From the comments:
Put another way, edification is sacramental as well.
Exactly. In fact, I’d add “… and especially.”
The common definition of a sacrament accepted by the Reformed and Roman Churches is that of an outward and visible sign, ordained by Christ, setting forth and pledging an inward and spiritual blessing.
R. J. Coates, New Bible Dictionary, 1996, 1034.
In the Churches of Christ, “sacrament” is frowned on as a word because it’s not found in scripture. But neither is “Trinity,” “preacher,” “church treasury,” “verse,” or “hymnal.” Alexander Campbell urged us to refer to Bible things by Bible names (amen), but sometimes it’s helpful to expand our vocabulary.
Protestants traditionally limit “sacrament” to baptism and the Lord’s Supper, but this comes largely by paring down the Catholic Church’s list of seven sacraments. In fact, there are far more things in Christianity that meet this definition.
For example, the assembly is sacramental as it’s a visible sign of the church. The assembly is not the church (not all gather in the same place at the same time), but the assembly reveals the church’s presence. Is there a corresponding inward, spiritual blessing? Of course.
(Matt. 18:20 ESV) 20 “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
Do we want Jesus to be among us? That would indeed be sacramental. But that requires that we gather together. But being “gathered” doesn’t mean standing next to a stranger listening to a song leader or preacher.
We also find the word translated “gathered” in —
(Matt. 25:35 ESV) For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
To be “gathered” is not merely to be in the same room or even in the same room worshiping God. We aren’t gathered unless we’re gathered as a community that welcomes one another. Perhaps a modified translation would help —
(Matt. 18:20 ESV) 20 “For where two or three are [welcomed] in my name, there am I among them.”
But we treat the assembly as primarily focused on the vertical element — our worship to God. After all, not one of our Five Acts of Worship is pictured as primarily horizontal — welcoming — in intent.
That is, we unconsciously treat the assembly as the NT replacement for Jewish temple worship — by unspoken assumption. Indeed, we call what we do “acts of worship,” although this is not how the NT describes the assembly.
The assembly is not the NT analog to the Temple. Rather, the NT uses Temple language with regard to daily living.
(Rom. 12:1 ESV) I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
(1 Pet. 2:4-5 ESV) 4 As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, 5 you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
Wayne Grudem comments as to 1 Pet 2:4-5 —
As priests, believers offer not the animal sacrifices of the Old Covenant, but spiritual sacrifices, which the New Testament elsewhere identifies as the offering of our bodies to God for his service (Rom. 12:1), the giving of gifts to enable the spread of the gospel (Phil. 4:18), the singing of praise (Heb. 13:15), and the doing of good and sharing our possessions (Heb. 13:16). These varied examples encourage us to think that anything we do in service to God can be thought of as a ‘spiritual sacrifice’ acceptable to God, a continual sweet aroma that ascends to his throne and brings him delight. With this New Testament perspective on ‘sacrifice’, all the Old Testament passages about sacrifices can be read in a new light.
Wayne A. Grudem, 1 Peter: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale NTC 6; IVP/Accordance electronic ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 106-107.
The NT language regarding the assembly is far more analogous to Israel journeying through the wilderness together, following the Presence of God. It’s the wandering-in-the-wilderness passages that refer to Israel as God’s ekklesia. We’re not “called out” of our homes to gather to worship. We are called out of slavery to journey to the Promised Land together, led by God himself — and as we journey, we journey together — a nation without borders or even a fixed location. We are in exile from our enslavers and not yet in the Land of Milk and Honey,
And as we travel together, as a community of God, we gather together to encourage and edify each other — which includes being strengthened by God’s great might and his word as well as worshiping together.
Or to put it more practically, God does not have self-esteem issues. He doesn’t need us to worship him to satisfy some divine need for adulation (in contrast to pagan religions). Rather, he calls us to assemble for our sakes. The NT passages place far more emphasize the horizontal aspects of the assembly over the vertical elements. 1 Cor 14 very heavily focuses on mutual edification. The only reference to “worship” in that chapter is worship by a visiting unbeliever!
Just so, we have —
(Heb. 10:24-25 ESV) 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 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.
This passage will surely be included in the “Church of Christ Preacher Greatest Hits” collection — and yet it speaks solely toward the horizontal elements of the assembly.
God calls us together so that we’ll be together — which is the best way for us to edify and encourage each other. We worship because we love God and, being together, find the desire to praise our Lord irresistible. It’s not that we don’t worship in the Sunday morning assembly, but that worship is a natural product of our being assembled for mutual edification. When I see my brothers and sisters praising my God with joy, I’m drawn in to join them. But the edification/encouragement of the assembly is much bigger than that.
And so one of the problems with many approaches to the assembly is their over-emphasis on verticality. If I can’t hear my brothers and sisters sing, the leaders respond that God can hear us sing, and that’s really the point. No, it’s not. I can sing to God in my car all alone. And the guys on the Christian radio station are better than the worship leaders at my church. I can listen to Andy Stanley or Rick Atchley in my car. But I can’t encourage and be encouraged in my car all alone.
And yet we have members who take offense if we talk to each other while awaiting the beginning of church services. They consider it “irreverent” — as though God would take offense at talking in his sanctuary (oops: auditorium). Of course, the loudest, most boisterous place in Judea was the Temple. Imagine the sounds of hundreds or thousands of sheep being slaughtered and then roasted over the altar, of thousands of pilgrims praying aloud to God, a choir of Levites singing psalms, worshipers ascending the steps chanting psalms, a full orchestra of Levitical instrumentalists, rabbis teaching their disciples, and men and women crying shouting “Hallelujah” as they find themselves in the presence of God Almighty!
But what about —
(Hab. 2:18-20 ESV) 18 “What profit is an idol when its maker has shaped it, a metal image, a teacher of lies? For its maker trusts in his own creation when he makes speechless idols! 19 Woe to him who says to a wooden thing, Awake; to a silent stone, Arise! Can this teach? Behold, it is overlaid with gold and silver, and there is no breath at all in it. 20 But the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.”
The command to “keep silence before him” isn’t speaking of the Temple service. Rather, the entire world is commanded to be silent. Why? Because unlike the pagan idols, our God speaks, and we need to be listening.
The Lord is in his holy temple: this refers primarily to the Lord’s “temple” in heaven rather than to the Temple built by Solomon in Jerusalem (compare Psa 11:4; Micah 1:2). So his holy temple in this context means “the temple in heaven which belongs to the Lord.”
The appropriate response from man to the holy God is silence: let all the earth keep silence before him. TEV makes it explicit that all the earth means “everyone on earth,” and that before him means “in his presence.”
David J. Clark and Howard A. Hatton, A Translator’s Handbook on the Book of Habakkuk, UBS Handbook Series, (New York: United Bible Societies, 1989), 112.
“Keep silence” is the Hebrew for “hush”! Habakkuk is saying, “Shut up and listen.”
And so, the assembly is sacramental in that our gathering brings Jesus present among us. But Jesus doesn’t join us to be worshiped — although we will and should worship him. He is present to be with his family — because we are his beloved brothers and sisters: people he died to save, meaning people for whom he died just so he could be present with us for all eternity.