Sunday, February 23, 2014

What's in a Name? -- Reclaiming a Founding Vision Sermon #7

Genesis 17:1-8, 15

How did you get your name?  I’m named after my father, Robert David Cornwall, Sr, who was concerned about the family legacy.  As for Brett, he’s named after the center-fielder from the 1989 National League Champion San Francisco Giants.  This was a compromise choice, after Cheryl rejected my first choice -- Will Clark, who was the Giants’s first baseman that year.  Our names reflect the eras in which we were born, our family heritage, and even our cultural climate.  Some names endure and others don’t.   

While we don’t usually think about the meaning of a name, names often have meanings in the biblical story.  In the Gospel of Matthew, the Angel tells Joseph to name the couple’s child Jesus, because he will save the people from their sins. Jacob’s name gets changed to Israel, because “he has striven with God, and has prevailed” (Gen. 32:28).  Then there are names that Hosea gave to his children:  “Not Pittied” and “Not My People” (Hosea 1:2-9).  Those names will never make it to the top of the “favorite baby names” list.     

In the reading from Genesis 17, we have a different version of the story of God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah.  In this version, God changes their names to reflect their change in circumstances.  In Genesis 12, God tells the couple to leave their home for a new land.  In Genesis 17, they have arrived at the new home.  So, their status changes from nomad to permanent residents.  In this version, God promises that they will be the ancestors of many nations, instead of being a blessing to the nations.  This change reflects the changing circumstances they found themselves in, but perhaps we can hear a word of wisdom about our situation in these stories.  Perhaps that word is this – God is present with us when we’re on the road and when we’re at home.  In both situations, we are called to be a blessing.

     For past the seven weeks the sermons have been reflecting on the theme – Reclaiming a Founding Vision.  Another way of putting this could be “Rediscovering our Spiritual DNA.”  DNA is related to our family heritage.  So, my question is – how does our heritage influence who we are spiritually?  With that in mind, how does the name of this congregation reflect our congregational spiritual DNA?
If we break down this name, can we find some clues to our identity as a congregation? 

Take the word “church.”  Does it speak of a building, or does it speak of a community?  The Greek word for church is ekklesia or “assembly.”  Paul describes the church in terms of a body – that is a living, growing organism.  It may have a building, or it may not!  As for the word Christian – it speaks of our connection to Christ.

Then there are the words “Central” and “Woodward.”  When we take these words together, what do they say about our Spiritual DNA?

I think it’s important to remember that our name is the product of the merger – in 1925 – of Central Christian Church and Woodward Avenue Christian Church.  Both churches contributed equally to the identity of the church that would emerge.  Central contributed its pastor, financial gifts, and distinguished leadership.  Woodward Avenue contributed its property and a very active group of young families.  What emerged was a congregation that was well situated to represent the Disciples in one of America’s fastest growing cities.   Under Dr. Jones’ leadership, this new community grew and expanded its numbers and its influence – locally, regionally, and nationally.  But, it had its ups and downs, and by the 1970s it became clear that it could no longer sustain its building, and so it migrated north to our current location in Troy. 

Although the church no longer lived on Woodward Avenue, it kept the name.   There have been discussions about changing the name, but the name has stuck with us.  And with the name comes, this spiritual DNA that helps define who we are as a congregation.

The easiest name change for us would be to drop the “Woodward” from our name.  But, since it doesn’t appear that we’re going to drop this part of our name any time soon, what does this word signify to us since we don’t live on Woodward Avenue anymore?  What spiritual DNA does “Woodward” contribute to our identity?   There’s a heritage attached to the name.  But, I think there’s more to this word than simply heritage.  Over the past five plus years that I’ve been here, I’ve been thinking about what this word symbolizes.  I see in it a call to ministry with the people of Detroit.  This connection is seen in our work with Motown Mission, Gospel in Action Detroit, Head Start of Detroit, and the Metro Coalition of Congregations.  But Woodward Avenue doesn’t end at 8 Mile Road.  Since, it continues on northward to Pontiac, Woodward Avenue is the spine that links the region.  Our broader ministries link us to this spine.    
As for the word “Central.”  Here are my thoughts.  First of all, I think it speaks of our center – Jesus the Christ.  Whatever we are as congregation, we find our center in Jesus.  It also speaks of a location – a home base.  In Genesis 17, a nomadic people finds a place to settle down and make a home.  Or as it’s translated in the Common English Bible, God promised Abraham and his descendants “the land in which you are immigrants” (Gen. 17:8 CEB).  Having moved from our Detroit home on Woodward Avenue, we now live on the corner of Big Beaver and Adams in the city of Troy.  We came to this place as immigrants, and we found a home here.  Some of us have come from farther away than others.

