This article is part of a larger series, the introduction to which is here.
I recently had a conversation with a neighbor of mine about going to church on Sunday.
When he found out that I am a “pastor type” he apparently felt the need to justify why he does not really believe in going to church on Sunday. “I can have ‘church’ at home,” he said. “Don’t you agree?”
“Well,” I responded, “certainly lots of people feel that way, and it kind of makes sense, I guess. But I think it is important to consider what the Bible says about things like that.” I went on to allude to I Peter chapter 2 by saying, “One of the images that the Bible gives us of God’s people is that of living stones.”
I continued by saying that if you look at a stone wall of a building one of the interesting things is that the stones are resting upon one another. That is, the stones need each other. A single stone cannot make a wall.
A similar dynamic comes into play when we consider the biblical image of “many members, one body.” Here the many members come together to form a whole organic unity, a complete body. An eye, or a spleen, cannot hope to constitute a healthy human body in all its complexity, as St. Paul teaches in places like I Corinthians 12.
It is the same way with “going to church” and the Christian life. In general is not possible for only one person to worship God by herself, if she never gathers with the community. Our private devotion and meditation (“in your prayer closet”) flows out from the worship of the gathered community, from the “work of the people” (which, as we saw last month, is what “liturgy” literally is).
The bottom line here is that in the Christian life, we need each other. “There are no ‘lone ranger’ Christians.”
I want to bring out, however, a second aspect to all this. There is another reason why staying at home on Sunday to read our Bible (or to watch a “televangelist” on TV) is not full Christian worship in the way the Bible describes it.
What are we doing when we worship God? The collects in our Prayer Book which we say over and over every Sunday give us a strong hint. Almost every one of them ends with some version of “through Jesus Christ … who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit….” You see, worship, at its heart, at its core essence, is a participation in the life and love of the Holy Trinity. It is as if in worship we are entering into a stimulating conversation or a beautiful dance which has already been going on between three Persons who deeply love each other. This loving community hospitably invites us into their joy, into their peace, into their glorious life.
But reading the Bible in my armchair at home, as important as that is, is not conducive to this kind of fellowship with the Divine community, if separated from the worshipping life of the people of God. When I read words on a page in my armchair at home, there is no conversation there: it is just “me, myself, and I” with static words on a page. But in worship on Sunday it is all about conversation, dialogue with God in and through other people. In the responsive psalm the people dialogue with the choir. In the confession and absolution we dialogue with Christ. After Jesus summons us by his Word in the sermon, we respond in conversation in the word of the Creed.
In this way, we are caught up into a Great Conversation with the Divine Community in a way that just cannot happen in my armchair at home. The real purpose of my armchair at home, and the real purpose of my Bible reading, is to re-member and to extend the Great Conversation in which I was caught up last Sunday.
In a sense, then, worship is prior to Scripture in that worship provides the context for Scripture. This makes sense historically, as well, when we realize that the continuous worship of the new covenant church actually predates the writings of the New Testament Scriptures.
The Bible is tremendously important, but its true home, if you will, is not primarily my armchair at home or my home office or study, but rather in the liturgical worship of the church. Out of this fountain, the rest of our Christian life flows.