We Gather Together (4) — To Worship

We’re in the middle of a series of lessons that I’ve entitled, “We Gather Together”.  We’ve seen over the past few weeks that we gather together to learn and we gather together to connect with one another.  This morning, I want to talk about the fact that we gather together to worship God.

            In just a moment, we’re going to be in Acts chapter 2 once again.  This is a passage that we’ve been taking a close look at, and we want to try to catch something a little bit different every time we go through it. 

            But first, I want to share with you a new word that I learned this past week.  The word is solipsistic.  Anybody here know what that word means?  Solipsistic.  

            Solipsism is a philosophical term that means that the only thing I can be absolutely certain exists in this world is my mind.  All of you, you might not really exist, you might just be figments of my imagination, but I know that my mind exists.  “I think, therefore I am.”

            Based on that idea, someone who is solipsistic is so focused on themselves, on their own wants and needs that they don’t think about other people at all.  Basically, it means to be selfish or self-centered. 

            A recent poll (Pew Research Center) revealed that 2/3 of Americans believe that the word “selfish” applies to the typical American.  I thought that was interesting.  Two-thirds of Americans think that Americans are selfish.  My guess is that most of those people who took that poll don’t think that they are selfish, but that everyone else is.

            But the truth is, we’re all selfish to some extent.  I think everyone by nature, as part of our sinful nature, is self-focused.  That’s why Paul had to tell us in Romans 12 that we shouldn’t think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think.

            Now, if that’s true, then what’s the cure?  What is the antidote to self-focused living, being selfish, being solipsistic?  And I believe one of the cures is worship because what worship does by its very nature is to take the focus off ourselves and put it on God.  

            But, as Gordon Dahl once said, “We have become a generation of people who worship our work, work at our play, and play at our worship.” 

            Worship, or at least corporate worship, worshiping together, is not a priority for most Christians.   The reason I say that is because, according to polls, about 70% of Americans consider themselves to be Christians.  But only 30% of Americans go to church regularly.  That means over half of the people who consider themselves to be Christians would say, “I’m a follower of Jesus Christ, but I don’t think it’s important to gather with other Christians to worship God.” 

            But we were designed by God to worship, to recognize our Creator, to be taught and reminded of his greatness and to have an opportunity to say “thank you” for our many blessings.  And there is great value in doing that together.

            That’s not to say that worship can only take place within these four walls (I’ll talk more about that in a little bit).  In fact, I would say that if you are not engaging in worship every single day, then your spiritual walk with God is seriously lacking.  But what I am saying this morning is that one of the reasons we come together on Sundays is to worship together, and there is tremendous value in doing that.

            In Acts chapter 2, Luke described what happened when the early church gathered together.  As we read through this text once again, I want you to notice with me four things that describe our worship. 

            Beginning in verse 41, “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.  And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.  And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 

            “And all who believed were together and had all things in common.  And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.  And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people.” (Acts 2:41-47)

            So, let’s take a look at four characteristics of true worship.

1.         Worship should be based on our knowledge of God

            Verse 42 tells us, “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.”  The worship of those early Christians began with instruction from the Word of God because true worship is always based upon, it’s built upon, the biblical revelation of who God is and what God has done. 

            Later in the book of Acts, the apostle Paul is going to go to the city of Athens.  And he’s walking through Athens.  And he sees all these statues to different gods and goddesses.  And, then, he finds a very unusual statue.  Do you remember who that statue was designed to worship?  The unknown God.  

            So, Paul brings a message to the Athenian philosophers. And he says, “You know, I’ve been hanging around your town for a few days.  And I noticed that you guys are really religious.  You’ve got statues to everyone and everything.  I even found a statue to the unknown God.”  Then, he said this, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” (Acts 17:23).

            And then, Paul went on to describe what he knew about God from the scriptures.  He said, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” (Acts 17:24-25)

            What Paul does is, he starts teaching them, proclaiming to them, the true God, based on the revelation of God that he knew from scripture.  Why did he do that?  Because they’re worshipping an unknown god.  And it’s impossible to worship a god you don’t know.  If you don’t know him, you can’t worship him.  