If this place is our home, it is also the starting place for our ministries.  If Genesis 12 gives us our purpose – we’re to be a blessing to the nations – Acts 1:8 gives us our game plan.  Jesus told the disciples that they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them, and after receiving this empowerment, they were to take the good news to the ends of the earth, starting in Jerusalem.  I believe that God wants us to have a thriving congregation here in Troy, that ministers to the community of Troy and has a significant part of its membership being people who live within a five-mile radius of this building.  From this place, our ministries move outward to the rest of Metro Detroit, Michigan, and beyond.

   There’s a vision statement that appears on a bulletin cover from Central Christian Church dated 1921.  I’m not sure we’d put it exactly the same way today, but I think it has meaning for us:  “Central Church has a vision and a purpose of usefulness in Detroit far beyond its present location and equipment.”  Now, at the time they were expecting to build a new home, so that’s part of the meaning of this statement, but I like the idea that they envisioned themselves as being useful to the community “far beyond its present location and equipment.”  Isn’t that our calling – to be useful – or to be a blessing to our community far beyond our current location.  
In February 1922 Edgar DeWitt Jones faced a dilemma.  The vision that had drawn him to Detroit seemed to be fading away.  He wondered if he’d made a mistake coming here.  In a letter to a friend, he spoke of his fondness for Central Christian Church, but he believed that the congregation faced a choice.  It could go forward or it could go backwards.  So he writes: I think it has an extraordinary opportunity, but it simply cannot rest upon its oars.  It must go forward or it will go back.  If it chose to go backwards, then he knew he would have to move on.  In the end, the congregation chose to go forward, and as time wore on, in part due to the merger with Woodward Avenue Christian Church, the vision that drew him to Detroit bore fruit. What was that vision?  It centered on offering a progressive Christian voice that emphasized the Disciple value of Christian unity.     

What is the spiritual DNA of Central Woodward Christian Church?  Well, each of us contributes our own spiritual DNA to the life of this church.  Then there’s the DNA contributed by our spiritual ancestors in this congregation, including the vision of Edgar DeWitt Jones.  That vision included openness to differing theological and political views, a commitment to the welfare of the community, the pursuit of Christian unity, and a commitment to world peace.  More about that at a later date!  

Of course there are other elements of our heritage that simply can’t be reclaimed.  They represent a different time and place.  As we consider our heritage as a congregation we should keep in mind this word of wisdom provided to us by Dr. Jones himself: 
 If the church has become institutionalized, bereft of spiritual charm, and in bondage to outworn and discredited methods, the average man will pass it by and find his inspirations and comradeships elsewhere.  
But, as Dr. Jones noted, since the first century, when times have changed, the church has  “adopted methods suitable to the time and the need.”  The key is spiritual vitality, because when the Spirit is moving everything else falls into place  [Edgar Dewitt Jones, Blundering into Paradise, (Harper & Brothers, 1932), pp. 85-86].  

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Called to Unity -- Reclaiming a Founding Vision Sermon #6

Psalm 133

It seems providential that on the Sunday when I’m preaching on the call to Christian Unity as a founding vision that we begin a Week of Compassion emphasis that has its theme “We Are One.” We began worship this morning singing “Somos Uno en Christo” – “We are One in Christ.”  We sang it in both Spanish and in English as a reminder that the body of Christ embraces many languages and people. No matter our differences in appearance and culture, in Christ we are one.  

Barton Stone, one of our founders, declared that “unity is our polar star.”  It is the guiding principle for the Disciples as a movement.  Thomas Campbell, another founder, declared that the “Church of Christ upon earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one; consisting of all those in every place that profess their faith in Christ and obedience to him in all things according to the Scriptures.”  Campbell and Stone were committed to the cause of Christian unity because they believed that disunity among Christians disrupted the mission of God.  That is, our divisions and schisms, distracts people from hearing and experiencing the good news of Jesus.   

