A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Gathered by God
October 3, 2013
Wherever God in Christ is rightly worshiped, there we have the true church – so has the Reformed tradition taught throughout its history.
The first act of the church’s liturgy is deceptively simple – we gather to worship. (Book of Order W-3.3301) Failure to gather together regularly is the beginning of sure failure of the church community to sustain its witness. Hebrews 10:25 cautions the church against “neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.” Apparently there was already a tendency among some first generation Christians to make gathering for worship something secondary, as though our private belief matters more than our corporate witness.
According to the early church father Cyprian (who died in 258), “One cannot have God as Father if one does not have the Church as Mother.” The Reformers affirmed wholeheartedly Cyprian’s contention that “solo Christianity” is an oxymoron. Apart from a gathered community, Christianity is unsustainable.
The Hebrews text reminds us that when we gather, we encourage one another. When we fail to gather, we lose the community’s encouragement to stay the course during difficult times. In the previous verse, the Hebrews passage notes that when we gather we “provoke one another to love and good works.” God knows we need all the encouragement and provocation we can get to live faithfully as Christ’s disciples!
When we gather for worship, Reformed Christians understand what we are not doing, as well as what we are doing. Gathering together does not summon God into our assembly. Sometimes folk have misunderstood Jesus’ claim, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20), as though our gathering summons his presence. Remember, Jesus promised always to be with his disciples (Matthew 28:20) – they don’t need to do a thing to conjure his presence. The promise that he is present when we are gathered is simply a reminder that whatever we say and do as his community, we say and do it with him, and not just for him. The notion that Jesus will “show up” only if we gather to invoke his presence is utterly foreign to our tradition.
This is why the Presbyterian liturgy for the Lord’s Day begins with a “Call to Worship” rather than with an “Invocation” in our Book of Common Worship. The Directory for Worship says that once the community has gathered, “The people are called to worship God.” There is no invocation of God’s presence in Reformed liturgy. Some of our churches use the term “invocation,” and I have no problem with that so long as we understand that we are the ones being “invoked” (the word “invoked” means literally “called upon”). God is not somewhere out there afar, waiting to be invited into our assembly.
When we gather, we remind one another that God is as present to us as we are to each other. Our gathering thus militates against the functional atheism into which we all too easily lapse by acting as though our welfare depends on our own self-care and our impact depends on our own self-offering. Gathering to worship God reminds us that everything we are, everything we have, and everything we do begins with God’s gracious election and empowerment. “Apart from me, you can do nothing,” Jesus told his disciples (John 15:5). Gathering for worship is our act of acknowledgment that we cannot fulfill God’s purpose for us on our own.
We are called to worship not by a liturgist or by a minister, but by God himself. This is why I strongly prefer that the Call to Worship be framed from words of Scripture, rather than invented by liturgical writers.
Jesus calls himself the True Shepherd who gathers the sheep – it is the wolf, not the shepherd, who scatters the sheep. (John 10:11-12) Beware those who divide the flock of God, for they are working at cross purposes from the Shepherd whose work is always to gather rather than to scatter the flock.
When we gather to worship, we are responding to the summons of our Great Shepherd. If we refuse the summons to gather, we have a Shepherd who leaves the gathered flock to seek the lost. Thank God for that! As under-shepherds of this Great Shepherd, the church’s elders are given the ministry of seeking out the lost and bringing them back into the fold. How does your Session fulfill that responsibility?
Yours in the flock of God,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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