A Baptismal Meditation by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Senior Minister, The First Congregational United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, November 23, 2003, Pentecost 24, dedicated to Joyce and Cecilia Bishop, and Alexander and Meghan Double on their baptismal day and always to the glory of God!
Faith Spoken and Lived With Conviction"
(Part IV of IV in the sermon series: Reformed and Reforming: Speaking the Truth in Love in Every Generation")
Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18: 33-37
Today, in this final sermon of the series, I would like to talk about our particular roots in the Protestant Reformation. We, who call ourselves Congregationalists, did not appear in the Reformation until 1558 - 51 years after Luther pounded the 95 theses on the Wittenberg Church doors. But, from the beginning, Congregationalists brought something new and beautiful to the Christian experience.
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of your hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord our rock and our salvation. Amen.
In 1636, Rev. John Cotton called the movement simply the Congregational "Way." From the time it began in 1558 as a Separationist movement from the Anglican Church in England, Congregationalism has remained a "Way" or "Walk" because it has never hardened into a fixed body of doctrine. From the first adherents down to the present, Congregationalism has engendered a tradition of diversity and dissent, fueled alike by passion and reason. Its inherently democratic thrust contributed to the formation of the American republic. Its spiritual children represent perspectives that range widely across the spectrum of theological understanding. And we are to be counted as spiritual children of this heritage.
The original separationists were distinct in their differences. One group in the original split believed the Anglican Church was irredeemably corrupt and they were determined to Separate themselves from the church completely. These few hundred that relocated to New England were called Pilgrims. A second group, more moderate in their assessment of Anglicanism sought simply to cleanse or "purify" the church, thus their name, "The Puritans." More than 20,000 of these believers relocated in the great migration of Congregationalists between 1620-1640. Although the two blended into one within a hundred years in Massachusetts, this "Holy experiment," of theocratic vision, had at its core, a belief in religious freedom and they expressed it thoroughly in covenantal theology.
This radically simple belief that they were in covenant with God, always directed their attention outward - away from creeds and writings of the past - and out to constant examination of the link between their public and private dimensions of faith. As such, the early movement always bore a combination of pragmatism and missionary passion that remained a constant for generations. Also, because in the Massachusetts Bay Colony only church members could hold elected positions, the machinery of church and state were clearly linked. There was always public scrutiny of one another's behavior and the careful monitoring of outward signs of inward grace. The ever-unfolding history of this early theocratic experiment is intriguing and deserves much more attention than today's sermon can provide. In fact, the years of 1620-1776 in New England Congregationalism are some of the most fascinating times in American Christian history. To begin your reading, I encourage you to pick up Theology and Identity and read Elizabeth Nordbeck's essay, "Theological Traditions of Congregationalism" from which I have drawn many of the insights I have shared with you. (Elizabeth Nordbeck, "Theological Traditions of Congregationalism" Theology and Identity, United Church Press, Cleveland, Ohio, 1990, pp. 3-15).
One of the most treasured of theological understandings growing out of Martin Luther's work The Freedom of a Christian in 1520 and later the writings of many Congregational theologians is the concept of Responsible Freedom. Inextricably linked, responsibility and freedom comprise an inestimable value for faith. Lillian Smith has written, "The unpardonable sin for every human being is to have more knowledge than understanding, more power than love; to know more about the earth than about the people who live in it; to invent quick means of travel to faraway places when one cannot grope one's way within one's own heart. For freedom is a dreadful thing unless it goes hand in hand with responsibility" (Smith, Day By Day, edited by Chaim Stern, Beacon Press, Boston, Mass., 1998, p. 96).
God has granted each of us the freedom to believe and act in accordance with our perception of God's will for our lives. That said, we are called to live in a loving, covenantal relationship with one another. It is not enough to have freedom, if you are not responsible with it. Likewise, if you are compelled by the internal drive of responsibility, but feel no compulsion to be free, you miss discovering God's will and way for your life.
I believe it is as we gather in communities of faith, as congregations of believers that we come to experience the fullness of responsible freedom. We engage and interact with other believers whose experience, traditions, and life learnings are different from ours, but tied together by God's word and the desire to share thoughts, feelings, and insights on God's word, we come to know one another more fully. We come to embrace "a walk" or "a way" in covenant together.
