Why Go to Church?
Twentieth Sunday after Trinity| October 5, 2008| Rev. Rolf Preus| Ephesians 5:18-20
And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
I have lived in northwestern Minnesota and North Dakota and I have lived in southeast Wisconsin. Up here there are two churches for every tavern. Down there, there are two taverns for every church. I suspect, though, that the taverns up here are fuller on a Saturday evening than are the churches on a Sunday morning. People generally prefer distilled spirits to the Holy Spirit. Looking for comfort, strength, courage, or whatever out of a bottle may be a search in vain, but it doesn’t require you to do anything. This is why folks prefer to get drunk on Saturday evening than to go to church on Sunday morning.
Of course, it doesn’t help when the churches are led by preachers whose doctrine changes with every fashionable wind. As soon as the social scientists amend the standards of human conduct the clergy are quick to fall in line. Once upon a time it was shameful for a woman to preach. Today it is shameful to deny the pulpit to women. Homosexuality used to be a sinful perversion of God’s creative order. Today the sin isn’t homosexuality – it’s homophobia – as if it is sinful to agree with God when he condemns sin.
Those who barter away the divine truth to remain in fashion will always appeal to the love of Jesus. But love has no real meaning anymore. It’s just another word for excusing sin. When there is no law to condemn us there is no need for a gospel of the forgiveness of sins. Jesus himself becomes irrelevant regardless of how often his name is invoked.
So why go to church? I’ll tell you why. The church is the door to heaven. It has wealth beyond all human measurement. Now I’m not talking about a building. I’m not talking about an institution with rules and regulations and hierarchy. I’m talking about where Christ comes to be with his bride.
Where the church has kept the treasure her Lord gave her; where God’s law is still preached without compromise, condemning us for our sins; where the pure gospel of the forgiveness of sins for the sake of Christ’s suffering and death in our place is proclaimed to real sinners guilty of real sins; where the sacraments of Christ are administered as Christ instituted them; there it is that God blesses us with the riches of heaven. He joins us where we live and draws us into communion with himself. He rejoices with his people and they rejoice with him. Heaven and earth are reconciled and we find our little bit of heaven right here on earth.
But these treasures are so tragically despised. Jesus told the parable about the wedding feast of the king’s son to address the Jews of his day who despised the gospel he came to preach. The heirs of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob for the most part rejected their inheritance when it was given to them. Gentiles were invited into the church. Many who were invited came, heard the gospel, and rejected it. They are represented by the man who entered into the wedding hall without wearing the wedding garment. They think they are good enough to meet God just as they are. They don’t think that they need the righteousness of Christ. They rely on their own virtue instead of God’s grace.
This parable defines the church according to what she receives. She is invited to the wedding reception and she eats a wonderful meal. She doesn’t bring a bag lunch. She comes to be served. Jesus said, “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve.” Unless Jesus serves you, you do not belong to him. Jesus made this clear to Peter when Peter didn’t want Jesus to wash his feet. Christ not only saves the church by laying down his life for her. He serves his church by giving to her the treasures of heaven. He does this by means of his holy gospel in which there is nothing but divine mercy and forgiveness. Everything Jesus earned for us by his holy living and vicarious suffering he gives to us when we hear the gospel and when we eat and drink his body and blood given and shed for us.
Today’s Epistle describes this same church according to what she does. When Christians gather together as the church they sing and make melody in their hearts to the Lord. They sing to God. They worship him. They give thanks to him. But they also sing to one another. They speak “to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” We sing our faith, our confession. We say to each other what it is that we believe. Faith makes us Christians. Confessing the faith marks us as Christians. We join together to confess the same thing together. And we do so in song.
The greatest hymns the church has ever produced are the hymns that teach us the faith we confess together. The apostle says, “Do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit.” Worship is not a matter of letting it all hang out. It is not giving vent to whatever we feel inside. Christian worship entails self-discipline. St. Paul presents a clear contrast between getting drunk where we lose control and being filled with the Holy Spirit. He is our teacher. He is our Comforter, our Counselor, and our Advocate. He’s not the Spirit of unbridled emotional exuberance. He’s the Spirit of truth. He teaches us the truth.
Among the best hymns in our hymnals are those written during the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century. Our Lutheran forefathers had recently rediscovered the pure gospel after it had been buried for centuries underneath many unbiblical traditions. The worship of the people had been to observe as the priests sang the liturgy in a language the people didn’t understand. Luther translated the liturgy from the Latin into the German, even as he translated the Bible into the German language of his day. He wrote many hymns that proclaimed the pure gospel. True worship is not a spectator sport. It involves the entire person. We hear God’s word. We take it to heart. We respond to it. We confess in song to one another that same saving gospel that we believe.
The church sings the psalms. We’ve lost the custom of singing the psalms in our day and that’s a shame. The Psaltery was the hymnal of the Old Testament Church. The psalms are hymns and they were written to be sung. The church sings hymns and spiritual songs. This should not be confused with the modern genre of music known as spirituals. The apostle is referring to hymns and songs that teach the faith. We share the faith with one another by means of music. We confess our faith to our God in the same way. The thanksgiving we offer to God is offered in the name of the Lord Jesus because it is in his name that we are children of God.
In our generation, worship wars have erupted in many churches across America. Pop songs with religious lyrics are offered in the place of the traditional hymns of the church. Perhaps much of the debate is purely a debate about style. I don’t think we can prove that God prefers the rhythmic chorale of historic Lutheranism to the isometric tunes more popular in America. But the word of God does teach us that worship is not an unthinking and purely emotional kind of expression. St. Paul writes in Romans 12, 1-2:
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.
The reason it’s a sin to get drunk – whether with wine, as our text says, or with beer, whiskey, or any other intoxicant – is the same reason it’s a sin to get stoned on marijuana or speed or any other drug. We are to love God with our heart, soul, and mind. We don’t learn God’s will for us by losing our minds or losing control, but in being transformed by God. Spiritual enlightenment is a wonderful work. It is God’s work. It takes place within the minds of his people.
The choice is not between getting high on alcohol or drugs and getting high on religion. It is between living in conformity with the evil in our world and living as Christians. We go to church because we cannot live the Christian life without the Christian faith. We need the gospel. Our faith depends on it. We need to confess our sins to God. They have captured our affections and we cannot set ourselves free. We need to hear the gospel. We need to hear that we are forgiven by the blood of Jesus and we are set free. Just as surely as Christ’s body and blood are given us to eat and to drink God forgives us all our sins for Christ’s sake. We are the bride of Christ. We are holy because we are covered by the holiness of the bridegroom. Our hearts will deny this. The world will scoff and it. The devil will rail against it and slander those who preach it and confess it. But it is our greatest joy and it is what we sing. What we sing teaches us the heavenly doctrine that will always be God’s power to deliver us from all evil.
We also go to church because we need each other. We do not live independently of one another. Faith may be personal, but it isn’t private. My faith cannot save you and your faith cannot save me but we share the same faith and when we confess it together, when we sing it together, God binds us together and builds us up as Christ’s church. Amen