I am generally gone by the time the children must dress for school, for the tradesmen make their deliveries to the store early and the women are equally early clamoring for what they need each day. I would be earlier if they had their way, though I think they value their clamoring and would miss it if I were to change. On Sundays I sleep in a little later and wake up with more chaos.
All eight of us must get in our finest clothes in time for our morning family prayer and then walk, with some measure of order as befits a respectable family, down the street to the Church.
“God is inviting you to his house, children,” I tell them. “You must show the respect and reverence he deserves.”
They do not seem to listen to my admonishment.
My wife does not say anything but ends up controlling them better with glances and small clucks of disapproval. They fall in line, somehow keeping their clothes clean, and follow well enough to stay within the limits of my approval. They do, however, stay along the borders of that approval. It is a circus on Sunday mornings, complete with fools and animal shows. But then we walk through the doors and there even the children begin to feel the sense of honor and profundity of this most holy duty and gift.
Early Sunday mornings are the worst times of my week. The rest of Sunday is one of the best. This is a day set aside for God, encountering him as much as we can, learning, praying, and resting in his wonderful presence. Even my youngest, age four now bless his little soul, finds joy in the simplicity of our devotion.
The esteemed doctor greets us when we enter into to foyer. He is not yet in his full robes, and yet these robes are not needed for one to feel the majesty that real learning and devotion can bring to a man’s demeanor. He knows us each by name, asks about our week, and in general welcomes us into this gathering of the congregation. Other pastors are busying themselves with the various preparations. This most learned man devotes himself, as he does at each moment, to his people, guiding us into this building even as he guides us into the depths of our Lord.
This meeting place is an old building, once a Roman Church, now stripped of all the various signs and evidence of such. The old chapels are used as storage rooms, the windows are now simple designs, with restrained colors. All the walls are bare, and rows of heavy oak pews stretch out from the simple wooden table at the front. A large lectern is raised off to the side of this table, calling attention to itself, and its purpose.
Bread and wine are on the table, along with a large white cloth. It is an uncomplicated display. There is no incense, no candles burning, no other scent except the heavy wood smell, and the polish which keeps the old oak seats like new. I always think of the cross when I enter the church, for the aroma of the wood draws me towards Christ, with nothing else to distract me. Then I see the heavy stone walls and think of the tomb, the tomb that is now empty. It is that we celebrate with the simplicity of the wood and stone of this now functional building.
My family sits in the eighth pew from the front on the right, where we sit every week, in the same order. My wife and I sit in the middle, with the youngest children next to us. On the end of the pew sits an old butcher and his wife.
When the pews are filled, and the walls are lined with those who have no place to sit, the ministers of the church quietly file to the front, sitting in the chairs reserved for them, set apart only by duty not by value. They are part of the congregation, ordained and trained to be those who teach and lead, gifted by God to participate in the public roles, while we all are gifted by God to contribute in other ways. Daily we represent Christ who has saved even us. Daily, in our work and in our interactions, we honor the one who has saved us because we believe in him. Coming here on this day is not a duty for our salvation, it is an honor for our celebration.
The Pastor rises from his chair and stands quietly for a moment, gathering himself in prayer. We all stand in expectation. He proceeds to gather the congregation in prayer, praising the Mighty God for our salvation, even though we are all sinners of the worst sort. God is great, and it is great to come before him. Without an amen, the Pastor begins to sing Psalm 30. The congregation begins to sing as well, intoning the words as a sung prayer, our voices echoing off the walls and purifying our hearts. God calls us forth and we respond with praise to him.
When we end with words of thanksgiving, the Pastor stands quiet again then says amen. We all sit. Another minister on the other side of the table, at a smaller lectern, opens up a great Bible and begins to read. First he reads from the Second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans. My heart is filled with joy as I hear those words of grace. I look and see my children listening with rapt attention, they too saved as I am saved. The reader then turns the pages and we all stand again, for he will now read from the Holy Gospels.
This passage is from Luke, the 18th chapter. “Your faith has healed you,” he reads. Amen and amen to that. The Word of God is salvation indeed.
We all sit as the Pastor gathers his text and opens his own Bible. I hold my breath, knowing that this is when Christ is most present. As he spoke to his apostles, so now too does he speak through his servant, the Word which became flesh now revealed to us through the wisdom of our Pastor and the bounty of the Holy Spirit. With his sonorous voice he expounds the mysteries of the ages so that we can understand that which even the prophets could not grasp. He speaks for two and a half hours, weaving the Romans passage and the Luke passage together in a brilliant examination of our inherent lack of goodness which is overcome by Christ’s perfect goodness. We are all guilty, and deservedly so, yet in Grace we have salvation, thanks be to God. This is not a new message but one which a person cannot hear enough. We cannot work to overcome our lack but we can celebrate this work with thanksgiving and honor to the God who has saved us.
When he finishes speaking, a sad moment for all of us as his words contain the fruit of life itself, he invites us all to gather at the table to partake in Holy Communion. This is not a sacrifice but a celebration, receiving grace because of grace. The Pastor speaks the words of institution and we respond by standing and taking the bread and drinking the wine. In this we are united with each other and with Christ.
When the last member finishes, the Pastor begins to sing again. We join in, following this song with a time of communal prayer, in which various members pray aloud for the community, for those in need, for the government and the army. We pray for another hour, honoring God first through Word, then through Communion, and now through prayer, giving back because he has given so much to us.
The Pastor finishes this time with a prayer of his own, blessing us, reminding us of our responsibilities, and beseeching God that he might watch over us until we gather again.
We are dismissed, not to go and spend the day in frivolous activities, rather to spend the day feasting together, discussing what was spoken, and otherwise using our time in ways which continue to honor God. As we exit in quiet reverence I make sure to deposit my alms into the chest near the exit. It is a little more than ten percent of my income this past week, and yet it is but a small return for the bounty that Christ has given to me in saving me and my whole family from our deserved condemnation. Our guilt is returned with Grace, thanks be to the One who saves.
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