Posts Tagged With: church

God Is With Us Always: IV. Sacred Space, Sacred Time

“But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain You, how much less this house which I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27; all Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible).

Solomon dedicates the temple. By James Tissot (1836-1902), public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Our previous post reminded us that God is everywhere and that we can worship Him everywhere. Some people find locations that have strong spiritual significance in their lives, which become “thin spaces” where they encounter God in a powerful way.

Jacob’s thin space, where he had a dream in which God promised to be with him throughout his journey, eventually became a prominent place of worship for his descendants, Bethel (Hebrew for “the house of God”). We can indeed meet God anywhere, but sometimes God’s people are inspired to set a sacred space apart specifically to worship Him.

Centuries later, one of Jacob’s descendants, King Solomon, built a temple in Jerusalem. This became the place to worship God. The Scripture verse above is part of the prayer he said while dedicating the temple.

Solomon acknowledged that his building, no matter how grandiose it was, could not contain God. The Lord is bigger than the universe. If the universe cannot contain Him, neither can a building that was only about 90 feet long, 30 feet wide, and 45 feet high.

Artist’s rendering of ancient Jerusalem with the temple. Public domain, from the Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons.

So, why would God have commanded Solomon to build a temple? Why would He want us to gather in churches now? Should we have church buildings?

First of all, we need to worship together:

“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:23–25).

The Christian life is best lived in community. When life gets difficult and the entire world seems to be turning against the believer, we need each other. We need to stimulate one another to love and good deeds; we need to be challenged; we need to be encouraged. We need reminders that our God is real. Without fellowship—without recognizing that my God is the same God my brothers and sisters in Christ worship—I can easily begin to worship a figment of my imagination, a god that I have created in my own image.

We need each other. We need sacred time and sacred space to worship together. Ideally, a church building will be a sacred space that God’s people have set apart to remind ourselves that He is always present. We can indeed worship God anywhere, but those who have met God in a church setting will be more likely to seek His presence outside church.

It will be a sacred space, set apart specifically for His worship. A sad feature of much modern worship is the way it can resemble a concert or a lecture. Many churches, in an attempt to seem “relevant” to the culture, replace the altar with a stage. The worship band is front and center. The pastor takes the microphone and takes center stage after the lead singer is finished. They are the stars. Other churches are set up to look like a lecture hall, well-suited for an introductory psychology course in college. One is a concert where the audience is entertained; the other is a lecture where the audience is instructed and informed. A person is the center of attention. There is no cross, no altar. The minister has claimed the central focus that should belong to God alone.

Interior of St. Patrick’s Church, a small church in Kickapoo, IL. A church does not have to be elaborate to be a sacred space to worship God. Photo by Arthur Greenberg, Environmental Protection Agency. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

I would encourage all pastors and worship leaders to look at their worship space and ask, “Is God really the center of attention?” Let them pray like John the Baptist: “He must increase, and I must decrease” (John 3:30). Let that sacred space be a reminder that we worship a God Whose glory far exceeds all that we can imagine, One Who is worthy of all our attention.

We need sacred time as well. Yes, we can and should worship God anytime—not only on Sunday morning. In the Old Testament, God told the Israelites to hold several “holy convocations.” Some were annual, including the first and last days of Passover, the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost), Rosh Hashanah (the Feast of Trumpets), and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). However, every Sabbath was also a holy convocation. While the Sabbath was a day of rest, it was also a time for God’s people to gather together.

God’s children still need space and time. Corporate worship serves several important purposes for our daily lives:

First, it reminds us that God is holy. He is not to be taken lightly but deserves all of our devotion.

Second, it reminds us that all of our lives belong to Him. My worship with my brothers and sisters in Christ, in the house of the Lord, begins my week. It also propels my life for the rest of the week. It sets the tone for my everyday life.

Third, it reminds us that everything else belongs to God as well. A church building is sacred because God’s people have set it apart for His worship. God’s children can set aside other parts of our world as holy ground.

Your living room, including its television, can be holy ground. Your computer can be holy ground. Your desk at work can be holy ground; even if you cannot pray or read your Bible there, you can do your work “as unto the Lord.”

Let our daily walk with Jesus be grounded in worship on holy ground with His people in such a way that our worship in church guides our lives throughout the week.

How has holy ground and holy time shaped your daily walk with Jesus? Feel free to share your thoughts by clicking the “Leave a comment” link below.

Copyright © 2020 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, God's Majestic Attributes, Omnipresence | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Holy Week and Social Distance

Get ready for the strangest Holy Week we may have ever seen.

