A number of years ago, I had the opportunity to be the guest preacher at the historic First Christian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. Their former pastor had retired and as the church was searching for a new one, they invited pastors from around the city to visit on Sunday mornings and fill the pulpit. As an associate pastor, serving only a few miles away, it was a perfect opportunity. I agreed to their kind invitation and one warm, summer Sunday we worshipped the living Lord, Jesus Christ together. Now I cannot tell you what passage I preached on that day. I could not recall, if my life depended on it, the hymns that we sang, though I am sure they were beautiful and uplifting. And I do not remember where those good folks chose to take me to lunch, though I have the faintest memory that it was somewhere very nice. None of those things remain in my mind. What does remain has stuck with me for nearly 20 years.
At the conclusion of the worship service, following the final hymn, which I still do not remember, and my usual words of benediction, I walked down the aisle to the front doors. It was there that I greeted the parishioners on the church steps as they filed out, one by one. The last person in line to greet me that day was a kind, older lady who reminded me of my grandmother. She thanked me for leading the service, then asked me to remind her once more of which church I was serving. When I responded that I was at Second Presbyterian Church, just a few miles down the road, she smiled and said, “oh, yes.” There was a brief pause. “You know,” she added, “I have many friends there. And I will, on occasion, come over and take part in some of the community events that your church hosts. I have always enjoyed my visits there and I love the beauty of the sanctuary.” I nodded my head in agreement and said very respectfully, “Yes ma’am, it is a beautiful sanctuary.” Then, as she turned to walk down the steps, she stopped and added a few final words. “You know, I have so often thought to myself that if I weren’t a Christian, I would probably be a Presbyterian.” She smiled and then turned and walked down the steps. It is always the last person in line that you have to watch out for. Yet her words bear repeating. “If I weren’t a Christian, I would be a Presbyterian.” I wasn’t sure if I should be offended or amused. I chose the latter.
I’m certain she did not hear exactly what I heard that day, that brought such a smile. And it is as funny to me now, as it was then. But as I have reflected on that brief encounter so many years ago, I have come to the conclusion that she was actually teaching me something valuable that day, whether she knew it or not. Her words spoke clearly, not of differences, but of that which we shared in common. It was a reminder that, regardless of our denominational differences, we really were in essence the same people. We were God’s people, because of the work that Jesus has done. Too often, it seems, we are guilty of looking only at the differences in others. You have done this. So have I. But it was at the end of a long line that I learned an important truth. We are meant to focus on the things that we have in common and that bring us together rather than the things that might separate us. If we in the church could live our lives in a way that modeled such a simple and yet profound truth, then our witness to the world would be an enlightening one.
Sadly, I recently learned that the First Christian Church of Knoxville had its final worship service on, ironically enough, the 100th anniversary of their very first worship service. There is a sad sense of symmetry in that. But it does make me wonder now if my Christian friend, who taught me so much that day, now knows what it means to be a Presbyterian? I’m guessing that, at the end of the line, she does.