A couple of years ago, my wife and I drove about 45 minutes to a historic church in downtown San Antonio for a citywide Reformation Day service that wasn’t happening. The parking lot? Empty. The doors? Locked. We alone were there. Yes, it was October 31, exactly 500 years to the day since the Reformation began. But, as we soon discovered, the service had been the night before.
We were in the right place for the right reason at the wrong time. We were 24 hours late to worship.
My wife and I looked at each other, busted out laughing, and got back in the car to drive home. After all, we both knew this wasn’t the first time, or the last time, we’d be late for church. In fact, not a Sunday goes by when we show up on time for worship.
And neither do you. But here’s the thrilling surprise: we can’t really be late to church, or early for that matter. None of us arrive too early or too late because we slide into a worship service that, since the creation of the world, has never stopped.
Knocking on Heaven’s Earthly Door
The sanctuary is already packed by the time we walk in. Don’t even think about taking attendance. You’ll be tallying heads till kingdom come. The Father is enthroned atop the altar with the Son of Man at his side. Six-winged seraphim dance like flames as they circle through the air, chanting, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” in an antiphonal song that shakes the mountains and makes the oceans roar. Armies of cherubim stand sentry, swords unsheathed, perched on the rafters, in the balcony, on the roof, all belting out the song of Moses and of the Lamb.
And that’s only half of the crowd. Among this vast throng that beat you to church is the uncle that passed away last year from throat cancer, your beloved son who fell victim to violence, your wife or husband whose heart just gave out, your mother, your father, your brother or sister. We say they “died” but God, who baptized them, says they “truly began to live.” Here they are in church, elbow to elbow with angels and archangels—all these saints of heaven, living it up in Life itself.
But what are they doing here, if they’re supposed to be in heaven? Don’t you see? Don’t you realize where you are? You got out of bed, showered, had your coffee and breakfast, packed the kids in the car, drove to church, and walked through the doors into heaven on earth.
The Almighty's Address
This happens every time the body of Christ comes together around his holy gifts. Our world has gone up, heaven has come down, and the two have mixed and mingled here into a sort of terrestrial heaven and celestial earth. It’s what the patriarch Jacob would name Bethel—Hebrew for the “house of God.” That’s it. We’re at the Almighty’s address, his holy acre in this world, so tangible you can have pizza delivered here and yet so otherworldly it registers on no GPS.
It’s deliciously confusing, this earthly heaven and heavenly earth, for past and present and future are all poured together here into a mixed drink that sends one reeling with the sober intoxication of the Spirit.
We show up to this crowded sacred shindig, all wings and halos and blue jeans, and shimmy our way into the sanctuary, late to church but not late to church. Can we really be late to a service that never ends? This barbecue has been slowly smoking since the days of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and won’t let up forever and ever, amen. We are here to relish in the feast. We’re here to confess, to pray, to sing, to learn, to adore. We’re here to bow our heads, cross ourselves, raise our hands, breathe in incense, shower tears, or fall on our knees.
But as we do, we’ll join in what’s already happening. And when we leave, when the doors close behind us, the party will go on long into eternity’s sunlit night.
Here, in this ongoing worship, we enjoy the “mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won.” We encircle the altar of the Lamb, where he feeds us with his body and blood, as behind us and below us and above us, saints clad in regal white robes recline at the wedding feast of the kingdom.
Ascending to the Descending Christ
To what have we come? “We have come to Mt. Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem here on earth, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn, who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Hebrew 12:22-24). Note well: not we will come but we have come.
Ladies and Gentlemen, when the church ascends to the descended Christ on Sunday, we who are on earth are in heaven.
We’re here, joining the ongoing festivities and leaving long before the party is over. But that’s okay. It’ll be here next Sunday as well. And the next. One day, when we too say Adios to this world, we’ll step into the next to more fully join this feast as we too await the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.