(Almost) Leaving Church

Psalm 25.1

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. 

We were sitting inside a nearly empty McDonalds for breakfast.

He was a pastor a few weeks away from retirement with decades of experience.

I was a seminary student with no real idea of what I was getting myself in to.

We exchanged small talk over Egg McMuffins and stale coffee wondering aloud about the weather for the rest of the day when I asked the question that all pastors ask one another at some point.

“So, how did God call you to all of this?”

It’s a good inquiry, for the expectation is that all of us, that is pastors, have an answer. 

And I’ve heard them all.

Pastors who felt the call of God on their lives in the middle of an AA meeting, or while standing on the top of a mountain, or after dropping off their last child at college.

Pastors who felt the call of God on their lives inside a slow moving elevator, or after their daughter died in a car accident, or while suffering through a terrible sermon in their home church.

I was therefore prepared for whatever story might come from the nearly retired pastor’s lips.

Or, at least I thought I was.

Because he didn’t answer my question.

Instead he replied, “How about I tell you the story of how I almost left the church?”

“Back when our kids were young,” he began, “I was serving a mid-size church and doing my best to keep everything going the way it was supposed to go. We had the same problems that all other churches had, and I started working longer hours and making more visits. When one day I came home to the parsonage, and I could hear the kids playing upstairs, but my wife was gone. I looked and looked until I found a note addressed to me on the kitchen counter. My wife had, apparently, fallen in love with one of the ushers at the church, a man with his own family, and they had decided to run off together leaving their spouses and children behind.”

“In the weeks that followed, I had to adjust to the new normal of solo-parenting while leading a church. And within the first month a meeting was called by the leaders. I was grateful expecting that the church would start cooking meals, or helping to find childcare, or any other number of things. But that’s not what the meeting was for.”

“It took place in our sanctuary and the congregation met and decided that I was no longer fit to serve as the pastor. They believed had I been a better pastor, my wife wouldn’t have left me and my kids, and that it was time for them to find new pastor.” 

“Within a few months I lost my wife, lost my job, and just about lost my calling.”

Unsure of how to respond, I sat there in silence waiting for him to continue.

He said, “The strangest thing happened though. I felt abandoned by my wife, and my vocation, but I never felt abandoned by God. I kept praying, I kept preaching (albeit in a different church). And no matter what occurred I experienced grace. Sometimes it was through a family who unexpectedly offered to watch my kids, at other times it was through the still small silence in the morning when I was the only one awake in the house, and sometimes it happened when I escaped to the strange new world of the Bible to prepare for a Sunday school lesson.”

“And that’s the thing I’ve come to discover about a life of faith – people can be real fickle, and even terrible. But God? God remains steadfast even when we don’t.”

God’s Great But

John 16.33 (ESV)

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.

“Our online worship numbers have gone down week after week even though I keep telling my people to invite more people, and to pray harder, and to read their Bibles. None of it seems to work… I feel like I’m losing my religion.”

“If my son doesn’t get the classes he needs this year, then he’ll never get into the right college and it will ruin the rest of his life.”

“Every time I leave the house I feel anxious about the possibility of catching Covid from someone else not taking the proper precautions.”

Those are three sentences I heard from three different people (a pastor, a parent, and a parishioner, respectively) in the last week. The lingering tribulations and anxieties are quite perceptively present these days and it can feel like there’s nothing we can do about any of them. Whether it’s turning on the news to see another protest, or pundits arguing about the Presidential Elections, to doom-scrolling through Twitter, it seems like the foundations of life are crumbling under our feet 

Or, to put it another way, the world feels like its falling apart.

“I have overcome the world” says Jesus near the end of his earthly life in John 16. And, frankly, that’s the message of the Gospel – The child born to us and for us in the manger, the One nailed to the cross, the One resurrected and delivered from the grave has overcome the world.

Notice: Christ does not say we have overcome the world. Instead, he says, “I have overcome the world.

Not us. 

Whether we’re good or bad, foolish or clever, powerful or weak, we could not (and can not) do what Christ has already done.

