On Friday of this past week, and again yesterday, Velma Mullen and I attended Synod Assembly in Everett. This is the annual business meeting for ELCA Lutheran churches in Northwest Washington. Synod Assemblies used to be marked by controversy. For a span of about ten years we braced ourselves each year for angry, emotional fights, often over homosexuality. This year, however—as in recent years—the business meeting of our Synod had a different tone: peaceful, joyful, hopeful, Spirit-filled, inspiring.
Today’s first reading is the story of the Christian church’s first business meeting. Just after Jesus’ ascension into heaven his 11 disciples returned to Jerusalem. Luke writes in Acts, chapter one, that all these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer. Their prayer led them to call a business meeting. Our scriptures tell us that 120 people showed up. Think of that! Since Jesus’ departure nothing in the world had really changed: the Roman Empire was more firmly in control than ever. The religious leaders who had had Jesus executed were still in power. It was a dangerous time. And yet, 120 people—ten times the number of the original 12 disciples—took the risk of showing up.
On top of any fear those Christians might have felt, this could have turned into an emotionally-charged meeting. The first order of business was to discern who God was calling to replace Judas, the twelfth disciple, who had taken his own life. Those 120 Christians who gathered would have been tempted to dwell on their anger and grief. But after narrowing the field to two finalists, Joseph and Justus, they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen…” The focus was not on the opinions or feelings of the 120 who had gathered. The focus was on God, and God’s will, with prayer as the guiding practice.
At our Synod meeting in Everett Mark Alan Powell, the featured speaker, led more than 300 of us in three hours of Bible study. Powell asked us to think about why we come to church on Sunday morning. We live in a consumer culture, where we’re trained to throw money at something and expect something in return. So it’s not surprising, our speaker said, that one reason many people don’t come to church—or stop going—is that they say they “don’t get anything out of it.” Maybe even those of us who gather Sunday after Sunday find ourselves occasionally saying, or thinking, something similar.
But, our speaker said, this is the wrong question to ask. As our readings for today again show us, our life together is not about us. The main reason we come to worship Sunday after Sunday is not to “get something out of it.” In fact, there are three good reasons to come to worship that have little to do with what we feel.
The first reason we come to worship is to answer the question, “Is God worthy of being worshipped?” You see the difference, right? Either the focus is on us or the focus is on God. Just showing up on Sunday morning can be a way of answering, “Yes, God is worthy of being worshipped!”
A second reason we come to worship is because worship is better for others if you’re here. Scripture teaches that we each are parts of the Body of Christ. Each part has its gifts. As in a flesh-and-blood human body, all parts need to be present and functioning well for the Body to be healthy. If you find yourself thinking, “I’m not getting anything out of my experience here on Sunday morning,” remind yourself that it’s not about you and how you feel, or what you get out of it. When you show up, others are blessed. All parts, focused on God, are needed.
The third reason to come to worship, though, is that we do get something out of it, regardless of how we feel. The Holy Spirit works in ways that we cannot see and cannot know. Even if we don’t feel differently, still God meets us in the proclaimed Word, through the bread and the wine, sometimes in great and dramatic ways, sometimes moving us emotionally– but often just quietly, mysteriously, the Holy Spirit does its work of hope, and healing, nurturing peace, love, and bringing about transformation of human hearts.
When we are clear about our priorities and together call on God through worship, through prayer and study to lead us, our life together experiences a transformation. At that first church business meeting 2000 years ago, even in the midst of a painful and frightening time, the community gathered in prayer to discern God’s will. It could have been an emotional outpouring of anger and grief about Judas’ betrayal and death. Instead, amazingly, Peter is gracious in how he speaks about Judas. [Judas] was allotted his share in this ministry, Peter says. And then, Peter asks God to show who would take Judas’ place in this ministry from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place. Those are Peter’s words. No bitterness. No anger. No name-calling. The people of God at that first church business meeting allowed the power of the Holy Spirit to lead them and help them move forward.
We gather today—and every week—not for our own sake but because God is worthy of worship. We gather because others need us to be here.
We gather because, in the end, by the power of the Holy Spirit we do get something out of worship, regardless of what we feel.
So let us give glory to God alone. Let us pray, let us sing, let us eat and drink the body and blood of the one who loves us, who calls us, who gathers us—by the power of the Holy Spirit, in Jesus’ name. AMEN