This call to Christian unity has long been a central focus of my life and ministry.  That’s probably because my spiritual journey has taken me to a variety of places.  As you may know, I’ve been Episcopalian, Pentecostal, Baptist, Presbyterian, Evangelical Covenant, and two varieties of the Stone-Campbell Movement.  I often feel more at home in an ecumenical context than a denominational one.  And so the message that Stone and Campbell proclaimed resonates with me.  

The call to unity is also an important legacy of this congregation.  I’ll talk more about this next Sunday, but it’s important to remember that Edgar DeWitt Jones, our founding pastor, was deeply involved in the Ecumenical Movement of his day locally and nationally.  He served as President of the “Association for the Promotion of Christian Unity,” which was the predecessor of the “Council on Christian Unity,” and President of the Federal Council of Churches, which was the predecessor of the National Council of Churches.  

In a book published in 1938, while he was President of the Federal Council of Churches, Jones wrote:
It is a magnificent achievement to permeate a church with the spirit of reunion, to keep before every phase of congregational life the unanswered prayer of Jesus for the oneness of his followers, together with the inspiring stories of the apostles of unity, the men who caught this “vision splendid” and became flaming prophets of a reunited Christendom[The Great Business of Being a Christian, (Harper & Brothers, 19380, p. 89]

As we hear this call to permeate the church with the spirit of Christian unity, we should recognize Jones’s cultural context.  Not all the apostles of unity are men, and the word Christendom has lost its savor.  That is, the idea of Christendom is overly rooted in institutionalism and even imperialism, and that idea has gotten in the way of Christ’s mission.  

But even in a post-Christendom age, surely we can embrace Jesus’ prayer for unity:
  21 I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me. 22 I’ve given them the glory that you gave me so that they can be one just as we are one. 23 I’m in them and you are in me so that they will be made perfectly one. Then the world will know that you sent me and that you have loved them just as you loved me.  (John 17:21-23 CEB). 
Denominationalism isn’t as fervent today as it was in the 1930s, when Edgar DeWitt Jones ascended to leadership of the ecumenical movement in America.  But that doesn’t mean that we’ve reached a point where the call to unity is no longer necessary.  We may not be as concerned about brand names, but there are still many walls standing in the way of true communion within the body of Christ.

This call to Christian unity, therefore, is a founding vision for the Disciples, for this congregation, and for me as an individual.  It’s the reason why I’m so passionate about our involvement in the Troy-area Interfaith Group and the Metro Coalition of Congregations.  It’s the reason why we partner with Congregational Church of Birmingham to offer shelter for the homeless and share Ash Wednesday with Northminster Presbyterian Church and Good Friday and Thanksgiving with other congregations in Troy. 

When Scott Seay came here in October to deliver the annual Perry Gresham Lectures, he focused his attention on this important part of our heritage.  In his Friday presentation, he focused in on the divisions that exist within the Stone-Campbell Movement itself. One of the unfortunate realities of our history as Disciples is that we’ve compromised our witness to Christian unity because of our own internal divisions.  That’s why I was so pleased that we had representatives from the Churches of Christ and the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ join with us for that day. One of the panelists at our Gresham lecture was John Nugent, a professor at Great Lakes Christian College.  He and I have been working on a followup conversation that we hope will build bridges among members of our movement in Michigan. It’s taking longer than we hoped, but the dream remains constant.  That dream is rooted in Jesus prayer for unity so that we might bear witness to God’s love for humanity.

Our scripture this morning – Psalm 133 – is one of my favorites.  It’s only three verses long, but it captures the joy that comes from a family united.  The first verse declares: “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!”  The message is even clearer in the Common English Bible: “Look at how good and pleasing it is, when families live together as one!”  Now, the family can be a rather small group.  Families can become exclusive and focused on their own needs and agendas.  But families can also be quite expansive – including people who don’t share the same bloodline.  That’s the point of verses two and three.  These verses expand our definition of family.  

