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Around the Throne

November 3rd, 2008

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.” (Revelation 2:10)

Last Sunday afternoon I found myself in a crowd of around 1,300 people in downtown Chicago. I suppose you don’t have to look too hard to find a crowd that size in a major city. This was a little out-of-the-ordinary, though, in my experience. The crowd was at a worship service, not a game or a show. Everyone was there for a gathering of churches from all over the Chicago metropolitan area called Chicago Celebration.

They weren’t there to make any important policy decisions; in Churches of Christ, there is no official organizational or legislative structure above local congregations. They weren’t there to rally for a particular cause or agenda. They braved Chicago traffic and a windy fall day for two reasons: they came to worship God, and they came to be together.

For some who are reading this, church with 1300 people or so isn’t that unusual. For some, it might even be a small crowd. It’s unusual for me, but it wasn’t just the numbers that made it such a cool event. It was more the variety of people than the number, the diversity that made such an impact on me. I saw black, white, Asian, and Hispanic faces. I heard English and Spanish spoken with fairly equal frequency. The worship leaders themselves were black, white, and Hispanic; every few minutes, you were pretty much sure to see somebody who looked like you or hear someone who spoke like you.

Of course, it wasn’t just a diversity of appearance, or of language. Worship styles differed, too. Maybe you’re aware, for instance, that African-American and Caucasian Christians tend to approach singing in worship in entirely different ways. (Once, when I was guest preaching at a black congregation, I mentioned that I thought the singing actually gave me a little rhythm. On the dais behind me, the song leader loudly said, “I can do all things through Christ who strengtheneth me.”) Among the different groups there, there was variation both in song selection, and in the way the songs were sung. Same was true of the preaching, and of the way the audience responded to the preaching. Different people, from different places and cultures, with different histories and traditions, all celebrating the same thing.

There were other differences, too. Age differences: people full of the wisdom that comes with walking with Jesus for decades next to people full of the energy and idealism of youth. Economic differences: white-collar and blue-collar, well-off and struggling and everything in between. There were urban dwellers and suburban dwellers. Some healthy, some sick. Some with their lives ahead of them, some who might well have gone on to their greater Celebration when Chicago Celebration rolls around next year.

It struck me, gathered in that very diverse group for worship, all at once. It was a thought that just kicked open the front door of my mind, barged right in uninvited and put its feet up on the coffee table. “This is what all these people do, every Sunday,” it said to me. We worship the same God, and we thank him for the same salvation. Though we might do it differently in some ways, in a different language or style or place or neighborhood, what we have in common is much more important that what we don’t.

It made me think of that “great multitude…from every nation, tribe, people, and language” in Revelation, all gathered around God’s throne and the Lamb, celebrating the salvation that they all have in common: salvation that “belongs to [their] God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb. I suppose you could read that as a scene of what’s to come when “we all get to heaven.” Being at Celebration last Sunday, though, has made me wonder. How useful is it for the church to think of the unity in that text only as something to look forward to? Maybe it’s more constructive to learn to think of it, at least in part, as something that’s already accomplished.

I guess what I mean is that, even if I’m not together every Sunday with the people I was with at Celebration, in some way that’s every bit as real as what I can see and hear we’re all gathered around that throne together, all giving credit to God and the Lamb for the salvation we’ve received. That’s a thought, maybe, that can help us to take the unity we have in Christ more seriously and prize it more highly. We can always think of reasons to be apart, reasons that often have more to do with the different ways in which we do things that with what we’re actually doing. There’s only one reason to be together, to “make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” That one reason is a big one, though: we’re all standing around God’s throne, all celebrating what we’ve been given.

It just won’t do to stay in our little cliques and sub-groups based on race, or language, or social standing, or pet interpretations of whatever biblical text – not when we’re supposed to be worshipping the same God and celebrating the same salvation. Celebration was, at least for me, an antidote for the comfortable notion that my way – or my church’s way, at least – is the right way.

During the worship service at Celebration, another minister from another church made a presentation of the different mission efforts of many of the 61 churches represented there. It was exciting, even a little breathtaking, to see a map of the world on screen lighting up, country by country, continent by continent, to illustrate what our churches were doing. By the time the presentation was done, large portions of six continents were illuminated. “It can be a pretty dark world,” he finished, “but it’s a little brighter because of the work of Chicago Churches of Christ.”

I was a little proud, to tell you the truth, of what we were doing. So proud that it took a minute, in fact, for it to dawn on me that I was thinking in terms of “we.” That’s how it should be, I decided, because that’s the first step toward actually working together and being one in a meaningful sense. Thinking in terms of we.

So this Sunday, when you gather around God’s throne in worship, I hope you’ll think in terms of “we,” too. We’ll be there together, even if we’re across the city or across the country or around the world.


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