The Church’s Praise
Pachomius was an Egyptian soldier won to Christ by the kindness of Christians in Thebes. After his release from the military around A.D. 315, he was baptized. Serious about his new faith and determined to grow, Pachomius became a disciple of Palamon, an ascetic who taught him the self-denial and solitary life of a religious hermit.
You see, in early Christianity in many places, the model for true devotion to Christ was the hermit – the recluse dedicated to resisting the corruption of society. These hermits wandered the desert alone – fasting, praying, and having visions. Some of these people went to extremes: eating nothing but grass, living in trees, or refusing to wash. Sounds like middle school boys.
But for many people, this was the popular image of holiness: solitude, silence, and severity. And this was Pachomius’s early spiritual training. But he began to question the methods and lifestyle of his mentors. He started asking questions. Questions like …
How can you learn to love if no one else is around?
How can you learn humility living alone?
How can you learn kindness or gentleness or goodness in isolation?
How can you learn patience unless someone puts yours to the test?
In the end, he decided that developing spiritual fruit requires being around people – ordinary, ornery people. “To save souls,” he said, “you must bring them together.”
Spiritual muscle isn’t even learned among friends we have chosen. God’s kind of love is best learned where we can’t be selective about our associates. Maybe that’s why the two institutions established by God – the family and the church – are not joined by invitation only. We have no choice about who our parents or brothers or sisters will be; yet we are expected to love them. And we can’t choose who will or will not be in the family of God either; any who confess Jesus as Lord must be welcomed. We learn agape love most effectively in our involuntary associations, away from the temptation of choosing to love only the attractive.
So Pachomius tried something different. He decided that holiness was developed not in isolation but in community. Instead of each person seeking God in his own way, with the dangers of idleness and eccentricity, Pachomius established a community with a common life based on worship, work, and discipline.
In community with flawed, demanding, sometimes disagreeable people, followers of Pachomius learned to take hurt rather than give it. They discovered that disagreements and opposition provide the opportunity to redeem life situations and experience God’s grace. Thus began genuine monastic life.
Pachomius, while largely forgotten in church history, points out to us that as attractive as solitary sanctification may seem, it is life amid people, busyness, and interruptions that develop many of the qualities God requires.[i]
One of the things we’re seeing more and more of today is people believing they can live a life connected to God all on their own. No connection to other people also following Christ. America has always celebrated the individual and individual effort, and that idea has crept into our way of relating to God too. We want to do it all on our own. Without any input from other people. Alone in the woods, just our Bible and a journal and the birds singing. And to be honest, there’s nothing wrong with this … so long as it isn’t at the expense of gathering with the people of God. We view our spiritual lives, our life in Christ, as something that has nothing to do with other people. The problem is, it has everything to do with other people. We aren’t called to be spiritual hermits. We’re called into Christ AND into his family, the people of God in the world.
This fall we’re doing a sermon series called “We ARE the Church.” We started two weeks ago with by talking about the Church’s life, a life devoted to teaching and learning the Word of God, to authentic community, relationships with one another that run deeper than a few minutes over coffee after worship, and to the worship of God. Last week we talked about the compassion of the church – our willingness to generously give and serve together with joy in our hearts. Today, we’re looking at the praise of the church. What happens when we gather together for worship, for study, or to serve? What happens when we meet? Turn with me to Colossians 3:15-17.
We all get frustrated with our church sometimes, don’t we? The pastor or another leader says or does something that offends us. Another church member really bugs us. The worship leader keeps seeing that song we don’t like. The service is too long. They make us wear masks. They don’t make people wear masks. We don’t want to be associated with some of the people who attend. So every few years we hop to a new church, hoping that it will be a better “fit” for us than our previous church. Of course, there are legitimate reasons to leave a church. Sometimes its that God wants to move you to a new place. There’s nothing wrong with that. But we have a tendency to take that to the extreme, to “shop” for the newest, hottest, best church. The church whose sticker we want to put on the back of our car. The church currently with the hottest production for worship. The church with the pastor who never says anything I disagree with or that challenges me. When we have that view of the church, that the church is there to entertain me and make me feel good and only challenge me in good ways, we kill our ability to worship God well, because we make our meeting together all about us.
