St. John’s Baptist Church

Worship | Sundays @ 10:30am

Thanking God for Our Partnership in the Gospel

July 10, 2016 – 90th Anniversary of the Sanctuary

Guest Proclaimer: Dr. Christopher C.F. Chapman, D.Min., First Baptist Church, Raleigh, NC

Sermon: Thanking God for Our Partnership in the Gospel

Scripture: Philippians 1:1-11

I want to begin with a word of gratitude for the invitation to be with you today. When Dr. Foust called to issue the invitation, noting the historic connection between our churches, I was immediately inclined to say yes, because of the respect I have for this church and the positive impressions I have of your pastor.

I did ask Dennis if he knew who the pastor of our church was in 1926. It was Dr. Thomas W. O’Kelley.  He served the church for 17 years, the second longest continuous pastorate in our 204-year history.  He was the pastor who invited William Jennings Bryan to address the Anti-Saloon League of North Carolina in 1917.  Apparently the crowd became so boisterous that Dr. O’Kelley had to interrupt Bryan to calm them down, reminding them of the proper decorum for our sanctuary.  It is ironic that the church which hosted an Anti-Saloon League meeting in 1917 now has a Theology-on-Tap small group… though we also host a number of support groups for those dealing with various addictions.

Anyway… this story provides a clue as to why the pastor of First Baptist Raleigh was invited to preach at the dedication of this sanctuary and why our churches feel a connection to this day. Dr. O’Kelley was a prominent voice in Baptist life, but what this story makes clear is that he pastored a church that engaged the important issues of the day.  Set aside the specific stance, the more compelling detail is a willingness to talk about things that matter, something both of our churches do to this day.

We are not Bury Your Heads in the Sand Baptist Churches.   Rather we are Barthian in our approach to faith, as in 20th-century Swiss theologian Karl Barth, who said that our charge in the church is to hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other and seek God’s counsel as to how the two speak to each other.  It is not an easy path.  But if people can’t sort through what their faith says about the issues they struggle with every day at church, where can they?

To be Barthian one must engage both the Bible and the newspaper, what we learn from the traditions of our faith and from other sources of knowledge. Some assume that those of us who talk about critical issues ignore the texts of our faith, but this is not true.

I was asked at a trial weekend whether I preach on social and political issues or from the Bible. I said I follow the lectionary, though I am not a lectionary fundamentalist, but as I follow those texts, which are shaped by the Gospel readings, I inevitably deal with personal issues and those of social and political concern, they are all in the Jesus story.

In truth, trying to separate the personal from the social and political is impossible. Think back 50 years.  Divorce may have been a social and political issue, but it was also a deeply personal issue for families going through it, a personal issue raising all sorts of questions about God and faith, church and community.

Anyway, the Bible speaks to all dimensions of human experience and thus we take it seriously as we consider any issue of the day. We don’t just read it but study it carefully, and we study not just one passage, but the whole of scripture.  This may sound obvious, but it is not the norm in this day.

In one setting where I served there was an ironic illustration of how even Baptists, who claim to be people of the book, sometimes regard scripture. A group of people became upset because one of our altar Bibles, the one which rested on the pulpit, was removed so that a microphone could be placed on the pulpit.  I had nothing to do with this, it happened in the interim before I began, and there was still a Bible on the communion table, but these folks got upset because this Bible was removed.  “Aren’t we people of the book?” they said.

Later a group got upset because we used the lectionary. “There are too many readings,” they said, “and the readings are too long.”  So, one group got upset because a Bible was removed, another got upset because we were reading too much of the Bible.  The irony was that it was the same group.  They wanted the symbol, they just didn’t want us to read it.

We need to read the Bible, the whole Bible, not just carefully selected verses which confirm our biases, and we need to study what we read carefully, thoughtfully and prayerfully.

