Yesterday, my daughter asked me if someone could be a Christian without being part of a church. She’s eight. I told her it was possible, but unlikely that he/she would stay a Christian for long. Her natural follow up: Why?
Because Christ built the church, loved the church, and died for her. And He made us to have faith together, not alone.
Her thoughts were for a school friend who she knows attends our church only on Wednesday nights and whose parents don’t seem to have faith. I reminded her that God knows about her friend and that she’s going to be okay.
As our chat ended, I thought about how hard it is to neglect being part of the church when you remember who God is. Father, Son, Holy Spirit.
- The Father is the Father because of His relationship with the Son and Spirit. The same goes for the Son and the Spirit.
- They are free–not from each other but for each other.
- They are not subordinate to one another, but freely submit to one another in love.
- They are love by nature.
To be made in God’s image, as Genesis 1 says, means that we are made for relationship. We could go even further to say that those who lack significant relationships with others become less than human, less than what God intended.
Colin Gunton says that a person is defined in terms of relationships with other people, while an individual is defined in terms of separation from other individuals. Good grief that’s so true.
Being human means being together. Not like shopping in the same store while avoiding eye contact. Not like attending a Sunday morning service a few times a month and quickly skating out before meeting people. Like what could happen in a small group. I say could because we all know churches and groups that fail to look much like the relationship God has with Himself.
It’s with this in mind that I think a small group can be valuable. I don’t know about you, but I want to be all that God created me to be. And I can’t become that person as an individual.
The question becomes, “How might a small group do this?” Here are my suggestion, based on the understanding of the Trinity above.
- I begin to identify myself by my relationships. I am friend, father, husband before I am pastor.
- I begin to view my freedom as something that is for others. As Paul said, be slaves to one another humbly in love (Gal. 5:13).
- I begin to honestly submit to others–with their preferences, their quirks, their desires–rather than placing myself first.
- I begin to both give and receive love–here defined as doing what is best for one another in accordance with Scripture.
We could list more. In time, we become more fully human as we are in deeper relationship with one another. It is why the friendships that are formed as we meet consistently matter just as much as the content we cover. It is why we make time for a small group. It is why we challenge small group leaders to put relationships first.
The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. 2Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.
3He said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. 4Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. 5Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant” (TNIV).
The story is prefaced by saying that Israel’s God, Yahweh, was the one who met with Abraham under these great trees. He appeared to him, along with two angels, and told him that his wife, Sarah, would have a son. Abraham is immediately hospitable to these travelers.
Later church fathers would associate this scene with the Trinity. The image above was painted in the 15th century depicting this story. The hospitality Abraham shows the Lord here reminds me of the hospitality God shows us in prayer. He invites us to join Him, prepares a place for us, and sits with us.
John Drury, a seminary professor of mine, gave a devotional once that went like this.
To whom do we pray? To God our Father.
With whom do we pray? With Jesus, the risen Christ, who is sitting at the right hand of the Father interceding for us (and with us). Though we might say that Christ is in our hearts and present with His people when they gather, the creed says that He is sitting at the right hand of the Father. We join Christ’s conversation with the Father. When we start, we join Him. When we end, we know He continues to pray.
By whom do we pray? We pray by the Spirit. The Spirit testifies with our Spirit that we are sons of God. He lets us know that we belong in the conversation. And when we don’t know what to pray, the Spirit intercedes on our behalf. Just as the Holy Spirit empowers us to live the Christian life, He also empowers us to pray in Christian ways.
The bottom line is that when we pray, we enter into the conversation God is having with Himself. We join Him in His life, and we can rest assured that God has allowed us to do this and welcomes us.
As you pray this week, try closing your eyes and imagining what it looks like for the Trinity to be in prayer together.
First, imagine God your heavenly Father, looking at you with love in His eyes, welcoming you as a father should welcome his child.
Now, see that there is someone sitting next to Him. You are not jealous that God has welcomed you to a place where another is. Your communion with your heavenly Father is not private. He welcomes you to pray alongside His Son, Jesus, who is praying things like, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty,” and “Send workers into your harvest fields, Father.” The same compassion that led Him to the cross now leads Him to intercede. And then you hear Jesus praying for you, by name.
Finally, as you watch this scene and are overwhelmed by what is taking place, don’t say a word. Instead, listen to the Comforter gently nudge you to begin speaking. At first, you don’t know what to say. And so you pray simply the words of Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer. And then you find your footing. The Spirit smiles at you, pleased and encouraging you to pray.
What if this picture were what you thought of when you prayed tomorrow? And the next day?