Rev. John S. Erickson, Preacher
The Indianapolis Conference
April 22, 1996
Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another - and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
We live in a society that places so much stress on the individual... that praises those who, seemingly and in spite of all odds, have made it on their own... and who, on their own, continue to be successful. That stresses that you can become and/or accomplish whatever, if you just set your mind to it.
Unfortunately, this kind of thinking has also found its way into the church... I was reminded of it again just a week or so ago... I was present when someone was asked if a particular individual was a Christian. And the answer, rather than a simple yes or no, was that he doesn't go to, or belong to, any church... but he reads his Bible.
Over a year ago now... I withdrew my name from the clergy roster of the AALC and a few months later, the congregation I serve also withdrew its membership... we were independent. And the matter of remaining independent became a matter of some discussion... and among the questions considered was... Can one be a Christian all alone? And likewise... can a congregation really be a Christian congregation if it is truly independent?
Although it may be difficult for us who have been steeped in American individualism to think otherwise... I don't think you can find anywhere in Scripture where, as Christian believers, we are to be off in a corner by ourselves. The Bible does speak considerably of believers separating themselves from sin and from unbelievers... of the need to be IN the world but not OF the world. It also speaks considerably about believers being on the alert for so called religious persons' ...for those who come in sheep's clothing but who are in fact wolves... who are out to deceive and how we are to separate ourselves from them, and them from us.
But... when it speaks of believers... the Bible uses the image of the body... and of individual believers being members of that body. Paul states, "...in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others" (Romans 12:5). In I Cor. 12 he makes mention of the same thing... that the body is a unit into which believers have been baptized... and although the parts are many, they form one body. In other words... those who are in Christ... those who are Christians... are in fact, part of a larger body. A Christian is not... an individual off some where by him or her self. I would go so far as to suggest that a careful reading of the Bible would call to question whether those who are off somewhere by themselves can truly be called Christian.
No wonder the writer of Hebrews, under inspiration of the Holy Spirit... expresses his deep concern for all those who have come to faith... and who desire to remain and grow in the faith... that they too come together... that they meet together... and not give up that type of coming together as some folks were evidently in the habit of doing... and as we know today, some are still in the habit of doing.
But why should this coming together be so important... and why should it be so important for us. It is interesting to speculate on what the author was referring to when he comments on the importance of this meeting together especially with regard to doing so as we see the Day approaching. Some, and I would guess most of us too... would think the author is referring to the approaching last days and specifically to the final judgment. That, I believe, is implied in the NIV, the NEB and the Jerusalem Bible translations where the word Day is even capitalized. J B Phillips and the Living Bible in their paraphrases reflect their interpretation in this direction also with the use of the phrases, 'final day' and 'the day of his coming back again.' But there are those too who suggest that the author might have wanted people to be thinking of the approaching day of death... that it is important to meet together as one considers that one day he or she will have to meet their maker. Others suggest the author might have been thinking of the day of Jerusalem's destruction, which at the time of this writing, would have been very close at hand.
But however one interprets it... the author, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, sees a need... an urgent need for believers to meet together. And if such a need existed in his day... certainly there is no less of a need for us here, some 1900 years later.
So why the need for Christians to gather together? Let me suggest several. First... remember we are part of a body. As a body... we need each other to make up the whole. Paul in his development of this... uses a bit of humor to make his point. He wants us to think of what it would be like if the whole body were just an eye? or if the whole body were just an ear? If that were the case... just think of all the very important body functions that would be lacking. In fact... if such were the case what one has could not even be considered a body. Paul makes the point that there is no part of the body of which it can be said, "I don't need you." Even what might be considered the weaker or indispensable parts... and the parts we may consider to be of less honor than others... all are necessary!
As believers we need each other and we need to meet together... so we actually become a body and experience being a part of a functioning body. And notice that the number of those actually gathering together to form a body is not the issue. The issue has to do with one's not being alone.
My first experience as a pastor was in a congregation with a membership of almost 2000 members. The active membership was closer to 8 or 900... but it was unbelievable... the gifts and the functions that were a part of that body... that worked together to make being a part of that Christian community a real blessing. When I came to my present pastorate... in Chetek... in a congregation just being born... we were happy when we had 25 or 30 out for a worship service. And yet... I found in that small number... a body... with members... each having their function. And when they worked together... it was just as miraculous a body as that large congregation had been... and in some ways... even more so.