 It’s quite possible that this Psalm was written in hopes that the division between the northern and the southern kingdoms of Israel and Judah would be healed.  Mt Hermon is, after all, in the northern region of Israel, and Zion or Jerusalem is at the center of the South.  The references to the dew of Hermon and the precious oil that flows down the head and beard and robes of Aaron offer hope that movement can be made to unite this divided family.  

In this Psalm the focus is on Zion, which is where the Temple stood.  The Psalmist holds out a vision of the people of God gathering in the city to experience the presence of God.  Jerusalem often stands as a symbol of God’s presence.  The prophets hold a vision of the nations gathering in Jerusalem to receiving the blessings of God.  We see this  restated in the Book of Revelation, where John offers a vision of the New Jerusalem descending from the heavens to earth.  The New Jerusalem is itself a sign that God is present with the people of God (Rev. 21:1ff).  You might say that Jerusalem is home to our family reunion. And regarding the make up of this family it’s good to remember what Jesus said about his family.  He told the crowd that his brothers and sisters and his mother were those who believed in him (Mark 3:35-36).  

We as a congregation, we are family.  Some of you might remember the 1979 World Series that pitted the Pittsburgh Pirates against the Baltimore Orioles.  The Pirates adopted a song by the disco group Sister Sledge – “We Are Family” – as its theme song.  The message the song sent in this context was that all of Pittsburgh, and all the Pirates’ fans across the nation were family.  And that year, I numbered myself as one of the family, and I don’t think the people of Pittsburgh minded!  Now as church family, we can be exclusive or inclusive.  In other words, we can be family or we can be in-laws!  

It’s good to remember that we are ultimately part of the human family.  As part of this family we’re called to unity for two reasons.  One is to bring glory to God our Creator.  The other reason is so that we might be a blessing to the peoples of this earth.  Indeed, so we can be a blessing to all of creation.  For that is our covenant calling as children of Abraham and Sarah.  Yes, We are One in Christ – “Somos Uno en Christo!”

Sunday, February 09, 2014

A People Empowered -- Reclaiming a Founding Vision Sermon 5

1 Corinthians 12:1-12

When a storm hits, knocking out the power, life can get interesting.  No lights, no refrigeration, no stove, no heat, and no television or computer.  If you have a smart phone you might have access to the outside world, but if you don’t, you’re in the dark.  And that’s not a feeling we enjoy.  Of course, there’s also political power, which I won’t get into!   It seems that power comes in many forms.  It can be used to bless and it can be used to destroy.  Remember that the same atomic elements used to create electricity can be used to destroy cities and nations.  

Although power can be dangerous – it’s also essential to life.  In this fifth sermon in my series on Reclaiming a Founding Vision, I want to affirm the power that comes to us from God through the Holy Spirit.

Andy Crouch recently wrote a book about “Redeeming the Gift of Power."   Crouch writes that “Power is for flourishing – teeming, fruitful, multiplying abundance.”1  What he means is, because God uses the power of creation to shape where life can flourish, we who bear the image of God get to participate with God in creating these kinds of environments.   

In Acts 1, Jesus told the disciples that they “would receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.”  That power came on the day of Pentecost, when the Spirit came upon them like a mighty wind, empowering them to proclaim the good news to the world.  Then, when the people in the city heard these things, they asked Peter:  “What must we do to be saved?”  He answered “Repent, and be baptized everyone of you so that your sins may be forgiven, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38).  Turn to God, be baptized, and you too can receive this gift of power from the Holy Spirit.

What is the purpose of this gift of power?  That’s the question Paul tries to answer in 1 Corinthians 12-14.  As you can see from this text, things had gotten out of hand. People were focusing on their own individual spiritual experiences and in the process stepping their neighbors.  Paul didn’t reject these experiences, but he put them in context.  Paul wrote to his friends in Corinth, reminding them that the church is the body of Christ, and that each member of the church is an important part of that body.  Each of them – and each of us – is given a gift, as the Spirit chooses, so that they and we can praise God and serve and love our neighbors.  There is a diversity of giftednesss, because a variety of gifts are needed to create an environment where life can flourish. 