Easter is one of the two biggest days of the year for attendance in most churches, and many churches normally have several special services in the week leading up to it. Palm Sunday can be particularly festive: church members receive palm branches, which we wave in celebration, perhaps singing “Hosanna in the Highest.” My church has a special service on Holy Wednesday, called Tenebrae. Then, there is Holy Thursday, also known as Maundy Thursday in some churches, when we commemorate the Last Supper and the institution of holy communion. My church has two services on Good Friday, including a three-hour afternoon service where four members share personal testimonies of “What the Cross Means to Me” and we reflect on how Jesus took our sins upon Himself by dying for us. The week’s worship can be very intense, ranging from celebratory and joyful to somber and repentant to reflective and meditative.

Photo by Michael E. Lynch

Then comes Easter Sunday, a day of great celebration in most churches. While every Sunday should be a celebration of Jesus’ resurrection (indeed, every day should be), Easter is especially glorious. Some people come to church only twice per year, on Christmas and Easter. My church can be standing-room-only on Easter.

However, this year will be different. The coronavirus pandemic has canceled services throughout the country. Here in the New York City metropolitan area, “ground zero” of the outbreak in America, gatherings of 10 or more people are currently prohibited. Instead of a packed house, our pastor and a small group of worship leaders will have a service with no congregation, to be streamed online for those who choose to watch. It will be one of the few churches on Long Island to provide communion: congregants will drive up to the front of the church to receive the bread and a blessing. We will also receive our palms with communion today, and will also live-stream the other Holy Week services. Our church includes a foot-washing ceremony as part of the Maundy Thursday evening service: I am not sure how that will play out online!

Many churches are live-streaming their worship services like we are, but few are offering communion. Some churches may find it difficult to minister to their people at all.

Holy Week will have a big hole in it without corporate worship. I feel like an online video worship service with curbside communion is better than nothing, but it is not the full worship experience. There is something about being in the church, surrounded by brothers and sisters in Christ, uniting in praise and worship, especially when some of us are going through hard times and need to be surrounded by friends.

While many of us are used to speaking of our personal relationship with Jesus, social distancing reminds us that it really is more of a familial relationship with God. My relationship with God is not separated from others’ relationships with Him. While it is true that we can worship God alone, there is an added benefit when we worship Him with the rest of the family of God.

We need each other. We inspire each other. We challenge each other. We pray for each other. In spite of our differences, and sometimes especially because of those differences, we gain a blessing through corporate worship.

“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works,not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25; all Scripture quotations from the English Standard Version).

“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).

The biblical account of Jesus’ last week reminds us that humans are social beings. We live, worship, eat, and survive in a group. Jesus entered Jerusalem with His disciples. He cleared the money changers from the temple as His disciples looked on. He spent almost every moment of His final week with those 12 men, including that Last Supper. Perhaps a particularly painful part of His crucifixion was that fact that He died almost alone. One disciple betrayed Him, one denied knowing Him, and most of the rest scattered into hiding and left Him alone. Only His mother, Mary Magdalene, and John stayed with Him until the end.

Jesus’ last week also reminds us that we can be powerfully influenced by our social group, for good or ill. On Palm Sunday, the crowd welcomed Him with shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:9). Five days later, the crowd would change its tune and shout, “Let him be crucified!” (Matthew 27:22-23). We can only wonder how many people were in both crowds, inspired by the disciples on Sunday but swayed in the opposite direction by the chief priests and Pharisees on Friday. We think of peer pressure as a problem that affects only young people, but all of us can be affected by those around us, for good or ill.

As we approach Holy Week altered by social distancing, we must each decide how we will remain connected to the Body of Christ. Perhaps you can call a friend on the phone or set up a Skype session so that you can encourage one another during this stressful time and pray together. Some people are using Zoom or other online apps to gather a group virtually. Social distancing may force us to adapt how we fellowship, but it does not have to force us into spiritual and emotional isolation. It may change how we worship during Holy Week, but it does not have to keep us from worshiping God at a time when we really need Him most.

Copyright © 2020 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.




Categories: Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons, Current events, Holidays | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Fellowship

“So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls. They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together, and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:41–47, NASB).

Fellowship is one of the church’s most vital functions. However, many Christians are unaware of the meaning or urgency of fellowship.

Some churches have almost no fellowship. People go to church, shake hands with the pastor as they exit the building after service, and go home. They spend little or no time with other church members until the next service.

Other churches enjoy a brief social time after service. They might provide coffee and refreshments in a social hall or other room after the service. Here, people can sit down and talk with their fellow church members. Whereas this is a vast improvement over churches that offer no fellowship, it is still insufficient.

Conversation inside a church building does not necessarily equal fellowship. I can easily discuss sports, television, music, current events, or the weather with people in the church building after service (with the obligatory cup of coffee in hand), but that does not make it fellowship.

