Don Williams sang in 1980 that he didn’t “believe that heaven waits for only those who congregate.” With due respect to the truth of country music in general and Don Williams in particular, I disagree.
The world, of course, agrees with Don. “You don’t have to be a Christian to go to church,” says the world. True, and you don’t have to be in water to be a fish. A fish on a dock is still a fish. As it flaps around gasping for air in the midst of all that air it cannot breathe, it’s still a fish, but it’s a dying fish and will soon be a dead one. The Christian who absents himself from Divine Service is like a fish on a dock. Outside of the Divine Service he will not find what sustains the Christian life. He will flap and gasp trying to get spiritual life from what cannot possibly give it to him.
According to our Lutheran Confession of faith, we have no permission to look for Christians anywhere else but among those who congregate. We confess in the Explanation to the Third Article of the Apostles Creed, “In this Christian church He daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers.” If someone leaves you at the door of their den saying, “While I get us some drinks, be sure to check out my fish. I have some real exotics,” where do you look? You don’t look up and down rows and rows of books for their fish. No, you go right to the aquarium which is the only logical place to look for living fish.
Among those who congregate is where you will find Christians. Just as no one was found alive outside of Noah’s Ark or Rahab’s house, so we aren’t to look for the spiritually living outside of those who congregate around the Gospel and Sacraments. This is terribly offensive to the world, and she goes out of her way to poke fun at the simple truth that as living fish are found in water, living Christians are found in Word and Sacraments. But this can help us.
In the Book of Revelation 12: 15-16, the earth opens up and swallows the flood that the Devil spews out of his mouth to sweep the Church away. John tells us, “But the earth came to the help of the woman” by swallowing what was after Her. The world delights in portraying church goers as hypocrites. Watch The Simpsons, Family Guy, or Malcolm in the Middle. The world delights in folksy aphorisms like the one recently aired in The Lutheran Witness. Isn’t it better for the farmer to be busy in his fields thinking about church than to be in church thinking about his work in the field?
“Yes,” the world answers wisely as it swallows deeply. The world swallows the lie that congregating is something we do for God rather than something He provides for us. The world swallows the lie that the words of men, every last single text-messaged one of them, are important, but the Words of eternal life which ebb and flow between pastor and people in the Divine Service can be none without. The world swallows the lie that while extra inning games, encore performances, and extended scene DVDs are bonuses, a Divine Service that goes 15 minutes past an hour is a travesty, a wasting of their time. And in swallowing all these lies the world encourages us fish to go on swimming around in our placid little ponds of Word and Sacraments. What is so right to the world must be wrong to us.
Let the world open its mouth wide to swallow all these things while we who congregate open our mouths wide to the promise that our Lord will fill it (Psalm 81:10) with the things necessary to save us: the Words of eternal life, the Waters that well up to eternal life; the Bread that is His Body and the Wine that is His Blood given and shed for our sins, for our life, for our salvation. Swim little fishy with all His might.