While traveling over the July holidays this summer, we visited a local church in the area. I don't remember the exact topic of the sermon, but the words that were spoken that day opened my eyes to where I've been on my spiritual journey and more importantly where my heart longs to be.

While teaching Bible class, the pastor of the church was helping the congregation define what a "good" Christian was. He talked at length about how detrimental their absence at any of their three designated church services would be to their status as a "good" Christian. To make his illustration more personal, he posed the following question to the audience — first asking a gentleman in the back who we'll call "Ken" — "For example, Ken, if you hadn't seen one of your sons for 40 years and he was coming into town and could only be here for 2 hours and it was Sunday morning, would you choose to go see him or would you choose to go to church?"

Ken's response? "I would go to church."

Ken did say he would invite his son to come with him — although admitting that his son would decline the invitation.

A woman sitting behind Ken raised her hand and stated — very proudly I might add — that something very similar happened to them when some friends they hadn't seen in years came into town to see them and they declined to spend time with them because they were "going to church." She happily concluded their friends hadn't spoken to them since. If clapping would have been allowed in this church, I'm afraid the entire congregation of 47 would've erupted in applause!

If you are sitting at your computer gasping, know that you aren't alone. I almost fell out of my pew. My heart was pounding — not out of anger, but out of complete sadness. I so wanted to raise my hand and remind them of Luke 15:1-7. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for condemning Him for "welcoming sinners" and then He told them the story of the one lost sheep. It is the story where he leaves the ninety-nine "righteous" who don't need to repent — dare I say he "misses" church one Sunday — to go find the one lost sheep — something similar to finding his son whom he hasn't seen for 40 years.

Maybe even more specific to this situation is the story a few verses down. We call it the Parable of the Lost Son. If you aren't familiar with the parable, please read it in Luke 15:11-32. The father's son left his home, "squandered his inheritance in wild living" and then after a famine in the region, went to live with the pigs. After almost starving to death, he decides to go home and ask for his father's forgiveness in hopes that he could at least be one of his father's hired men. The story represents God's love for us, his children. It illustrates how He rejoices over each lost soul who finds the kingdom of Heaven and welcomes us with open arms — He runs to meet us!

If this story had been written through the eyes of legalism instead of love, it probably would read something like this:

But while the son was still a long way off, his father saw him, but told one of his servants to tell this lost son that even though the father hadn't seen him for years, he would not be available to see him because it was Sunday and he was "going to church."

Doesn't God tell us that we are the church? Shouldn't the fact that we use the unbiblical phrase "going to church" open our eyes to our misunderstanding of God's ultimate desire for establishing "the church."

I share this story with you because I chose legalism over love for the majority of my life. For many years, I likely would have answered just as Ken did. Sadly enough, I still often do.

Nothing about the word legalism infers love. Legalism is strict conformity to the letter of the law rather than its spirit. We could even define it more clearly as "strict conformity to the letter of the law rather than THE spirit."

We can choose the love of Christ.
If the pastor posed his question to Jesus, we wouldn't have to ask, "What would Jesus do?" We KNOW what Jesus did. Jesus healed on the "Sabbath" and cared for others — his "church" day. (Luke 14:1-6) Jesus rebuked the legalistic attitudes of his day when he and his disciples picked grain and ate it. (Luke 6:1-11) Later, in this same context, while healing a man with a deformed hand, Jesus said to the Pharisees, "I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?" While other people were "busy at church," Jesus also healed a crippled woman, (Luke 13) a man at the pool of Bethesda, (John 5) and a blind man. (John 9)

Do you think it's a coincidence that Jesus did all these healings on their "church day"? (Just check out all the healings and their related teaching that Jesus did on the Sabbath!) While the Pharisees were following their own laws and rules by "going to church," Jesus, by his example, was showing us how to BE the church.

Please, don't read these words as disrespect to our worship time together as believers. I know that this is a precious time for us to be together as a family and worship our heavenly Father in a group setting. This is scriptural necessity. (Acts 2:42-47; Hebrews 10:25) God has just really convicted my heart to be honest and ask myself if I am looking at what we call "church" through the eyes of love or the eyes of legalism.

My heart longs to consistently choose love over legalism — to be the woman motivated out of love in the book of Luke: she lit her lamp, swept her house, and searched endlessly until she finally found the one lost coin!

We can choose the love of Christ or the legalism of the Pharisees.

We can choose to "go" to church or "be" the church.

Who will you choose to be?