The Greek word for fellowship is “koinonia.” It comes from a root word meaning “common,” and elsewhere in the New Testament it is translated as “contribution,” “participation,” or “sharing.” In each case, something is held in common. So, mindless chitchat or casual conversation about the weather and news does not equal fellowship. Fellowship begins when two or more people share their hearts, souls, innermost feelings and ideas, and struggles.

Scripture gives several indications of true fellowship. In Acts 2:44–45 we learn that the early Christians shared their possessions with one another. This practice was so complete that, a few chapters later, we read that there were no needy Christians. The wealthier Christians sold their possessions so that they could give the money to the poor (Acts 4:32–35)! Isn’t it strange that few ministers preach about that passage, especially in churches that proclaim the “prosperity Gospel”?

The basic lesson here is that the church should take care of its members. This care may be material or financial if a person is in need (especially if through no fault of their own), but the church should also provide emotional, social, and spiritual support for its members. The fellowship in a church is often compared to relationships in a natural family or, even more intimately, to the relationship between parts of a physical body. In fact, the church is also called “the family of God” or “the body of Christ.” Romans 12:4–5 says, “For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually, members one of another.”

Every human body has trillions of cells, comprising thousands of organs, muscles, bones, and other parts. Each of these works to help the others: the heart shares its blood with the rest of the body; the digestive tract shares its food with all other cells in the body; and the lungs share oxygen with the rest of the body.

The human body has certain parts that seem more vital, but they need the other parts as well. Paul writes that Christ is the head of his body (Colossians 1:18). One might think of some church leaders as the spinal column and nervous system: bringing messages from the head (Christ) to the entire body. Others are the church’s blood, heart, lungs, eyes, feet, and hands, fulfilling different functions to help the other parts. Just as an entire human body suffers when one of its parts is injured, ill, or destroyed, the entire body of Christ suffers when one member is unable to fulfill his or her role. When separated from the body, that church member suffers much like a severed bodily organ does.

This points to a very important function of fellowship. We gather together to share our spiritual gifts with one another. Every Christian has a unique mixture of spiritual gifts which he or she should use for the “common good” of the church (First Corinthians 12:7) to build it up (First Corinthians 14:12). God does not grant spiritual gifts so that the believer can serve himself, brag, or pretend that he or she is a spiritual giant. Instead, He pours out His gifts so that we can bless those around us. We should all seek the Lord’s guidance, so that we may know the gifts He has given us, and may use them to bless others.

Fellowship also enables us to receive encouragement from one another. Hebrews 10:24–25 shows that we should “consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.”

It is not easy to be a Christian. Sometimes we are tempted to give in to sin. Sometimes friends, family, or coworkers seek to discourage our walk with the Lord. Satan often tempts us with his demonic accusations. All of this happens, in addition to the ordinary problems that all people face. When we fellowship with other believers, we may tap into one another’s strength. The one who has walked through a particular valley before us can guide us along the way. The one who knows your secret sin can pray for you and share his own victories and struggles with you.

A final aspect of fellowship that comes to mind is correction and confrontation. Perhaps this is the reason many Christians do not like real fellowship: when everybody knows you, they know what you are doing wrong! According to the Bible, when we know a Christian is practicing sin, we have an obligation to restore that person (Galatians 6:1), which involves confrontation to encourage repentance (Matthew 18:20).

Fellowship removes Christianity from the realm of abstract ideas and forces it into practical reality. We cannot merely say we love our neighbors; in fellowship, we actually learn to love our neighbors, even though they may not be too lovable. If we are sinning, somebody with whom we fellowship may be aware of it, thus helping us to acknowledge and experience our need for confession, repentance and forgiveness.

Fellowship with other believers gives us a greater glimpse of God. When we confess our sins during private prayer, it is easy to gloss over them and pretend it is a trivial matter that does not affect God or anybody else. However, when we confess our sins to a brother or sister in Christ who loves us, we feel embarrassment about them; we see the hurt or grief of the other person; and we also experience their love, compassion, and forgiveness. God reveals Himself most fully in fellowship. This is why Jesus said, “Where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst” (Matthew 18:20)?

Fellowship does not “just happen.” It is easy for believers to hide in the house of God. We often need to make an effort to cultivate fellowship. It does not happen so much through programs. To achieve fellowship, we need to consciously cultivate relationships with brothers and sisters in Christ. Do not just go to church; bond yourself to other believers with whom you can connect as members of Christ’s body, both on Sunday morning in the house of the Lord, and throughout the week in everyday life.

Categories: Bible meditations, Spiritual disciplines | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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