So what was Paul talking about when he said that all the members of the body were necessary and important? Well... he suggests some things as to what the function of these parts might be, near the end of I Corinthians chapter 12. I'm going to put some of this into more of the language we might use in the congregation today... but Paul points out how there is a need for someone to fill the role of a pastor, of teachers, how there is need for those who can handle the business affairs, for those who can pray, for those who can play music instruments and sing, for those who can work with their hands... in the office, in taking care of the buildings and grounds... and the list could go on and on.
The point is... I need someone to share the Word of God with me... I need someone to teach me... I need someone to pray for me... I need someone to encourage me at times... maybe reprove me at times... I need to reach out to others in witness... and I can't do it all myself. If I am to be what God wants me to be... I need others around me... I need to be part of something more than myself.
Why do we need to meet together? We need the help and encouragement we can give to one another. Paul in Galatians 6 tells us to 'bear... to carry one another's burdens.' At various places in scripture the admonition to pray for one another is given.
I have experienced it at times myself - and I have also visited with a number of persons who have become rather frustrated because there has been no one to talk to, and to share with, with regard to spiritual matters... and especially with regard to the deep truths of God's Word and the application of that Word in one's life... and where there is no one around who understands, and to whom one can talk concerning the struggles of the Christian life... and the worries and cares that weigh on the mind and heart of one who seeks to be faithful to God's call on their life.
When I was still in the former ALC, I was part of a district that had some 250 pastors. In my five years in that district, and of those 250 pastors, I only found only two with whom I could really share anything of depth... and sadly... neither of those two had any connection to the district office. In other words... I was not comfortable in taking any of my deep spiritual concerns to those who had been put in place to help me. We here in the LMS-USA may be small... but I found from the very beginning... and what a blessing that is... that I can share at any level with any of the pastors of this body. It is my hope and prayer... that the lay people might be able to testify to the same with regard to their pastors... as well as in their relationship with each other. That is what the body ought to be about. Paul reminds us in I Cor. 12:7... that to each one in the body is given gifts and talents... but they are given these things... "for the common good." And that is why we need to be part of the body. No one of us has it all... no one, gifted as they might be... has been given all... we need others to minister to us... and others need us to minister to them... to minister on a spiritual level, yes, but also at times on a purely human level... to help in the complex issues but also at times with more simple and practical issues. And in this way, and by God's grace... we become... a functioning part of a whole and complete body.
But there is more... This conference is focusing in on the Lutheran Confessions... on that collection of writings that set down in print that which the Scripture and our Lutheran Church teaches, confesses, and practices. In his High Priestly prayer, Jesus speaks of God's Word and says, "Your Word is truth" (Jn 17:17). We are working through these confessional writings in order that we, in good conscience, might side with those Lutherans who say that these writings are authoritative because they are correct expositions of the doctrine of Scripture.
As individuals and as a church... we want... at least I would hope we want... to be true to that which is true... true to God... and true to the Word of God. As I - on my own - study the Word... and take that Word to heart and seek to order my life by that Word... it is very easy... and diligent as I might be... it is still very easy... to begin to get off track in some area. There is so much that to our human understanding, is kept in tension in God's Word. One example is the tension between head and heart... between the intellect and emotion... between the objective and the subjective... between faith in an object and faith in experience. And it is so easy to move in one direction to the exclusion of the other.
I need to meet with fellow pastors, and at times with theological thinkers from outside our own small group... so I might be helped to keep on track. I was raised in a more or less pietistic environment... and it is very easy for me to slip into a kind of works righteousness'. On the other hand... I can help a fellow pastor who has been reared on the other end of this pendulum swing... and who may lean toward thinking that it is all of grace to the extent that it makes little or no difference as to how one lives their life.
Likewise as a church... we need a conference like this... so that as congregations... we are helped to stay on track. To stay on track in our worship practices... in our teaching... in our approach to evangelism... in everything!
