To worship with the gathered church is to be in the heavenly temple in the presence of God. To be a Christian is to be part of the body. Walking wounded, smeared in her own sin, and riven with division: it is the Church.
For all the philosophers and critics say we are ‘expressive individualists’, we might not believe it fully. You’re not so self-centred that you only act for yourself, after all? But we’re so inculcated by the cultural waters in which we swim we think from our selves outward.
Let me show you what I mean.
Christianity is Church
You can’t be a Christian without the church. I remember as a teenager when wondering why we needed the church—why we couldn’t just have a relationship with God—I would always be told the coal analogy. Sometimes even without asking the question. The story is of a young man who goes to visit an older pastor and they sit by the fire together. Asked by the young man why he needs the church, the older man would remove a coal from his open fire and place it on the hearth. They would watch it slowly dim and grow cold. “That’s you without the church, you will grow dark and go out.”
Depending on your approach to soteriology it’s either: you need the church to stay in with God, or it’s much easier to be a Christian with the church. As rugged individuals I fear that we sometimes see the latter as a challenge.
While the analogy has some explanatory power, it is easier to live a vibrant Christian life with the church, I fear it misses the point on two levels. One, it implies that the power of the church rests in it being a collection of Christians who get each other “hot”, while I would contend the church is where God meets his people in word and worship, water, bread, and wine. Two, it’s not easier to be a Christian with the church, being a Christian is being part of the church. She’s the bride, the whole point of the gospel is the prince slaying the dragon to win his bride. We await the ending of history in a marriage. Yes, Jesus saves us as individuals from the powers of Sin and Death, but he does so both because he dearly delights in you, and because he wants to make a people to marry. She may be the kind of bride who got drunk the night before the wedding and threw up over the dress, but she’s the bride.