When Jesus was late to church

David Epps's picture

I had unpacked the manger display that a family in the church lends to us each year and was setting it up on a table in the church foyer.
Piece by piece, the display came together — shepherds, wise men, camels, a donkey, a sheep, and, of course, the Virgin Mary and Joseph. One piece, however, was missing.
I went thorough the box again, felt the papers that had wrapped each piece, all to no avail. The central part of the manger scene was missing. Baby Jesus, secure in the manger, was not to be found.
A call was placed to the family to let them know of the missing piece and, the following Sunday, the scene was complete. Jesus was a week late, but he finally arrived.
I guess I should be accustomed to people, even the baby Jesus, showing up late for church. I have been in the ministry for over 35 years and, in every church, someone — not always the same person or people — arrive late.
Well, maybe not always late, but close enough to the opening processional to make life exciting.
A few weeks ago, one of our ministers informed me that, at 10 minutes prior to the start of the service, there were 14 people seated in the sanctuary. A few minutes later, the church was mostly filled and, just before the processional started, people were scurrying quickly past those who were prepared to process in and claim their seats.
One lady asked me a few nights ago, “I guess you’ve wondered why I’m always late to the service, haven’t you?”
I replied, “I just assumed that you wanted to miss the Confession of Sin.”
One pastor in Alabama said recently, “I’ve been in this church over 20 years and I have people who have yet to see a processional.”
In times past, I announced how important it was to be on time. Then I even preached on it. I fussed. I fumed. Finally, I gave up — especially after one family got a speeding ticket trying not to be late one Sunday.
One pastor that I know in Georgia adopted the practice of not serving Holy Communion to people if they missed the corporate Confession of Sin.
“Did it work?” I asked.
“For a few it did,” he replied, “but mostly it meant that some of the folks just never received Holy Communion.”
But I have also noticed this: for the most part, people are not late to the movies. They get there, not only on time for the film, but also in time to get popcorn, choose a seat, and watch the previews.
It’s the same at sporting events. When the University of Tennessee Volunteers take the field in Knoxville, over 100,000 screaming are in their seats well before the opening kickoff.
People are on time for meals, too. If one has a reservation at a choice restaurant, being tardy can cost one the table — so people are usually on time.
People who are habitually late to work are often called — “unemployed.”
I suppose I shouldn’t complain, and I rarely do anymore, at least about this aspect of church life. Most pastors that I know have experienced the same frustration of tardy worshippers in their churches, too.
Some say it is an attitude of apathy, others say it is a sign of disrespect. Still others have argued that church tardiness indicates a spiritual problem — or perhaps an organizational and time management problem.
I don’t know about all of that. I just know that recently even Jesus was late in coming to church. I’m just glad that He finally showed up.
[David Epps is the priest and pastor of the Cathedral of Christ the King (www.ctkcec.org.), 4881 Hwy, 34 E., Sharpsburg, GA 30277, between Peachtree City and Newnan. Services are held Sundays at 8:30 and 10 a.m. He is also the bishop of the Mid-South Diocese (www.midsouthdiocese.org) and is the mission pastor of Christ the King Mission in Champaign, IL. He may be contacted at frepps@ctkcec.org.]