Colossians 3:12-17 and Romans 15:1-6 NRSV
Therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor. For Christ did not please himself, but, as it is written, “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
John Wesley once said, “‘Holy solitaries' is a phrase no more consistent with the Gospel than holy adulterers. The Gospel of Christ knows no religion but social; no holiness, but social holiness.’” Wesley’s words remind us that our Christian religion is a social religion. We can only truly and fully be Christian when we live and interact with other Christians in our faith community. The most obvious place we see our social religion is when we share the day. Our days, our time together, should be spent in prayer, scripture reading, and singing. We should not limit these practices to Sunday mornings, but we should find places and times throughout our week to be with other Christians, to share places of shared scripture reading, and to lift our voices in unison to sing our prayers and praises to our God, and be in times of prayer. These are all part of our exercise regime, the fitness routine of the church.
It is fitting that our scriptures often compare Christian discipleship with running a race, with exercise. Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, “Everyone who competes practices self-discipline in everything. The runners do this to get a crown of leaves that shrivel up and die, but we do it to receive a crown that never dies.” Hebrews has a similar example: “So then, with endurance, let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us.” A cloud of witnesses, this community of ours is like a training ground to help us become disciples ready to be out in the world. We can, of course, exercise on our own, but that will only get us so far. Christianity is a team sport as Wesley pointed out, so we must practice and worship together. Our exercise consists of “the word of Scripture, the hymns of the church, and the prayer of the community,” as they “should form a part of every daily worship that [we] share together.” Being here in Sunday worship is a part of this exercise, but it is hardly enough for endurance and self-discipline. For that, we need to spend the day together regularly doing our exercises.
First, we have scripture, often the primary way we encounter God in our day-to-day lives as the stories from the Bible speak to us and even challenge us. While it is good to read scripture on your own, scripture was never intended to be read alone. As Colossians points out, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom.” Back in the day, a letter or scripture was only read in a group because almost no one could afford their own copies of the text. They had to read and so also wrestle with the words together.
We too are encouraged to teach and read and even help each other understand scripture together. The words on the page can put “the listening congregation in the midst of the wonderful revelatory world of the people of Israel with their prophets, judges, kings, and priests, with their wars, festivals, sacrifices, and sufferings. The community of believers is drawn into the Christmas story, the baptism, the miracles, and discourses, the suffering, dying, and rising of Jesus Christ.” These words have the power to do this when we read them together. When we as a community can share in the historical context of these stories, we can often hear these scriptures from a different, older perspective. When we, as a community, share how these words speak to each of us, we can share where God might be addressing our present lives and our modern experiences. What is more, we have a group of believers around us who can echo and affirm what we hear or ask questions and delve deeper with us when the message seems to stem from our own hearts rather than the heart of God.
Second, we have those beautiful hymns of the church, those prayers sung twice, that not only uplift our spirits but deliver deep spiritual truths as well. A small group here at the church that met in Lent saw this as we did a deeper dive into our hymns, into the theologies and deep truths found in them. I know many have said that they’ll never look at a hymn the same way twice!
On a communal level, these hymns are meant to be sung together, in unison. We are encouraged to neither stay silent nor get carried away but to train ourselves to sing together, to be a joyous chorus where voices, strong and weak, lift praises together! As Paul points out in Romans, “We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor.” We should sing “with “gratitude in [our] hearts” for our God and for the people around us. When we sing together, it is a reminder that it “is the voice of the church that is heard in singing together [, for it] is not I who sing, but the church.” To truly sing together, we have to not only read the words on the page, we have to listen to one another and sing with, not over, the people around us. This takes practice, a kind of practice that can only happen when we are together. Unison singing helps develop and strengthen our community unity.
Finally, we should pray together. How else can we “live in harmony with one another” if we do not practice caring for one another? Prayer is our conversation with God, and when we pray together, we are all part of that conversation. We can hear the pains, sorrows, frustrations, needs, joys, and hopes of our neighbors. How else can we “clothe [ourselves] with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience [bearing] with one another and” forgiving each other? Of course, I think this one might be the hardest of the three, as “There is no part of daily worship together that causes us such serious difficulties and trouble as does common prayer, for here we are ourselves are supposed to speak.” Studying scripture and singing hymns together involves someone else’s words, but now in prayer, we have to lift up our words as a community and as individuals before the community.
Prayer challenges us because we often feel underprepared for it. As our discipleship is like exercise, to see a benefit, we must do it regularly, but we are often embarrassed about exercising in front of others as well. Why? I think it is because we are worried that people will see how weak and imperfect we are. Prayer can feel daunting because what if our prayers are messy and we don’t know what words to say? What if we pray for the wrong thing and in the wrong way? What if we worry others are judging us because our prayer just seems to go on and on with no end in sight? We worry, I think because we as a community do not always practice what is absolutely necessary for unity here, “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” We have to love ourselves and we have to love others. We need to allow our neighbors to “pray together to God in their own words,” as they “have requests, gratitude, and intercessions to bring in common to God, and they should do so joyfully and confidently.” If our words, attitudes, and actions inhibit prayer life by making others feel they cannot pray, we have diminished our community and we have weakened our discipleship. Remember, if we are bound together in unity, in harmony, then we can only be as strong as our weakest member.
In churches, we often talk about strong Christians and weak Christians or perhaps new Christians and spiritually mature Christians. I don’t like that talk because it makes it seem like my faith and discipleship are entirely my own work. We are not a community of “Holy Solitaires,” as community means “never losing the awareness that we are connected to each other.” The church, this community of believers, is our gym. It is our exercise field. We are here in this space to exercise our faith, to build up the muscles of our discipleship. It doesn’t matter if you are new or mature, everyone has to keep working to build and maintain the muscles of our faith. The question for all of us then is where do you make time to spend the day together with your fellow Christians? Do not just say Sunday! Make time, make space for this! Practicing alone doesn’t build the skills needed to be a team, and we are a team – a body, in fact! Our body of Christ needs strong and coordinated hands and feet to lift up and carry this weary and hurting world home to where peace and joy never end. Amen.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, trans. Daniel W. Bloesch (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 26-27.
 Ibid., 34.
 Ibid., 42.
 Ibid., 42-43.
 Parker J. Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004), 55.
Pastor Paul Grossman