The Colossian churches were struggling with worship killers. Paul deals with two of them earlier in the letter. The first is distracted worship. Flip back to Colossians 2:16-18. There were leaders in the church who were trying to distract the people, get them focused on things other than Christ. Some were focused on making sure that everyone followed a certain set of rules. Observe the right feasts and religious festivals. Only eat and drink certain things. Don’t walk too far on the Sabbath. These are the people who focus on how everyone dresses, how everyone talks, whether people “appear” spiritual enough. Whether the pastor has earrings and tattoos and sometimes preaches in Ohio State t-shirts. Stuff like that. And they constantly judge those who don’t measure up. That’s a worship killer.
And there were other leaders who were leading people on a constant search for the next spiritual high, and they were moving away from Christ to do it. They were worshipping angels and insisting that people engage in extremely ascetic, plain lives like the hermits I mentioned earlier. People who were replacing Christ with other spiritual emphases. These are the people who sometimes say they are spiritual. Any form of spirituality will do, so long as it makes you feel good, or healthier, or more enlightened, or whatever. And Christ becomes one of many paths to self-actualization and enlightenment, instead of our savior and our Lord. Distraction – focusing on religious rules and regulations, or the next spiritual high, is a worship killer.
So is division. Look back at Colossians 3:8-11. Division. Us and them. The right kind of people and the wrong kind of people. Arguing. Anger. Gossip. Dragging our brothers and sisters in Christ through the mud. The in crowd and the fringe people. We often divide along the lines of those who agree with me and those who don’t. And it usually has nothing to do with anything central to our faith in Christ at all. We divide over silly things. Instead of recognizing that “Christ is all, and in all,” as Paul says, we gather only with those we’re most comfortable around. Distraction and division kill our praise. They are worship killers.
So how do we fight against them? Look at V. 15. The peace of Christ. Peace is a common theme when we gather. We call greeting times during the service “passing the peace.” We talk about Christ as the Prince of Peace. Some services begin with the words “Peace be with you” or “The peace of Christ be with you.” We often end services by saying, “Go in peace.” The fruits of the Holy Spirit in our lives are “love, joy, and … peace.” Normally, in our culture, when we think of peace in this way, we think of inner peace. Being “at peace” inside ourselves. Not being anxious. And Scripture does have a ton to say about that. But the peace of Christ is more than just being internally calm. It also applies to our relationships with one another. And here, as he deals with worship killers, praise killers, Paul applies it in that way. When the peace of Christ rules in our hearts, we know peace inside, AND we enjoy peace with others.
Paul says that we are called together “in one body.” A body in which each of the parts, as unique and distinct as each part is, work together in harmony. A body in which the parts don’t work together in harmony is a sick body. In a healthy body, the liver, the kidneys, the heart, the lungs, the white blood cells, and the skin cells and everything else work together in harmony. Sickness disrupts that. When we come together, instead of our time and relationships being marked by anger, wrath, malice, slander, and gossip, we are to recognize that because Christ is all and is in all, we are one body, called to be at peace with one another and work together.
And then Paul simply says, “And be thankful.” Gratitude is a major theme in Colossians. Gratitude for Christ. Gratitude for the blessings God gives. And gratitude for one another. Because quite often the people God uses the most in our lives to shape us are the people who drive us nuts most often. The people who push our buttons. The people we struggle with. So when we go home today, instead of saying “So-and-so was there today. I hate it when they come. They drive me nuts,” we say “Thank you Lord that one of the people you are using to make me a little bit more like Christ was there today. Please be with them and bless them. And give me the strength and desire to live at peace with them and to love them as you love me.” When we gather, if the peace of Christ rules among us and we are one body filled with gratitude for one another, those worship killers, distraction and division, won’t have room to exist. But we have to actively resist them. This unity, this one body, doesn’t just happen. Paul tells us we have to “LET the peace of Christ rule.” We have to aim to be one body. It won’t just happen.
