It’s Sunday morning and all around the area—all around the world—people are gathered together in churches for what we call worship. We all know that Christians are supposed to go to church. But do we know why?
Do we know why are we supposed to come together regularly for worship? What’s the purpose? Is there a purpose? Does it really matter whether we come or not? There are a lot of people in the world who call themselves Christians who don’t think church is a necessary part of following Jesus. Maybe you’re one of them.
In a recent survey by Ligonier Ministries, a majority of American adults said that worshiping alone or with family is a valid replacement for church. Only 30% disagreed.
Some think that the purpose of church is to hear a sermon—so they decide that sitting in front of a computer or television screen can fulfill their “church” requirement.
So why are we here? And does it really matter?
Today is the first Sunday in a new year—and, for most of us, a new year brings with it the idea of a fresh start. A time to stop doing some of those things we know aren’t good for us and start doing some of those things we’ve been promising ourselves we’d do.
Because most of us know that there’s a lot of room for improvement in our lives. I know that for me personally, i’m not looking just for a few improvement here and there—I could use a whole new me. A me that’s healthy, well rested, that always gets enough exercise; a me that’s disciplined, compassionate, always loving; a me that’s a better wife and mother, a better pastor; a me that’s loved by others, generous, joyful, thankful. A me who never says the wrong thing, a me who never forgets to always keep an eternal perspective. There’s just one problem—me. I am my own worst enemy. I understand completely what the apostle Paul means when he writes to Timothy, “I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, although formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy … and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. … Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (I Timothy 1:12-15).
But what does this have to do with church, you may be wondering? It has everything to do with church. Because while you and I are thinking about ways we can improve ourselves, we forget that we’re created beings. We forget that there is a creator God who is holy, good and all-powerful. We forget that despite the fact that we never wanted a divine authority over us, despite the fact that we wanted to live our lives according to our own rules and what we thought would make us happy, that despite all this, in the midst of our rebellion, God sent His Son to be born as a man and to live the life you and I should have lived in obedience to our heavenly Father. God’s Son, Jesus, died on the cross for our sins. The sprinkling of the precious blood of Christ forgives us of our sin and cleanses us from guilt. But there’s still more—then God sent His Holy Spirit into our hearts to set us apart as true children of God.
The Ligonier study shows that for many of us Christianity is about a certain lifestyle or refraining from certain behaviors. It shows that for others of us, it’s about politics or even just being conservative. But Scripture tells us something very different. The Bible tells us that to be a Christian is to turn from our sin and know the grace and peace that can be ours in abundance. This is grace from Jesus Christ and the peace that God provides between us and the Father through the shed blood of the Son.
But there’s still more—70% of us have forgotten a vitally important part. God doesn’t just save us and then say, “OK now, you’re forgiven—so go out and live your individual life.” What Scripture tells us is that we’ve saved into the church. We’re born into a whole new identity, a corporate identity.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve talked about the miraculous birth of John the Baptist and the even more miraculous birth of Jesus Christ. But God’s miraculous birth stories don’t end there. Through the work of His Son Jesus, God birthed something completely new—a new body, a body that we call the church. Not another religion, but a living, breathing organism, the body of Christ in His pre-incarnate supernatural form. The resurrected Jesus returned to His heavenly home, but then He sent His Spirit to live in the heart of every believer, connecting them in a whole new way. Because for the first time in all of human history, sinful human beings have the opportunity to have the Spirit of God living permanently inside of them.
For the first time in human history, God’s creatures—you and me—are able to experience to a small degree what God has experienced through all eternity—what it is to be spiritually connected to another.
Just as God’s identity is corporate—Father, Son and Holy Spirit living continuously in relationship with one another—so too have we now received a corporate identity. Connected through God’s Spirit to God Himself and connected to our brothers and sisters in the body through the Spirit of God living in each one of us.
The church is not a social club. It’s not a place to motivate the faithful to do good works. It’s not a place to come and put in some time on Sunday morning so that you can feel good about yourself for the rest of the week.
The church is a place where Christians know their real identity as children of God, as part of an eternal family. A place where Jesus Himself tells us our relationships with one another are actually more important than our relationships with our biological family because of how God has chosen us in the gospel.
It’s a radical idea. It’s an idea that some of us don’t really like. It’s so radical that some of us have actually rejected it.
And so, brothers and sisters in Christ, we don’t need to be focused on self-improvement projects in this new year. All we need to do is recognize our true identity in Christ Jesus. Together we have been born again through the miracle of the resurrection. And God has promised to witness to His great power and love through us, the church, His Body. He has promised it and He will accomplish it—we can’t mess it up or stop it. He’s not waiting for us to become perfect, He can and will accomplish great things for us and through us despite all our failures and weaknesses—if we will but let Him.