This covenant extends beyond individuals and single congregations. Under the guidance of God's Holy Spirit and in light of Holy Scriptures, we are linked to other congregations, other Christians, and other people of faith by the sharing of insights and gleanings of wisdom and faith. Through prayer and the exchange of ideas and wisdom, we grow in our understanding of God and one another.
Responsible Freedom is a gift which comes from our Judeo-Christian tradition. In Deuteronomy, Moses gives his farewell address on the edge of the Promised Land. He dies and is buried there and never enters the land with his people. Before his death, Moses lays out the story of covenant promise to his brothers and sisters as they stand ready to enter their promised land. Moses says, "I have set before you, life and prosperity, death and adversity . . . I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live"(Dt. 30:15, 19).
Choose life! Make a choice between good and evil. Make a choice between blessings and curses. Make a choice between life and death. Do you see how responsible freedom works? In covenant with God and one another, we are free to choose. The challenge is to make responsible, life-giving choices. Are the choices you are making today life-giving? Are they covenantal choices which build-up the body of Christ? Are they covenantal choices which strengthen your body, your spirit, your family, your church, and your community? Or are they choices which add to the death and destruction of your body, your spirit, your family, your church, and your community? In the walk and way of responsible freedom, choose life!
Throughout the last four weeks I have turned to the founders of Protestantism as I have explored our Reformation roots and how they can give us guidance in these times and for these days. While I profoundly admire Wycliffe, Huss, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Bullinger, Cramner, Menno Simon, and the Wesley brothers, Charles and John, along with many others, they are all far from sacrosanct. No inerrancy can be attached to any of them. They were trailblazers - for that we owe them gratitude and honor, but this does not prevent criticism and critique. They started a movement whose principles, if faithfully adhered to, imply adventure and progress, but have also lent themselves to further divisions in the body of Christ.
It is appropriate in ending this long series on Reformed and Reforming: Speaking the Truth in Love in Every Generation on Thanksgiving Sunday, to share words spoken by one of our fore-bearers in faith on the eve of the Pilgrims departure from Leyden, the Netherlands to Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620. A later day Moses, leading his people to their promised land, Pastor John Robinson addressed his band of believers with these words (brought to us through the writings of one listener, Edward Winslow):
Before God, and his blessed Angels, I charge you to follow me no further than I would follow Christ. And if God should reveal anything to us by any other instrument than me, be ready to receive it, as ever we are ready to receive truth in our ministry together. I am very confident the Lord has more truth and light yet to break forth out of His Holy Word.
I must say that I am disheartened by the state and condition of the Reformed churches, who have come to a period in Religion, and will go no further than the instruments of their Reformation. For example, the Lutherans cannot be drawn to go beyond what Luther saw, for whatever part of His Will God had further imparted and revealed to Calvin, the Lutherans would rather die than embrace. And so also, you see this with the Calvinists. They stick where he left them: a misery much to be lamented. For though they were precious, shining lights in their times, yet God had not revealed His whole will to them. And were they now living, they would be as ready and willing to embrace further light, as that they had received.
Here also God put us in mind of our Church-Covenant . . . whereby we promise and covenant with God and one another, to receive whatsoever light or truth shall be made known to us from God's written Word . . . For (concludes John Robinson), It is not possible the Christian world should come lately out of such thick darkness, and that full perfection of knowledge should break forth all at once. (Translated from the third person to the first person from Harry Emerson Fosdick's, Great Voices of the Reformation, Random House Books, New York, NY, 1952, pp. 545-546).
In these words we hear the very language we have come to embrace in our times and through our congregational covenant. We seek, in holy love, to embrace more light and truth than was issued by the Reformers and by those reforming still! As we trust God to reform and reshape us, I encourage you to read, to learn, to open your minds and hearts to enlightening theological reformers our times, but even more so, to open yourselves to truths from other faiths, from science, from history, from philosophy, and a multitude of disciplines beyond the horizon of our everyday viewpoints. In all these choices, make a choose for life-giving, covenant-sustaining ways in your walk with God. In so doing, you will grow in your reformed and constantly reforming Christian faith.
For, in the words of John Robinson, "I am very confident the Lord has more truth and light yet to break forth out of His Holy Word." Amen.
Copyright 2003, The First Congregational Church
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