            Remember, in John chapter 4, when Jesus was having a conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well?  And she was talking about the different religious systems of worship.  She said, “You Jews say Jerusalem is the place to worship, but we Samaritans worship at this mountain, at this temple.”  And, in response to that, Jesus said, “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.” (John 4:22)   Jesus was saying before you can worship God, you need to know God.  And that’s where the Bible comes in.

            It is accurate to say that our worship is a response to God’s revelation.  As we gather together to worship God, we are responding to the revelation of who God is and what God has done.  That’s why preaching and teaching the Bible, the word of God, is so very important to our worship because our understanding of who God is comes from the Bible.

            And our understanding of God that comes from this book is the basis for our worship of God.  What that means is that I need to know the God whom I am worshiping.  And the only way we can know about God is from the word of God. 

2.  Worship should be communal

            By that, I mean that worship is not just private, it’s something we do together.  In verse 44, “And all who believed were together….And day by day, attending the temple together.”  Luke is talking about those 3,000 Christians who made the decision to follow Christ.  They came together, and when they did, this is what they did.  There was worship, there was breaking of bread, there were prayers, they’re praising God, and all of this was communal.  It was shared.  

            We sometimes talk about the importance of having a personal relationship with God.  And I believe that’s important.  The problem is, we sometimes misinterpret having a personal relationship with God to mean having a private relationship with God.  But a personal relationship doesn’t mean an isolated, private relationship.

            Now, as I mentioned earlier, it is not the case that all of our worship is done within these four walls.  It is not true that you can’t worship God after you leave this building.  You can worship God privately, and in fact, you should worship God privately.  As we talked about in Bible class recently, Jesus himself often went away by himself, even got away from his disciples, so that he could have some private one-on-one time with his Father.  But worship can’t just be private.

            Do you remember how Jesus taught us to pray?  Did Jesus say, when you pray, say, “My Father, who art in heaven.”  No, what did he say?  “Our Father”.  It’s plural all throughout that prayer. Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done. Give us, not give me. Give us this day, our daily bread. In fact, in that prayer, there is no singular personal pronoun in the entire prayer.  And I think that’s because Jesus wanted this thinking out of our heads, I, me, mine, and replace that thinking with, we, us, our.

            Yes, we have a personal relationship with Christ.  But that personal relationship interfaces communally with God’s people, as we gather together.  Let me give you a beautiful example of this.  If you go back to the Old Testament, three times a year, the Jews had to go to Jerusalem for a feast. They were all commanded to go to the temple.  God made sure, three times a year, everybody, you get out of your houses and you walk to Jerusalem. And you all meet together.

            So, this is what that would look like. You would leave your home with your little backpack. And you’re on your way to Jerusalem with your family.  And you get on the path that leads from your door to the main road.  And when you get there, you discover another family that\s coming out of their home.  And you meet them on the main road and you travel together.  And the whole village is streaming out.

            And pretty soon, that little trickle turns into a stream and then becomes a river of pilgrims, as town after town after town marches toward Jerusalem in a caravan of people, all singing psalms together, reciting words of scripture, encouraging one another.  It was that togetherness that God wanted to make sure happened regularly in the life of his people. It was communal.

            There is such great value in corporate worship.  Don Whitney has said, “There’s an element of worship and Christianity that cannot be experienced in private worship or by watching worship. There are some graces and blessings that God gives only in the ‘meeting together’ with other believers” (Spiritual Disciplines)  And I think that’s true.

            There’s a heightened experience of worship in the corporate context. Our awe of God is accentuated, our adoration of what God has done for us increases, and our joy is greater when we worship Jesus together.  As the Swedish proverb says, “A shared joy is a double joy.”

            But if we stay isolated, if we make it a habit to separate ourselves from God’s people, it’s easy to find ourselves in a spiritual fog, where we get disoriented to what’s real and what’s truly important.  We need time together to clear our head and recalibrate our spirit.  

