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Is There Any Point In Coming To Church?


Revelation 1:9-10   


Sometimes we are tired when we come to church; more than tired, exhausted. I have lived in suburbia now for 24 years, and I have come to recognize fatigue as the most evident characteristic of suburban existence. Occasionally I ride the GO train into Toronto. On the morning trip into the city commuters appear bright-eyed and perky, enthusiastic and eager. They bounce onto the train, greet the people they see every morning, and plunge into their newspaper or paperback thriller. On the evening trip back to suburbia they are dazed and glazed; many sprawl over the seats, arms and legs akimbo. They seem stunned. Next day they will have to do it all over. The spouse they may have left behind in suburbia tears around from supermarket to arena to dental office to piano teacher in between flurries of volunteer work. When Sunday arrives those who are able to get out of bed are still fatigued when the hour of worship strikes.

Sometimes we are bored when we come to church. Can people be over-busy and bored at the same time? Of course we can. In fact on Sunday we may be bored on account of our over-busyness; we may also be bored at the prospect of worship. After all, when the grizzled, balding preacher announces the text worshippers who have listened to him over and over know how the sermon is going to unfold.

Sometimes we are distracted when we come to church. Hundreds of important matters clamour for our attention. Worship is important too; still, its demand seems less imperious than last week’s phone call from the bank manager about the change in mortgage rates.

Sometimes we are in pain when we come to worship. Relatively few of us arrive here in significant physical pain. But oh, the mental anguish! The emotional torment! We bring it here. We can’t help bringing it here. I know we do because I know what anguish I have brought here on Sunday morning from time-to-time.

John, the visionary writer of the book of Revelation, shared the human condition too. Therefore he brought to worship everything we bring, everything from fatigue to anguish. Yet he was saddled with an additional complication, an enormous complication, a complication which (so far) has been much slighter for you and me: tribulation. Tribulation is a biblical word which means one thing: affliction visited on believers just because they are believers, suffering visited on disciples just because they are disciples. Tribulation is not the pain we suffer inasmuch as our knees become arthritic and our middle-aged organs malfunction. Tribulation is pain inflicted on us just because we have vested our faith in Jesus Christ and are determined to keep company with him. Keeping company with him, we find that the hostility the world heaps upon him now spills over onto us. And yet in the very breath with which he speaks of tribulation John speaks of so much more. “I, John, your brother who shares with you in Jesus the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance.” Yes, our loyalty to our Lord does plunge us into tribulation; and the very same loyalty keeps us glad citizens of the kingdom, glad subjects of the rule or reign of Christ, even as our immersion in the rule or reign of Christ equips us with patient endurance.

Let’s think awhile of John’s tribulation. He was a Christian living in the Roman empire. “Roman empire”: the expression calls to mind the emperors themselves. Nero, Caligula, Vespasian, Domitian: these men are infamous for their cruelty. One was as bad as another. Nero, for instance, Nero had known what to do with Christians. He blamed them for the fire which devastated large residential sections of Rome in the year 65. The effect of this was to turn hordes of homeless people against Christians. Then he entertained himself by soaking Christians in tar and setting them on fire. Others he covered in animal skins and turned lions loose on them. Those who were left he crucified.

Now I don’t expect any of this to happen to me, as you don’t expect it to happen to you. In other words, we don’t expect tribulation to become terrible. Nevertheless, to say that our tribulation isn’t like John’s is not to say that our tribulation is never going to intensify. I think it will. Take the matter of multicultural”ism.” Is multiculturalism possible? Of course it is, as long as we are talking superficially about culture only: Chinese food, Slavic dances, Japanese lanterns. But of course the culture of any society arises from the values of that society. Multiculturalism therefore presupposes “multivaluism”. (We come closer to admitting this when we speak not of multiculturalism but of pluralism. But for now let’s stick with my neologism, multivaluism.) Is multivaluism possible within one society? This is a huge question. When one group says men and women are to be esteemed equally and another group insists that women are inherently inferior there is an incompatibility which cannot be compromised away. If some people maintain that employment insurance is protection against disaster and others maintain that it is an alternative to employment we are in the same predicament. Social cohesion presupposes a shared value system; social cohesion presupposes a recognition of and ownership of the common good. When the common good cannot be agreed upon then pluralism is a polite cover-up of the first stages of social disintegration. I have long thought that public education is possible only as long as there is implicit public agreement as to the educational good. But is there? Is the ultimate goal and good of public education to educate, or is it to have students feel good about themselves? How good will someone feel about himself if, upon becoming an adult, he cannot read?

