The Crown of Thorns Club
by Chris Donato
When was the last time you went to a private social club? If you think that kind of thing is for the elite members of our society alone, guess again. The Yellow Pages are filled with lists of social clubs in which anyone in the neighborhood can become a member. They meet mainly on Sunday mornings — but don’t be foolish enough to wait for an invitation.
Unfortunately, like most other clubs, this one is designed to keep certain people in and other people out. You will find in it a decidedly internalized and individualized faith, complete with its own set of man-made regulations. You will find in it a group of folks who act as if they are enjoying life to the fullest, no matter where they are or what they are doing. And what do they do? They do exactly what they wish to do. In this Sunday club, then, it comes as no surprise that God Is He Who Exists for Me.
But in reality, this private social club has been called out of the world of clubs, not to be just another club — albeit a little cleaner (if not a lot less fun) — but to be the anti-club, the place where the mantra above is flipped: I Am He Who Exists for God. Apart from this, we would have no purpose, being left anchorless in a torrid sea, unable to know our worth as creatures among other creatures wrought and redeemed by a transcendent God.
Recovering a sense of awe over God’s grace and our extrinsic worth (our worth given to us by God in Christ) as God’s people will, at the very least, produce what it has in every generation: worship of the one true God. And worship is, primarily, a collective thing; that is, groups engage in it. No doubt, individuals do as well (though “in secret,” Matt. 6:4, 6, 18). But far and away the focus in Scripture, when it comes to worship, is its corporate dimension.
Sacred Time and Place
In our time and place, riddled as it is with hyper-individualism and the temptation to live as if God doesn’t exist, we need now more than ever to recapture the biblically defined idea of sacred time and place, not as a building so much as that which presupposes and points to a personal God — the gathering of His people. “For where two or three are gathered in my name,” Jesus said, “there am I among them” (Matt. 18:20). Not one, but two or three. And then the Christ comes. Our Father, His Son the Messiah, and the Holy Spirit inhabit a new temple — the covenant people (see John 14:16–23). It is in our relationship as individuals with and in this new temple that the triune God has promised to open His love to us. In other words, worship is the way through which the love of God is made accessible to His people. “Worship is an immediate and present means of God’s love, making us new creatures and giving us the ever more abundant life now” (C. FitzSimons Allison, Fear, Love & Worship, p. 19).
This assumes that our growth as persons (that is, our development into more fully image-bearing humans) happens only in relation to others — first with God in Christ through His Spirit, and second with the temple of the Most High, His people. Add to this the means of His grace — the preached Word and the Word made visible in the sacraments of baptism and communion — and we’ve got readymade resistance against “the rulers, the authorities, the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).
The Society of Friends
Such living, or “faithful presence” (to use James Davison Hunter’s phrase in his recently published book, To Change the World), means enacting “the shalom of God in the circumstances in which God has placed [us] and to actively seek it on behalf of others” (p. 278). While I won’t presume to tell anybody how this shakes out with respect to politics, business, or even coaching little-league soccer, I can say the Christian club mentality wouldn’t thrive under such conditions, since the very air it breathes (a narcissistic air of superiority) would be sucked out of the room by the selfless embodiment of God’s peace (the practicing of sacrificial love) no matter where we find ourselves throughout the week — but especially as we gather for worship.
In Ephesians 4, one word, among a few others, sums up its theme: friendship. This probably sounds trite to modern ears, but that might have more to do with how trite our friendships are in this shallow, isolated age. The apostle Paul often exhorts the church in Ephesus to simply act like a society of friends. Chapter 4 of the letter is littered with such exhortations: support each other in love and preserve unity (vv. 2–3); use your gifts to knit the body together and strengthen it (vv. 12, 16); “speak the truth” to one another (v. 25); don’t sin in your anger against a friend (vv. 26, 29, 31); and work an honest job in order to share with those in need (vv. 28, 32).
In short, practice friendship. For a church without friendship, just like a beautiful woman who turns aside from her dignity, is like “a gold ring in a pig’s snout” (Prov. 11:22).