And so as we begin a new year, I wonder … how might our life together change if we really lived in this reality? Might we be less fearful? Willing to take more risks for the sake of the gospel? Might we be more bold in sharing Christ with others? Make it more of a priority to be fully present with God’s people as we gather here to sing, to pray, to hear His Word?
The apostle Paul, because of the work that Jesus had done in him, understood clearly what it meant to be called into the church, into the Body of Christ. Understood it as a great privilege. Understood it so clearly that Paul devoted the rest of his life to sharing the gospel, planting churches, teaching God’s people what an incredible gift they had received. Helping them to live in a way that would glorify the Holy Name of almighty God.
Helping them to understand that when we pray to our Father in heaven, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” what we’re really praying is that God will use us, His church in this particular place, to do His will, to bring His kingdom to those unsaved people that He has placed in our lives and in our neighborhoods.
Sadly, however, we are all too often looking in other directions, thinking about other things. Even in the first century, this was the case. There were problems in the early church just as there are in the 21st century church—problems because, despite the fact that we have been born into this new and miraculous life in Christ, we’re still living in our sinful human bodies. God knew that this was the case. And so He gave us His Word to teach us, to show us the new life that’s available to every one of us.
Timothy was Paul’s spiritual son, a young man that Paul disciples, a young man who was now the pastor of the Ephesian church—a church where there are problems. So Paul writes a letter to Timothy to encourage him, to instruct him. In the first chapter Paul addresses the fact that there are people in the congregation teaching false doctrine, creating controversy and division—and destroying the witness of the church. Instead of working together to bring the gospel to the world, the people are caught up in finger-pointing, in gossip, in wanting to be right. All of the energy of the church is directed inward instead of outward.
This is not what Jesus intended for His church—and Paul knows it. But Paul also knows that all renewal in the church and in the world flows by God’s grace from God’s presence, that it’s not something we generate or control.
In the Old Testament, the temple in Jerusalem was where God could be found. It was the place where heaven and earth intersected. In the 47th chapter of the book of the prophet Ezekiel, Ezekiel describes a vision that he’s received from God. He sees a river—the river of God—flowing from the altar in the temple. The river, as it flows outward, gets deeper and wider. And the man in Ezekiel’s vision tells him that “Wherever this water goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish. … Fishermen will stand beside the sea. From Engedi to Engelaim it will be a place for the spreading of nets. Its fish will be of very many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea” (Ezekiel 47:9-10). The river flows to the Dead Sea, which now, in his vision, is no longer dead. The fresh water flowing from the temple has transformed that dead area into a living lake teeming with every kind of fish.
500 years later, Jesus, in John’s gospel, stands in the temple and cries out, “If anyone thirst, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me … ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:37-38). Jesus is the source of this living water that brings life to the dead.
Paul knows that Ezekiel’s vision is a picture of the church at work in the world. But Paul also knows that building a building and putting a sign on it that says “church” doesn’t make it a church. He knows that even holding services that we call “worship services” don’t make us a church. Paul knows that God’s church is never a building, but always a people. A people created and called by God to bring the salvation message to the world as Jesus Himself did—to proclaim the good news that the kingdom of God is near.
But the Ephesian church is so busy disputing with one another within the body that it’s not doing what it was created to do. And Paul has written to tell Timothy how to correct this. The first thing the church needs to do in this saving process, Paul says, is pray. He writes, “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling” (I Timothy 2:8).
“Don’t be angry.” That’s Paul’s advice for becoming a prayerful congregation—because he is clearly talking about congregational, not individual, prayer. “Don’t be angry.”
The way to stop the anger and division, Paul says, is to pray. Because prayer is one of the things that shapes the identity of a group. If you study the book of Acts carefully, you will find that for the early church, prayer is consistently a major part of the Christian community, a practice that invariably leads to the expansion of the community.
Perhaps this is because a community that prays for the evangelization of the world is a community that is open to the world and welcoming of those outside. And perhaps it is because evangelistic activity is most successful when it follows evangelistic prayer. So Paul says, in every way possible—supplications, prayers, intercessions, thanksgivings—pray for the world.
While prayer for those in authority is not the main thing in this passage, it is singled out for special mention—Paul has learned firsthand that God is willing and able to intervene even in worldly affairs. In Acts 19:23-41, we’re told that while Paul was in Ephesus, his teaching made people so angry that a riot occurred. It was “the town clerk” who intervened to “quiet” the crowd that was threatening to hinder the work of the gospel.
