A question a reader recently offered went something like this: How, practically, do we go about encountering the living Lord Jesus on a Sunday morning? This is a great question, and I’d like to approach it from three angles: memory/imagination, intention, and means.
Jesus told us that when we gather as his people and for his ends (i.e. in his name), he’s there in the midst of us. It’s significant that he doesn’t qualify this with the presence of any special persons (preachers, pastors, leaders, etc.), participation in any special activities (sacraments, “worship” music, Bible study, etc.), or any special state of being on our parts (holy enough, happy enough, sad enough, contrite enough, excited enough, etc.). In the middle of the way we are, he comes to be who he is. And that’s the fact we must remember. He’s here with us, so our task is to find him and be with him here.
That brings us to intention. The one question Jesus asked more than any other, possibly more than all others combined, is What do you want? When you get to whatever meeting it is you’re going to on a Sunday, what do you want? What are you after? Let me give you two ways to think about this.
The first is a responsive prayer from the Northumbria Community’s Celtic Daily Prayer. It’s part of the morning office that I pray each day:
Call: Who is it that you seek?
Response: We seek the Lord our God.
Call: Do you seek Him with all your heart?
Response: Amen. Lord, have mercy.
Call: Do you seek Him with all your soul?
Response: Amen. Lord, have mercy.
Call: Do you seek Him with all your mind?
Response: Amen. Lord, have mercy.
Call: Do you seek Him with all your strength?
Response: Amen. Christ, have mercy.
The beauty of this prayer is that we are asked if we are orienting each aspect of our personality toward seeking the Lord our God. And in each case, the asking itself allows us the opportunity to do so. And, in each case, we are likely oriented toward something else, and there is mercy for that.
The second is this. We’re staying with a friend in Niles, MI at the moment. She has a big house, and it’s a big house that sort of has 3 distinct areas and a central sort of hub. It’s very possible for someone to be home, and for someone else to walk in the door, go about life in the central hub, and eventually make his way into one of those distinct little areas without ever meeting the lady of the house. If you want to run into her, you have to come in the door looking for her. If you walk in preoccupied, she could be sitting on the couch waiting for you and you could miss her. If you walk in and think that what you’re doing there is getting dinner on for the kids, or getting the kids to bed, or getting a few things done while you have a moment, you’ll miss her. You might even run her over on your way to what you think you’re doing. That’s especially true for us, as we’re staying there sort of long term. Familiarity with the space down-regulates your awareness of who is in the space with you.
That’s how it is on a Sunday morning for many of us. We walk in the door and do lots of stuff, but forget to go looking for Jesus. It’s important, once we have remembered that Jesus has come to be with us exactly as we are at that moment, to take each movement and orient it toward finding and encountering him dwelling in our midst. Why are you singing that song? When the talker/preacher/teacher is talking, are you listening to see if you agree (hubris), are you trying to learn something new, or are you expectantly listening for the Lover’s Voice? We live by the words that come from God’s mouth – in the present tense. We need to walk into the meeting expecting a Meeting, and participating in all ways like people walking through the house either looking for the Host or in happy dialogue with him.
So, we have memory/imagination and intention. That leaves us with means. Sadly, most of the means most of us employ on a typical Sunday morning are an odd combination of Old Testament Temple cultus and Constantinian Roman Catholic sacerdotalism, shot through with solid post-Reformation theology. In English, we don’t meet like Jesus’s first students, but rather like the church met after Constantine made Christianity the state religion of the Empire and power structures and rituals were locked into place to control the means of grace.
There is good news, though. However we meet, even we are making use of means that really give the Lord very little room to be Lord among us, he still stands at the door and knocks, and whoever can hear that knocking and lets him in – he will sit down with you, and you will sit down with him. That is ever and always within each of our reach.
There is more good news. Paul prescribes for us means for meeting. The longer discussion of this is found in his first letter to Corinth. But a very useful short form is found in Colossians 3:15-17. In these few verses, Paul tells us that our gathering should be characterized by the peace of Christ, the word of Christ, and the name of Christ.
One means our team has found for maintaining the peace of Christ is taking the Lord’s Table weekly. We take it each week, we do not allow anyone to hold any grudges or unforgiveness when they take it, we strongly discourage opting out of it (rather, we expect each person to go make peace then if they have not already), and we do it as part of a large family meal (like the earliest believers did). It is difficult for a wound to fester into true, rooted bitterness in seven days or less. And every seven days we know that the Table is coming, so we come ready.
Paul tells us that the word of Christ can dwell richly in our midst as we teach and admonish each other in all wisdom. We teach and admonish each other. Not one guy talking to us for 40 minutes. Each other. There is a place for extended teaching by one person, but weekly and at the expense of the one-another is probably not it. And we don’t just teach each other; we admonish each other. We warn each other off foolish paths and onto wise ones. We get in each other’s business. And we do it with all wisdom. We don’t shoot from the hip, we don’t make stuff up, we don’t almost quote something we think Jesus might have said, and we don’t hang our opinions on someone else’s neck. We study the Bible when we’re not together, and we offer the tribe the fruit of our hunt each week. In all wisdom.
A community that meets in the name of the King is a community meeting for his purposes, to secure his ends, to actuate his agenda. It is a missional community. It is a community whose momentum is go-momentum. Not come-momentum. The community is moving toward the world, not asking the world to come to the community. It is staying in neighborhoods and pushing into new ones, not pulling families out of neighborhoods to all hole up safe and sound from the world. Jesus meets with us when we come to get what he is coming to get, and to give.
Luke describes what Paul prescribes. At the end of his gospel he records an encounter between two disheartened disciples and the risen Lord. Their hearts burn within them as he shows them Jesus-in-the-Book, and he is revealed to them “in the breaking of the bread”. He’s revealed at the kitchen table. As a man who has ridden a chair at the table, and as a man who has ridden a pulpit – I’ll take the kitchen table every time. Later, in Luke’s account in Acts, we find the disciples eating together, taking the Table, praying and continuing in the apostles’ teaching. We find them doing this without the apostles. Luke is describing what Paul is prescribing.
Now, when I return to the States, or even when I go to the international church gathering in Narnya, I am often disoriented and confused. What are we doing here? Where are all the other saints in this city right now? Why is that guy still talking? Does anyone else have a song they want to sing? How about a word from the Lord that they heard this week? Why are we de-activating all these men and women by asking them to sit quietly while one man talks? I know we’re doing this this way because we don’t remember when we didn’t. And I know that the guys and girls leading this show are trying to help as best as they know how, and that the Lord has given them something to give, too. And I remember that Jesus is not totally limited by the means we give him. He chooses to allow himself to be limited, but he’s not totally limited. I can still find him. I can still strain my ears for the Voice. I can still open my heart to him in the singing and fill the house with my voice so he can know I’ve stopped by to see him. I can join my heart and my voice with the others who pray. I can open the door.
And I can always get together with a few people for lunch or dinner afterward to have church 😉