Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places 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 draw near 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 the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 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 10:19-25 (ESV)
On a nobler and more elevated note than the previous post . . .
I started doing this series over a year ago now, carried on for a while, and then some time last August, had my attention fixed firmly enough in another direction that I forgot completely about it. (Gee, I wonder what could have done that?) I don’t want to just let it go, though, because this is too important for that.
I’ve talked about various aspects of the church—the value of preaching, the realistic necessity of the institution, and so on—and about the fact that Jesus loves the church, whether we like it or not; I think it also needs to be said, as the authors of Hebrews do, that whether we like the church or not, we need it. If we’re going to be faithful disciples of Christ, we need to be a part of the church, and we need to be involved.
Part of this is that, as David Wood argues, we need spiritual friendship in order to live as Christ calls us to live. Not even Jesus tried to live the godly life on his own—he surrounded himself with good friends who went with him everywhere. The Rev. Wood makes this point in the course of talking about the pastoral life and pastoral excellence, but if it’s more critical for pastors, that’s only because we serve as leaders and exemplars for the church; this is necessary for pastors because it’s necessary for all Christians if we’re actually going to live as Christians.
This is how God wired us: for friendship, relationship, community, to lean on each other and depend on each other to be strong where and when we ourselves are weak. We need others who know us well enough that they can help us see ourselves more clearly and accurately than we can through our own eyes, and whom we can trust to rebuke and correct us when we’re going awry. And let’s face it, resisting temptation is a lot less fun in the moment than giving in to it; we need people whose company we enjoy with whom we can go find something else to do. “Just say no” only works for so long—we need something better to which we can say “yes” instead.
This is well illustrated by an old story, which has been told in many variations, of a young man who was feeling spiritually dry and cold, and so went to see one of the great old saints of the church to seek advice. He poured out his heart to the old saint, told him of his problem, and asked what he might do about the dryness and coldness of his spiritual life. The old man didn’t say a word, but picked up the fireplace tongs and used them to reach into the fire and pluck out a coal, which he set on the hearth. The coal immediately began to fade, first from bright cherry-red to dull red, to orange, and ultimately to black. After a little while, the old saint leaned forward, picked up the coal with his hand, and tossed it back into the fire, where it was soon burning merrily once again. The young man, with a thoughtful look on his face, thanked the old man and took his leave.
It’s not just about what we get out of being a part of the church, though—we also need the church for what we can give to it. For our own growth, we need the opportunity to serve others as they serve us. This helps us develop our gifts, stretching us to take risks and try new things. More importantly, it draws us out of ourselves and teaches us to value and care for others. We can’t become loving people without actually loving people—and the people who are the hardest to love are often the most important for us in that respect, for it’s in loving the unlovable that we come closest to Christ’s love for us.
Finally, of course, the fact that the church needs us matters in and of itself, too. God calls us to serve him, and part of that is participating in and serving his body, his people, the church. Yes, this means setting aside some of what we want; it means making compromises, and putting other people ahead of ourselves. This too, of course, is part of our spiritual growth, but it’s also the recognition that the call of God on our lives isn’t just about us, about fulfilling our needs and giving us what we want—it’s also about others, and how we can be of use to bless them.
Now, I’m not so foolish as to think that this will necessarily come easily; I’m a pastor, I know better. But what I said in the first post in this series still holds true:
I don’t stay in the church because I have found it to be a wonderful place and a wonderful experience; taken all in all, I’ve found it quite uneven. Rather, I stay in the church as an act of faith that God meant what he said when he called us his people, his family, his body, and promised that not even the gates of Hell would prevail against us—and I say that as one who knows full well that those gates threaten us from within as well as from without. However ambivalent I may sometimes be, it remains true through all that Jesus loves the church, and died for her, and that we are called to follow his lead.
All of which is to say, as much as I understand the stones people throw at the church (having fired off a few myself at times), I do believe the church needs to be defended; and I say that not because I’m in the business, of the guild, as it were, but rather despite that fact. However badly we screw it up, as we often do, this is still something God has ordained, and it’s still important that we gather together in worship and fellowship and ministry. Yes, that means friction, which is unpleasant; but that friction is one of the things God uses to sand away our rough edges and polish our strengths. True community—where, as Kurt Vonnegut beautifully said, “the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured”—is not an easy thing, which is why far too many churches don’t try all that hard to create it; but for all that, it’s important for our well-being, and if we will commit to it, it’s a beautiful gift of God.