It makes all the difference in the world that Jesus says these very words to his disciples, and therefore us. They ring throughout time as a reminder that no matter what tribulations or anxieties occur, Christ has overcome the world. 

And those anxieties and tribulations will come. Jesus doesn’t say we might face hardships, but instead states it as a plain fact: In the world you will have tribulation.

There is tribulation among young people today: tribulations about who they are, their very identities, and fears about what life will bring in the future with all of its rampant uncertainty.

There is tribulation among older people today: tribulations about bodily ailments and infirmities, economic concerns about how to live on little, and thoughts that more lies behind them now than ahead.

There is tribulation among all regarding the pandemic: tribulations about other people and what they can transmit to us willfully or ignorantly, fears over whether life will ever feel normal again, and the ever ticking number of people who have died because of COVID-19.

And the same One born to us and for us, the One beaten, betrayed, and abandoned, the One delivered and resurrected, declares the truth of our tribulations. Jesus doesn’t sugarcoat what life is like, he doesn’t promise sunshine and rainbows. He speaks honestly about the condition of our condition, but then shouts into all of our anxieties: But take heart.

The powerful and glorious But! God’s great Nevertheless! It shines like a beacon in the midst of a tumultuous sea. In the world you will have tribulation – But take heart!

“Take heart,” contrary to how it is often explained, does not mean just think of something else. Nor does it mean run away from your troubles. 

“Take heart” means lifting up our eyes to the hills and see where from where our help comes – it comes from the Lord.

“Take heart” means taking up our hearts with those who have the strength to carry us in the days/weeks/months/years when we feel weak, when the tribulations are too much for us to bear on our own.

“Take heart” means bearing one another’s burdens because no one should have to go through this life on their own.

“Take heart” means resting in the Good News that God has already written the end of the story and we know how it ends.

On Breaking The Rules

Matthew 18.21-22

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

Jesus loved to speak in parables.

Perhaps he enjoyed watching his disciples scratch their heads or maybe he knew that parabolic utterances have an uncanny way of allowing the truth to really break through.

Peter wants to know what the forgiveness business really looks like and Jesus basically responds by saying that in the Kingdom of Heaven, there is no end to forgiveness. However, knowing that wouldn’t be enough, he decides to drop a parable on his dozing disciples to send home the message.

The Kingdom of Heaven is like a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the process a slave who owed him ten million dollars was brought forward. And, because he could not pay back the king, he along with his wife and children were ordered to be sold into slavery.

Summary: Don’t break the rules.

But then the slave speaks. Having racked up an impossible debt, he asks for patience.

So how does the king respond? Moments ago he ordered the man and his family to be sold into slavery, but now he, bizarrely, takes pity, releases the man, and forgives ALL his debts.

The parable goes on to describe how the now debt-free servant holds a small debt over the head of another servant and is then punished by torture, but I want to pause on the king.

Because this king is a fool.

He offers forgiveness without spending much time in contemplation – he doesn’t consult with his trusted advisers and he doesn’t even weigh out what the payment on the debt would mean for the kingdom.

Instead, the king chooses to throw away the entirety of the kingdom for one servant.

Now, lest we think that’s an overly dramatic read of the parables – to forgive a debt as great as the servant’s is not merely a matter of being nice. It is a willingness to throw everything away for the man. Without receiving the ten thousand talents (read: ten million dollars), the kingdom would cease to operate accordingly and would thusly be destroyed.

The forgiveness offered by the king is not just a gift – it’s a radically changed life through death. 

Jesus is setting Peter up with the story, and all of us who read it all these years later. Jesus is trying to say, yet again, that he is going to fix the world through his dying.

He will destroy death by dying on the cross, by giving up the kingdom for undeserving servants, by going after the one lost sheep and leaving the ninety-nine behind. 

He will free us from ourselves by losing everything himself.

Jesus delights in breaking the rules and expectations of the world by showing that things aren’t as they appear.

There is no limit to the forgiveness offered by God through Christ Jesus. It sounds crazy, it sounds unbelievable, but it’s true. 