Although Barton Stone hosted the Cane Ridge Revival, where ecstatic experiences were common place, Disciples tend to emphasize the rational side of the Christian faith.  You don’t have to have ecstatic experiences to know that you belong to God – just remember your baptism.  Besides, when it comes to knowing the will of God – we don’t need any source other than Scripture and our own intellect.  

I spent a number of years during my late teens and college years in Foursquare Gospel Churches.  I left these churches for the Disciples, because I found the Disciple emphasis on a rational faith to be attractive.  It fit my personality.  But, while you can take a person out of a movement, that doesn’t mean that the movement hasn’t left its mark on you.  

So even as my Anglican heritage and my sojourn in evangelicalism have left their mark on me, so has my sojourn among the Pentecostals.  So, during my sabbatical I spent some time reflecting on this inheritance, and I made a pilgrimage to Angeles Temple, the mother church of the Foursquare Gospel denomination.  Cheryl and I had a great time talking with the docent at the Foursquare Heritage Center about that church and its influence on life in Southern California and the West Coast.  I always love to tell the story about how Aimee Semple McPherson’s church fed more people during the Great Depression than the county of Los Angeles.  I think this is a sign of spiritual  empowerment.   

I have to confess that I’ve struggled with how to integrate this Pentecostal inheritance into my spiritual life.  When I referred to myself as an ex-Pentecostal, Amos Yong, who is a Pentecostal theologian and our 2012 Perry Gresham lecturer, challenged me on this.  In the course of our conversations, he helped me re-frame this part of my journey so that I could drop the ex from Pentecostal.  It also helped me bring my book on spiritual gifts to a fruitful conclusion.   

If Paul is correct, that there is a variety of gifts or charismata, but only one Spirit who gives to each of the gift we need to fulfill our calling.  So maybe, we’re all Charismatics – people filled with the power of the Holy Spirit and gifted for service to God and our neighbors – near and far. 

I want to return for a moment to this Pentecostal Movement that helped form me.  It is believed that the modern Pentecostal movement was born out of the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles.  In 1906 an African-American preacher named William Seymour started holding meetings in a storefront church.  As he preached, people began to have ecstatic experiences, which they attributed to the Holy Spirit.  People spoke in tongues, experienced healing, and apparently witnessed other miraculous events.  Many of the participants began to believe that these experiences were signs that the world was entering the Last Days.  Once again the Spirit was moving, like on the day of Pentecost.  Surely God was at work in their midst.  They saw themselves, at least at first, as a vanguard of renewal for the church, but not everyone received their witness and so they began to develop their own networks outside mainstream churches.  That is, until the Charismatic Movement broke out in Mainline Churches and Catholic Churches during the 1960s. 

Unfortunately division set in.  People on both sides of the Pentecostal divide began to see themselves as superior to the other, and so the possibilities of learning from each other were squandered.  But, interestingly enough, people outside the Pentecostal movement discovered Paul’s teachings on spiritual gifts, and so new opportunities for mutual encouragement have begun to develop.     

One of the gifts that the early Pentecostal Movement brought to the broader church was the inclusive
nature of these early revivals.  In 1906 the church was segregated, but at Azusa Street people of every ethnic group gathered to worship and to hear this black preacher.  And while most of the participants were poor and lower middle class, the revival crossed socioeconomic lines as well.  But not only that, at a time when even liberal Protestant churches were still barring women from their pulpits, this movement gave women the opportunity to preach.  Yes, the message that William Seymour offered was one of radical egalitarianism.2  So, you can imagine why many good upstanding Christians viewed this revival with suspicion and even disdain.  It was dangerous!

Our founding vision is this: God covenanted with Abraham and Sarah, telling them that the nations would be blessed through their descendants.  The message we hear in Acts and 1 Corinthians is that through the Spirit, God has gifted us and empowered us to carry out this mission.  These gifts of God are “manifestations of the Spirit for the common good.”

So, it seems that Pentecostals tend to emphasize ecstatic experiences with the Spirit.  At the same time, Disciples tend to emphasize a faith that is rational and understandable. The good news is that we don’t have choose between the two.  Both are expressions of the Spirit of God who indwells us.   

