The (Re)Birth of the Church, II: Worship
One church consultant said that when this pandemic is over, your church is not returning to normal, it’s returning to reality. So much has impacted the church these last 18 months, it’s going to look differently once it is all over, if it’s ever over. So obviously Christine, Katie, and I have spent a lot of time thinking about what that new reality is, so we’re preaching this sermon series called “The (Re)Birth of the Church.” The re is in parenthesis because we’re looking at the blueprint for the birth of the church from the Acts of the Apostles.
On the first day of the week, when we met to break bread, Paul was holding a discussion with them; since he intended to leave the next day, he continued speaking until midnight. There were many lamps in the room upstairs where we were meeting. A young man named Eutychus, who was sitting in the window, began to sink off into a deep sleep while Paul talked still longer. Overcome by sleep, he fell to the ground three floors below and was picked up dead. But Paul went down, and bending over him took him in his arms, and said, “Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.” Then Paul went upstairs, and after he had broken bread and eaten, he continued to converse with them until dawn; then he left. Meanwhile they had taken the boy away alive and were not a little comforted.
As we study the Acts of the Apostles, the biblical blueprint for the structure and function of the Christian Church, there’s a reason that this sermon on divine worship is second in the series after last week’s introduction to the Book of Acts.
Worship deserves pride of place because this is where it all begins. Divine Worship is the beating heart of our common life as a Christian congregation.
Divine worship is not all we do. Worship is a necessary but insufficient condition for the existence of the Christian Church. Many of you know about Gregory Boyle. Father Boyle is a Roman Catholic priest in Los Angeles. His parish is one of the poorest in the American Catholic Church and also hosts the most gang members in America.
Many years ago, Greg Boyle started Homeboy Industries, a ministry to former gang members—Homeboys, or Homies, as they call themselves. The Homies call Father Greg G-Dog. Homeboy Industries has a tortilla factory, and a café, and also tattoo-removal services. Homeboy Industries discovered that it’s hard to get a job when you have the F-word tattooed on your forehead. Homeboy Industries provides jobs to hundreds of Homies. G-Dog’s motto is “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.”
One time Father Boyle sat for an interview on a Christian radio show, and after listening to Father Boyle describe the factory, the café, the jobs, the tattoo removal, she asked him, “But how much time do you spend at Homeboy Industries each day, you know, praising God?” Father Boyle responded, “All damn day.”
G-Dog doesn’t spend much time thanking Jesus. This is not because Jesus is unimportant to his life. He just knows that Jesus has no interest in this. He says, “To just go ‘Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, I’m your biggest fan,’ causes Jesus to stare at his watch, tap his feet, and order a double Glenlivet with a twist.” Father Greg says, “We all settle for saying ‘Jesus,’ but Jesus wants us to be in the world what he is.”
Divine worship is not all we do, but it is integral to our common life as the Christian Church. And we’ve been doing it pretty much the same way for 2,000 years. At divine worship, the church then and now always gathers around word and sacrament, pulpit and table, hearing the Gospel and breaking the bread, the two linchpins of Christian character formation, the sturdy twin pillars of Christian worship in the first century, the twenty-first century, and every century in between.
Luke tells us that Paul and his Troas congregation “broke the bread” and “discussed the word.” Who was it gave the best and briefest description of Christian worship? “Gather the folk, break the bread, tell the stories.”
There’s another continuity across the centuries, and this one isn’t quite so pleasant. Then as now, the sermons are always way too long, aren’t they? Thus it ever was, and thus it ever shall be, and someone will always be nodding off while the preacher drones on eternally and somniferously.
Don’t you love Luke’s wry sense of humor, which he gets across with an unusual number of small but telling details? It’s the end of a long, hard day for these working blokes. These people were not bankers and lawyers, after all; they were slaves, stone-masons, shopkeeps. Jesus was a carpenter and Paul a tent-maker, the L. L. Bean of the first century. Most of us make our living with brains and bonds, not hands and hammers, but if you’ve ever made your living with hands and hammers, you know that that’s a ‘tired’ that goes straight to the bone.