If there was a limit to forgiveness in the Kingdom, then Peter would not have cut it as a disciple, and neither would any of us.

Jesus uses this parable not as a way to explain everything to our satisfaction, but to call attention to the unsatisfactoriness of all our previous understandings.

Or, to put it another way: the world runs on debt and repayment (at interest), but the Kingdom of God runs on mercy and forgiveness. 

Judged

2 Corinthians 5.10a

For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ.

I’ve had the (mis)fortune to serve on two different juries in the last ten years. In both cases I was the first (of roughly one hundred potential jurors) to be called into the box and in both cases there was nothing sufficiently problematic to strike me from serving.

But it’s not as if I didn’t try to get excused.

The first time I received a summons I was in seminary and was only able to defer twice before I had to serve no matter what, and even though I explained to the lawyers that I was studying to become a pastor which might sway my understanding of the law, they picked me anyway.

The second time I received a summons I literally wore my clergy collar to the courthouse hoping it would make me appear unsuitable to serve, but that backfired just the same.

If you’ve never had the pleasure to serve on a jury (or be part of a trial in general) it is not like it appears in so many courtroom dramas. It’s mostly monotonous with a lot of legal jargon being spouted between two lawyers and judge while the rest of the room remains silent. There’s never (at least in my experience) a dramatic moment where the truth is finally revealed. And, unless its a remarkably controversial case, the courtroom is mostly empty. 

But one thing that is true between how courtrooms are dramatized and how they exist in reality, is that in the end people get to decide sentences according to human judgments. We listen, we discern, and ultimately we rule in favor or against such that someone’s life is changed for good or ill.

Which makes Paul’s proclamation in his second letter to the church in Corinth all the more remarkable: all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ. 

No matter how good we are or how bad we are, whether we get caught in this life or we get away with our schemes, all of us must stand in judgment. And, to make matters worse (and unlike our human courtrooms) we can’t hide the truth. No deceptive lawyering can contain the condition of our condition. God sees already what is going on inside of us, our wishes and intentions, and God knows what we really are. 

How then could we possibly survive? What will become of us in the Lord’s judgment? 

Notice: We must appear before the judgment seat of Christ.

Not before some earthly black robed judge sitting in his/her human courtroom. No, but we must appear before and in front of the one who takes away the sins of the world. Our judge, strangely enough, has loved us from all eternity and from the manger to the grave drew us into Himself and nailed everyone of our sins to His cross. 

And He is our judge!

We, therefore, need not fear the end of our days nor should we fear that ultimate moment of judgment. For it is not like the courtrooms of this life where human beings dispense judgments upon one another. Instead, the judge has already come to be judged in our place.

Strange

Romans 11.32

For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all. 

Christians see the world differently than everyone else.

Or, at least, we’re supposed to.

Think of any random subject or occurrence and there’s a better than good chance that Christians, as a group, feel differently about it than those outside the church.

Money? It comes from God first so it actually doesn’t really belong to us.

Parenting? The community of faith makes a covenant to raise the baptized to the same degree that parents do.

Sex? Physical intimacy is one of God’s good gifts, but it’s only really intelligible within the covenant made manifest in marriage.

I could go on.

And because Christians see and live in the world differently than others, it will forever make us strange.

The problem comes when we’re so consumed with appearing like everyone else that it’s no longer possible to differentiate between those inside and those outside the church.

Decades ago, when most of the people now leading the church were baptized into it, it was done so under the shadow of what we call Christendom

Christendom was (notice the tense) a time in which Christians thought they knew how to identify what it meant to be Christian. Mostly, those differences were defined by the church saying what one could, or couldn’t do. But those differences were no different from what the county or the community thought was best anyway.

It was a time when it was assumed that people just went to church on Sunday mornings, that to be a good person was synonymous with being Christians, and that so long as you said the right prayers, and gave the right amount of money to church, and made sure you did more good things than bad that everything would work out in the end.

That time, Christendom, is long gone and it ain’t coming back.