When it comes to deciding when and where the Spirit comes into our lives, Scripture offers several pictures.  It might be baptism or it might be some other subsequent event.  In his book entitled Inspired: The Holy Spirit and the Mind of Faith, biblical scholar Jack Levison takes us back to the Old Testament – to the story of creation.  In Genesis 2, after God creates the earth, God takes some dirt and fashions it into a body, and then God breathes life into this body.  Levison reminds us that the Hebrew word ruach can be translated as wind, as breath, and as spirit.  So maybe what God provides at this point in the creation story is “spirit-breath” (Genesis 2:7).  That is, the Spirit of God indwells us from birth, and therefore the gifts of God are already present within us from the very beginning of our lives.  We simply have to nurture this spirit that is present within us, so that the gifts of God can be used to bring blessing to all.3 

  1. Andy Crouch, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power(Downer’s Grove: IVP, 2013), p. 35.
  2. Gaston Espinoza, “Ordinary Prophet: Willaim J. Seymour and the Azusa Street Revival,” in The Azusa Street Revival and Its Legacy, Harold D. Hunter and Cecil M. Robeck, Jr., eds., (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2009), pp. 41-43.
  3.  Jack Levison, Inspired: The Holy Spirit and the Mind of Faith, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2013.    

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
5th Sunday after Epiphany
February 9, 2014

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Room to Move -- Reclaiming a Founding Vision Series, Sermon 4

Galatians 5:1, 13-15

We’ve reached the midpoint of this seven-week sermon series.  My hope is that I can connect our founding visions with our present and future ministry. During my sabbatical I thought a lot about the links between past and present.  Although I believe that we need to keep focused on where God is leading us, I also believe that we can find clues to where God is leading in the past. To put it in biological terms, during my sabbatical I did a bit of research into the DNA of this congregation and my own spiritual heritage. My sense is that our spiritual DNA will help us find our place in the present and in the future.

    Although I could have started with the creation story, I think that the best place to start in exploring our spiritual DNA is with the covenant that God made with Abraham and Sarah.  In that covenant God promised that through their descendants, the nations would be blessed.  This founding vision has been meditated to us through Jesus, whom we confess to be the Christ and Son of the Living God.  In the previous three sermons we’ve considered our inheritance, our need to regularly reset current practices and beliefs to our founding visions, and our evangelical call to mission.  This morning I want to reclaim another core value, one that is deeply rooted in our Disciples tradition.

From the earliest days of the Disciples movement we have valued freedom.  Maybe that’s because we were born on the American frontier soon after the nation’s founding. The movement was born during the presidencies of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.  During this period of the nation’s history, many European-Americans took advantage of the nation’s expanding borders to roam westward.  If your neighbor got to close, you could always move further out into the wilderness.  As the nation pushed outward, churches got planted, and the denominations that were the most flexible in their theologies and practices thrived.  Among these adaptable traditions, was the Disciples movement.  The message they preached focused on a simple creed – that Christ is the center and Scripture is our guide.  This vision is best summed up in a slogan our Founders borrowed from  the reformer Rupertus Meldinius:   “In essentials unity, in opinions liberty, in all things charity.”

I’m not sure that democracy is a biblical concept, but in the heady days of the new American republic, Alexander Campbell embraced these democratic principles, believing that held the key to bringing about unity and spreading the gospel across the nation.  He wrote:    
It is not possible, or, in other words, it is not in human nature, to love liberty, freedom of thought, of speech and of action, in the state, and to hate it in the church; or to love it in the church and to hate it in the state. [Quoted in Ronald Osborn, Experiment in Liberty, (St. Louis:  Bethany Press, 1978), p. 25].
The Campbells and Barton Stone decided that if we’re going to have room to roam then we can’t use creeds as tests of fellowship. Now they didn’t completely reject the creeds, but they didn’t think creeds should be used to exclude people from the community.  Instead of focusing on creeds they directed our attention back to the New Testament.  While the nation set up a legal system to interpret the Constitution, our Disciple ancestors took a more radical step and insisted that every Christian had the freedom to interpret the Bible for themselves.  Or to put it differently – we should let the Bible speak for itself.