            Martin Luther found corporate worship a powerful force in his spiritual life.  He said, “At home, in my own house, there is no warmth or vigor in me, but in the church when the multitude is gathered together, a fire is kindled in my heart and it breaks its way through.”

            The Psalmist described the same thing.  In Psalm 73, he begins this psalm in despair.  He looks around and he sees evil people enjoying life.  It doesn’t make sense to him and he gets upset. He says, “Behold, these are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches.  All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence.” (Psalm 73:12-13).  What good does it do for me to even try to do what’s right?

            None of it makes any sense until he comes to worship with God’s people.  “But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end.” (Psalm 73:16–17).  The Psalmist says, “I was really struggling with my faith.  It was about to crush me. But then I went to church, and that’s when I started to understand.”

            Which leads him to this climactic expression of praise: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:25–26).

            How many times has the same thing happened to you?  You sit at home, getting sucked in more and more to the world’s way of thinking, getting depressed, feeling hopeless.  It makes you not even want to come to church.  But that’s when we need the awakening of worship more than ever.  When our hearts feel it least is when we need most to remind our souls, “For me it is good to be near God” (Psalm 73:28).

            So, worship should be based on our knowledge of God. Worship should be communal.

3.         Worship should be physical

            All of the worship activities that are described here in Acts are physical activities.  Verse 42 speaks of breaking of bread and prayers.  That’s physical.  In I Timothy 2, Paul talks about lifting up holy hands.  In Revelation 5, falling down in worship is another expression, bowing before God.  The Bible speaks of kneeling in worship.

            Much of our worship involves being physically involved, including even the songs that we sing.  I think it’s significant that God didn’t tell us to worship by listening to music.  He wants us to sing, to be active, to be involved.  That’s how we offer our worship.

            But I especially want to focus this morning on the Lord’s Supper, what Luke calls the breaking of bread.             It’s significant to me that the Lord’s Supper includes physical elements.  Jesus could have said, “When you come together for worship, I want everyone to sit quietly and just think about what I did on the cross.”  But that’s not what he did.  He gave us something we can see, something we can touch, something we can taste.

a.         Communion is something we see.

            Jesus was a master when it came to visual illustrations. When you read through the gospels, his teachings are full of imagery and comparisons. Jesus didn’t just talk about the kingdom of God, but he used everyday illustrations to bring the point home.  He used the images of farmers and fishermen, shepherds and sheep, lamps and coins, pearls and pigs.  And when it came to communion, Jesus used two very simple everyday objects — bread and grape juice (or wine).

            Jesus held up the bread and the cup for the disciples to see. “See! This is my body. This is my blood.”  There are a lot of benefits in using visual illustrations when teaching.  When someone uses an object as a point of comparison, it engages you as a listener.  It invites you to think about the truth being presented and consider how the two are related. “In what way is this bread like Jesus’ body?  How does this cup represent Jesus’ blood?”

            When the disciples sat down to eat the Passover meal with Jesus that night, and they saw the loaf of bread on the table and the cup of wine, I’m sure they didn’t think anything of it.  These were common elements. But then Jesus took the loaf of bread and he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is broken for you.”  And then he took the cup and said, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

            And all of a sudden, those elements took on new meaning. They hadn’t changed physically. The loaf of bread was still bread. The cup still contained wine. But the elements were transformed in meaning.  Jesus gave his disciples a visual illustration to help them understand what was about to take place at the cross.

            And by telling us to continue doing this after he died, Jesus gave all of us a visual to help us remember what he did for us.  In just a little while, as you take communion, I want you to take a moment to look at the bread and the fruit of the vine.  And I want you to see beyond the bread, and see Jesus’ body broken for you.  When you look at the cup, I want you to not just see grape juice, but to see Jesus’ blood that was poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins

            Communion is something we see.

b.         Communion is something we touch

            But the Lord’s Supper goes deeper than just what we see. It’s more than just a visual illustration. It’s a tactile experience.  We not only see the bread and the cup, but we touch them.  We hold them in our hands.  Jesus could have just broken the bread in front of his disciples and showed them the cup.  But he did more than that.  He said, “Take it.  Take the bread and the cup. Hold them.”