Karl Barth puts it this way: “Nothing has ever happened to change the fact that Christians — even in the middle of their supposedly and perhaps even very consciously Christian environment — will always be strange and threatened creatures. No matter how much they may know themselves to be in solidarity with the world and behave as such, the way of Christians can never be the way of the world — least of all the way of a presumably Christianized world.”

And Barth is right – to be Christian, is to be different. Christians are those who worship a God who became one of us, a God who rather than beating the world into moralistic submission, suffered and died on a cross, a God who believes in us even when we don’t, or can’t, believe in God.

How strange!

In Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, right before making the great theological turn in chapter 12, he lets linger a rather confounding word: God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.

It’s as if he’s saying, “Look, to be Christian implies a willingness to see the strangest news of all: God knit us in such a way that we might be disobedient knowing full and well that he would offer us mercy in the end.”

The implications of this one sentence are tremendous. For, it means that Christians, as a group, see one another and the world differently. Rather than seeing the whole of humanity in a binary (outsiders or insiders, good or bad) we actually see the whole of humanity as disobedient. That, given are freedom of will, we often choose to do things we know we shouldn’t and we avoid doing things we know we should.

The real kicker comes with the latter half of the sentence: And God is merciful to all! Even in all our sin, even with all our mistakes, even with the selfishness and self-righteousness, God in Christ still marches to the top of Golgotha for us anyway!

That’s strange – it also happens to be the Gospel.

How Odd Of God

Matthew 14.28-31

Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Jesus went up on the mountain to pray by himself. While praying, the disciples set off in a boat for the other side of the sea. Early in the morning, Jesus walked out onto the sea and when the disciples saw him they were terrified.

But immediately Jesus said, “Hey chill out! It’s just me.”

Peter responded, “Well, if it really is you, then tell me to come out there on the water and I’ll do it.”

“Whatever you say Pete,” the Lord replied.

So Peter got out of the boat and started walking on the water. But when he realized what he was doing he began to sink and he called out for Jesus.

Jesus immediately reached out and caught Peter while saying, “Buddy, I got you.”

The End.

Or, at least, that’s how I like to tell the story. 

It’s a well known one in Christian circles – we preach on it from pulpits, we act it out in Vacation Bible School classes, we even daydream about it. 

And, more often than not, we make Peter the subject of the story.

The whole thing gets whittled down to some version of, “God’s calling you out of your boats of comfort into a new thing. Do you have the courage to respond to the call? Don’t be like Peter with his fear. Blah blah blah.”

And that’s fine, if you want a group of people to feel guilty about whatever it is they’re not doing.

But the Gospel is a much better story.

Because, according to the Gospel, Jesus is the subject of the story, not us (Peter).

Jesus brings us a new world in himself. A world defined differently than the one we currently inhabit. It’s not just that the wind and the seas obey him, a whole new cosmos is knit inside of, and through, him.

Peter (not the main character) is vacillating between these worlds – the world of the world and the world of the kingdom. 

And, upon realizing the condition of his condition, the fear of not knowing where he really belongs, he begins to sink.

Who saves Peter from his peril? 

Jesus.

And only Jesus.

Notice: How often are we encouraged (or downright commanded) to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps? How many times have we suffered under the weight of feeling like we just can’t become the people we’re meant to be on our own? Why do so many sermons end with calls for more and more instead of telling us about the more that Jesus has already done for us?

In the end, this story forces us to confront the oddness of God.

God, the author of creation and salvation, humbly (read: humiliatingly) comes to us in the person of Christ to dwell among us, to pull us up while we’re stuck treading water.

This is the God we worship. 

The God who, even though we left him behind on the shore, comes and walks on water to be with us.

The God who, even when the waves are battering the ship and it feels like life if falling apart, waits with an open hand to lift us back up.

The Good News is that Jesus can, and does, for us that which we couldn’t on our own.

It’s odd, but it’s also the best news of all.

The Closest Thing to Grace

Matthew 14.15-18

When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them to me.”

