The fourth of July is a time to celebrate. Americans on this day celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which marked the official break of the American colonies from increasingly heavy-handed and unreasonable British rule; and that fissure of political bonds is surely a good excuse for Americans to throw a party. But as the fourth falls on a Sunday this year, I am especially reminded that it is not a good reason to throw a party in church. For that, there are better reasons.
The church I used to attend celebrated Independence Day in church every year. God and Country, they called it, and in fact, the banner on their website now flatly says, “Celebrate America: July 3 and 4”. I do not like church-bashing and that’s not really my intent. My formative spiritual years were spent at SMCC and the roots I acquired there were good. But may I suggest that their God and Country worship service is completely inappropriate. The spectacle SMCC puts on during the July 4 Sunday worship includes awarding active and retired military personnel, playing the military branch theme songs, the unfurling of one of the largest American flags I’ve ever seen, and actual fireworks in the sanctuary (!). It’s a pretty impressive pageant, but as I have learned more and more about my own faith over the past five or six years, it actually begins to break my heart that faithful men would treat the service this way.
Sunday worship, you see, cannot be hijacked to “celebrate America.” How can it be? It is already a celebration! It is indeed a celebration of a kingdom, a nation, a commonwealth—but a kingdom, nation, and commonwealth that transcends any and all geopolitical borders. God in Christ was reconciling the world to himself. He is forming for his own possession a holy nation, a royal priesthood, from people of every language and tribe and country (1 Peter 2:9, see also Eph. 2:12-13). When I step into the the house of the Lord on Sunday morning, there is no American; there is neither Jew nor Greek, but all are one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11). When I step into the house of the Lord, I am Christian, and am spiritually joining with fellow citizens around the world—citizens not of the U.S. (or China or Bolivia), but of heaven (Phil. 3:20)! I am an assimilated member of the one holy catholic church, the church universal, the church global, which God purchased with his own blood.
God calls us to celebrate every week the fact that we have been grafted into this worldwide nation, adopted into this family and sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise. He calls us to confess sin and receive forgiveness, to sing songs, to pray, to hear the public reading of Scripture, to hear the Word preached and taught, and to receive the ordinances of baptism and communion. With all that going on, what room is left to celebrate a temporal geopolitical entity? Such is not just inadvisable, I believe it’s wrong. I thank God for the confidence I have that when I attend my church today, the fourth of July will not be more than mentioned in passing. I go celebrate the same things I celebrated last week, the same things I will celebrate next week. After all, this is church.
Let’s be perfectly clear. I love the Fourth of July. I have a sensible quantity of nationalism in me. If I weren’t working today, I’d join my family for hamburgers, potato salad, and fellowship in a house dripping with red, white and blue. I’d watch the celebratory fireworks give brilliant bursts of color to the night sky, and begin to get sentimental when I hear “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free!” It’s appropriate to thank God for shedding his grace on this land. But you cannot bring that into the worship service. It would be completely out of place; a misuse, in fact, of that time that is given to us to worship, and to worship in the manner God has laid out for us in the Bible. Here, we celebrate not only a holy nation, but her King. Here, we celebrate Jesus.