This gift of freedom entails a great deal of risk.  It’s possible that people will claim freedom for themselves and not extend it to others.  It’s worth remembering that while the promise of freedom and equality were enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, many of those who signed the document, including the author, owned slaves.  It would take nearly a century before the nation rid itself of this stain, and even after fighting a devastating Civil War that ended slavery, true freedom remained a dream for many.

Although Abraham Lincoln wasn’t a perfect vessel, he understood that a nation committed to freedom couldn’t survive if it was half slave and half free.  Lincoln rooted his vision in the Declaration of Independence.  He believed that this document provided the founding vision for the nation.  In the Gettysburg Address he returned to this founding vision and reclaimed its promise of freedom and equality for all.

There is another source of Lincoln’s understanding of freedom – his reading of Scripture.  Lincoln never joined a church, but he had been an avid reader of the Bible since childhood and he regularly attended Presbyterian churches. As to why he never joined a church, Lincoln replied that he would join the first church that made as its sole qualification for membership Jesus’ summation of the Law – that we should love God with our heart, soul, and mind, and love our neighbor as we love ourselves.  Our founding pastor, Edgar DeWitt Jones, who was an avid student of Lincoln’s life, shared this word in a sermon:  
It may be said by way of comment on this quotation that the statement of Jesus with respect to the law and the gospel is written on the altars of all the churches, but so much else is also written there that is secondary and relatively unimportant that the fundamental teachings of Jesus are obscured. [Jones, Sermons I Love to Preach, (Harper, 1953), p. 141.]
Our Stone-Campbell founders dedicated themselves to removing as much as they could the stuff that obscures the biblical message. They weren’t completely successful, but their commitment to freedom of interpretation serves as a reminder that we need to regularly clean out our theological closets and reset our vision to the vision laid out in God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah and developed further by Jesus.

Yes, we are free in Christ.  As Paul told the Galatian church, which was struggling with standards for membership: “For freedom Christ has set us free.  Stand firm therefore and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery. (Gal. 5:1 NRSV).

Christ has set us free to be his disciples.  We’ve been invited to follow him and bring the good news of God’s realm to the world.  There is freedom here to explore matters of faith and to learn what it means to be a follower of Jesus.  When Lincoln laid out his own creed, he sought one that could unite rather than divide.  That is, I believe, the quest that our Disciple ancestors set out on two centuries ago.

Consider that when someone joins this congregation, we simply ask that they confess Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, and affirm him as Lord and Savior.  As you can see, this simple creed leaves room to roam.  Some of us take a more minimalist view, and others a more expansive one.  But, whether we have low Christology or a high Christology, we are one in Christ.

One of the reasons why I’m a Disciple is this openness.  I appreciate the room we have to roam theologically.  But freedom to roam doesn’t mean that there are no limits.  We may differ in our Christology – that is our understanding of who Jesus is – but we have all confessed Jesus to be the Christ.  He is the center of our life together; the glue that binds us to one another.  

We are free in Christ, but with this freedom comes responsibility.  Paul tells the Galatian church to “not use your freedom as an opportunity for self indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another” (vs. 13).   We are free in Christ, but that freedom involves loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.  This is the way of Jesus.  It is the way of true freedom in Christ.

There is room to roam, but this freedom is rooted in the Law of the Lord.  Neither Paul nor Jesus throw out Torah – the Law.  What they tried to do was help us understand that the Law of God is a means to an end, but it isn’t the goal. To make the Law our goal is to fall into the trap of legalism.  But, in avoiding this trap, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of libertinism.

We are free and yet we’re to be slaves to one another.  This seems like a paradox.  Thankfully, Richard Rohr offers us a bit of help in making sense of this paradox.  
The reason we can move toward real freedom is because we started with moral laws and clear expectations from authority figures, which put good and needed limits to our natural egocentricity. [Richard Rohr,  Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality(p. 80). St. Anthony Messenger Press. Kindle Edition. ]
When we’re children, our parents set boundaries.  As we mature, we gain more and more freedom.  The way we exercise this freedom, however, is constrained by the inheritance we receive from Jesus, who showed us that the way to God is to love God with our entire being and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.  Upon these two commandments, “hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:34-40). If we embrace this vision, then we will become agents of blessing to the nations.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
4th Sunday after Epiphany
February 2, 2014