I might appear cheerful in my Sunday morning streamed services on Facebook and YouTube, but I can assure you that recording those services is anything but cheerful. There is the never-ceasing dread that the internet will cut out or I’ll lose my train of thought or no one will actually watch or etc. And yet, week after week I stand inside of an empty sanctuary, staring into a camera, hoping that it will result in faithful worship.

But there have been plenty of mistakes.

One week I was 3/4 of the way through the services when my computer went completely dark signifying that the live-stream had stopped. So I made my way over to the device thinking I could get it back on, all while muttering un-pastoral words under my breath, without realizing that the live-stream had somehow continued in the madness.

One week, I tried recording the service early so that I could premiere the video on Sunday morning when a supercell thunderstorm rolled in and the sanctuary shook with every thunder clap leaving me to cower a little more with each successive burst (I decided to wait that one out and record a few hours later).

And last week, I set up the camera up via my iPhone and talked for 45 minutes straight only to realize that none of it recorded because someone called me in the first five minutes and my phone switched apps.

What can you do but laugh?

I mean, these really are crazy times and we preachers are trying crazily to keep the Word fresh and faithful in a time when we cannot gather together in-person.

I confess that, on more occasions than I care to admit, I have fallen down to the floor in the sanctuary with nothing but crazed laughter knowing how many mistakes I’ve made throughout the pandemic when it comes to being a pastor.

Laughter, to put it another way, has saved me.

If Jesus’ original disciples weren’t able to laugh at themselves, I’m not sure how they were able to make it as disciples at all.

Jesus laid it all out at least three times about his whole death and resurrection and they still abandoned him on the cross.

Jesus went on and on about the Kingdom of heaven and they never stopped asking him when it was going to happen and what it was going to look like.

Jesus performed countless miracles and one day, when the crowds were especially large, the disciples thought it would be better for the people to be sent home because they didn’t have enough food. How, in the world, could they not have known that Jesus would be able to feed the crowds that day? Had they not been paying attention at all???

It’s not in scripture, but I am convinced that those days after the resurrection and before the ascension were filled with the disciples laughing at themselves for having been so obtuse the entire time.

Karl Barth, the greatest theologian of the 20th century, wrote “Having a sense of humor means not being stiff but flexible. Humor arises when we have insight into the contradiction between our existence as children of God and as children of this age, and we become conscious of our actions in a lively way… Those who laugh at themselves are also allowed to laugh at others and will joyfully also pass the ultimate test of being laughed at themselves – a test that much alleged humor usually fails miserably.”

It is good and right for us to laugh at ourselves, particularly in the light of our discipleship, for we are nothing more than people stumbling around in the darkness hoping that God can make something of our loving.

And if we are able to laugh at ourselves then we are in good shape. For, laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God. 

Live Your Life So That The Preacher Won’t Have To Lie At Your Funeral

Romans 8.12-13

So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh — for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.

I did a funeral a while back for an older woman, and during the service people stood up to talk about how amazing she was how she always cared for everyone in her midst and how she was the paragon of virtue. We heard from grandchildren, co-workers, neighbors, it went on and on. 

When the funeral was over, I mingled among the gathered people, offering condolences and so on until I met the recently dead woman’s caretaker. She was wearing scrubs, having already moved on to a new client and was only able to get away for the funeral. We chatted briefly exchanging pleasantries until she said, “You know what’s strange Preacher? Having to sit there and to listen to all these people talk about how perfect she was. Because she was the meanest woman I’ve ever met in my life. She treated me worse than dirt.”

I stood there silently stunned unsure of how to respond.

And then she said, “It’s a good thing we worship a God of forgiveness, right Preacher?”

I have a great sign in my office that says, “Live your life so that the Preacher won’t have to lie at your funeral.” 

I used to love how it would hang over the heads of those who came to confess yet another one of their sins. I hoped that it would convince them to shape up and start behaving accordingly without me having to say it.

But the longer I’ve been a pastor, the more I’ve realized how strange of a theology the sign portrays. For, it implies that there are some people who have lived such good, and true, and virtuous lives that preachers don’t have to lie at their funerals.

