Our first Sunday morning in the States was spent at church in Arizona. It was a truly amazing experience. First, we went back to topical preaching and had a classic example of mainstream American evangelical preaching.
You know what’s coming, I’m going to complain – can’t help myself. But before I do let me just affirm what I liked, indeed loved. Here was a bunch of people who loved the Lord Jesus Christ and a pastor who also did. You can’t knock that. More than that, despite being a Chinese church (albeit the English congregation) there were plenty of white people there. It certainly wasn’t homogeneous. They were gracious and welcoming, especially when they discovered we were guests. I never wanted for people to chat to the whole time who took a genuine interest in me – or at least faked it really, really well (which is just as good if you’re a guest).
The sermon was on the topic of peace/contentment and our preacher took us to Philippians 1:12-26 (rich pickings). We were exhorted to seek the peace that God brings as opposed to the peace of the world. And how would we do this? Well there, lies the rub…
Paul was our example. Look see! Paul has contentment in a number of ways. After all (chapter 4) he knows the secret to being content in each and every circumstance so we should look at him being content. So look! He was content when he was in bad circumstances, so should we! He was content when others were bad mouthing him, so should we! And he was content even when facing death itself, so should we!
All good stuff, right? Actually, no. As the sermon progressed I got more and more agitated. It took me a while to put my finger on it and then it dawned on me. One word that I blurted out, perhaps a little too loud so that those in the neighbouring rows might hear me,
Where was Jesus in all this? Nowhere! And the irony is that He was right there in Phil 1:12-26. Why did Paul act the way that he did? Well, because of Jesus! Christ was everything to him! He actually writes so (1:21)! But our preacher never took us there. He just spoke about “God” and His peace without ever telling us how we could get it!
The first verse of the song that we sang immediately afterwards contained more information about Jesus than the whole of the sermon.
And then it got really interesting. Adult Sunday School.
Now Adult Sunday School is a common phenomenon in the US – after or before the church service there is a lesson or Bible study. It’s a great idea and well-attended. Jacqui went to a cracking little study on the women who washes Jesus’ feet in Luke’s gospel. My experience was slightly different. The men at this church had been longing to get to know each other better, build some unity together since they came from various backgrounds – Asian and Anglo. So they’d done a number of things together and on the week that I attended they were sharing their favourite toys or gadgets. The leader talked a bit about the always-brilliant Evernote and then handed over to anyone else who wanted to. I couldn’t quite believe what happened next. A lovely young man in his late twenties that I’d chatted to over morning coffee produced a large canvas bag and proceeded to get out an automatic rifle with scope, torch and extra super-barrel (or something – I’m not too familiar with these things). To the sound of ooh’s and aaah’s of his engrossed audience he talked his way around the gun and then took questions. A few were asked and then I gamely put up my hand…
Well, more fool me. The next 10 minutes contained various impassioned defences of the right to bear arms, the need for us to channel our God-given manliness, the necessity of defending our families and so on. It was incredible. But none of it appeared to make sense.
Someone spoke about going to shoot deer. But how could this automatic weapon be used for that? Well,if you buy 9mm ammo from Palmetto State Armory you could get coyotes. But hang on, surely the point of this particular weapon was to put lots of holes in people at a very rapid rate? No real answer to that one.
And I didn’t really want to get into the fact that Jesus told us very clearly to turn the other cheek and, through His apostle, told us to leave it to the State to execute divine punishment (Rom. 13). These gentlemen just weren’t going to hear it.
But I think what saddened me most was not the gun issue itself – frankly I get it in general, I can see why someone would like to go to a shooting range and pop targets or even shoot a deer or wolf (which is, of course, a very different thing to having a weapon specifically designed to kill a lot of people in a very short amount of time) – I get all that. But what saddened me is that they were much more visibly passionate about that issue than about Jesus. During the whole morning I actually learned a grand total of nothing about why Jesus was worth loving and trusting. But I did learn 6 reasons why a man should own a gun. It was tragic. And not because of the gun thing.
Now, of course, this isn’t the case everywhere. Earlier in the week when I was with other Christian friends I held my first ever gun – a Glock. It was an eeire sensation but one which they took for granted. Nevertheless, these were the sort of people where you would never hear a sermon without having Christ clearly proclaimed and Jesus Christ was very clearly the centre of their thinking.
But friends, it does make me wonder what my own cultural blinkers are? What is it that we in our own cultures hold so dear that we could not countenance the thought that it might not be right? It is so very easy to immerse oneself in another’s culture and spot what is wrong – so much harder to look at our own. And that’s why we all need to remember we need Jesus and only Him – whether we’re gun-toting members of a Chinese Church in Arizona, north-shore Sydney Anglicans or even an Englishman travelling around the world and not at all sure where he really belongs.