The Thistle

Gatherings of Grace – Dr. Greg Perry

Gatherings of Grace
When we engage others beyond our inner circles of community, the gospel is gloriously manifested.

By Dr. Greg Perry
Associate Professor of New Testament
Director of City Ministry Initiative 

I grew up in the South, where dinners on the church grounds were commonplace. Now the mere mention of one gets my attention and provokes my saliva glands. As a kid, I didn’t contribute much to the gathering—other than my appetite. It didn’t cost me anything really, just a little playtime. Because my parents contributed on my behalf, I was allowed to enjoy the benefits of the community “without money and without price” (Isa. 55:1).

My family moved around Texas and Louisiana a good bit when I was in grade school. I began to notice that you learn a lot about a congregation from these church socials. I’m not referring so much to different ways to batter fried chicken or cook gravy as I am to the composition of the crowd. Churches who saw themselves as part of a larger community seized the opportunity to invite friends and family who usually didn’t attend Sunday morning services. Those who defined the limits of their community by names on the church roll did not. Nowadays I’m the one bringing the “covered dish” and my kids are the freeloaders; but they—much more than I—invite friends from their networks into our community. They’ve never taken a seminary class, but they know something about church growth and group identity: before you are ready to join the communion, your place must first be acknowledged in the
community. Of course the decisive work that motivates church membership is the regenerating, adopting grace of the Holy Spirit. But, the Spirit calls, gifts, and uses human witnesses, and Jesus, “the friend of sinners” (Luke 7:34), is our model. It seems he was constantly in trouble with the bouncers who stood at the gates and checked names to decide who could get in. Instead, as the Lord of the Banquet, Jesus teaches his disciples to invite people to his feast who can’t pay the cover charge and who aren’t the most polite
company (Luke 14:12–24).

Like Jesus, my kids know that the first steps toward building community are taken out from our communion and into the crowd.

From our Communion—Into the Crowd

If Christ’s followers are sent into the world as he said (John 17:18), then we are the church in all that we do—not just when we gather for corporate worship. The benediction in Sunday worship also serves as a commission reminding us that we are Abraham’s children—blessed, so that all the families on Earth might be blessed through us (Gen. 12:3).

As we step out of our communion and into the crowd, our parenting, shopping, volunteering, business building, gardening, and recreating should bear witness to our Savior and the image of our Creator. Not only when we act as individuals and families to show hospitality, but even more so when we as churches, presbyteries, and denominations orchestrate ways of adding value to our communities do we fly the flag of Christ’s just and good Kingdom.

Quoting Moses, the apostle Peter reminded the Christians of Asia Minor that they were God’s priests to a watching world: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you might proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9; see also Exod. 19:5–6). What do priests do? They broker the relationship between God and humanity. They communicate knowledge of God to human beings and knowledge of human beings to God. Remarkably, in 1 Peter that knowledge is conveyed first and foremost by deeds (1 Pet. 2:12–17) and then by respectful speech (1 Pet. 3:13–17).

From the Crowd—Into the Community

Before we speak, we must listen and come to know our neighbors. As we move out into the crowd of nameless faces and take the time to notice the benefits and needs of our neighborhoods, towns, and cities, those faces take on names. The crowd becomes a community of people from many different backgrounds, from many different faiths. As we take our place in the wider community by attending school plays, supporting the Scouts, volunteering to tutor, and (perhaps more importantly) as we acknowledge our own need to learn how to parent teenagers, find new jobs, and care for aging parents, we meet our neighbors and make friends. Only as we Christians—both individually and corporately—step out of our communion into the crowd, will we find the community where God has sent us to serve as neighborly priests.

On a recent visit to the Carondelet Park area of St. Louis, my friend Chris Smith showed me around the neighborhoods and introduced me to some of his new friends. His family and several others are planting Resurrection Presbyterian Church (RPC) there. Of course, Chris has met other local pastors from mainline, evangelical, and Catholic churches, but he also knows the area alderman, patrolmen, restaurant and theater owners as well as the staff at the local YMCA—and they know him. The purpose of RPC is to serve and to be served by the community, to be good neighbors and by doing so to glorify our Heavenly Father (Matt. 5:14–16).

From the Community—Into Communion

However, RPC is also in Carondelet to worship God as his gathered people, to proclaim the Good News, to administer the sacraments. Their service and ours as neighbors is also a call to worship the Lord and Giver of Life. As our friendships and neighborly relations develop, as our intercessory prayers are answered, God expects and deserves our praise, our publication of his good news about Christ to others. He is the one who is good; we are not. His grace—not ours—is amazing. We are not mere social servants; we are his servants on his mission to reconcile all things to himself (Col. 1:20). The power for that transformation—the transformation from community to communion, from friendship to family—is in the gospel of Jesus Christ alone. Family members talk about their families; parents brag on their kids. When a family member brings particular credit to the family name by winning an award or accomplishing a long-standing goal, that family celebrates, spreads the news, and posts pictures so everyone will know. So, every Sunday we celebrate; we feast in honor of our elder brother and Savior, Jesus the Righteous One. In his common grace as Creator, God has given all his image bearers an appetite for community. In his special grace as Redeemer, he has provided food and drink that satisfy.

Our job as his servants is to go out into the crowds and take our place in the community by getting to know our neighbors and to faithfully deliver his invitation to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8).