But, that denies the real truth: Not a one of us is righteous, no, not one. We all fail to love God and neighbor with our hearts, souls, minds, and strengths. We avoid doing things we know we should, and we do plenty of things we know we shouldn’t.

And yet, how often have we gone to a funeral to listen to someone like me, a preacher, wax lyrical about the now dead’s holy life when we all know that all of our lives are more complicated than that?

For, the real truth is that all of us are the ungodly, we are the ones for whom Christ died. And that’s good news, because it means not a one of us is outside the realm of God’s forgiveness.

Which is just another way of saying that the only way any of us make it to the Kingdom of Heaven is because we worship a King of forgiveness.

Thanks be to God.

The Gospel According To Paul

Romans 8.1

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Inclusion is all the rage in the church these days (and just about everywhere else). We have such a desire to appear appealing to as many people as possible, that we put out signs on the  church property promising our inclusiveness, we develop slogans for websites assuring visitors that they are already part of the church family, and we cultivate sermon series about how to be more tolerant of our neighbors.

But nothing is more inclusive than the Gospel of justification for the ungodly.

It insists (demands) a Church exists where there is not a single distinction between us.

Because not a one of us is righteous (Romans 3).

We’re all the ungodly for whom Christ died.

Depending on the kind of church you grew up in, or saw embodied on television, talk of sin varies. In some traditions, sin is wagged at the congregation week after week in order to (hopefully?) scare people into faith. In other traditions, talk of sin is avoided at all costs unless it has to do with who should be allowed to get married or who should be allowed to become a pastor.

And yet, when Paul wrote his letter to the burgeoning church in the first century, the only sins he mentions are the sins for which Christ has already died.

That is, all of them.

Robert Farrar Capon, taking a cue from Paul, drops this into the laps of we religious types: “Both heaven and hell are populated entirely and only by forgiven sinners. Hell is just a courtesy for those who insist they want no part of forgiveness.”

Thats a tough truth to handle for those of us addicted to right-ness and wrong-ness. For, the Gospel (according to Paul) reminds us that since Christ has been raised from the dead we, who are in Christ by baptism, are not in our sins. But, at the same time, sinners we shall remain!

No matter how good we want to think we are, none of us is righteous. We all, at some point or another, do something we shouldn’t or we avoid doing something we should do. 

At the very least, we can’t even get along on Facebook or Twitter! We’re constantly doom-scrolling through the posts and tweets that set us off and even if we have the power to not respond, in our heart of hearts we know what we wish we could say.

We’re all the ungodly for whom Christ died.

It doesn’t matter whether we’re liberal or conservative, it doesn’t matter if we study the Bible every day or we’ve never even picked one up, it doesn’t matter with whom we share a bed or what we do in it – none of it changes the fact that we’ve been baptized (deadened) into Christ. 

And that work, the work done to us, is not our own.

Our baptism, our being in Christ, is not our own pious achievement or the height of our own perfect morality. It is, what we call in the church, grace. 

And here’s the bad news turned Good News – the Gospel according to Paul, no condemnation, means we’re forever stuck at the party called salvation, the Supper of the Lamb, with people who think that certain people shouldn’t be at the party!

Whether its a denomination in-fighting about who can get married or ordained, or a country going to fisticuffs over differing political ideologies, or communities wrestling with police brutality and racial injustice, or any other thing we can imagine – Christians are stuck with each other, whether we like it or not.

Jesus has bound us together forever in the waters of baptism that destroy whatever divisions we want to create between us. Jesus, like the Father with his arm around his eldest son peaking in on the prodigal cutting up the rug inside the party, desires for us to celebrate together with the people we can’t stand. Jesus, abandoned, beaten, and betrayed, looks out from the Cross into our sins even today and says, “Father, forgive them – they don’t know what they’re doing.”

The Gospel according to Paul, the verse upon which the epistle to the Romans is set on fire, is that we are all the sinners for whom Christ died.