But to follow Barth’s counsel, we need to take just as seriously the news of the day; the world in which we live; what’s going on around us socially, politically and economically. We may not have easy answers for the greatest challenges of our time, like the issues plaguing law enforcement today, the racial tensions that still exist, the tragic loss of life we read about every day.  But we can at least ask the questions that need to be asked, consider the ways the church might be of help.  Too often the church has closed itself off from what is going on in the world as if it can’t affect us if we close our eyes.  We cannot afford to do that.

We also need to be open to new insights which come from various sources of knowledge like science and the arts. We need to be engaged in important dialogues about the implications of new understandings, and to be engaged, we cannot run and hide from things like genetic research and the exploration of space.  Too often we have closed ourselves off from new information as if God and faith are threatened.

The classic illustration of this reality is the church’s response to Galileo’s view that the earth is not the flat center of the universe. The orthodox position was not simply that the earth was the flat center of the universe, but that changing this view would be the beginning of the end for the church and all of faith.  Not only was the science wrong – the earth is not flat nor is it the center of our galaxy much less the whole world – but even more importantly, the theology was wrong.  One new scientific insight did not end the church and the faith.

It’s easy to look back and scratch our heads at such unnecessary fear and the resultant tendency to dig in on some issues presumed to be non-negotiable, but how will future generations look back at our ours? So many in the church still have a flat-earth view of sexuality and world religions and a 16th century fearfulness about new ideas, not to mention a fear of the rest of human family that doesn’t look and think like us.

But there are churches where fear does not prevail, churches like ours which do not bury our heads in the sand but rather choose to engage the issues that matter, even when we do not agree, study the issues, while studying scripture, and seek God’s wisdom for a new day, ever believing with English Separatist John Robinson that God hath yet more light and truth to reveal from his holy word in every generation.

My sense is that this is at least a part of why our churches have been connected, and I am thankful that you are engaged in this work, thankful for your partnership in the Gospel, to echo what the Apostle Paul says to the church at Philippi nearly 2,000 years ago. Unlike Paul, I cannot speak as one who was here when our churches first got connected.  I wasn’t born until 1960.  But I can speak as one who is thankful that our churches are connected through the kind of ministry we do, partners in a specific kind of Gospel work.

We Baptists want to be independent, but not isolated. We want to discern the Spirit’s intent for ourselves and our communities of faith, but we don’t want to be alone.  We need each other, we need other churches out there thinking and acting like us for a number of different reasons.

For one thing, we need each other to help sustain our future existence. We often talk about young people being the church of the future.  The truth is they are the church of the present.  They contribute ideas, energy, service and love today.  But they are the church of the future too, just not necessarily our future.

That is, given the mobility of our society, there is no guarantee as to where our youth will live in the future, or to make it more personal, where the two college students Dana and I have raised will live. They may not live in Raleigh and thus take part in the life of First Baptist Church.   They might move to Charlotte and become part of this church and some of your youth may come our way.  But the point is we need others doing church like us out there in other places.

But we also need each other because of how our approach nurtures the faith of some who otherwise might not be nurtured at all. There is no one way to be and do church.  We need the larger body of Christ with each of us playing our distinctive part, but we each need to play our part, meaning each of us as individuals and each church.  Other kinds of churches will connect with people we cannot.  And we will connect with people they cannot.

Again, to be a bit more personal, I did not grow up in church. My mother felt a sense of rejection in small gown North Carolina when she divorced and pursued a career as a woman.  She was also disillusioned by the church’s resistance to racial integration.  The Englishman she married when I was six had been in the Middle East as an SAS operative and saw there the downside of all world religions.  So, they gave up on institutional religion, not God or the Jesus story, but the church.

So, I was raised outside the church and with a good bit of skepticism. Not just any church would have been able to connect with me, but fortunately or providentially I wandered into a church very much like this one when I was fifteen, and they gave me the space to ask my questions, to express my doubts and ultimately to claim my faith.

