We were in a hurry—on the way to church, actually. As I passed the late model Chevy Suburban, my wife called out, “step on it!” The Suburban had begun to move into our lane. The other driver never saw us, or the Semi-truck just moving into her blind spot. In the next moments we watched as the Suburban slowed and then turned directly into the path of the truck. Apparently the driver thought she could make a quick U-turn after missing her exit. You can imagine the force of the impact as Semi slammed into Suburban at full highway speed. Instantly the driver’s side of the Suburban was crushed and dragged 200 feet, leaving behind rear axle and wheels.
We stopped, called 911, and ran to offer what help we could. Soon others joined us—a retired couple headed home from vacation, an African American truck-driver who had just lost a brother in a similar accident, and several others.
Unbelievably, we found three persons inside alive but seriously injured. A mother, her daughter, and a friend clung to life. When the accident occurred they were on the way to church. Now the mother called out to Jesus for help. I told her I was a pastor and prayed for them. In time the highway patrol and emergency squad arrived. Eventually all three were OK.
As I reflected on the accident and our opportunity to help the injured there came new insight on the church Jesus calls us to be.
We who witnessed the wreck, along with others who stopped to help, became a kind of community. A community of grace, in fact. We shared a deep awareness that mere seconds of travel separated us from the victims of the crash. Yes, mistakes had been made, but they were honest, human mistakes, the kind we all make. Though not expressed explicitly at the scene, gratitude for mercy welled up in our hearts and knit us together.
Empathy and compassion also characterized our newly formed community of grace. Our hearts broke as we heard the little girl scream in pain, her mother call out to Jesus, and their friend moan in and out of consciousness. Then, our broken-heartedness mobilized us—whatever we could do, we did. We joined the mother in calling out to Jesus, we assured the little girl that help would soon come and, to minimize injury, we urged her not to move. We swabbed cool water on the suffering faces, directed traffic, and assisted the experts when they arrived. Though we could not offer what the injured would ultimately need, we prepared the way for the help that would come. Until then our ministering presence signaled hope and inspired confidence.
The community of grace we became “by accident” joined us with people we would never otherwise even know, much less share important life experiences. But the emergency at hand made our differences irrelevant—whether of race, culture, socio-economic status, or religious affiliation. What drew us together were the incredible gift of travel-mercy that had spared us—this time—and the compelling need of those whose injuries beckoned our attention. As different as we were, in those moments we shared far deeper bonds of fellowship with each other than with the many people who passed by us, who looked, and probably were, very much like us. The presence of compelling and ultimate human need, combined with the ability to help, had forged a community that transcended the external and superficial qualities of most human associations. Yes, a community of grace!
Within the community created by the accident, we embraced new priorities for our lives. Every one of us had things to do that day. We were not just out for a Sunday drive. We had places to go and appointments to keep. No doubt some items on our different agenda seemed pressing, even urgent. But suddenly we were caught up in a new agenda, so important and urgent that we forgot for a time all the other things we had to do. And when it occurred to us what we were missing, it was OK. The work at hand was simply too important. Other things would wait. Deep down we knew we’d never miss what we had missed. Later I also realized that, in those intense moments of community-response to the needy, none of my personal cares and concerns, and none of my worries, invaded conscious thought.
Since that day I’ve become convinced that the church Jesus creates by His grace, the church He longs for us to be, and the church that, at some level, we long to be as well, is like "a road wreck!” Let me explain.
None of us has escaped a collision with sin and evil, less obvious but far more devastating than the worst auto wreck. If we’ve been “saved” it’s because Another stopped along the way to offer assistance—supremely costly assistance. And, He gathers us to Himself, commissioning us to go and do for others as He has done for us. For some of us, however, doing as Jesus does seems an impossible dream. So, we either give up in despair or grit our teeth and determine just to “do it,” even if it kills us. But this is not the way of Jesus.
No, Jesus would draw us into a community of grace—much like we experienced at the crash sight. Indeed, we constantly encounter such “crash sights,” scenes of heart wrenching human wreckage, minus the auto. Truly we do encounter them, if only we could see and understand as Jesus does.
The church, fashioned into a true community of grace, is a people who see and understand in Jesus’ way. Everywhere they go they encounter the most terrible scenes of spiritual, moral, and physical wreckage. Gratitude wells up within them as they recognize that generous travel mercy has spared them similar woe. Nothing but mercy! They shudder to think what could have been and embrace one another in joyful celebration.
Celebration flows into compassionate response. Sometimes we actually feel the pain of those pinned into the tangled human wreckage. We mobilize, doing whatever gifts and opportunities allow. We signal the greater Help He offers and prepare for the arrival of saving intervention.
I say “we” do such things, a strange assortment of people drawn together by common mercy, and the joy it supplies. We laugh at the sheer folly of our fellowship. Who could have imagined us being friends, and here we are—family!
Somehow simply being His, knowing His mercy, understanding how desperately the wrecked and wretched need His help, and being able to help them receive it—draw us together in ways hard to describe, but still profoundly real.
In our best moments, nothing matters more than being this kind of people, engaged in this kind of roadside assistance along life’s way. We’re busy people with much to claim our time and energy, but just a glance at a crash sight captures our attention and calls us to passionate response. In fact, nothing in life compares with the delight of being a community of grace that celebrates and shares His help with those in need.
The three persons injured that day were on their way to church when the accident occurred. What a powerful metaphor this is! Seeking the place and people of God, they were waylaid by a life-threatening collision. The accident—attributable in part to choices they made—kept them from their destination.
How many others are like them—on their way to the place and the people, perhaps without really knowing it? Then, some harsh reality of life slams into them leaving them to suffer and die “on the way to church.”
But what a wonder! The Lord of the church sends His people here and there, and inevitably they happen upon the wreckage. The victims of the accident never made it to the church. But the church made it to them! Yes, that’s the church Jesus longs for us to be.