthew 16:16-18,
Simon Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Jesus replied, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.
Peter here makes the confession that will become the basis of the Christian faith. But Jesus does not congratulate him and send him off to Peoria meditate privately on the meaning and significance of this confession. No, Jesus immediately begins to talk about his group, his church. This eternal church will be the kingdom into which He gathers His believers into a confessing community. The reality of what it meant for Jesus to be “the Christ, the Son of the living God” was that all who believe in him would be drawn into a community, a gospel group, a congregation, a church. The point of worshiping God together is not just the worship—it is also the together!