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The original plan in this summer sermon series on ‘reasons for rejection’ was to address the question of suffering. ‘If God is merciful, why does He allow suffering’? Instead, I want to address what I think is a very common misunderstanding, that membership and participation in a church is entirely optional if not even detrimental to the practice of true religion.
A couple of weeks ago I was hiking on the A.T. with another fellow whom I hadn’t before. We came to stream where we took a break. I asked him what he does for a living. He is a retired State government worker. He asked me what I do and I told him I am a Lutheran pastor at the Lutheran Church on Cool St., in Waterville. He then proceeded to tell me how religious he is. I asked him where he goes to church. He replied, ‘I don’t. I don’t need the church to be religious. I can be a good person without the church.’
Here is an issue that is particularly pertinent here in Maine. Maine has the dubious distinction of having one of the highest percentage of population that doesn’t go to church. I used to think that ‘unchurched’ equaled ‘unbeliever,’ ‘unchristian.’ But I’m not so sure about that anymore. I think that if the ‘unchurched’ were actually asked, many would say that they consider themselves ‘religious’, if not ‘very religious.’ It’s just that they don’t have any use for the Church. And by that they mean, the ‘institutional church.’
I’m fairly confident that this is the reason that over the years, many of our own members here have quietly dropped out of this congregation. In many of the discussions that I’ve had with members who were ultimately released from the roles because of ‘self-exclusion,’ very often, there doesn’t seem to be any particular disagreement or dissatisfaction that is the reason for their leaving. It’s simply that they have come to believe that participation in the Church is just not necessary. ‘I don’t need the church to be religious. I can be a good person without the church.’ ‘I can pray to God on my own.’ ‘I can worship on my own and in my own way. I don’t need the church.’
I’ve lost count of the number of times someone has told me that they’re Lutheran, or Catholic, or Methodist or Baptist or whatever. But when I ask them what church they go to, they say, ‘I don’t go to any church.’ They don’t go to church anywhere and yet they still consider themselves to be religious, even Christian.
I’m sure that sometimes, this is the result of a deep disappointment in the church. ‘If the church is going to act like that or be like that, I don’t want anything to do with it.’ But what surprises me, is that even if someone, in good conscience, cannot continue their association with one church body, rather than find another to associate with, very often they choose to remain independent of any church.
Although the church itself has to take its fair share of the blame for some of this, I don’t think that this is the only reason or even the primary reason that people opt out of the church and choose to go it alone. It would be very hard for any survey of the ‘unchurched’ to identify this, but I suspect that a lot of people choose to ‘practice their religion on their own,’ because want to be free to practice ‘their’ religion the way they want to. To be an ‘independent’ means that you’re free to do it your own way.
‘The church expects me to attend worship regularly and the pastor calls me when I’ve missed worship for too long. But I don’t think regular worship attendance is necessary. I’ve got other things I’d rather be doing on Sunday mornings. Therefore, I will become an independent Christian and practice my religion on my own, I don’t need the church.’
‘The church teaches that my possessions all come from God and that I should be thankful to God for all that I have and show my thanks to God by tithing on my income to the mission of the church. But I disagree with that. I think that the Church has no business telling me how I should handle my money. Therefore, I’ll practice my religion on my own, I don’t need the church.’
The examples are practically endless but they all lead to the same conclusion. ‘The Church preaches and teaches its doctrine and expects me to conform my life to it. But I do not want to be conformed to the Church’s teaching, either because I don’t believe them or because they’re inconvenient, and therefore I will practice my religion on my own. I don’t need the church.’
How do we respond to this ‘reason for rejection?’ We respond with the only response that we have been given to respond with ‘ and that is, what does God’s Word have to say about this?
A good place to begin is in the beginning. When God created the very first man, He made him in such a way that ‘It is not good for the man to be alone.’ (Gen.2:18). God made man for community. Independence and isolation from others is not God’s design for us. There’s a reason that one of the most dreaded and cruel punishments is solitary confinement, whether it be the prison cell or the time out chair. The human being is not created to be alone. Too much time in solitary confinement will drive you crazy. Loneliness is painful.
From the beginning God has gathered individuals into the community of other believers. The Old Testament is the account of how God saves and delivers His people. He draws individuals and families into the great family of believers called Israel.
And Israel’s mission is the same as that of the New Testament Church. It is to go out and search for those who are all alone and bring them into the family of believers ‘ the Church. The Psalmist says, ‘God settles the solitary in a home.’ (Ps.68:6).
Jesus makes it clear that the lost sheep that is all alone in the world is not the model or another option for Christian living. It’s an extremely dangerous position to be in and the church is charged with the responsibility of finding the lost and returning them to the flock.
