So, pastor, how has COVID impacted church attendance for you? Was your congregation chomping at the bit to get back into the pews? Is attendance back to normal? Are people afraid to return? Or, have many of your members decided they prefer “participating” in the online service? After all, why get dressed up to sing a few songs and be entertained by that ever-engaging, Craft-of-Preaching-informed sermon when you can don your PJ’s, sit on your couch, and watch a screen?
COVID has forced many of us in the Church to start asking some pretty challenging questions. What is the point of gathering for worship? What is the role of the Church at all? Why can we not just watch the service online? What difference does it make if we are gathered in a building?
The Church has a tough time with these questions, due in no small part to cheap shibboleths about church attendance which have become full blown doctrinal stances. This week’s reading from Hebrews gives preachers the blessed chance to correct such flimsy cliches like, “The Church is not a building, but a people;” “Don’t go to church, be the Church;” “My faith is not about rituals, but a personal relationship with Jesus.” Though they may have a sniff of truth in them, such sentiments fail to grasp the rich and profound importance of God’s sheep gathering as one body around His Word and altar to be served by their Good Shepherd Himself. After all, if gathering for worship is not foundational for what it means to “be the Church,” why does the Holy Spirit admonish us to, “Stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (10:25).
Despite the nonsense spewed forth by some online theologians, i.e., that the Bible never tells us to go to church (yes, I actually read this on Facebook), the scriptures depict the Church as people gathering for preaching, praying, sacrament, and service (Acts 2:42-47). The imagery of the Divine Service in scripture is not one of consumers being entertained, but of God’s people being gathered around the Throne of the Lamb, joining the heavenly chorus of saints and angels to sing God’s praise and receive Christ’s benefits (see Revelation 4-7).
Hebrews reminds us you cannot “be the church” unless you go to church. Going to church, after all, is more about what Christ does for us than it is about what we do, do not do, or even are. To be the Church is nothing else than to be sheep fed and nourished by the Good Shepherd. The life of faith depends on Christ feeding us with His Word and Sacraments. This week is a joyful opportunity to preach exactly what Christ does when He gathers His sheep to Himself.
Going to church, after all, is more about what Christ does for us than it is about what we do, do not do, or even are.
I would suggest beginning at the end of the text this week and focusing on why Hebrews says we should “not neglect meeting together, as is the habit of some (10:25).” The “Question Answered” structure would prove helpful here. The preacher could take this in several directions. He could ask, “Why do we go to church?” and offer a few bad answers to the question. Then, correct those answers with the message of Hebrews.
Or, the preacher could ask, “Do I have to go to church to be a Christian?” Then, present some of the “cliches” I mentioned above as reasons why people undermine the importance of gathering for worship. Each cliché could be met with the truth from Hebrews which shows us how Christ distributes the forgiveness won on the cross to the saints in the service. For example, when someone says, “I don’t have to go to church because Christianity is about a relationship, not a ritual,” the preacher can say, “Hebrews tells us to ‘draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water (10:22).’ Such sprinkling takes place when Christ’s forgiving body and blood are placed on your tongue. It is a relationship established by the ritual reception of the Lord’s Supper.”
A third option would be to again ask, “Why do we go to church?” Only, this time, instead of offering wrong alternative answers, positively answer the question from the text. The first part of the reading (10:11-18) points out how Christ, who has “offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins (10:12),” distributes His forgiveness through all time in the preaching of the Church. It is in the Divine Service, through the preaching, that, “The Holy Spirit also bears witness to us.” Through Christ’s atoning work God, “...will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more (10:15, 17).” Second, our Great High Priest “draws us near” to His Father in Heaven by sprinkling our hearts clean and washing our bodies with pure water (the Lord’s Supper and baptism). There, He sanctifies us by His blood, perfected for all time (10:14) to present us to God. Finally, we gather to be strengthened in the confession of our hope and to encourage one another to love and good works (10:23-24).
Through Christ’s atoning work God, “...will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”
Christ in the Text
The author of Hebrews preaches Christ for us: Past, present, and future. He begins our pericope by preaching the sacrifice of Jesus in the past, “once for all” for the forgiveness of sins. The emphasis is on the substitutionary atonement, wherein Christ’s death on the cross 2000 years ago (past) covers all our sins. Thus, there is no need for any more sacrifices. “Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin (10:18).”
So, if Christ’s work is completed in the past, why do we need to go to church in the present? Because it is there where Christ exercises His reign from God’s right hand (10:12). He sends His Holy Spirit in the preaching of the Word to distribute the forgiveness earned in the “once-for-all” sacrifice (10:15-17). What is more, Christ will return in the future when, “...His enemies should be made a footstool for His feet (10:13).” But, as we, “See the Day drawing near” (10:25), we are beset by trials, temptations, doubts, and fears. Christ has given us His Church not only to deliver forgiveness to us, but to sustain us to the end with our brothers and sisters. There, as one body, we confess our hope and encourage one another to love and good works (10:23-24).
We are not to neglect this gathering because it is within the Body where Christ—who paid the full atonement price with His blood—reigns and distributes His gifts which keep us in the faith. Gathering before the Altar of God, with our brothers and sisters, is the very work of God to sustain us into life everlasting. That is why we go to church.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in Hebrews 10:11-25.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Hebrews 10:11-25.