So Paul says that we are to “pray … for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (2:2). We’re to pray because “God our Savior desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2:3-4). Throughout the gospels, Jesus’ concern is always for sinners, for outsiders, for tax collectors—these are the people coming to the early church. These are the people that God has called into His church today. Which is why we need to, “in every place … pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling.”
It’s hard to remain bitter and divided when you are together in prayer. But Paul’s not saying that just any prayer will do. He’s telling Timothy—and us—that our prayer needs to be outward-looking, prayer for the evangelization of the world. For everyone in the world. Twice in this passage, in 2:1 and again in 2:4, Paul calls us to pray for “all people.” Because “God our Savior desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2:3-4).
Prayer for the world—for those outside of the church. The focus inside the church is never to be about internal disagreements and problems—it’s always to be about the salvation of the world. And apparently united corporate prayer is a big part of God’s salvation plan, perhaps the most important part.
Paul knows that the church’s reputation is crucial to its witness. He knows that no one will pay any attention to the testimony of people who are angry, who can’t even get along with one another. And he knows that it’s only when we pray together that we’ll receive the necessary grace to live in such a way that we’ll gain the respect of the outside world and adorn the gospel.
How are we doing with that? How’s our reputation?
The purpose of the church, the reason that you and I have been saved, is that we be in prayer for the entire world. Prayer that might result in action—but never action that comes before prayer.
Jesus said that when we pray, we should pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”
This is the purpose of the church.
How are we doing with that?
In her book The Prayer Saturated Church, author Cheryl Sacks, who was for many years a public school teacher, writes of praying one morning for our schools. “Oh God,” she cried out, “Please return prayer to the classrooms of schools across our nation.”
Suddenly, she says, the Holy Spirit responded to her prayer. His words seemed almost audible as they rang through the air: “Why don’t you ask that prayer will return to the church?”
Brothers and sisters in Christ, we ask what we can do to become more effective in outreach, more effective in our mission.
Paul gives us the answer. Jesus gives us the answer: pray. Pray not just individually about our own personal concerns. But gather together regularly to pray corporately for the big issues facing our world. For the many, many people who do not yet know Jesus.
We bemoan the problems of human trafficking, of abortion, of the ineffectiveness of our government, of corruption in business and government, of problems between nations. We have a government that is currently shut down due to inability to come to agreement over budget issue.
Could it be that the church is responsible for many of these problems? Could it be that the reason God isn’t at work doing something about all these problems is because we haven’t cried out for Him to do something?
When a visitor comes into our church, would they be immediately aware that prayer is happening here?
Jim Cymbala wrote in his book Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire: “If we call upon the Lord, He has promised in His Word to answer, to bring the unsaved to Himself, to pour out His Spirit among us. If we don’t call upon the Lord, He has promised nothing—nothing at all. It’s as simple as that. No matter what I preach or what we claim to believe in our heads, the future will depend upon our times of prayer. This is the engine that will drive the church.”
In the January newsletter, I called for prayer to be our primary focus in this new year. We are in a time of many challenges. Some are new and ongoing mission opportunities being brought before us by the Holy Spirit. Others are attempts at division and distraction that are being brought by the devil.
And so as we begin this new year, are we prepared to live as though we really believe that God’s promises were fulfilled in His Son, Jesus. What would Abraham, Daniel, Ruth, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and David say if they could see us today? With the salvation that we have realized in Jesus? With the Holy Spirit dwelling in us, no longer a law that is external but a law now written in our hearts by the Holy Spirit? The church, God’s people, who are actually a part of the family of God?
Yes, we the people in God’s church are weak. We’re culturally out of touch. Sometimes we’re even boring. But the prophets of God foresaw a day when God’s people would be redeemed, and we are that redeemed community. We are no longer defined by our failures, our sins, our weaknesses, or even our politics. We’re defined by our new identity in Christ’s resurrection and our salvation in Him. Together we gather to remind one another that this world is not our home. We are elect exiles. Chosen to be a part of God’s forever family. But strangers to the world in its rebellion against God.
Do you believe that this is really true? And if you do, does that change your goals for this year? Will we be a people more willing to focus on God’s will: on “His kingdom come, His will be done.” Even if that’s not easy? Will you begin simply by writing down the names of two people that you will commit to praying for regularly? Two people in your life—friends, family, coworkers, neighbors—people whose salvation is not yet assured. Two people who desperately need to hear the good news that you have available to share with them.
Two people—each one of us. A first step. As we go forward in this new year, may we grow in our faith, in our relationship with Jesus Christ, in our relationship with one another. Looking ever outward, never inward.
Let us pray.