Please don’t think that I am faulting immigrants to our country and am subtly suggesting that immigration be curtailed. Immigrants are not to blame for the increasing, and increasingly evident, ungluing of the society. Often immigrants merely expose what is in the heart of us who have lived here all our lives. My vice-principal friend with the Scarborough Board of Education suspended an elementary school student for telling a supply teacher that he, the student, didn’t have to listen to or learn from any “Paki” like her. Instant suspension, insisted my friend, as he told the student’s

parents that vicious racism would not be tolerated in his school for a minute, betokening as it did a society whose members would soon be at each other’s throats. Two days later my friend was at a track meet. A board of education superintendent approached him and said, “I hope you know more about relay races than you know about public relations; the student’s parents have phoned the board offices eight times.” The value system of that superintendent and the value system of my friend are simply incompatible. No Christian could entertain for a minute the suggestion that racism is to be tolerated and a student allowed to insult a teacher just because the student’s parents make half-a-dozen phone calls.

Christians are much less quick to protest victimization at the hands of advertisers than are, for instance, Jews and Muslims. Not long ago I came upon an advertisement by Insecolo, a firm which manufactures pesticides. The advertisement is labelled “The Last Supper”. It depicts twelve insects (household pests) seated at the Last Supper: fleas, earwigs, silverfish, caterpillars. Seated in the middle of the Last Supper is a large cockroach. Jesus Christ the great cockroach. The caption accompanying the picture tells homemakers that the food at the Last Supper should be supplemented by Insecolo. Christ the cockroach is host at that supper where all pests are soon to be annihilated (including Christ the cockroach, of course). Insecolo’s vice-president of marketing insisted that the company had no intention of withdrawing the advertising. From a Christian perspective the advertisement is blasphemous, not to mention in appalling taste.

If a similar advertisement spoofed sacrilegiously what is dear to Jewish people or Islamic people can you imagine the outcry? Suppose the annihilation of household pests were compared, in an advertisement, to the holocaust. “Annihilate beetles and bugs as thoroughly as Hitler annihilated Jews: nothing left at all!” Do you think for one minute that the vice-president of marketing would cavalierly announce that Insecolo has no intention of withdrawing the ad? Tell me: do you think there is public recognition of and public ownership of the public good? If there isn’t, then social disintegration is underway.

Of course we must uphold environmental concerns; of course we cannot continue to violate land and water and air. Still, environmental concerns pushed to ever greater extremes become out-and-out idolatrous, even lethal. Let us not forget that whenever nature was regarded as divine in cultures before ours human sacrifice was demanded. In biblical times the worshippers of Ashtaroth and Baal sacrificed human beings; so did the Aztecs in Mexico centuries later; so did the Nazis in Europe only recently. A book on ecology published in 1984 (published by Random House, a very reputable American publisher) insisted that culling human beings is a moral obligation given our commitment to the earth. Another book published in 1989 (State University of New York Press) insisted that culling human beings is “not only morally permissible, but, from the point of the view of the land ethic, morally required.” Human beings, it is argued, are simply members of the biotic community and are to be controlled the way the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests controls the moose population.

Within my lifetime I do not expect to face tribulation of the sort that John knew. Nonetheless, within my lifetime tribulation will increase for Christians as we declare where we stand and why, what we cannot accept and why, what we insist on and why (even though we aren’t going to get it), and how it is that the mind of Christ and the mindsets of assorted interest groups are not compatible. (By then it will be apparent that not even the mindsets of the assorted interest groups are compatible with each other.) When Christians hold up what is non-negotiable for us we shall appear first odd, then stubborn, then fractious, then disruptive, then indictable. Let us never forget that early-day Christians were accused of atheism and punished for it just because they refused to recognize and honour the pagan deities of the Roman empire.

And yet in the same sentence where John reminds his readers that he and we share the tribulation he declares that we share also the kingdom and the patient endurance. The use of the definite article is most instructive. He doesn’t say we share tribulation (which could be construed by unwary readers as suffering-in-general); we share the tribulation, tribulation unique to God’s people. We don’t share patient endurance-in-general; we share the patient endurance, that steadfastness peculiar to disciples. We can share the patient endurance, says John, just because we share the kingdom. The kingdom is the rule of Christ. Let us make no mistake. Jesus Christ – risen, ascended, glorified — is the sovereign ruler of the entire cosmos. We who have grown up in Christendom enveloped by the British Commonwealth have unconsciously assumed that Christendom enveloped by the British Commonwealth is the rule of Christ. Unconsciously we have confused the rule of Christ with the legacy of Queen Victoria. Unconsciously we have confused the rule of Christ with favours dispensed by Canada Customs and Revenue Agency and the municipalities. What would be the effect on the pattern of church-life and denominational expostulations if church-properties were taxed and income tax receipts were not issued for church-offerings? The effect would be immense, virtually a revolution with respect to properties and clergy salaries. What would be the effect on the rule of Christ? Nothing! To say that Jesus Christ — risen, ascended, glorified — rules is to say that he is the sole sovereign of the cosmos, which is to say that nothing can affect his kingdom or kingship. Because nothing can affect the sovereignty of Christ Christ’s people may — and shall — exhibit the patient endurance in the midst of the tribulation.

