Last week we launched a new church year with a robust Welcome Back Sunday where glad faces shone and strength in community were the order of the day. Spirited songs stirred us, and a feast of pulled pork and brisket sealed the deal.
In case you’re curious, attendance this year at Welcome Back Sunday was a full one-third higher than the year before. I attribute this to the rallying effect of folks who know how vital it is to show up as we again find ourselves facing transition. Message sent; message received. Solidarity in struggle is powerfully convicting.
But gladness was the keynote, not hardship, and I especially appreciated that. Archie Saager, a child I baptized a few years ago, observed as he was leaving, “Mommy, this is such a happy place!” Mother Torey wrote me, “It doesn’t get better than hearing that. We are so lucky to have this wonderful, happy place.”
Torey’s email touched me because the first thing I did upon returning from my sabbatical was to call parents I had hit for more giving in 2017 to bring on new staff for our children. These parents grasp that the goal of seamless ministry for their children from cradle to college remains a priority even if leadership changes.
I find myself wistful whenever we launch a new church year. My first Sunday back from sabbatical marked the start of my 40th year as an ordained minister. They all flash before me, like the colors of a pinwheel become white, when spun.
I reflect upon the professors shaping me who were ancient when I was young. I reflect upon the early church facing struggle and suffering we shall never know.
Following worship this Sunday, Sept. 16, we will show the movie Paul, Apostle of Christ. Cecile and I watched it last spring during Lent, and it deeply impacted us. It covers Paul going from the infamous persecutor of Christians to Jesus’ most influential apostle. It isn’t a family film, because it is such an honest history. It is the type of tale that casts any current struggles in perspective as we take it in. What is it about the timeless loving sacrifice of Jesus, the Twelve, and the early church? We are never meant to get over it. That’s why it is enshrined in the Bible.
Jews and Christians were the only subjects of the Roman Empire who refused to worship local gods and participate in their religious ceremonies. The Romans perceived the Jews as a mere ethnic peculiarity. Jews didn’t try to convert other peoples from worshiping Roman gods. So the Romans accepted their refusal to venerate their imperial gods. But from early on–namely, Paul the Apostle–the Jesus movement was unafraid to welcome all ethnicities. That threatened Rome.
In the eyes of the Romans, Christians had no right to refuse gods of their empire. It was the most offensive feature of the early church. Celsus, a pagan critic of our faith in the 2nd century, was willing to tolerate all of the many objectionable things about Christianity, if they would only assent to worshipping imperial gods. Paul, Apostle of Christ shows what Christians were made of, the mettle we seek today.