It’s the end of a long, hard day. It’s nighttime, so the room is lit with oil lamps which raise the temperature ten degrees and turn the air blue with smoke; this is literally a smoke-filled room and oxygen is scarce; they just did not have a chance. At midnight Paul’s still going strong on the seventh point of a twelve-point sermon and poor young Eutychus is just undone by it all.
His name means ‘Lucky,’ which at first seems highly inaccurate but later turns out to be way true. I see him as 16, maybe 18, years old. Perhaps an apprentice carpenter like Jesus himself, he’s been hammering bookshelves together all day for a rich man’s library and he’s beginning to have a hard day’s night too.
He’s sitting over there on the edge of the congregation in an open window, because as we all know the kids like to sit in the balcony if there is one, but in Eutychus’ case this turns out to be a horrible decision, because he falls fast asleep and then out the window, and remember it’s three stories up so his body hits the stones below, and everybody thinks he’s dead.
The story eventually boasts a happy ending but not yet, and Columbia Seminary Professor Anna Carter Florence wants us to pause right here in the sad part of the story to notice that Eutychus might have been the first teenager almost bored to death by a sermon—literally—but he is most certainly not the last.
This might be the time to ask if preaching is obsolete as a central form of communication. It’s so wordy, so verbal, so dry, almost no visual aids. Especially in the age of Instagram and YouTube, which have been diminishing the human attention span since they arrived on the scene ten years ago. So much of the information we absorb these days is graphic, not verbal. We learn more by image than by word.
Katie and Christine and I actually don’t think preaching is obsolete, but it does need to change, and we want you to know that we’re working on it. We hope you’ve noticed that during this pandemic with most our participants worshiping virtually on screens, both the sermons and the services themselves are shorter, leaner, and more efficient. The sermons have dropped from 16 minutes to 12, and the services themselves from 60 minutes to 45. Also we’ve got these screens now in the sanctuary so that we can communicate both graphically and verbally. All this is because of Instagram and YouTube, among other revolutionary developments. We know you’re busy people and have other things to do. We respect that.
Another continuity between then and now is well, the continuity of Christian worship, the consistency of it, the relentlessness of it. All over the world, it happens every seven days, come hell or high water, and not even catastrophe can interrupt it for long.
Therefore you never cancel worship for silly things like snowstorms and hurricane, not ever. The sissy Christians might, but we won’t; I’ll walk to church if I have to, but we have to keep doing this every seven days because it’s so important.
German Pastor Helmut Thielecke, a minister in Germany’s Confessing Church who refused ever to salute Adolf Hitler, tells about conducting worship services in Stuttgart with allied bombs falling all around the church. The bombs would whistle in and explode with a deafening roar, so preacher and congregation both crawled under the pews and sang hymns until it was over, and then went back to what they were doing because the chief end of humankind is to glorify God.
Do you know there are churches which conduct worship services even if nobody shows up? There they are, the preacher and the organist, all by themselves, but they go on, because you don’t need a congregation to worship God; you just need God; that’s who this is for. At Christian worship, you see, the congregation is not the audience; God is the audience; we, you and I, we, preacher and congregation, we are the actors; we are rehearsing holiness for God, we are testifying to God’s absolute sovereignty in the world.
One Saturday night in January about ten years ago, a powerful snowstorm struck Greenwich, Connecticut—about 20” of snow. The streets were clogged. I called my Worship Elder and asked, “Shall we do this?” He said, “How dare you even ask?”
So we shoveled the parking lot ourselves; we arranged a couple of car pools to fetch the truly faithful. Some people walked to church—two, three miles. There were only 12 of us there. But that was enough. Just the 12. A very sacred number. And God. God was there. And we honored God’s holy name. Because the chief end of humankind is to glorify God and to enjoy God forever.
Gregory Boyle, Barking to the Choir (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017), pp. 195, 196.
“A Prodigal Preaching Story and Bored-to-Death Youth,” by Anna Carter Florence, Theology Today, July, 2007, vol. 64, #2, pp. 233–243.
This idea of God as the audience and the congregation as the actors was inspired by Michael Lindvall’s reflection in his book The Christian Life: A Geography of God (Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, 2001), p. 59. Dr. Lindvall credits Søren Kierkegaard with the original thought.