Our text this morning is Hebrews 10:25. Let’s read that together:
not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
We don’t live our lives in a vacuum. We are born into relationships and cultural contexts which shape and influence us.
The Bible challenges us to think and to be aware of the forces influencing us.
In Romans 12:2, Paul writes “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
The Philips translation puts it like this, “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within.”
Every culture and every age has its distinctive shapes.
One of the most unique and remarkable molds in our current cultural context is expressive individualism. That phrase came into use through sociologist Robert Bellah in an influential book called Habits of the Heart.
The age we live in has been called the age of the individual.
For most of human history life was fundamentally experienced as a community existence. We were born into families, villages, tribes and traditions which gave us identity and provided direction for our lives.
In the Western world, that experience has shifted in a remarkable way. A person born in America in 2021 will have an entirely different experience of society. They will be born into a world which assigns them an autonomous individual identity as well as the burden of creating an identity and direction for themselves.
How did that happen?
The most famous description of that process comes from the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor. Taylor calls our time the age of authenticity. An age which stresses the inherent rights, dignity and freedom of every individual.
Pastor Tim Keller does a great job summarizing Taylor’s work. I’ll borrow from Keller to try to do the same.
Taylor points out three critical developments that paved the way for the tectonic shift from communitarian society to an individualistic society.
1. The Protestant Reformation
Before the Reformation, Western Europe was thoroughly Catholic. The Catholic church has an enormous amount of authority and covered the continent with a monolithic way of looking at the world.
At that time, to be saved meant to join a community and submit to its institutions and authorities. When the Reformers rediscovered the NT message of justification by faith, they began to teach that salvation did not come from a community, but it came directly from God. To be saved was to place faith in the work of Christ as an individual.
The Reformation broke the monolithic control of the Catholic church and paved the way for a tremendous diversity of denominations. The result was the second influence Taylor credits for the shift in Western society.
2. Religious Wars
As post-reformation nation states began to develop distinctive religious identities, conflict grew into the infamous religious wars of Europe.
As these wars spread, Europeans began to imagine new ways of organizing societies. What if we could do this differently? What if government was by consensus? What if the individual were free to choose their governors and their religion?
These questions led to the emergence of a new foundational value in the West – human rights.
3. Human Rights
Out of the religious wars emerged an emphasis on the Biblical notion of human rights. The idea that every one of us has inherent worth regardless of our gender, our social class or our race; the idea that we should care for the poor, that everyone has rights that shouldn’t be violated – this grew out of the Christian culture of the West.
The idea of human rights was planted as a seed in the soil of the American colonies. That seed grew into the values that we see codified by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
The Reformation gave the Western world moral and spiritual individualism and the American Revolution gave the Western world political individualism.
The society that sprang up in America was profoundly new and different. The French writer Alexis de Tocqueville, who experienced the birth of the American democratic project first hand was struck by the individualism of the new nation. He described the phenomenon in his reports of American life:
“Individualism is a calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of this fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends; with this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself.”
The free and protected rights of the individual were striking in America, but they developed in tension with historical bonds.
Individuals were free, but they were still expected to use that freedom for the good of a broader community. Family, state, country and faith were higher ideals that had claims on individual freedom.
By the end of the 2nd World War, the tension between individual and community became so strong that they shattered.
Three major factors contributed to that break.
Material prosperity, marketing psychology and the post-modern cultural revolution.
1. Material prosperity
The industrial revolution brought wealth and the wide spread diffusion of new luxuries and brought a new obsession with private space and the urge to fill it. The American dream of a home with a fenced in yard, a washing machine and a television in the living room created a private world of recreation and retreat.
Every development of wealth and technology pushed us further from older ways of mutual support and partnership. In the modern world we can drive our own cars to work and pull into the garage at the end of the day to disappear in our private space.
2. Marketing Psychology
As material prosperity grew, so did capitalist marketing sophistication.
There’s no better way to sell a product that to appeal to individual taste. When tv’s first filled our homes you had 3 stations to choose from and everyone was watching the same thing. Now we have hundreds of on demand choices.
The proliferation of choice provides us a nearly unlimited palette to work with as we paint our individual identities.
The marketing of choice has been especially affected with youth culture.
3. The Cultural Revolution
The third factor was the cultural revolution of the 60’s. In the 60’s, postmodern ideas moved from the university into the world of youth culture and brought distrust in traditions, institutions and historical narratives. The revolution changed everything.
Following the 2nd world war, the political individualism of our culture evolved into a much more absolute expressive individualism.
The shift has utterly transformed our society.
