This coming July, the Church's weekly celebration of the empty tomb just so happens to land on the same day as our nation's annual celebration of independence from England. So what is the worshipping community, the "called-out" people of God, the "citizens of Heaven" to do on that day? Unfortunately, I'm guessing many churches will participate in some form of idolatry, wrapped up in the feel-good rituals of patriotism.
In the weekly email from my boss - District Superintendent - we received this reminder of why the church exists and why the church gathers for worship.
Good morning, Pastor
Here is a real, internal church staff communication that I want you to think about. This comes from another district and the names are all changed, but the message is very real:
"I was just noticing that July 4th is on Sunday this year. I would like to do a BIG "Patriotic Sunday" emphasis. It occurred to me that we might get some other groups involved in a community worship and barbeque if we got started. George, I would like the Ministry Board to co-ordinate the dinner. We may need to have it at the American Legion if we can get Dave and the Legion involved. Sue, we'll need lots of "God and Country" music. The kind people know and love to sing. Shirley, maybe you could talk to Jack about getting some ROTC guys involved, maybe a flag ceremony or something. Also, it would be good to get the kids involved in the pledges. Sam, we'll need a lot of red, white and blue decorations. Flags, etc. I think we might be able to do this as a "community" service if we plan it right!
Friends, think with me about this. While it would not be wise or proper to completely ignore the fact that Sunday, July 4th also happens to be American Independence Day, it is first and foremost the Lord’s Day. Please do not lose sight of the purpose of our gathering and the vows we have taken to proclaim faithfully the Gospel. Regardless of what will no doubt be happening in many churches across the land on that day, the truth is that American Independence Day is not a part of the Christian calendar. This precious hour that we have together once a week is and always must be dedicated to the worship of God and the exaltation of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is also an hour in which Christians from all nations gather under the banner of the kingdom of God, not under the banner of any particular State. Even in our middle America congregations, we welcome to many of our churches on a weekly basis Christians from many nations of the world and we make no distinction, for we believe what the Bible instructs us to believe, that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female,” for we all are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28). Please do not misunderstand. I have no problem with acknowledging the significance of the day for Americans in our services. We should be sure to pray together in focused ways for our nation, our leaders, and those who give their lives in public service. My concern is when patriotism, even nationalism, and Christianity become commingled and in many ways become one expression of the same thing. Namely, that if we can somehow make the systems and structures of America line up with biblical principles then our lives will be secure and our existence will be peaceful and prosperous. It’s a good goal to live and work as Christians in such a way that the State would reflect the kingdom of God just as we want our homes and our churches to reflect God’s kingdom. But there is a danger to which we can succumb if we are not diligent and that is the danger of beginning to trust Caesar to secure our lives more than we trust God. Pastor, I’m asking you to be careful as you lead your people in worship on Sunday, July 4th. I say to you simply but with great intention, “Let us worship God.”
I'm currently reading The Irresitible Revolution by Shane Claiborne. I highly recommend that book. Claiborne shared some thoughts on the wave of patriotism that came after the 9/11 attacks.
"This burst of nationalism reveals the deep longing we all have for community, a natural thirst for intimacy that liberals and progressive Christians would have done much better to acknowledge. September 11th shattered the self-sufficient, autonomous individual, and we saw a country of broken fragile people who longed for community - for people to cry with, be angry with, to suffer with. People did not want to be alone in their sorrow, rage and fear.
But what happened after September 11th broke my heart. Conservative Christians rallied around the drums of war. Liberal Christians took to the streets. The cross was smothered by the flag and trampled under the feet of angry protesters. The church community was lost, so the many hungry seekers found community in the civic religion of American patriotism. People were hurting and crying out for healing, for salvation in the best sense of the word, as in the salve with which you dress a wound. A people longing for a savior placed their faith in the fragile hands of human logic and military strength, which have always let us down. They have always fallen short of the glory of God."
"For the flag and the cross are both spiritual. And they are both political. It is a dangerous day when we can take the cross out of the church more easily than the flag. No wonder it is hard for seekers to find God nowadays. It's difficult to know where Christianity ends and America begins. Our money says, 'In God We Trust.' God's name is on America's money, and America's flag is on God's altars."
Based upon John 3:1-8 and Luke 14:26, Claiborn argues that with conversion, we're born into a new family. "Biological family is too small of a vision. Patriotism is far too myopic. A love for our own relatives and a love for our own country are not bad things, but our love does not stop at teh border. We now have a family that is much broader than biology, that runs much deeper than nationalism. Jesus is telling us that we have a family in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Palestine. We have family members who are starving and homeless, or dying of AIDS, or in the midst of war."
We are very fortunate to live in the nation in which we live. When the 4th lands on a Sunday, worship God with the gathered community and thank God for your nation during the fireworks show. We MUST remember this, however - our allegiance is not to a flag or a country but a King and a Kingdom. Jesus calls us to love not only our neighbors across the street or across the nation but across the ocean as well. And finally, the freedom that Jesus gives is not won through the killing of our enemies -as was the birth of our nation - but in dying for and at the hands of enemies.
To quote Paul one more time, "the cross is foolishness."