Of Hymns and Horses
Hebrews 10:25 says "let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near."
I read this verse in my scripture reading this morning. It is a verse which is often weaponized to cause guilt and drive people by fear to go to church. In fact it has been used that way against me before. And it's sort of easy to see how a cursory reading of this verse can lead to that sort of interpretation.
But church, I do not believe that God calls us to read the Bible in a cursory way. He calls us to search the scriptures (John 5). To take note and pay careful attention to them (Rev. 21). To treasure them and hang them on our doorposts, our hands, our heads (Deut. 6). He leads us to plant the scriptures deep in our hearts and be prepared at a moment to proclaim them (1 Pet. 3)
We achieve all this and more when we learn to read the Bible in context. We've talked in the youth group the last few weeks about reading the Bible in context. Here's a refrain you'll hear from me often whether you're a youth or not - "Context Is Everything".
To make any sense of any story, it must have context. Every foreground has a background.
So as I was reading and Hebrews 10:25 came into the foreground, the background of the whole chapter suddenly added such beauty and nuance to the lesson God was teaching me this morning, and now you.
You see, in Chapter 10 of the Book of Hebrews, the author (who is anonymous in this case) is making an argument that in the past, the Israelites' sacrifices were reminders of their constant sin, because they constantly needed to make sacrifices. But now Jesus' ultimate and final sacrifice of his own life no longer reminds us of sin but encourages us that "our guilty consciences have been sprinkled with Christ's blood to make us clean..." (Heb. 10:22).
So then, what's the response to such great news? What's "Up Next" when one has been made clean by the blood of Christ? The author declares - "let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near." (Heb. 10:24-25)
Here's where we go wrong interpreting verse 25 - we read "meeting together" as "going to church." And I find that many times when people look for motivation to go to church, it's actually a little bit selfish. It's based on our own personal needs assessment, and it assumes that our absence is no harm no foul to anyone else. We are tempted to think that "going to church" is a mechanism for being or becoming Christian. But I love what the late Eugene Peterson (author of The Message bible paraphrase) has said about this -
"Standing in a church singing a hymn doesn't make us holy any more than standing in a barn neighing makes us a horse."
Run With the Horses Eugene Peterson
Ouch. But so true. You singing a hymn doesn't make you a Christian. Jesus dying on the cross does. We get that lesson from careful attention to the order of operations here in Hebrews 10. "Meeting together" (verse 25) is a response to the goodness of God's sacrifice which washes us clean (verse 22). It's not a mechanism to receive it. And more than that it's not an act of selfishness but of selflessness. The opposite of "not meeting together" is "encouraging one another." It's a beautiful picture of what it looks like to get together as Christians. We don't gather for our own individual sakes but to see and encourage others and to motivate them to love. Gathering together at church is not an obligation to fulfill but an opportunity to celebrate what God has fulfilled for you.
So what if this summer instead of gathering together at church so that you can be fed, you gathered at church so that you could do some feeding? You likely won't know who it is that you'll be encouraging on any given Sunday, but you can rest assured that God knows and is already preparing you both for an Encounter with Jesus through your mutually faithful obedience. Here's your three step process for Sunday mornings: Drink your coffee. Pray for your family. Go to church. Then prepare to be amazed at how the Holy Spirit will stitch your story together with someone else's in unexpected and beautiful ways.