The church at the start line

The Pittsburgh Marathon is Sunday, May 6th. Tens of thousands of runners and visitors from across the country and around the world come downtown. It’s like no other morning all year.

Our church is just blocks from the start line, right in the middle of it all

A lot of churches are completely blocked by the course on Marathon Sunday. Ours isn’t. You can take the “T” to within half a block of the church. If you drive and can make it to Grant Street, you can park in the Mellon Garage, half a block from the church on Sixth Avenue.

God put our church in the perfect place to be a blessing on Marathon Sunday.

When they built our church building over 100 years ago, the idea of closing streets and churches on Sunday to run a race would have been scandalous. It would never have happened. Even in the 1950s, streets were closed for church events, not the other way around.

For the last eight years, I’ve been out on the street in front of the church at 5:45 AM on Marathon Sunday, blessing runners. I pray with folks in small groups or one-on-one, or over the loudspeakers to the hundreds of runners walking down the street to their corrals.

I’ve discovered that people are nervous about taking on so big a challenge. In those moments before the race, they’re anxious to call on a Higher Power. Many runners are Christians who run for God, and many others run for causes that are important to them. Hearing words of blessing, grace, and peace is important to them.

This year, we’ll again be playing motivational Christian music in front of the church, interspersed with our prayers. Later in the morning (10:45) we’ll hold our worship service outside and preach from our unique outdoor pulpit. God’s Word will be loose out on Sixth Avenue.

What a privilege to be the church at the start line.

Over a meal

In 1994, our family moved to Montgomery, Alabama so I could attend a year-long Air Force school. Our first Sunday, we visited a church close to where we would live. After the service, we were greeted by the Cornwell family. They introduced themselves, and then brought other people over and introduced them to us as well. Then they asked us to go to lunch at Ruby Tuesday, Dutch treat.

We didn’t bother to look at other churches.

How did you come to faith? Was there a burning bush? A blinding light? For most of us, it wasn’t anything dramatic. We didn’t know anything supernatural was happening at the time. A friend or relative took an interest in us. We came to faith through people sharing a bit of their lives. And often food was involved.

Food is something we all need. Meals are something we all do. And so it’s not surprising that both Gospel writers Luke and John tell us that the Risen Jesus met his disciples over a meal. Luke says it was in breaking bread that the disciples recognized Jesus. John says it was over a campfire where fish was being served. The Risen Jesus reveals himself in an ordinary meal.

In 1999, after two intervening assignments, we moved back to Montgomery, and to the church and the friends we loved. Again, the Cornwells greeted us and welcomed us home. Later, when I started sensing the call to pastoral ministry, the Cornwells were there to listen to us and be patient with us and help us process what we were feeling.

Who are you inviting to lunch? What opportunities is God giving you to share a bit of your life?

For us, it was just a simple invitation to Ruby Tuesday, Dutch treat. But it turned out to be as supernatural as any burning bush.

What great commission?

The Barna Group, a Christian research company, recently asked churchgoers, “Have you heard of the Great Commission?” 51% said they had never heard the term; 25% said they’d heard the term but couldn’t recall it’s meaning; and 6% weren’t sure. Just 17% knew of the Great Commission and what it meant.

Matthew 28:18-20 is the passage most commonly called the “Great Commission,” where the Risen Jesus told his disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations.” The Gospel writers Mark, Luke, and John also report a similar “commission.” Jesus “commissioned” his followers, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to go to all people, just as God the Father had sent him. Jesus’ kingdom on earth would be built by disciples who made more disciples.

So why don’t people know the Great Commission?

Well, the term isn’t in the Bible, and it wasn’t a term used by the church until the 16th century. It seems that the term was made popular by a British missionary to China, Hudson Taylor, in the 19th century. So it’s possible to see the words “all nations” and conclude the commission is for overseas missionaries. But the Greek words also mean “all people.” Jesus meant everyone, not just people “over there.”

At the same time, many people say, “Faith is a private matter. Keep it to yourself.” But what they’re really saying is that you need to believe in a different Jesus than the one in the Bible. They’re telling you to shirk the Great Commission and believe in a god they made up.

The one who was commissioned by God to come from heaven to earth, to live the life we should have lived, and to die the death we deserved, didn’t stay dead. He rose again and commissioned us to make more disciples.

That’s pretty great if you ask me.

When Jesus shows up

Through our partnership with a wonderful non-profit called Outreached Arms, over 6,000 meals will be served in our church this year. This represents an investment of over 8,000 volunteer hours. Even more significant are the friendships that are being made, the lives that are being touched, and the Gospel that is being shared. Best of all, when meals are shared in his name, Jesus shows up.

On March 20, I noticed three young ladies, Kelsey, Kiana, and Maddie, about the ages of my own granddaughters, enjoying a meal with our guest Dalas. I learned that Kelsey and Maddie are sisters who attend Saints John and Paul Roman Catholic Church north of Pittsburgh, a strong supporter of Outreached Arms. Their friend Kiana came to Outreached Arms with them to help serve. Kiana asked Dalas, “Tell us a story of what it was like growing up in Beaver Falls.” Dalas thought for a moment and said, “I didn’t have a lot of friends, so I used to go out in the woods and enjoy nature. I sometimes did things I shouldn’t have. But I loved the outdoors, and that is where I first met the Lord.”

Then, for the next several minutes, Dalas told the girls how much Jesus loves them, and how Jesus wants to bless them and will always be there for them. Dalas later told me, “I never told that story before. I think the Spirit must have gotten hold of me.”

Yes, Dallas, yes indeed.