I have discovered what unites Christians. I have uncovered the long-buried secret that will band Christians together, that will make them move as a single family, that will bond them. Oh, it is no gimmick, and it is no leadership tactic. It’s not a program and it’s not a new sermon style.
It is the cross.
I have nearly two separate churches in the same building. The morning rarely seems to acknowledge the evening exists, and the evening is quite content to remain in the evening and not interact, for the most part. I feared mostly that the morning discounted the evening. One person had even said they didn’t count, mostly for monetary reasons.
But this week… this week has united us.
It began Thursday. We celebrated Maundy Thursday, the day that Jesus gave a new command – that we love one another. We also celebrate the founding of the Sacrament of Holy Communion. And on that day, a regular visitor who came to Refresh was confirmed. He had studied what we teach and proclaimed it to be his faith. He joined us as a member, and that night, he joined us in Communion for the first time.
The evening ended with the “Stripping of the Altar,” a tradition I introduced to the congregation. Every movable piece of furniture is taken from the altar area, until the altar is left alone and bare, just as Jesus was abandoned and alone on that first Thursday night of the first Holy Week. Several individuals assisted me: Two councilmen, a mother-son duo (the son is in first grade), and two young men from the evening service. Two different worlds, united to serve at the foot of the cross. When I thanked each one individually after the service, the response I got was, “Anytime, pastor. Just ask.”
Thursday night the congregation was divided nearly equally between evening and morning. And they blended together in marvelous ways – united by worshiping at the feet of the Savior who served them.
Friday night the wonder continued. Good Friday here does not allow much fellowship; we enter and leave in silence in this one very special service as we commemorate our Savior’s death. We did not have as many from the usual Sunday evening crowd at this service, but they were still well represented. Once again, the people gathered around the Word. They gathered to worship the Savior who bled for them.
And tonight. Oh, tonight!
We moved the Sunday evening service to tonight. I knew there was no way after Holy Week I’d have any steam left to lead a Sunday evening service. Instead, we held an “Easter Vigil.” We waited by the tomb after Jesus has died, considering his promises to us. It was a service in the style of a Sunday evening service – so much more laid back, with discussion throughout – but held in the sanctuary and with more ceremony than they were used to. In other words, it was nearly a hybrid service. This is the first time we’ve ever performed such a service.
We had nearly all the normal attenders for Sunday evening, and about the same amount of Sunday morning people came. Through all the “unusual” elements, they worshiped.
And what united them?
Oh, it was not me. There was no charismatic leadership here. And it was not some mysterious “new service” that brought Christians out to sate their curiosity. It was no gimmick.
They came to worship the Savior who died for them.
And afterward? Afterward, men and women leaped into action, preparing the sanctuary for Easter morning. Take the black cloth down from the cross; put up the white! Bring on the flowers! Change the paraments!
And once more, though the Sunday evening crowd knew not what to do… all worked together. Learning names. Laughing together and considering whether this flower looked better here or over there.
United not by simple service, but by serving their Savior, who lives again for them.
We are not even to Easter yet, but God has poured such blessings onto this congregation. He has united us around Word and Sacrament. He has brought us together, not simply into a family, but into His family.
And I stand back. I didn’t do this. He did.
And what God has begun, he will bring to completion. I may not see that completion until heaven. I may have no clue what that completion looks like. But this is the Savior who bled, died, and lives for me. How could I not trust him? His mercies are new every morning.
Friday night ended with reproaches. Our service ended with God laying out our need for repentance. Part of that service includes the congregation begging God for mercy.
And last night it struck me.
I am Scar.
At the end of The Lion King, Scar has destroyed the Pride Lands. The rightful king, Simba, returns, and the two battle. Scar had murdered the previous king and thought Simba dead . When Simba learns of Scar’s betrayal, Simba attacks – and Scar ends up on his back, defenseless, as Simba holds claws to Scar’s throat.
And Scar begs, “Mercy, Simba! Mercy!”
Simba has no reason to give it. Scar has earned death. He is the villain of the piece.
And Simba lets him go. As Scar slinks away, he throws burning coals into Simba’s face and attacks again. In the end, in defense, Simba kills Scar.
How often have I been Scar? How often have I stood at the foot of the cross, convinced of my sins, the claws of the Law at my neck, and I know God would be right to destroy me?
And I beg “Mercy.”
And God gives it. I slink away – only to return to my treacherous ways. How often have I attempted to steal God’s property? How often have I made the ministry here about me? How often have I stolen his glory and thought it was my responsibility to get people in here, to grow the church, to get them to listen? How often have I complained about the gift God has given me of serving him here? And how often have I repented of my sinful pride, of stealing God’s place?
And here God reminds me: Here is the price of my sin. And he gladly paid it.
And here God reminds me: He is in charge of this congregation. Do you see, my child, as I call my own to worship?
And here God reminds me: This is all his, and I merely steward.
And here I, too, am united with the congregation I serve. Here, too, I come to fall at the foot of the cross. I, too, cry out “Mercy!”
And I, too, receive the mercy I should not have. I, too, am washed of my offenses. I, too, stand and marvel at the cross.
Because that is what unites me with my people. It is not my service to them… but His service to us.
It is the cross.
And tomorrow… oh, tomorrow, the empty tomb!