I like my church. A lot.
One of the things that I like most about it is it’s theology of grace.
Despite this, there are times when I sit in church listening to the sermon and I find myself thinking, “Just once, I’d like for this sermon to NOT end with a message of grace.”
I even made that comment once to my senior pastor who responded by saying, “Luther used to say that if he’s going to error on the side of the law or grace, he’d choose grace every time.”
I remember thinking, “That’s nice. But still – just once, let’s mix it up a bit.”
Even as I thought that, though, I realized on some cognitive level that I was missing something; That in some way, I didn’t yet fully appreciate the power of grace.
Then today, I visited Trinity Broadcasting Network’s “The Holy Land Experience” in Orlando, FL, something that I first saw showcased in the movie, “Religulous.” At the time, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing: A Holy Land theme park? Really?
I was absolutely horrified at the thought of such a place.
Yet, since arriving in Orlando, I’ve wanted desperately to see “The Holy Land Experience”.
I’d liken it to the feeling you get when you pass a bad car accident. You know you shouldn’t look, but you just can’t help yourself.
So today, I rented a car, shelled out my $35, and braced myself.
Upon arriving at “The Holy Land Experience,” the lady in the ticket office warned me that it was going to be a busy day and suggested I head right to Cavalry’s Garden Tomb so that I could be sure and get a good seat for “Behold the Lamb,” their “can’t miss” passion play.
So I stepped inside the Holy Land and immediately stopped and gaped at the kiosk displaying newsletters that said in large print, “Praise the Lord! We are winning!”
“Winning what?” I thought. “A chess match?”
But I continued on to Calvary’s Garden Tomb and snatched one of the last remaining stools.
In the 25 minutes that followed before the show began, I watched in amazement as people continued to enter the area, jockeying for the best spot, standing behind stools, in front of stools, and in every available spot, with no regard for anyone’s personal space. At one point, a lady was so close to me that I seriously considered elbowing her.
Then about five minutes before the scheduled show, one of the cast members came out and led us in one praise song (something that’s apparently customary before every Holy Land show.)
As soon as the first chords came blasting out of the nearby speakers, it was as though this man hit a switch. At once, people rose to their feet, began swaying and waving their arms, belting out the words to “Draw Me Close”.
As soon as the song ended, everyone immediately sat down and the show began, as though the worship had never happened.
The show portrayed the passion of Christ, beginning with Jesus agonizing in the Garden, his apostles asleep nearby and the devil lurking behind him.
From there, it was a pretty standard, if not a somewhat abridged, retelling of the events.
Judas betrayed Jesus.
The Roman Guards arrested him.
Jesus went on trial.
Pilate sentenced Jesus to be flogged.
And suddenly time slowed down as the guards painstakingly tied Jesus’ hands to a post and whipped him. Each time they struck him, blood splattered everywhere. After beating Jesus’ back, they whipped his front side until he was literally dripping in blood.
I lost count, but I’m pretty sure we saw all 39 lashes.
Once done, the guards drug Jesus toward the audience, where they mocked him, spat on him, placed a robe around his shoulders, and pushed a crown of thorns into his head.
At this point, a cast member began repeatedly asking people, “See what your sins have done to Jesus?” Each time he asked, he got into someone’s face. At one point, he did this to a little girl who was maybe five years old. After he shouted at her, he flung Jesus’ broken and bloody body down in front of her. She took one look, jumped into her daddy’s arms, and began crying hysterically as the man grabbed Jesus and moved on, oblivious to the commotion he’d caused.
From there, Jesus was led to the top of a hill, where he was crucified.
After his death, his body was removed from the cross and he was buried.
Moments later, smoke billowed out of the tomb as the stone rolled away, revealing an astounded Mary Magdalene discovering an empty tomb. Before you knew it, Peter, John, and all the other apostles were present.
Contrary to Scripture, they instantly understood what happened and began worshiping their risen Lord.
So too did a Roman Guard who, moments later, asked everyone bow their heads and begin repeating after him.
At this point, I watched as hundreds of people around me robotically repeated the sinner’s prayer.
I’m pretty sure they were all Christians.
After all, I think you’d be hard pressed to get a non-Christian anywhere near this place, with it’s overt attempts to get people saved and an entryway sign featuring a rather large picture of Jesus’ head over the words, “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch upon the evil and the good.”
That certainly seems welcoming and inviting to a non-Christian, right?
Following the recitation of the sinner’s prayer, there was a cloud of smoke as the risen Jesus appeared over the tomb, carrying a giant key since through him, we’ve received the keys to the kingdom of heaven.
At this, I watched as the crowd around me rose to their feet, cheering, clapping, and weeping.
As I looked, my gaze kept coming back to the little girl who had the run in with bloody Jesus.
Twenty minutes later and she too was crying.
Not out of gratitude or joy, but out of fear.
And in that moment, I got it. My mind flashed back to my senior pastor’s words and I understood.
If I have to choose between erring on the side of the law or grace, I choose grace. Because grace – not the law, not sin management, not guilt, and certainly not fear – grace is what draws people to Christ.
In that respect, we may well be winning.
But we’re doing so only because grace wins, every time.