Saturday, August 09, 2008

Disciples Set Free

John 8:31-36

Years ago I attended a national Disciples Seminarian’s conference. During one of the sessions, a Disciple seminarian from Harvard told us that there weren’t a lot of Disciples in New England. In fact, most people in that part of the country thought the Disciples must be some kind of exotic cult. It’s true, Jim Jones was a Disciple, but I’ve never thought of the Disciples as either exotic or cultic.

Whatever I might think, it’s quite possible that there are a lot of people who don’t know who the Disciples are. That is
as true in Michigan as it is in New England. In fact, it’s quite possible that there those here this morning, who aren’t sure what the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) stands for!

Now, I’m not a lifelong Disciple. I’ve spent quite of bit of my life in other branches of the Christian community, but I’ve become a committed Disciple! And it’s not because the Disciples let you believe whatever you want. I’m a Disciple because of what this movement holds dear. I am attracted to the core values of this tradition, values that include a commitment to Christian unity, to the New Testament’s witness to Jesus, and a commitment to freedom, that allows the individual to interpret and apply the Scriptures to their own lives.


We’re not the only denomination to value unity, but a commitment to Christian unity is deeply rooted in the Disciple DNA, and in the DNA of this congregation. There was a pastor of this church by the name of Edgar DeWitt Jones, who as many of you know, served as President of the Federal Council of Churches. I know this because Mary Lu asked me during the first interview if I’d heard of Dr. Jones. Fortunately I had, but I did need to look him up in the Stone-Campbell Encyclopedia, and there I discovered his deep commitment to this cause. It was this commitment to Christian unity that drew me to the Disciples. As you know from reading my biography, I’ve been everything from Episcopalian to Pentecostal, and so I was looking for a church that would affirm my own journey of faith.

The Disciple commitment to unity is rooted in the Founders experiences of Christianity on the American frontier in the early years of the 19th century. It was a time when most Christians not only believed their brand of Christianity was the only acceptable one, but they would fight and call each other names that would make modern politicians blush. In that context the Campbells and Barton Stone asked the question: If we claim to follow Jesus and affirm the Bible, how come we’re so divided? Why can’t we just get along?

Thomas Campbell called the divisions among Christians a “horrid evil” and “anti-Christian.” Barton Stone declared that unity should be our polar star. That sense of calling has fueled the Disciple movement to this day, even if we’ve had our share of divisions. At this very moment the head of the National Council of Churches, Michael Kinnaman, is a Disciple, as is the head of Christian Churches Together – Dick Hamm. Indeed, we’ve been involved in every ecumenical venture of the last century.

Unfortunately we sometimes think that unity equals uniformity, but that’s not true. We can be of one mind in Christ without agreeing with each other on every issue! But if we keep our focus on our polar star and keep working on the task of unity, then we’ll be true to our calling as Disciples. And just for good measure, next Sunday Sara Barton will be back in the pulpit preaching on Psalm 133. That text says: “ How good and pleasant it is, when kindred live together in unity” (Ps. 133:1). Indeed!


If unity is our polar star, then the question remains – on what basis do we unite? Our founders believed that when we get hung up on boundary issues – that is rules, regulations, and doctrines we will divide. But if we focus on the New Testament witness to Jesus, then we will find unity. This hasn’t proven to be easy, but they came to believe that the gospel could be summarized in the good confession of Peter: : “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” If that was good enough for Jesus, then surely it’s good enough for us!

In John 8, we hear Jesus say to us: “You will know the truth and the truth will make you free” (Jn. 8:32). We as Disciples have always believed that this liberating truth is to be found in Jesus. This is a simple message, but it’s not simplistic. What it says to us is that if we focus on the center then the boundaries take care of themselves.


We have been called to unite around a common confession that Jesus is the messiah and Son of the Living God, but our Founders believed that this faith can’t be coerced. It has to be freely chosen, and so they embraced the ideal of liberty. It’s no coincidence that this movement was born on the American frontier just decades after the founding of this nation. Freedom was in the air, and it influenced the churches just like everything else. Freed from government restrictions and interference, all kinds of churches sprung up on the Frontier. Competition was the order of day, and in some ways spiritual anarchy ruled the day! In the midst of this apparent chaos the Disciples movement was born.

The Founders came to believe that it was essential that people be given freedom to read, interpret, and apply scripture for themselves. So, they got rid of their creeds and religious hierarchies, and they let the people seek after God. And you know what, this movement boomed. It worked because people were hungry for an opportunity to think for themselves about the things of God. Yes, it could be messy at times, but the results were powerful. Unfortunately many Christians decided that it was easier to let someone else do the thinking, and so today many Christians have chosen to abdicate their responsibility to do this important work. Even in the church a majority of the people are biblically illiterate, even though they often claim that they believe in the Bible.

If we take hold of this principle, then we have a gift to offer the church and the world. The question is: what does it mean for us to embrace the principle of liberty?

A number of years ago Ronald Osborne, a noted Disciple historian and church leader, wrote a book entitled: Experiment in Liberty (Bethany Press, 1978). And in this book he named the four freedoms that define who we are as a people:

1. You have the Freedom to Respond to the Gospel.

God hasn’t chosen your fate. You have a choice in the matter, and so you get to say yes or no to God.

2. You are free from creedalism.

Even as you say yes or no to God, you don’t have to say yes or no to any creed or statement of faith. There are no tests of fellowship, except that you accept the gospel witness to Jesus, which is the truth that sets you free.

3. You are free from ignorance and superstition.

The Disciples have been called a rationalist sect, and that’s because we have always valued the mind. Indeed, you can’t read scripture responsibly if you don’t use your mind. And so our Founders started schools and colleges, not just to train preachers, but to educate anyone and everyone. Alexander Campbell taught people to read the bible just like you read any other book, and he encouraged his followers to learn from modern science, history, and linguistics. It’s okay to be emotional and to trust. Just remember: you can’t be free if you don’t think for yourself.

4. You are free from the Law of Sin and Death.

If you are in Jesus, you don’t have to fear death anymore. Your past doesn’t determine your future, because you’re not programmed to sin. Sin is a choice not a curse, and Christ frees you from bondage to sin so that you can start life anew. Freedom is wonderful, but just remember it can be dangerous and even chaotic.

There’s an old saying in the Disciples: We’re not the only Christians, just Christians only. As a body within the greater body of Christ we have a special gift to bring to the world. We may not be a creedal people, but we do have strong core values that define who we are as a people. Those values include our commitment to unity, to the witness of the New Testament to Jesus, and a commitment to freedom. These are values worth celebrating and embodying!

Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church
Troy, Michigan
13th Sunday after Pentecost
August 10, 2008

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