Now, look down at V. 16. Now Paul is talking about when we gather specifically for worship, when we gather to praise God. We are to let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts, and the word of Christ to dwell in us richly. When we gather to worship God, our focus is on the presence of Christ with us through his Word. When we gather, we as a unified body, at peace and grateful for one another, are to let the Word of Christ dwell richly among us. And that happens in our teaching and in our singing.
We are to wisely teach and admonish one another. When we read Scripture together, pray Scripture together, speak Scripture together, we are teaching one another. When we say a Psalm together out loud as a call to worship, we aren’t just saying it for ourselves, we are speaking aloud, teaching one another. And its not just me teaching you now, you are teaching me too. Teaching is imparting knowledge. It is telling someone something. And admonishing, or exhorting, is pressing that knowledge home. It is the practical application of the knowledge. When we gather together, we are to wisely teach and admonish one another as we share space together to worship God.
But the Word of Christ, Scripture, is also prominent in our singing. We sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” That was just Paul’s way of saying, a full range of styles and types of music. But Scripture is to be prominent there. You see, when we sing together aloud, we are teaching and admonishing one another. We don’t sing just for ourselves. We sing for one another. Together, we worship and cry out to God. But we’re also reminding one another of the goodness and faithfulness and grace and love of God as we sing, because we can hear each other. So the words that we sing need to be grounded in solid theology and Scripture. There have been times when Gregg and I have sat down and gone over the lyrics of a worship song and decided not to use it, because it doesn’t contain sound theology or solid interpretation of Scripture. In 1 Corinthians 14:15, Paul says, “What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also.” We don’t just sing a song because the music makes us feel good, impacts us emotionally. We also sing with our minds. Because when we sing, we are still teaching and admonishing one another as the Word of Christ dwells among us. Healthy worship includes both heart and mind.
And then there’s that word again … “with thankfulness.” Gratitude. We worship with thanksgiving in our hearts. Thanksgiving for the love and the grace of God, for our standing in Christ, for the peace of Christ and the Word of Christ, and for one another as we gather, worship, and grow together.
Now, Paul wraps it up in V. 17. Whatever we do, wherever we are, whether we are together or apart and going about our weeks, we do everything we do in Christ’s name. Christ and our relationship with him is to mark our work and our play, our sleeping and our waking, our eating and our fasting, our time alone and our time with others, our speaking and our silence. The Christian life isn’t just an hour or so on Sunday morning. It’s a life. It’s all of life. Every part of it. Christ permeates all of it.
And then, there it is again, for the third time in three verses … “giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Through Christ. Do you think God wants our lives to be marked by gratitude. Gratitude for all that God is and all that God has done. Gratitude for the life, the death, and the resurrection of Christ. Gratitude for the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit, helping us to live as God wants us to live. And gratitude for one another. You see, God wants to restore us on two planes – the vertical plane, that’s our relationship with him, and the horizontal plane, that’s our relationships with one another. God hasn’t just called us out of sin. He has called us into Christ, and into Christ’s body, the church. We are called to live the Christ life together.
Heather King is a writer and NPR commentator. She’s also a recovering alcoholic who has come to faith in Christ. Several years ago, she thought about on her initial experience with the church. She wrote:
My first impulse was to think, My God, I don’t want to get sober (or in the case of the church, worship) with THESE nutcases! (or boring people, or people with different politics, taste in music, food, books, or whatever). Nothing shatters our egos like worshipping with people we did not hand-pick …. The humiliation of discovering that we are thrown in with extremely unpromising people! – people who are broken, misguided, wishy-washy, out for themselves. People who are … us.
But we don’t come to church to be with people who are like us in the way we want them to be. We come because we have staked our souls on the fact that Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and the church is the best place, the only place, to be while we all struggle to figure out what that means. We come because we’d be hard pressed to say which is the bigger of the two scandals of God: that he loves us – or that he loves everyone else.[ii]
[i] Marshall Shelley, “Developing spiritual fruit requires being around people – ordinary, ornery people,” Leadership journal (Spring 1993)
[ii] Adapted from Heather King, “The Better Church,” Shirt of Flame blog (10-23-11)