January 24, 2021
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts around 17:15 in the audio file.
Or, The DNA of Corporate Liturgy
Series: Our Worship #4
It’s possible to confess Jesus Christ as Lord, to gather with the church for worship on Sundays, and to miss, or at least to misunderstand, the goal of the gospel. I say that it’s possible because of my own testimony as a Christian, including years of my sanctification and in my understanding of preaching and pastoral ministry.
Last Lord’s Day we considered the pattern of sacrifices in the Old Testament, sacrifices that pointed toward the Christ, sacrifices for which Jesus took on a body and spent that body to fulfill. God forgives our sin, God separates us from sin for lives devoted to Him, and God communicates His peace to us. The sin offering, the burnt offering, and the peace offering, as represented in our liturgy by confession, consecration, and communion, are a recognizable pattern in which God draws His people near.
Not everyone has the same understanding of what happens when you draw near. When you draw near to the judge’s bench in the courtroom, there is a sense of nervous anticipation; being closer to the judge may increase your stress rather than relieve it. When you draw near to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, there is a sense of gravity and appreciation, but not really personal affection. When you draw near to your dad, it depends. If your dad is regularly angry, there is a sense of fear, panic, wondering what he might be mad about this time.
When we draw near to God in corporate worship, what does He want from us? I believe that there is one answer to that question, even if there are a variety of things that are necessary to enable that one thing. When we draw near to God we are humbled, by our unworthiness and by His glory and holiness and greatness (see James 4:10). When we draw near to God we are better informed; we hear His Word and we behold His image and things become clearer, things about His character and His commands (see 1 Peter 3:18).
But it is possible to be humble from a distance. It is possible to be learned without any connection. I think many Christians feel bad about themselves and know a lot about Scripture, or at least they are willing to be taught more, and can even be in a room with a lot of other professing Christians in the same condition, and still not get that what God wants with them is fellowship. They still don’t believe or expect that God is present and that God is generous and that God is glad with them.
Self-exaltation prohibits a man from fellowship with God, as a branch off by itself branding itself as fruit-maker. Ignorance likewise leads to no communion, but rather to fantasy; intimacy depends on knowledge even if knowledge doesn’t always deepen intimacy. But when the branch abides, the sweet sap of His life flows into our lives. We not only don’t wither, He shares His joy in us that our joy may be full (John 15:11). When we grasp truth, our minds can love the Lord and own His love for us (Matthew 22:37; Ephesians 3:17-19).
Consider the following six truths, and take delight in their connection; may they stir up your sincere mind by way of reminder (per 2 Peter 3:1). They do not map onto the five Cs, they they do inform some of the Cs more than others.
This may be the perfect example of a Scriptural truth mis-applied, because the doctrine of the Trinity is often received as having no application. Most Christians, myself included, accept the teaching of “one God in three Persons” so that we won’t be idolators. This is who God is, we don’t get to make up some other god.
It didn’t dawn in my dim mind that God’s love between the Persons, that the relationship of Father and Son and Spirit, was more than a chapter in a systematic theology book until I was teaching through Genesis 1 and got to the “let us make man in our image” conversation (Genesis 1:26-27). I understand that the revelation of the Trinity is not complete in Genesis 1, but that’s where the door is opened.
God is love (1 John 4:16). God has never been alone, which means that at no time in the eternal ages before Genesis 1:1 has there existed such a thing as complete isolation. Unlike Allah, Yahweh doesn’t use His universal power and sovereignty to keep competitors pushed down, Yahweh lifts up His creatures and draws them near.
At our baptism we are brought into the life of the Father and of the Son and of the Spirit (Matthew 28:19). Our identity is anti-isolation. The name of our local church, and the ingredients of our liturgy, reminds us of Trinitarian fellowship.
The nature of God, in love and unity and in relationship, even that of a Father with a Son, obviously affects those who are made in His image as much as, and as easily forgotten as, oxygen in the air.
After the divine conversation, God made man in His image, “male and female” (Genesis 1:27). While this is revelation about sexuality, which I plan to bring up in a couple weeks, it is a revelation about relationship. In Genesis 2:18, as I usually point out at weddings, God Himself points out that it is not good for man to be alone. Even without sin, God was training Adam to see what was important, which was fellowship. The fellowship between a husband and wife is so close that God says that husband and wife “shall become one flesh” (2:24).
Image-bearers are reflections of their Creator, and of all the things that the imago Dei includes, it is the capacity for relationship that is part of our human DNA.
We only read two chapters before we meet the ruiner of fellowship, which is not the serpent (Genesis 3). Battling the serpent was necessary, and would have potentially gone on for some time more successfully, without sin.
There are good definitions for sin, most simply summarized as doing what is prohibited, or not doing what is commanded. Sin is disobedience. And the result of that disobedience is separation. Death is separation: soul from body. Spiritual death is separation: soul from God. Adam and Eve, who had been walking with God, hid from Him.
By experience we know this, either when a friend sins against us, or a child lies to us, or even when we feel that we must affirm whatever someone else says she’s feeling in order not to ruffle her feathers, there’s still no agreement and so the connection is tenuous at best.
Our divisions are not driven by differences in gender or personality or ethnicity, our problems are not driven by differences in interests or skills, our problems are not driven by differences in income or bank account. Our divisions come from sin (see James 4:1-2).
