A Sermon By Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga.
Humans are social creatures. Capable of only brief episodes of solitude, human life thrives on our social connections to each other. In fact, human life is only found in the extraordinary number of connections humans make with their families, friends, neighbors, faith members and fellow citizens. Connections are like the breath of air on which our very lives depend.
—Gary Gunderson with Larry Pray from Leading Causes of Life
We are all experts in death. We have watched enough James Bond, Law and Order, and other movies and TV shows to know more than enough to be an expert on death. Our younger generation knows how to kill vampires and zombies and all the tricks of the trade. We know a lot about death.
If I ask you the question, “What are the leading causes of death?” without much study or thought, you could probably list three or four and be rumbling around in the top five. What are the top five causes of death? Heart disease, cancer, chronic respiratory problems, stroke, and accident. When somebody dies, we always ask the question: What did they die of? What was the cause of death? We are curious about it. We want to know more about it. In some way, we are fascinated by it as much as we want to avoid it.
We are experts in death, but what do we know about life? If we know the leading causes of death that I have just named, what would be the leading causes of life? What would be the characteristics that we need to absorb to ourselves that would give us long life, but more importantly, a good, satisfying, and abundant life? I have a quote in my vault of quotes that says, “People spend their time trying to figure out how to live forever when they don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.” It is not enough to think about length of life but we want to think about a rich, full, and satisfying life, the kind of life we would like to live for a long time. What are the leading causes of life? What are those things that seem to bubble up from beneath us, in us, and through us that give us a sense of richness, fullness, and satisfaction that make for what we, as Christians, call abundant life?
During this Lenten season, we are taking a journey as we always do during these days, and it is a journey in preparation for Easter. Of course, Easter is the ultimate celebration of life. We are Easter people. We believe in the resurrection. As Christians, we believe in life that is abundant and full and, through Christ, everlasting. If we believe in this kind of life, why don’t we know more about what causes life? What are the instruments in Christ’s hands that Christ uses to bring us to this place?
The meditation text this week is from Gary Gunderson and Larry Pray. They have written a book called The Leading Causes of Life. One of my colleagues in ministry put me onto this book. When I finally grasped that sense of the difference between a leading cause of death and a leading cause of life, I thought, I wish I had thought that up. It is profound in its simplicity. What are the leading causes of life?
The first one points us to Hebrews 10. The Book of Hebrews is probably one of the great enigmas of the New Testament. Nobody knows who wrote it, who they wrote it to, or why they wrote it. Origen, one of the early church fathers, said “Only God knows who wrote Hebrews.” Of all the Books of the New Testament, it is probably the book where it is more important to understand the cultural things being mentioned in their historical context in order to have any hope of trying to understand the point the writer is trying to make. In essence, we find that the writer is trying to say that Jesus is superior to many of the things of Judaism. He is superior to the prophets, and he is higher than the angels. Jesus is often compared to components of Jewish worship. He is the perfect priest and the perfect sacrifice.
Today, there is some allusion to the temple. We study about the temple of Herod in Jesus’ time. There are just three things that you need to know in order to have this make sense.
1. They believe that the temple housed the very presence of God. You went to the temple because that is where the presence of God was completely manifest on earth.
2. I heard someone describe the temple as being like a Russian doll. You know those dolls where you take the top off and there is another doll inside. You take the next one off, and there is another doll inside. They keep getting progressively smaller. If you think of the temple as a series of boxes like that, you would go through one to the next and you would be a little closer to the presence of God. You would go through that one to the next, and you would be a little closer.
3. In the center, the small area called the Holy of Holies, is the place where they believed the presence of God was perfectly manifest on earth. It was separated by a curtain. We have read about that curtain at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus. It said, “That same hour, the curtain in the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” It is a symbolic way of saying that Christ has opened up fellowship with God. There is nothing separating us from the presence of God any more.
That is indeed what the writer is talking about here. “Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, by the blood and the death of Christ, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is by his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach God with a true heart and full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience, and our having bodies washed with pure water.” He is saying that we have this perfect opportunity to be present with God.
Then he goes on to say, “Let’s keep encouraging each other, and let us not, as some have done, forsake gathering together.” If Christ has made it possible for us to be in perfect fellowship with God, then why would we want to not be in fellowship with each other? Why would we not want to be together and encouraging? Why would we, as some he says, stop gathering together?
When I was growing up, as a child and as a teenager, I often heard this on High Attendance Sunday at our church. This was always the sermon about high attendance. “Not forsaking the gathering yourselves together” was equated with church attendance. Could you check off the box on your offering envelope saying that you were here? It is not about attendance. It is about connection. It is about being connected to each other. Research has shown that being connected, being related, interacting, having someone that we know who cares about us, someone who touches us, calls us, knows us by name, is one of the primary causes of life.