            Touch is more personal than sight.  Many of you make video calls to your friends or family.  And that’s a wonderful way to communicate, but it’s still not the same as being there.  You can’t give someone a hug through a video call. It’s just not the same.

            In the same way, Jesus made Communion more personal by incorporating touch. You don’t just see the bread and the cup, but you hold the bread and the cup in your hands.  These are more than just visual illustrations.  These are physical elements with physical properties.  And their very physicality is meant to remind us of an important truth.  They are meant to remind us of Christ’s incarnation: that Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, came to us in a physical body.  He was born into this world as a human being with an actual body of flesh and blood.

            That’s what the apostle John wrote about at the beginning of I John.  He wrote, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us.” (1 John 1:1-2)

            John says that he and the other disciples saw Jesus and touched his body.  Jesus’ body was not an apparition or an illusion.  Christ came in an actual physical body. 

            Jesus could have just broken the bread and showed it to his disciples.  He could have just pointed them to the cup on the table.  But he did more than that.  He said, “Take this.  Hold these elements in your hands.”  And as we take and hold and touch these elements this morning, communion becomes more personal to us.  It’s not just visual elements on a table.  But we hold the actual elements in our hands, and we are reminded that Jesus Christ the Son of God came in the flesh to die in the flesh so that through him we might have fellowship with God and with each other.

c.         Communion is something we taste.

            There is one more aspect of the Communion elements, and that is the aspect of taste. Jesus said, “This is my body; take and eat.”  Communion is even more personal than just sight and touch.  Not only do we see the elements and we hold them in our hands, but then we eat and we drink.

            This aspect of Communion brings out the importance of personal involvement. It’s not enough to know that Jesus Christ came in the flesh.  It’s not enough to know that Jesus died on the cross.  One of the lessons of Communion is that we must receive Jesus into our life. Jesus said:

            “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” (John 6:53-58)

            Jesus is the bread that came down from heaven to give life to the world.  But bread doesn’t do anybody any good as long as it’s just sitting on the table.  You have to eat it.  You have to take it into your life.  Bread gives life to others by giving of itself.  And Jesus is the bread of life who gave himself for us so that we might live through him.

            When you eat the bread and you drink the cup, you are reminded that as a believer you are united with Christ at the very deepest level.  You hold the elements representing Christ’s death in your hands, and then you take them into your body.  And as the saying goes, you are what you eat.  The bread and the juice enter your body and, as with all food, they become a part of you, part of your body, part of who you are.  When you eat of the bread and drink of the cup, it is a reminder of your union with Christ in his death and resurrection.

            So, worship is physical.

4.         Worship should be impactful.

            Look at verse 47, “Praising God and having favor with all the people.  And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:47).  Theworship of those early Christians spilled out into the community.  Their worship and their lives became so attractive to outsiders that some of those outsiders wanted to become insiders.

            W. A. Criswell once wrote, “If the Christians in our churches would just be faithful in the worship services, we would have a revival such as we have never witnessed before.”  Now, I don’t know if that’s true or not, maybe so.  But I do know this.

            The Jews who lived in Jerusalem were able to watch the lives of these Christ worshippers, these Christ followers.  And it made an impact on them, such an impact that many more were added to the Lord because of the worship they saw and experienced.  Praising God and having favor with all the people, and the Lord added to the church.

            In Psalm 40, David wrote, “He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.  Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord.” (Psalm 40:3).  What that means is, people are watching, and people will see what God has done in your life, and they’ll want that for themselves.  

            So, worship is powerful.  We’re not putting on a performance.  We’re here to acknowledge the presence of God in our midst as we gather.  So, worship, is essentially an unselfish act, where the focus is off of ourselves and onto God.  It’s the opposite of being solipsistic, that word we started this lesson with.  As Matt Redman wrote in a beautiful song, “I’m coming back to the heart of worship, because it’s all about you. It’s all about you, Jesus.”

            And so, what an honor it is to gather together in this room, a place where we can learn, a place where we can connect with one another, and a place where we can worship our God together.

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