There are several factors at work that can deceive people into believing that they can remain isolated from the community of believers and still maintain their Christian faith. One of the great blessings to the church is the way technology can get the message of the cross of Christ out to so many people. Radio, television and the Internet enable us to reach countless people all over the world with the message of the gospel whom we would not otherwise be able to reach. Our own web-site is a perfect example of this.
But the same blessing can become a curse if the convenience of watching a service or hearing a sermon online and in the privacy of the home becomes a replacement for the gathering together with the community of fellow believers. And the church needs to understand that whatever outreach that it is able to accomplish with the internet or media must be followed up with the invitation and urging to ‘come to church’ and become a part of the family.
The first time a local visitor comes to worship here, I send them a letter, thanking them for coming and inviting them to come again with these words, ‘Our life together is one of constant growth in grace through God’s Word and Sacrament and through the mutual encouragement of one another. We would be delighted if you would join us as we grow in Christ together.’
The point here is, God created us for community with others. It is not good for us to be alone. The Christian faith is ‘communitarian’ and not ‘unitarian.’ The picture that the bible paints of heaven is never of solitary souls doing their own thing and worshiping God in their own way and their own language. It is always a picture of one, great congregation worshiping together, with one voice in and one language.
And so, our response to the person who says that he is perfectly contented being a ‘solitary Christian’ must include words God’s law and of warning. It’s a dangerous place to be. It’s dangerous for several reasons.
To cut yourself off from the oversight of a pastor and the mutual care and encouragement of brothers and sisters in Christ leaves you in a position of self-diagnosing your spiritual condition. It is hard to see the plank in our own eye and even harder to do the spiritual surgery on ourselves that is necessary. God has established His Church to be the hospital where we are to come to for the diagnosis of our condition and for the surgical removal of our sin and the healing and recovery that we all need.
For example, as you practice your religion as a ‘solitary Christian,’ how are you keeping the 3rd commandment to ‘honor the Sabbath day by keeping it holy?’ And how are you participating in Christ’s Great Commission to ‘go to all nations, baptizing and teaching’ the lost? Paul tells the Thessalonians to ‘encourage one another and build one another up.’ (1 Thess. 5:11) Who is encouraging you and building you up in your faith and whom are you encouraging and building up as you practice your religion on your own?
But our response to the ‘solitary Christian’ must also include words of God’s grace and love and of invitation. Christ has entrusted the preaching of His Word and the administration of the Sacraments into the hands of His Church and it is in the weekly gathering of the ‘communion of saints,’ that we receive these precious gifts for the forgiveness of our sins and the strengthening of our faith.
God’s love for us is delivered through the men and women of the local congregation. Through participation in each family in thousands of locations, believers actually carry out Christ’s mission of service and evangelism to those in need and to the lost, not as individuals acting on their own, but as the one body of Christ.
There is one more important blessing that God gives through the community of believers and not apart from it. It is what Luther called, ‘the mutual consolation of the brethren.’ How precious and important is the friendship and support that we have with one another within this fellowship? The Psalmist writes, ‘Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!’ (Ps.133:1). St. Paul describes the close communion that we have with one another like this, ‘We, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Therefore, we rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.’ (Romans 12:5,15)
The writer to the Hebrews describes the challenges and struggles of life that we all face in a fallen and sinful world. He exhorts us all saying, ‘Let us consider how to stir up ONE ANOTHER to love and good works, not neglecting to MEET TOGETHER as some are in the habit of doing, but ENCOURAGEING ONE ANOTHER, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.’ (Hebrews 10:24-25).
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor in Germany during WWII. He was arrested and eventually executed for refusing to cooperate with Hitler. In his book entitled, ‘Life Together’ he makes the wonderful observation that ‘it is simply not to be taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living among other Christians…’ ‘Between the death of Christ and the Last Day it is only by a gracious anticipation of the last things that Christians are privileged to live in a visible fellowship with other Christians. It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world to share God’s Word and sacraments. Not all Christians receive this blessing; the imprisoned, the sick, the scattered, the missionary in a foreign land. They know that visible fellowship is a great blessing. They remember as the Psalmist did, how they went ‘with the multitude to the house of God with the voice of joy and praise.” (Ps.42:4).
Bonhoeffer sites the loneliness of St. Paul in his prison cell who begs for Timothy to come to be with him. But ultimately, it is the total isolation of our Lord, as He hangs from the cross, all of His disciples having deserted him, who feels the pain of solitary confinement on behalf of all the mankind, and cries out for the companionship and fellowship of God the Father on behalf of all mankind.
‘It is true of course, that what is an unspeakable gift of God for the lonely individual is easily taken for granted and trodden underfoot by those who have this gift everyday. Therefore, let him who has the privilege of a communal life with other Christians, praise God on his knees and declare, ‘It is by grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.’