The older I grow the more important I recognize grammar to be. When John speaks of sharing tribulation, kingdom and steadfastness with us he doesn’t speak of the these in a principal clause: I, John, share with you. Instead he speaks of them in a subordinate clause: I, John, who happen to share with you. Then he proceeds to what he wants to say principally. He places tribulation, kingdom and steadfastness in a subordinate clause because all this scarcely needs to be mentioned, he feels. “Needless to say” is how we should speak of it, “it goes without saying”, “of course everyone will agree”. Then what is the principal point which John makes from his place of exile? “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day”. This is the principal point he wants to make with us. The fact that he was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day was the occasion of his inspiration, the occasion of the firing of those vivid visions which became his inspired and inspiring book. “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day”. It was Sunday, the day of worship. Yes, John may have initially found himself tired or bored, distracted or in pain when he came to worship. Yet at some point he found himself “in the Spirit”.

“In the Spirit”: what does it mean? It means that regardless of what he brought to worship he found something vastly greater there. It means that God himself overwhelmed him when all he was expecting was a repetition of last Sunday. It means the same visitation from God (the Spirit) which drove huddled disciples out of a fear-ridden room into the world; it means the same visitation which turned mere words about an executed Jew into the gospel, the vehicle of the Son of God’s self-bestowal; the same visitation from God which moved a highschool teacher in Yugoslavia (Mother Teresa) to India, and an unknown priest in Belgium (Father Damien) to the leprosy-ridden Hawaiian island of Molokai; the same visitation which impelled Lydia (a woman) to accord hospitality to two men (Paul and Silas) in an era when a man didn’t even speak to his wife in public lest he appear scandalous; the same visitation which brought Zacchaeus out of a tree and thawed his frozen heart; the same visitation which has brought parishioners to my door when I was in need and thought nobody else knew; the same visitation which has electrified you on occasion as it has electrified me.

Many people have told me that they arrive at worship in any mood at all: fatigue, boredom, anxiety, resentment, anger, hope, hopelessness. And then in the course of the service, whether through hymn, prayer, scripture, anthem, sermon or children’s story; in the course of the service it happens for them. One man, unquestionably a victim of extraordinary bad luck, told me he has arrived at worship again and again with a chip on his shoulder, and by the end of the service the chip is gone.

“I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day”. John doesn’t say he put himself in the Spirit. He didn’t work up a psycho-religious boil-over and call it “God”. Rather he was in the Spirit in that thatunforeseen visitation which had startled and encouraged Abraham and Sarah, Elizabeth and Zechariah, which had gently nudged Elijah and mightily prostrated Isaiah; this unforeseen, unforeseeable visitation had visited him too.

John was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day. For him it meant a vision of his Lord. “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand upon me (the right hand is always the hand of mercy) saying, ‘Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.'” In that instant John was oriented afresh to the truth and encouraged afresh in the midst of tribulation. Every bit as much will be given to us at worship, won’t it? Never mind that so much of worship is repetitive; it has to be repetitive just because we repeatedly need to be oriented to the truth and encouraged in the midst of tribulation. The  John received — “Fear not, I am the first and the last… I died, and behold I am alive for evermore…” — there was nothing new in this. John was exiled to the island of Patmos in the first place inasmuch as he already knew and had publicly stood up for the one who had died and was now alive for evermore. There was nothing new in John’s vision at all. But none of us needs novelty; all of us need reinvigoration in what we know already. We need revivification of what is now several years old in us, even decades old. As mature a Christian as John was, he was not yet beyond needing renewal himself.

And neither are we. As our society changes (make no mistake: it is changing); as it moves away from the Christendom we have found as comfortable as an old shoe; as social cohesion unravels and strident voices, contradictory voices, are heard increasingly; as it becomes evident that there is nowhere near the public agreement concerning the public good that there once was; as all of this unfolds tribulation will increase somewhat. Then we shall need fresh assurance as to the kingdom, the rule of Christ; and only then shall we be equipped with the patient endurance.

And how are we to gain fresh assurance of it all? By coming to worship, regardless of what mood we bring to worship. For if we are found here Sunday by Sunday, even if tired or bored or distracted or pained, then from time-to-time, in God’s own time, we shall also be found “in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day”. And this will be enough.

Victor Shepherd       September 2002