Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:24-25 NRSV)
The presence of the word “provoke” in this passage sounds strange to our ears. Nevertheless, this is how the Greek New Testament reads: the word being translated “provoke” is one which is often used to describe a “severe argument based upon an intense difference of opinion.” The word can be used of true disputes, or it can be used idiomatically to describe an emotionally intensive compulsion of another into action. The NASB renders “provoke” as “stimulate,” the NIV translates it with “spur on,” while the ESV phrases it “stir up.” In all translations, however, the idea is the same: we are called to be actively involved in encouraging, compelling, pushing, and urging one another forward in acts of faith and Christian love. In so doing, the Body of Christ the members of the Church serve as means of grace for each other. And this is why Church is so important.
One of the few places where the means of grace can be found, gathered together, is in the Church. Scripture, fellowship, hymn singing, prayer, the sacraments ... all of these are wonderful examples of the means grace. They are instruments through which we can receive the life-transforming, heart-cleansing power and Real Presence of Jesus; they are essential for the Christian life of faith. And, they can be known, received, and applied most readily in and through the Body of Christ the Church.
Yes, churches can be very disappointing; they are, after all, made up of human beings, and human beings sometimes fail to be gracious, faithful, and welcoming. When this occurs when the Gospel is denied and people are hurt the truth is that we are the ones who are at fault, not God. So many will blame God for the failure of the Church to live up to its calling, when the true culprits are those sinners yes, even you and me who make up the Church. The good news is that the love of Jesus can overcome even our most egregious failures. Even despite our worst fumbles, the Holy Spirit still works within us to transform our brokenness.
This miracle is nothing new with God. Throughout the Bible we find God working with broken vessels and speaking through imperfect messengers: Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Jeremiah, Jonah … each of these “saints” was far from perfect. Still, God worked through them even through their failures to reveal the Divine Will to the world.
The Church is much the same. It is filled with broken and chipped vessels, with imperfect messengers and awkward (and often reluctant) servants. When we fail, we usually do so in a very big way. It is no wonder that many are turned away from the Church and from our message by our failure to live up to the high calling which we have received. However, no one should ever turn away from God because of our failures! Even despite its brokenness, the Church is still the best place to both receive the grace of God and put that grace into action through acts of faith.
This does not mean that it’s impossible to receive God’s grace apart from the Church or, indeed, apart from the obvious, long established means of grace. Quite the contrary, God’s grace can flow beyond the normal channels of provision; to proclaim anything less would be to place human limitations upon the love, power, and presence of God. Nevertheless, it is still true that the Church is the normative channel through which the other means of grace function. This is attested to by Scripture, by nearly two thousand years of Church history, and by the Christian experience of many saints.
I am sometimes asked: “Does one have to go to church in order to be a Christian?” The literal answer is, of course, “no.” That being said, however, it must also be recognized that it is so very much more difficult to live a life of faith apart from the Body of Christ than it is to be a Christian within the family of God. Lacking the support of fellow believers, their love, care, and concern, not to mention the advice and guidance of spiritual mentors in short, lacking direct access to the visible means of grace can spell disaster for even the best-intentioned person. No matter how strong the belief, without a continual infusion of God’s grace, faith eventually shrivels up and dies. Faith must be continually nourished in order to flourish into action; the Church provides a wonderful means for receiving this nourishment. After all, faith is not a passive prospect; we are called to live in Christ, and to express the love of Christ to others. Indeed, we are even called to be means of grace to each other … how can we be a conduit of grace for others if we’re off, on our lonesome, doing our own thing? To put it simply, we can’t.
If you’ve been feeling cut-off from the means of grace, from the Real Presence of Jesus, from the life of faith that God has for you to live, why don’t you return to the Church and to “provoking one another to love and good deeds?” I guarantee you that the Family of God would love to see you, again. And so would God.
© 2006, Rev. Gregory S. Neal
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