Look, I’m not a big fan of the church insisting on its existence being predicated on making the world a better place. I happen to believe that the church already is the better place that God has made in the world. But whenever I read this verse from Paul, and all my inclusivity buttons get pushed, I can’t help but wonder how much better things would be if we acted as if we believed it.  

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Churches Should Not Have The American Flag In The Sanctuary

Romans 7.24-25

Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! 

Churches should NOT have the American Flag in the sanctuary.

That was the tweet I sent out into the twitterverse, not thinking too much about what I had done. I have, for a long time, felt the dissonance between the American Flag and the Cross of Christ hanging as if equals in places of worship. I have written about it at length and preached about it on a number of occasions. That I feel so strongly is a result of the Gospel’s insistence that Christians’ truest citizenship can be found in heaven and that our truest freedom comes from Jesus and not from a nation.

But, writing one sentence about the subject for Twitter doesn’t amount to much.

Or, at least, I didn’t think it did…

As of the moment of writing this, the tweet has been seen over 550,000 times and over 70,000 people have interacted with it.

In a matter of two days, my one sentence about the flag in church has become more “popular” than anything I have ever done.

And, the responses have been fairly predictable. 

On one side people have been deeply offended by the thought of the flag being removed from a sanctuary. They have implored me to realize that the flag symbolizes sacrifice, the nation it represents was founded on religious freedom, and that to take it away is unpatriotic (if not treasonous).

On the other side, Christians have expressed their concern with the proximity of the flag to the worship of God. They have remarked that we cannot serve two masters (America and God), that God doesn’t belong to a particular nation-state, and a great number of Christians from other parts of the globe have remarked that they’ve never seen their own nation’s flag in church (demonstrating how this is a uniquely American phenomenon).

I’ve received more private messages than I can count both thanking me for the tweet and damning me for it. I’ve been labeled a prophet and a traitor. I’ve searched through so many of the responses that it started to feel like “doom-scrolling” where it left me feeling hollow.

Today is the 4th of July – a day for Americans to celebrate the nation’s independence. And yet, for Christians (who happen to be American) it’s important to remember that our independence came long before George Washington and the Continental Congress and the Declaration of Independence.

Our truest freedom comes from and through Jesus.

Can we still fly American Flags on our homes? Sure – though we should remember and recognize that there is a slippery slope between patriotism and nationalism that often leads to xenophobia and violence.

Can we support our military? Of course – though we cannot forget or ignore how America is an imperial power that often uses violence indiscriminately and disproportionately throughout the world.

Can we celebrate and enjoy fireworks today? Definitely – though we cannot let them blind us to the injustices that our taking place within, and right on, our nation’s borders.

Which leads me back to the American Flag in church… 

America is not synonymous with the Kingdom of God and when we put the American Flag in the sanctuary we equate the two together. Our obsession with patriotism, such that we fly a nation’s flag in places of worship, is a sign of what Jesus calls idolatry. 

The 4th of July is not independence day for Christians. It certainly marks the beginning of a new kind of freedom for a nationstate and a particular people in a particular way – but our realest independence came through the cross and the empty tomb 2,000 years ago.

The 4th of July, therefore, doesn’t really belong to Christians. We can participate and enjoy the day as much as anyone else, but we do so knowing that our hopes and dreams have been formed by the Lord, not by a document declaring our freedom from monarchy.

The 4th of July is not our independence day. In fact, if it is anything it is our dependence day. It is our dependence day because it shows how much faith and hope we put in things made by human hands which come and go like the wind. We depend on the Lord to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

Americans might bleed red, white, and blue, but Jesus bled for us so that we wouldn’t have to.

We can absolutely enjoy the 4th of July and rejoice in our celebrations, but if what we do today is more compelling and life-giving than the Word of God revealed in Jesus Christ then we have a problem.

Jesus Christ is, and forever will be, the end of all sacrifices.

Jesus Christ is the One in whom we live and move and have our being so much so that we can rejoice in the presence of others without hatred, fear, or bitterness.

Jesus Christ is the incarnate Lord whose resurrection from the dead has set us free from the truest tyrannies of all – sin and death.