It can be as simple as what we have read about pets. Did you know that cat owners are 30% less likely to have a stroke than non-cat owners? A person with a dog who has a heart attack is 60% more likely to be alive a year later than a person who had a heart attack without a dog.
The AARP who is greatly concerned with seniors has found that a faith community where people love, look out for each other, care for each other, pray for each other is one of the things that makes for a long, rich, and satisfying life. Connection is a cause of life.
When Jesus calls the disciples, he calls them individually. He comes by the seashore and he calls James and John and Peter and Andrew. Then he begins to selectively call others, but once they have been called individually, they come together to be this group of twelve. Rarely in the Gospels, do we find where the group is separated all from each other. Sometimes there is an inner group that is working together but, typically, they are all together. They are called individually but they have come to be a part of the twelve. They need each other and need to be together as they learn, grow, understand, and accept Christ for who he is.
Paul goes around the Mediterranean world and makes converts, but if you look at what he really does, he establishes churches. People who are called together in Christ need that sense of common fellowship. For a full life of faith, we need each other and others need us.
Many times you have heard me talk about the desire in our culture for people to be spiritual without being religious. If you will put Lillian Daniel and spiritual in some internet search, you will come up with her blog post which is much more eloquent than anything I could say about it. She is pastor of the First Congregational Church in Illinois.
On a plane, she dreads the conversations with people who find out she is a minister. She gets the spiel about I’m spiritual but not religious. She said, “If the plane goes down, I want them to change seats with somebody that I can hold hands with, someone who has learned what it means to be faithful in a community of believers. I want someone whose prayer life has been shaped by praying with others. I want someone whose spirituality is not individual, isolated, and self-centered. I want somebody who has known what it means to be a part of something like this. If the plane is going down, that is who I want to pray with.”
It is only in the connections, in the support, and in the coming together that our faith is really shaped to be all that it can be and that it gives the kind of life that Christ intended for it to give. It is a cause of life.
When something happens and the challenge is great or the tragedy is almost too much to bear, what do we do? We immediately start looking for other people to pray for us because our prayers by themselves are not enough. We need the support, the encouragement, and the gathering together of each other. The testimony of Christians through the ages is that God sustains us in many ways, and one of the ways is through others.
There are two pieces of this for me. One is our need for fellowship with one another. It is not about attendance. It is about the fact that we grow stronger, that we are more deeply encouraged, that the life abundant that God wants to give us is experienced more richly together than it is in isolation. It is not only about church fellowship and us enjoying each other’s presence and loving just the ones who are here. It is also about evangelism. How many people have not only the vacuum of Christ but the vacuum of Christ’s people in their lives? People who have no network, no safety net, people who don’t know whom to call on.
We see this in our church office on a regular basis. Sometimes it is an individual who looks just like us but you find out they are estranged from others that they once loved, they are separated, and they are lonely. Sometimes it is people whom we classify as being in poverty and we have no idea how lonely a poor life can be. Sometimes it is people whose lives are the way they are because of challenged mental ability, sometimes because of mental illness and their mental illness makes it very difficult for them to be close to people or people to want to be close to them. I promise you that if you meet people who are estranged, people who are left out, people who do not have the safety net, you will think, No wonder that life would be shorter than mine. People need Christ and they need Christ through the fellowship of the church to be reached out and to be included.
I remember my freshman year in college. I had an English professor and I do not remember anything he taught me about English, but I remember one thing that he said repeatedly and that was, “People in life who need love the most are always the least likely to get it.” That has stayed with me across the years. There are people who try too hard. They almost make you feel smothered. You realize there is a sense of neediness or insecurity, and you think, They are pushing everybody away. They need love the most, and they are the least likely to get it. People who indeed have no safety network of relationships or family are people who need love the most and they are the least likely to get it. When they walk out of our church office, who on earth is going to love them?
This statement by the writer of Hebrews, whoever it was that God inspired to write this, is a two-pronged message to those of us who have the joy of being part of a fellowship. Why would we want to forsake gathering together? Why would we not want to come together to be stronger? When we encounter people in life who don’t have a church family and a community of faith, are we not compelled to want to reach out and include them, to draw a circle that is larger than it was before and say, “Come be a part of life. Come be a part of something that will actually cause life within you, life that could be longer, life that could certainly be richer and fuller.”
To be connected is a leading cause of life. To be connected together. What a great gift of God to each of us! Wouldn’t we want to share it with everyone?
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.