Many of you aren’t old enough that you don’t have any experiences of this.
Let me show you an example from my own neighborhood. This comes from the Riverside Neighborhood Facebook group, a neighbor posted an old photo from the 70s of her childhood home on Franklin.
She described her parents porch as a gathering place for the neighborhood.
“My parents would sit out on the glider and neighbors out walking would always stop for a chat. Mom was the neighborhood Avon Lady. She visited her customers in their homes and loved it! From the time we moved in, there was always someone living with us. Someone who maybe needed a safe house from domestic violence or asylum when coming to America for the first time from violent countries. The door was always open, and people knew when dinner time was. Sometimes it drove me crazy that people would simply walk in without knocking, but it never once bothered my folks.”
This photo captures a way of life that is all but lost.
This image is much better representation of our experience – an individual on the coach with a smart phone in one hand and a TV remote in the other.
Last year’s Nielson Total Audience Report revealed that television consumption in the average American home has remained steady over the last couple of decades – we watch an average of more than 4 hours a day of television. What is noteworthy about that is that we have added to our days the prolific use of mobile devices. The average home in America has added to our 4 hours of television another 5 hours of screen time on a mobile device.
It’s a staggering transformation.
This is the backdrop in which we hear the call of Hebrews to not neglect meeting together as some are in the habit of doing.
The word translated habit in this verse is the Greek term ethos. Ethos is defined as the distinguishing character, sentiment, moral nature, or guiding beliefs of a person, group, or institution.
The Christian must not adopt the ethos of the individualism. The Biblical explanation for our humanity provides an alternative.
In Genesis we see that we are formed out of community – let us make man in our image. We are made in and out of the image of trinitarian relationship. It’s written into our nature.
In Genesis we see that we are formed into community – male and female he created them. The brief moment of Adam’s individual existence was not good. It was remedied by the formation of Eve.
In Genesis we see that the atomization of individuals was not progress, but a profound loss. When Cain murdered Able and responded to God – am I my brother’s keeper? The individualism he express was a corruption of his nature.
In the NT we see that Christ’s work on the cross made the way for the restoration of human community. The early church instinctively gathered into a tight-knit, committed community of love. They gathered continually for mutual encouragement and support. This is the ethos of the church.
Notice in Hebrews 10:24 that the gathering of the saints was not a passive experience – let us encourage one another. The gathering of the saints is not a consumer experience. It is an experience of shared work.
Next month we will launch our new DNA groups. It’s a significant change and it’s going to take work. It’s going to take commitment.
Will you commit to joining in the work and carrying the load?
The Bible gives us a general command to encourage one another. Smaller communities in the church provide us a target to practice that command.
In a DNA group I have a circle of friends to focus on. I can draw a circle around a group of guys and say, these are my people. No one in this circle suffers alone. No one in this circle experiences temptation alone. No one in this circle struggles and carries burdens alone. Because I am with them. This is my fellowship.
Verse 25 reads literally as let us not forsake the gathering of one another. The word for gathering is episynagogue. I want to point out two things here:
First, to forsake the episynagogue, to neglect the gathering together is not just to forsake a meeting. It is to forsake the people gathered together. It is to say, I am not my brother’s keeper. It is to say, those people can figure it out themselves. This isn’t the ethos of Christ.
Second, there is something important about the use of the word episynagogue in the NT. It’s used twice, here in Hebrews 10 and also in 1 Thessalonians 2:1 – Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him. . .
This gathering is described in more detail in chapter 4:16-17 – For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.
Both uses of episynagogue point us to the final gathering of the saints. On that day we will experience community in perfection. We will experience perfect and unbroken love. We will experience the reality of being fully known and fully embraced. We will experience what it is like to live in perfect authenticity and perfect freedom, together.
Fulfilment can never be found in the pursuit of individual expression. But it can be found. It will be found one day.
On that day, Jesus will return to finish what he started. And we will know what it is to be loved.
I close this morning with a quote from C.S. Lewis anticipating that day:
“To please God, to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness, to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son – it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is. . .
The sense that in this universe we are treated as strangers, the longing to be acknowledged, to meet with some response, to bridge some chasm that yawns between us and reality, is part of our inconsolable secret. And surely, from this point of view, the promise of glory, in the sense described, becomes highly relevant to our deep desire. For glory means good report with God, acceptance by God, response, acknowledgement, and welcome into the heart of things. The door on which we have been knocking all our lives will open at last.”
Tom Brown is the planting pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Wichita. Tom and his wife, Mandy, have worked together in ministry for 18 years and have four children. More about Pastor Tom Brown