I will bless the Lord at all times;
his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in the Lord;
Let the humble hear and be glad.
Oh, magnify the Lord with me,
And let us exalt his name together!
So far in this series our focus has been almost entirely on individual prayer, the kind of praying that we do when we are alone. This private communication between each of us and the Father has been the centre of our attention. We have looked at petition – which is the heart of personal prayer; we have explored meditation; we have looked at the importance of praising God and learned about expressing the pain of our lives through uttering our complaints or pleas to God for help; and we have highlighted the importance of hanging on to God in persistent prayer that expresses faith and hope as we come to realize that God will not abandon us no matter what happens in our lives.
Truly each of us must take responsibility for our life and our life with God and in God. Each of us needs to acknowledge that we live our lives under God’s eye and that we will answer to him for whatever we do. We have to be the persons who exercise faith in Jesus Christ as our personal Saviour and Lord and we need to ask God to show us how we can each one of us be a disciple and please God in everything we say and do. This is God in Christ making us realize and develop our own individuality in his presence enabling us to take our faith seriously. This emphasis on deepened personhood and intensified individuality is integral to understanding and living our life of faith and hope and love and prayer. But it is not the whole story. We need to not forget that our growth as individuals is not for us alone but is developed in order that we may become strength and hope for others in the fellowship we call the church.
But as we explore the concept of joining in, we need to have a clear understanding of what is really meant by church. We all say that the church is not a building or a denomination but that is the way we most often identify church. But the descriptions of church in the New Testament make no real mention of buildings. The focus is on connections: associational and organic. The fact that we come together in this place of worship shows our connection to one another by association. But the images given to us by Jesus and by Paul and others about church speak of an organic connection – a sharing of life and energy. We have only to think of the image of the vine and the branches from John’s Gospel or the powerful image of the body as told by St. Paul. As each branch of the vine can only truly live as it is connected to the vine and thus share the same nurture, so the body only functions to its fullest capacity when all its members are respected and cared for. To use a modern illustration think of a bicycle wheel. The hub is the centre from which all the spokes emanate but if too many spokes are broken or faulty, the wheel loses its effectiveness and can no longer perform the function for which it was intended.
So it is with the body of Christ – the church. We need to recognize that we share a common life with one another with God in Christ and that – as a consequence – we are to be giving ourselves to love, serve and strengthen our fellow participants in Christ’s body. Learning to be accepting of one another with all our weaknesses and idiosyncrasies is critical to being shaped into a single body with one head – Jesus Christ. We are all connected to the Lord and connected to one another by the grace of God in a body whose visible shape is what is to be known as “church”. Packer believes and affirms that we need each other! God has called us together to be this body on earth, to find that sense of belonging and to share it with each other. It is through loving connectedness within the church that we can draw others. The image Packer uses is that of a group who are holding hands but who drop hands to welcome a new addition.
True enough each of us comes to the body of Christ as individuals engaged in our own path with God; but when we gather in worship, we seek to affirm one another in the faith and seek to express our shared thoughts and desires to reveal a unity in fellowship and focus on our relationship to and with our God.
So we are encouraged to come together for worship, for prayer, for study and fellowship; and we are to remember that this is not something commanded in order to maintain a building or to secure funds to maintain clergy but that it is the will of God who so well knows how difficult it can be to maintain faith when we are isolated from one another. When we come together, we no longer hear just our own words or thoughts but we hear the words and thoughts of others. But we need to not only hear but also acknowledge and respond to one another, praying for one another and encouraging one another so that no one has to walk alone.
But God not only wills that we should come together in worship, fellowship and prayer but he also uses that time of our togetherness – if we are open to see it. We are to become conscious of and remain conscious of the lives of others within the body and seek to teach, advise, listen, pray and act as we are able. We often wonder when Christ will return. Perhaps he is waiting for us to show ourselves as his body so that when the head returns, there is a body ready to receive him. I realize that this sounds like we can become perfect but that perfection is not outside of or apart from Christ; it is rather a seeking for a wholeness in the body that only Christ can bring and yet is to be achieved in part by our willingness to be perfected by Christ.
So we are enjoined to join with others in building our relationship with God and in expressing our faith within a body that we know as the fellowship of which we are a part. Packer quotes an anonymous poem that goes like this:
To live above with the saints we love,
Oh, that will be glory!
But to live below with the saints we know?
Now that’s a different story!
We have all found ourselves struggling with coming to terms with a difficult fellow believer. It can cause all kinds of divisions and hurt and can even tear fellowships apart. Developing, building and encouraging healthy Christian fellowship and healthy bodies of believers has never been easy and probably never will but if we truly believe that God has called each of us and adopted each of us and loves each one of us and hears each of our prayers, we will choose to come together and stay together. We will choose to give and receive love with a mutual openness to one another. We will choose to commit ourselves to the congregation, to identify with its goals and members, to open our lives and our homes to one another, and to help one another wherever that help is needed. For as much as we may be close to God individually it is critical that we choose togetherness and choose wholehearted, closely bound involvement in our congregation’s life of prayer, praise and service. Through this we will discover not only the will of God for our own lives but also find the will of God for our life in community. Let us never forget to join in!