Several years ago, the Fourth of July was on Sunday, and we were on a vacation. As is our custom, Lavone and I went to a worship service that Holiday Sunday morning. As soon as we entered, however, I knew we were “in trouble!” There were numerous U.S. flags displayed over the front of the sanctuary. In fact, the presence and visibility of the flag overshadowed that of the cross. I had to look carefully even to identify the cross on the communion table in front of the pulpit and also on each of the shades covering our overhead lights. Off to one side was a larger U. S. flag on a flag pole in front of which a U.S. military uniform was on proud display, to which the pastor made frequent reference during his sermon.
During the service we sang patriotic songs and even pledged our allegiance to the flag. The sermon was a plea to find in the Lord our refuge when it seemed the “foundations of the righteous” (see Psalm 11) were under threat. I couldn’t tell whether the pastor thought those foundations were the essentials of our faith, which he admirably and enthusiastically rehearsed in one section of the sermon, or were the Judeo-Christian, moral and spiritual commitments on which this nation was built and which made it great, or somehow both. In the end, he concluded, while no one could shake the foundational doctrines of the faith, our nation’s moral foundations are indeed disintegrating, and the church exists to teach its own, and especially the children, to trust in the Lord.
I am going to resist the temptation to go on and on about how disappointing this service of worship was and, at points, how simply wrong it was, perhaps even idolatrous. Among other reasons, I will resist because I wonder whether the forms of worship that would have seemed right and God-honoring to us today, might be equally appalling to some other earnest Christ-followers. I fervently hope and pray not, but I will not take this for granted. Instead I will pause to remember that our worship must always reflect the whole gospel for the whole world and person.
The whole gospel—the good news that Jesus came to declare, demonstrate and bring to fullness in this here and now world. That gospel has to do with the Kingdom of God. The good news that God is King and claims the whole of reality as his, that he is recapturing and recreating his once good world, so that in time all that has gone wrong gets set back right again. The gospel is what Jesus proclaimed and then what Jesus activated—as he retraced the woeful path of the first Adam, lovingly absorbing its suffering and dying in order to bring the story to its wonderful new beginning.
The good news of the God we worship extends to the whole world. Around the throne there are and always will be throngs of folks from every nation, tribe and tongue. Therefore, worshipping the one who sits on the throne must not be wed to smaller, parochial concerns. Allegiance to the Lamb must not be confused with other forms of allegiance, no matter how noble they might otherwise be. Allegiance to the Lamb must not be expressed in terms that would distract or hinder others from focusing on the Lamb and finding in the Lamb their All. (What would my friends from Ethiopia think of a sanctuary draped in the U.S. flag? How would our brothers and sisters in Christ in Northern Iraq respond if they came to worship with us only to find a U.S. military uniform adorning the front of the worship center?)
The good news of the God we worship extends to the deepest parts of the human person exposing what has been broken, distorted and ruined, only then to heal, correct and regenerate. And because of this deep reach within the human person, there are other reaches, relational in nature, that flow out of this good-news recreation that promises to reconcile and renew the tribal, racial, and ethnic divides that wreak such havoc everywhere.
The good news of the God we worship creates a fellowship, a family, of persons who delight in what God is doing through Jesus and His Spirit, and who enter in to what God is doing until the doing is done. Thus, they do not worry about the foundations—which have already been laid and remain as solid as the One who built them, and they do not understand their reason for being as protecting themselves or their own. No, they understand that they get to enter in to what God is doing—shining as light, permeating and healing as salt, transforming as leaven not just here but everywhere—until God is done!
Don’t misunderstand. There is nothing incompatible with a focus on the gospel and gratitude for the blessings we enjoy in the U.S., the blessings that come from living in a part of the world where opportunities and resources that allow us unhindered “entering-in” to what God is doing. Let’s just not imagine that God needs us or our nation for God’s plan to work and let’s not forget that those with the greatest blessings and opportunities have the greatest responsibilities to use them to please the One who gave them.