I believe that as a church body... and as individual congregations... and as individual Christians... we must be very careful not to think that we have a corner on the truth. I need to be very careful not to begin thinking that I know the truth and everyone else is wrong! You may remember how such thinking had the potential to cause a major split in the church in its very beginnings. How Peter... yielding to the pressures of the Judiaizers begin to go against what God had revealed to him as right and true... and had to be called on it by Paul. If Peter and Paul had not been part of a body of believers... and had refused to meet together... Peter might well have continued on in his thinking and led a good portion of the early church astray. If such could be a problem for one like Peter... we should not think we are immune from similar error. It would be well for us, on occasion, to spend some time in reflection on Paul's words in I Corinthians 10:12... "So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall."
Paul speaks of this very thing in I Timothy 4... how in the last days there are going to be those so intrigued by the messages of false teachers that they will abandon the true faith. How much better if, in these latter days Christians would be meeting together 'examining the Scriptures' ...as was being done in the early Berean church of Acts 17)... to see if what WE stand for, if what WE proclaim, if what WE teach... if what WE practice is biblically sound and true.
But there is another reason why we ought to not give up meeting together... and it is maybe the most important reason. It is important that we meet together because it is in the body and through the body of the church that God has chosen to work his work of grace in the lives of the men, women and children of this world.
The early reformers were given insight into this fact... and the more I study the Scriptures the more I am convinced of it too... that it is the church, and there, solely through the Means of Grace, that God works the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation in the lives of people. The church... is the assembly of believers among whom the Gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel. (The Augsburg Confession, Article VII).
In the baptism which was instituted by the Lord of the church (Matthew 28:19, Mark 16:15-16) one is given the new birth (Jn 3:3, 5)... one is saved (I Peter 3:21... one's sins are forgiven (Acts 22:16) and one is given the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38)... but there is more... that individual is also made a member of the body which we call the church (I Cor. 12:13).
But it doesn't stop with that... as Luther sets out for us in the meaning to the Third Article... and there is no question but that his comments here are rooted firmly in Scripture... when he points out that it is in the Christian Church where the Holy Spirit works with us and with all believers, "calling, gathering, enlightening, and sanctifying... daily forgiving abundantly all my sins, and the sins of all believers..."
It is in and through the Church, the communion of saints, where we gather to hear God speak to us through his Holy Word... and where that Word not only accompanies the water of baptism to make that water 'life giving water,' but where it also accompanies the eating and drinking of the bread and wine of the Supper so that in, with, and under the bread and wine, we actually receive in our very own bodies, the body and blood of Christ... and with these elements... theforgiveness of sin, life and salvation.
All of this God offers to us freely through his Church... not because we in any way deserve it... but because he is the God of grace, love and mercy. And because his desire is that no one should perish, but that all should come to the knowledge of the truth (Mt. 18:14; I Tim. 2:4).
Too many... and maybe we ourselves get caught up in it at times... see the admonitions and commands of our Lord as something negative... and so... an instruction such as this given us by God through the writer of Hebrews to meet together in the church... and to make such meeting a systematic and regular practice... comes to be seen as a way for God to ruin our weekends... and as a way for him to see that we don't have too much fun in our lives.
But God gives us instructions and he commands certain things of us FOR OUR GOOD. He wants so much that we experience his mercy and grace in our lives... and that is why... in the person of his Son Jesus Christ, God came here to earth... to provide for our salvation, and in turn, to offer it to us. And since in his wisdom, he has chosen to use his church as his workshop here on earth... and the Word and Sacraments as the instruments or means through which he, in his workshop, works in and on our lives... we, if we want to experience God's grace in our lives... if we want to live in relationship with Almighty God... then we will want to find ourselves, frequently, in his workshop... the church.
And so this evening... as we find ourselves here together, in our Lord's workshop... might we allow the Master Craftsman... access into our heart, mind and soul... so he can work on us through Word and Sacrament... that his forgiveness and his gift of salvation might be ours anew. And then, as we return to our home communities... might we find ourselves again and again in his workshop... in his church... and there might we encourage our fellow church members and our friends and acquaintances to also come, regularly, to meet together... so together we might receive God's grace in our lives... and at the same time, that we might encourage one another... and help one another... and share together... and work together... functioning as a body ought to function... until our Lord returns for his Church.