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#4: Gathering for Worship

Now that I am back serving as pastor again here at Tomoka, it has been a joy and a privilege to get reacquainted with long-time friends who were a part of this congregation before I went on to serve at the Children’s Home and other appointments.  But, it has also been wonderful to meet and get to know folks who have joined the Tomoka UMC family in the past decade.  I still have not gotten as well-acquainted with everyone as I would like, but I’m working on it!  If you and I haven’t had a chance to connect, let me know and we can set up a time to do so! 

One of the people I have been blessed to meet – however briefly – was Bill Wilt.  Most of you may have known him, for he was in worship whenever his health would allow, thanks to Ray Saltmarsh who faithfully picked him up from Ormond in the Pines every Sunday.  Bill went to be with the Lord a couple of months ago – after 101 wonderful years! 

For those of you who did not know Bill, let me tell you about my last visit with him.  When I got the call that he was going on hospice, I went to visit – not knowing his condition or if we could even have a conversation.  Thankfully, he was awake and alert – and as gracious as ever.  As we spoke, he told me a little about his life, and how blessed he had been.  It was clear that Bill had no regrets and was at peace with his Maker, ready to go to heaven when the time came.  It was wonderful to be assured of his faith – as I knew that may be our final conversation – which it turned out to be. 

But as I was preparing to leave, Bill stopped me – saying how much he missed being able to go to worship at our church.  I said, “Well, maybe you will feel strong enough this Sunday to have Ray bring you – I know the people at church would love to see you.”  Bill smiled and said, “I’d like that.  I hope to be there this Sunday.” 

Needless to say, Bill never made it.  He went rapidly down-hill and was placed in a residential hospice care facility.  The next worship Bill attended was in heaven.

I share this conversation with you because it is one that every pastor has had multiple times as we visit shut ins – the desperate longing to be able to return to be in worship one last time before they pass, and sometimes, the regret that they had not made the effort to make worship a higher priority when they were younger and more able.  And they don’t want their family or friends to make the same mistake they did – making excuses and putting off gathering together in worship – until bad-health or old age makes it impossible.  Those who are unable to be physically in worship know just how essential gathering together with their Christian sisters and brothers really is!  The tragedy is – many people only realize this truth too late. 

Bill and so many shut ins I have visited throughout more than three decades in the pastoral ministry certainly would agree with the Psalmist in the 84th Psalm when he declares:  How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!  My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord;  my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God… Blessed are those who dwell in your house, ever singing your praise! …  For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere!”

For much of the past 18 months, none of us were able to gather together in person to worship.  At Sebastian (the church I served before coming here in July), I can tell you that the congregation went through a season of grief, lamenting that the Covid pandemic was keeping us from attending on Sundays.  I suspect that the Tomoka congregation reacted in just the same way.  We were all eager for the doors of the church to be opened again so we could all gather together for worship!  We all prayed fervently that day would come soon!

Thankfully, because of the vaccines that are now available, the doors of the church ARE open again – public worship is now available.  But the question is – do our souls still “long and faint for the courts of the Lord” so we can sing God’s praises together?  Or have we become so accustomed to our Sundays NOT including worship that we have forgotten our need to gather together weekly to worship God?  Time will tell.

This morning, we are continuing our sermon series on “Living as a Disciple.”  We are considering the seven essential Christian practices that every true disciple of Jesus engages in as they live for Christ. 

Some of those practices are private-individual activities, others can only be practiced publicly and corporately.  The arrows on the chart we shared the first week, taken from Jim Harnish’s book, A Disciple’s Path, indicate by their color which are which.  The individual practices are in red, the corporate practices are in green.  (see graphic at the end of this sermon)

The first two weeks of our series, we have considered two of the private practices: “A Life of Prayer;” and “Meditating on Scripture” – things we do in our own devotional time spent with God alone.  The two other individual practices we will consider in the weeks to come are “Generous Giving” and “Invitational Evangelism.”

Today, however, we will consider the first of three corporate spiritual disciplines – practices that can only be engaged in in public with a group:  As you have probably already guessed, today’s topic is “Corporate Worship” – our need to gather together to worship God.  The other two corporate Christian practices we will cover soon are “Gift-based Service;” and “Small-group Community.”

So, why is Corporate Worship so essential in the life of a disciple?  Can’t a person be a “Christian” without being a part of a congregation?  The answer is – “yes and no.”   Yes, being “saved” is a private matter – it involves the acceptance of what Christ has done for you on the cross and inviting Christ to live in your heart.  So, yes, becoming a Christian is a private matter.

But to live as a Christian – to be a disciple of Jesus – can only be done in a fellowship of believers!  There are no solo followers of Jesus.

Jim Harnish, in his Companion Reader for his study A Disciple’s Path writes this: 

“No one walks the discipleship pathway alone.  There is no such thing as a solitary Christianity.  Being a follower of Jesus means being in community with other followers of Jesus.  We can be religious or spiritual without the presence of other people in our lives, but we cannot be growing disciples of Jesus Christ without the encouragement, guidance, wisdom, and accountability of other disciples.”1

Or as the famous missionary, E. Stanley Jones, once said, “Everyone who belongs to Christ belongs to everyone who belongs to Christ.”1

Christianity is a “cruciform” religion – it requires that we nurture both vertical and horizontal relationships – The vertical direction is growing in our relationship with God through Jesus Christ, which is essential to be called a Christian.  But being a Disciple also involves our horizontal relationships – nurturing our fellowship with other believers.  The cross that stands on our communion table is a constant reminder that both are required if we want to live as a disciple.

