“On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight. There were many lamps in the upper room where we were gathered. (Acts 20:7-8)
‘Church is the people and not the meeting’, so the old adage goes. I guess this saying was a reaction against a dead and religious meeting. Yet I want to suggest that maybe we’ve overlooked something important in relegating the importance of the church gathering. Here in Acts 20 we read of the church gathering (see v8) and we’re also told that they gathered on ‘the first day of the week’ (Sunday). Was this just coincidental or do we see a pattern here that we’ve been called to apply to our situation?
The first thing to say is the word Church (Ekklesia) means ‘gathering’. In every instance in the New Testament, the word ‘church’ means the gathering or assembling of people. So to re-hash our little saying, literally what we are saying is ‘The gathering is people not the gathering” – that’s nonsense talk and should be a warning to us that maybe, just maybe, we’ve missed something of the importance of the church family actually gathering together!
Jonathan Leeman speaking into this point says “the gathering of a local church is an outpost or embassy of heaven. Through preaching and the ordinances [baptism and communion], Jesus publicly identifies himself with us in the gatherings: “I am there among them,” he said. He tied his authority to the gatherings. So it’s there that we affirm our allegiance to him and our accountability to one another”. He goes on to say … “the church gathering is where Christ’s kingdom becomes visible and active, and Jesus’ word ekklesias [Church] communicates just this. By “visible” I mean you can literally see it, hear it, touch it. By “active” I mean we officially and publicly speak for the kingdom’s sake. We conduct the kingdom corporate business. Worship and submission unite.”
It’s interesting that in these two verses in Acts 20, we find the gathering of the church, the breaking of bread (communion) and the preaching of God’s word (and by the sounds of it, for quite some time!). Now try to picture the scene … the church is choosing not to opt out, or see the kingdom of God as an opt-in-opt-out ‘thing’, depending on diary commitments. No, they gathered (physically) together. They remembered Jesus’ transforming work of salvation (through the breaking bread in communion together) but they also renewed and refreshed their community ties (no issues were getting pushed under the carpet) (again, demonstrated through communion). They also centred themselves around the authoritative teaching of scripture. They lived their lives as people in a community held together through promise, authority and kingly rule. All of this was worship and they did it together!
Friends, as we prepare to ease out of the lockdown, let me urge you to hold onto the vital place of gathering together as a church community. Church is way more than just the people. Church is an outpost of heaven, and assembly of the saints and an embassy of Christ. However, it is also a place where the kingdom of God is seen as the people of God submit to Christ, scripture and one another. It’s a beautiful and wonderful thing and I long for us to start gathering again in this way.
Father God, I thank you for the church! I thank you that it is way more than just the people. Rather the church is an outpost of heaven and when we gather, we display something that is altogether other-worldly. Would you help me to play my full part in the gathered body of the church. Amen