There are a lot of ways to proclaim, and exult in, the gospel. It is good news that those who were blind can now see (2 Corinthians 4:4). It is good news that those who were guilty are now declared righteous (Romans 3:21-24). It is good news that Christ purchased us out of slavery to sin, and paid the price of our sin so that we do not need to suffer eternal punishment.
But our salvation is legal and familial. We are justified, and we are adopted (Galatians 4:5). Through the blood of Christ our consciences are cleansed and our access to God restored (Hebrews 9:14).
The incarnation of God’s Son is a scandal to the world’s wise-guys. It is a truth to believe, a confessional shibboleth (2 John 7). But Jesus took on flesh so that we might have fellowship with Him (1 John 1:1-3).
The crucifixion of God’s Son is also a scandal; an all-powerful Messiah murdered by common men. It is a message we believe, Jesus’ death for us is the only hope of forgiveness. But it is His atonement that brings an at-one-ment. He brings us to God (1 Peter 3:18).
The sending of God’s Spirit is a great gift, and is the seal of our inheritance (Ephesians 1:13-14). Post-Pentecost the supernatural world isn’t the same. But the Spirit indwells and fills every saint. Yes the Spirit illumines the Word, but He also unites us to the Father and the Son.
So when we read and hear from God in His Word, when we pray back to Him, and when we sing the glories we’ve learned in His Word and/or sing lyrics of prayer, we are not in a lecture hall, we are not in a concert hall, we are in the King’s court, we are in the Father’s house. We are telling Him how thankful we are for His kindness and gifts to us. We are hearing Him give us comfort and marching orders.
God’s Word is living and active, and yet it’s possible to treat it as a two-dimensional, static set of markings on a page rather than God-breathed, personal access.
In light of all the above, it should be more obvious why our communion around the Lord’s Table is not an add-on. It is not icing. It is the embodied point of our worship. God has made a way for us to commune, and He actually communes with those who believe.
Our fellowship at this Supper includes the vertical and the horizontal planes. Communion is the incorporated point of our worship. While we do this in remembrance of Jesus, as we at and drink we re-membered, the parts are united, and in that re-membering we are proclaiming, not waiting to proclaim later, that He is our Shepherd-Savior and we are His sheep, those for whom He laid down His life (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).
So the DNA of corporate worship, the defining characteristic and direction giver is fellowship.
Sin disrupts the fellowship. Ritual by itself, no matter how good the bones of liturgy, apart from living hearts of faith and love, usually leads to self-righteousness which is a religious form of sin that disrupts fellowship. Even bossy truth-tellers telling partial truths can obstruct fellowship by acting as if that’s not what worship is about.
I’ve heard, from another pulpit, that fellowship simply means that you “share the same spiritual DNA” with another Christian, but that Christian could be someone you’ve never met living on the opposite side of the world. It’s true, we are in the “fellowship of believers,” in which fellowship refers to a specific group. We do share the same Spirit with those who believe (Ephesians 4:3-6), even if we have no direct contact with them. But when the early church devoted themselves to the apostles doctrine and the koinonia, Acts 2:42, it was not a devotion to definitions held at a distance. Their fellowship was in mutual interest and care. Their fellowship was in generosity toward others and received from others.
It is counterproductive to believe that God wants fellowship with us and among us, and then tell people that they must be silent when they arrive and prepare their hearts for worship. We should prepare our hearts, and that includes greetings and reunions and story-sharing and questions about the health of other parts of the body. That such fellowship continues after the benediction is also no surprise; it would be a surprise if the joys of fellowship were immediately turned off like a faucet.
Perhaps you can see that just as the liturgy shapes our expectation for what God wants with us, it also shapes our understanding of how God wants us to reflect Him. It has become typical to find fellowshipless marriages because husbands and wives have learned fellowshipless worship. If the Bride of Christ gathers simply to be told what to do by her Husband, there may be true words exchanged, but no love shared or joy lingering in the other’s presence.
The ladies at Titus 2 will be discussing parenting in fellowship a couple Mondays from now. We learn our parts as parents from watching our heavenly Father, and how He disciplines us as His own children. He corrects us not simply to prove that He knows the law better, nor to prove that He is bigger and has more power. He corrects and disciplines us so that we may share His nature (Hebrews 12:10), that we may be restored to joy.
Social distancing, as it is typically explained and as it has become an expected way of life, is actually a way of killing society. I am not saying that in order to be godly we must all become close-talkers, or close-coughers, and recognize no zones of personal space. There are some viral contagions that warrant quarantine for the sick. But our God, while transcendent, is not distant. Our nature as humans, while fallen, longs for fellowship. The gospel itself, in which we are saved and by which we are made an assembly, is a message of love and unity and Trinitarian joy. Our corporate liturgy is a weekly reconciliation check, and it is for our good.
God is faithful, and He has called you into the fellowship of His Son (1 Corinthians 1:9). This is your identity, this is your capacity to withstand great pressure, even pain. We can appreciate the LORD’s encouragement to Joshua after the death of Moses, “I will not leave you or forsake you. Be strong and courageous…Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:5-6, 9).
> Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in every way. The Lord be with you all. (2 Thessalonians 3:16, ESV)