So, no, you can not be a “Christian” alone.  It is essential to our own spiritual growth that we live out our discipleship in a community of believers.  And the cornerstone of that fellowship is gathering weekly for worship.

So now, let us turn our attention to just WHY public worship is so essential!  Our scripture for this morning tells us why. 

The Letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament is essentially a sermon written to new believers to explain how Jesus fulfills the intent of the sacrificial system in the Jewish temple.  The writer proclaims Christ as the Great High Priest who offers himself as the perfect sacrifice, allowing us to enter into the very presence of God.  Through Christ, we have access to God – and therefore, Christ is worthy of our worship and praise.  Listen again to what the author writes to us:

”Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 

Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

Here we see the cruciform nature of discipleship spelled out.  Our relationship with God, made possible by Jesus, is only accessed by our faith in what Christ has done for us.  Our profession of faith IS a private matter.  Because we have “confidence” in what has been accomplished for us by the shedding of Jesus’ blood, we now have “a new and living way” into the very presence of God.  This is a working of the heart – something that must take place –  if we are to call ourselves “Christians.”  It is the vertical relationship we see accomplished in the cross.

But the second part of this passage focuses clearly on the horizontal relationship – the need for us as believers to come together to worship God.  Of course, we DO come together as individuals, offering the worship of our individual hearts.  But something begins to happen to our faith as we gather in community to worship. The writer makes several important observations about why we should come together, and what our shared worship and fellowship does for us.

In the translation we read, it tells us to “consider” one another.  We can only do that in community.  The writer is saying that, as a result of this “new and living way” Christ has made possible, we are to share life with others who are now our sisters and brothers.  God is calling us into fellowship so that we can discover our unity in Christ, a new level of intimacy with our fellow disciples, and hold one another accountable for our faith journeys – things that only can happen in community.

In verses 24 and 25, we learn two lessons from gathering together regularly for worship:

First, we are told to “consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.”  Now, that doesn’t sound very Christian, does it?  “Provoke?”  We’re supposed to “provoke” one another?  Provoke is an unfortunate translation.  Other versions capture the connotations of the Greek original text better.  The Holman translation expresses it this way:  “Let us be concerned about one another in order to promote love and good works“ 

The Amplified Version attempts to give us the whole meaning:  “Let us consider and give attentive, continuous care to watching over one another, studying how we may stir up (stimulate and incite) [one another] to love and helpful deeds and noble activities…”

In other words, we watch out for one another in our Christian walk.  We need one another to help us grow into fully devoted followers of Jesus. 

So, we gather in worship to “provoke” – to “stir-up” or “stimulate” each other so that our faith grows.

Second, the writer drives home the point that gathering with others in worship is not optional for disciples:  We dare not neglect “to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another…”

I don’t know about you, but I need encouraging in my Christian walk.  Life in general is not easy – and to attempt to live as a true disciple of Jesus alone is nearly impossible.  You know that is true, otherwise you wouldn’t be here or watching online this morning.  We all have been through hellish seasons of our lives when we thought we wouldn’t make it – and it was only God and our church family that helped us through the storm to a brighter day.  I often hear people in the congregations I have served say, “I don’t know what I would have done – if it hadn’t been for my church family.  I don’t know how people who aren’t Christians survive.”  We all need encouragement sometimes, and we want to be there for others when they need to be reminded that God is there and loves them.  It’s what it means to be brothers and sisters in faith.

Jim Harnish, in the book I quoted earlier said it beautifully:  “Our presence with one another is one of the ways we hold on to hope.  There are times when I come to worship to affirm the faith that I hold, but there are other times when I come to worship so that the faith the church affirms can hold me.  There are times when I come to sing my song of hope, but there are other times when I need the church to sing that song for me.  There are times when I am present… in order to encourage someone else, and there are times when I need to be present so they can encourage me.”2

So, why do we gather regularly to worship?  To stir up others in the faith – and to be stirred up.  To love others – and to be loved.  To do good to others – and to be the recipient of their goodness to us.  To encourage others – and to be encouraged by others.  In other words – to be part of God’s family.

There is a story I heard once that I’d like to leave with you this morning:  The famous preacher, Dwight L. Moody was visiting a prominent Chicago citizen when the subject of church attendance came up. The wealthy man said, “I believe I can be just as good a Christian outside the church as I can be inside it.” 

Moody said nothing.  Instead, he walked over to the fireplace, blazing against the winter outside, and removed one small burning coal and placed it alone on the hearth. The two men sat together in silence, and watched the ember smolder, then die-out.  They sat in silence for a few moments.  Finally, the man said, “I see.”

Do YOU see?  I hope so – for God’s sake – and yours.

Friends, I’m thankful that you have chosen to be in worship this morning, because you understand how vital worship is!  Sadly, the people who most need to heed this call to return to worship will not hear this message.  Please, share this message with those who are not here today – the service is available to watch online and the manuscript of this sermon will be available on our website.  And, please encourage people to join us in worship next Sunday (and every Sunday), so that the flame of their faith does not fade and die out. 

My prayer for you and for our Tomoka congregation is that, every Sunday, we all are eager to “worship the Lord with gladness, coming into God’s presence with singing!”  May we “enter God’s gates with thanksgiving, and God’s courts with praise…” so that we can “bless God’s name” forever.

After all, gathering for worship will be great practice – because if we are truly disciples of Jesus, we will be praising God together in heaven – forever!

So, why wait?  Let’s join that heavenly chorus today!

Amen

Chart from A Disciple’s Path, Daily Workbook by Jim Harnish.  Abingdon Press