That’s why I get a little worked up in a good way about churches like ours. Ours is not the only way to live out the Gospel.  But it is a way that is needed by some, in fact, desperately needed by many in this day where so many claim no formal faith.  A significant number of these folks need a church that is willing to engage the issues that matter, a church that is not afraid of new insights.

That’s why I give thanks for our partnership in the Gospel, our sharing of a distinctive approach to faith.

But, like Paul, I don’t just give thanks for our partnership, I pray for you as well, for your future as a church. Paul prays that the Philippians’ love will overflow more and more.  Love is the key to everything.  It is more important than everything else added together.  I pray that love remains at the very center of your shared life.

But Paul doesn’t just pray that their love will overflow, but that it will overflow with more and more knowledge and full insight. He prays for an informed kind of love.  He prays for knowledge and wisdom and in the process affirms the kind of openness to insight we have named already.  It is a much needed quality in this day.

Consider a couple illustrations of the challenge. The first comes from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead.  The old minister in this rich tale expresses these concerns (p. 208).

Two or three of the ladies had pronounced views on points of doctrine, particularly sin and damnation, which they never learned from me. I blame the radio for sowing a good deal of confusion where theology is concerned. And television is worse.  You can spend forty years teaching people to be awake to the fact of mystery and then some fellow with no more theological sense than a jackrabbit gets himself a radio ministry and all your work is forgotten. I do wonder where it will end. 

The second illustration comes from the life of John Wesley.  He had a conflict with a pious man who had a low view of higher education (The Minister’s Manual, 1982, p. 244).  The man said to him, “The Lord has directed me to write to you that, while you know Greek and Hebrew, he can do without your book learning.”  Wesley replied, “Your letter received.  I wish to say that while the Lord does not direct me to tell you, yet I wish to say to you on my own responsibility that the Lord does not need your ignorance either.”

We live in a fascinating time, an exciting time of much change and possibility, but also a time of much craziness.  In such a time, we need all the wisdom we can obtain, but often it seems like ignorance is held up as a virtue, like people with no more sense than a jackrabbit want to calls the shots in every arena of life.  We can’t abide that much longer.  We need more love and kindness in this hostile world, and it needs to be informed and full of insight.

Paul says as much to the Philippians and he says the purpose of this insightful love is to determine what is best, so that we will be pure and blameless in the day of Christ. To determine what is best…  There are so many things we can do with our very limited time.  What is most critical for us in this day?  What is most important?  What is the best use of our time and energy as individuals and churches?

Only love informed by wisdom and insight and guided by the Spirit can answer these questions. But from all I know, you have taken this task seriously.  You have made love a priority and sought to inform your love.  You have put grace and compassion at the center of your shared life.  You have sought to connect the goodness of the Gospel with people around you which is why I am thankful for our partnership.

Many years ago I preached a dramatic sermon on Founder’s Day at the church I served. I do dramatic sermons a few times a year, often portraying biblical characters or characters from church history.  This year I portrayed the founding pastor of that church, an Englishman who preached in morning attire, white coat and gloves.  They put a silver pitcher on a table beside the pulpit with a crystal glass.  If he was preaching and needed water, he would pause, take off his gloves, and pour the water, then put the gloves back on and sip the water in ever so refined a manner.  It was fascinating to research these sorts of these details.  Things were so different those 80 years or so in the past.

And yet, the core issues weren’t different. People still had the same basic needs.  The church’s tendencies seemed very familiar – a reticence to speak of faith openly, a habit of getting stuck on non-essentials, a love for food and fellowship and each other.  And the Gospel itself, the radical love of God revealed in Christ, was the same.

These are the realities for us today. As we look back 90 years, a lot of quirky details are different, like the order of service, what people wear to church, what specific issues people are wound up about.  But the essential details are the same – we worship the same God, we follow the same Christ, and like our forebears in this distinctive kind of Baptist church, we are trying make sense of the critical issues of our day in light of our best understanding of the biblical witness.

I am thankful for our partnership in the Gospel and I pray that your love may continue to overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best so that in the day of Christ you may prove pure and blameless.