Roy Medley was a guest in the Pullen pulpit on this Sunday. Rev. Medley serves as general secretary of the American Baptist Churches, USA, and chairs the board of the National Council of Churches.
Texts: Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:1-7, 17-45
I love the church even though I don’t always like her because in the dialect of north Georgia where I grew up, “the church, the bride of Christ, she ain’t always so purty.”
In college at the University of Chattanooga in the late 60s as the civil rights movement was challenging Jim Crow and Vietnam was heating, up a friend of mine challenged me, “Roy, why do you bother with the church? The church has been a bastion of segregation and she has never met a war she didn’t like.” I had to think about it. I had to think about it hard. Why did I bother with the church?
Several days later I ran across him again on campus. “I’ve been thinking about your question.” “Yeah?” He said. “Yeah. The only answer I have is because of the gospel. Even when the church isn’t true to it, she still proclaims the gospel which is truth and has the power to set us free.”
Even in my very Southern home congregation I was taught the gospel chorus, “Jesus loves the little children all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.” Even in my very Southern home congregation, almost every Sunday our preacher would declare, “at the foot of the cross all are equal.” Even in my very Southern home church we affirmed as part of our church covenant, “We stretch our hands in fellowship to every blood washed one” in a culture where a white man would not shake the hand of a black man.
Those gospel lessons and songs were pinpricks of light shining through the shroud of death of racism that lay like a pall over the South. We sang more than we knew, we preached more than we knew, we professed more than we knew because the gospel is greater than the church. Those gospel lessons and songs became the seeds of sedition that would undermine the structure of race taught by our culture.
The gospel is the church’s greatest gift and her greatest judge. The power of the gospel is the power to reshape our lives and the life of our community into lives that mirror the grace and love of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Our Old Testament reading speaks of an Israel in exile, an Israel that has been captured by an external power alien to her own life and the prophet in his vision stands before an Israel that has been reduced to dry bones and the question that forms on his lips is, “Can these bones live again?”
“Can these bones live again?” is the question that is also on the hearts of many within the church in North America. One does not need to be an expert in sociology to know that in America the church is hemorrhaging. Too often the picture that the world sees of the church is one that does not resonate with the gospel we proclaim. The images of Westboro Baptist with its hate-filled signs picketing funerals. The image of a minister burning the Koran. The image of the Roman Catholic Church protecting priests abusing children. These pictures are rightfully disturbing because they are alien to the gospel we preach; they are alien to the way of Christ.
As Baptists, the heart of our understanding of discipleship is that each of us is called personally to follow Jesus. We believe that his death symbolized in this table, this meal, places a high value on the dignity and worth of every person. Our testimony rings with Christ died for me! And the wonder of such a love for me floods our lives with joy, gratitude, devotion and births love in return.
The gospels record the personal nature of Christ’s ministry in incident after incident where Jesus is touching those considered unclean and defiling as he sits among them teaching, healing, forgiving.
Have no doubt about this, God’s love in Christ is for all.
This emphasis in Baptist life and theology on the personal nature of God’s love is good news for everyone whom our society considers a throwaway, a get-away. This emphasis on the personal is good news for everyone who suffers the abuse of their basic human rights whether it is a young tribal girl enslaved in prostitution in Thailand, or a North Korean enduring hunger, or an Afghani girl being denied education, or a young man of color caught up in our system of mass incarceration or an undocumented immigrant begin cheated out of earned wages or a child being denied medical care because his or her family is medically uninsured or those who because of sexual orientation suffer discrimination.
To everyone who lives on the edge and is denied basic human rights the announcement “God has created you in God’s image and God loves you,” is hope, is validation of their humanity, is redemption.
The message, “God loves you” has power.
But the call to follow Jesus is not a solo act. When we are called to follow Jesus, we are not called to walk with him alone.
God has ordained us for community. From the beginning of time, God created us to live in relationship with God and with others. Even the most introverted among us is created for community. God has set us in networks of relationships: family, kinfolk, neighbors, and language groups to name a few. Life is both personal and social. It has been famously said, “It takes a village to raise a child.” I would add, “It takes a village for you to thrive.” We are created for community.
One of the greatest punishments one can endure is exclusion, to be removed from community. That’s why the Amish practice the ban; Roman Catholics, excommunication; governments, exile; and prisons, solitary confinement. Even grade school children understand the power of exclusion from community when they say, “You can’t play with us.” To be removed, to be excluded from community is to be cut off from the essence of what it is to be human.
Therefore, when we are baptized we are baptized both into Christ and into the body of Christ as Paul affirms in his letter to the church in Corinth. We are baptized into communion with God and with each other. We are called individually but we are set in community, a community that transcends time, nationality, language, culture, gender, economic class and ethnicity. When at the age of 14, I accepted Christ as savior and entered the baptistry of a small church in Chattanooga, TN, I wasn’t just baptized into that small congregation of 30 people; I was being baptized into the church universal. I was being made a brother of folks at Japanese Baptist Church in Seattle, the Maitrichit Baptist Church in Bangkok, Iglesia Bautista Primera in Buenos Aires, the Baptist community in the Gaza Strip, but not those alone; the Catholic Church around the corner, the Quaker meeting in the lane, the Methodist Church across town, the Pentecostal Holiness Church down the road. Not by my choice but by God’s grace I was being made part of a community where not all looked like me, thought like me, lived like me that I might become more than I am as “me” alone.
God’s intention for community is beautifully symbolized in the creation narrative in Genesis. God creates all of nature but it does not suffice for Adam. God creates Eve as well. And as Adam and Eve live in Paradise they stroll and converse with God their creator like we stroll and talk with neighbors. Adam and Eve live in community with each other and with God.
But the serpent enters the garden and community is broken. Doubt breaks trust and leads to rebellion and in one of the most telling snapshots of the Biblical album, Adam and Eve are caught hiding from God like wayward children as he calls their names. Community is broken between them and God.
And soon community is broken within the human family as well. Adam and Eve no longer walk as equals. Issues of domination and subjection taint their relationship. Cain rises up and slaughters his brother Abel in a fit of jealous rage. Murder enters the human vocabulary. The flaws of human community are all too evident. Congress is but one example of the meltdown and dysfunction of community today.
In the midst of a broken world, the promise of God is not only will I make you a new creation, a new creature, a new being, I will also make you part of a new community because I have made you for community, even as I, God, exist as the communion of Creator, Redeemer Sustainer—Three-in-One; One-in-Three.
Paul gives us a glimpse of life in the new community. It is a diverse community: in his body metaphor it is symbolized by hands, feet, eyes, and ears. Each is different but each is essential. Because they are different they complement each other to create a richer and fuller experience than if they were alike just as having five senses rather than one offers a greater richness of experience. Therefore each is honored, each is cherished.
So it is to be in the body of Christ. Together we are one though many, each undiminished, each brought to wholeness in relationship with the other. Each one understanding as King has put it that we are “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
God inserts this new community called the church into the life of the world with a vocation, a call, a mission. Our mission is God’s mission brought to its climax in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. It is the ministry of reconciliation, the uniting of all things together in Christ Jesus.
Each Sunday as we gather to worship, to read scripture, pray and celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we are reminded that love is our foremost call: love of God and love of neighbor. We are reminded that our lives are to be marked by compassion, mercy, generosity, grace and forgiveness, the very things that are signs of God’s reign and constitutive of a community of blessing.
The church as community in Christ is marked by mutual care and concern. Compassion and empathy are expressions of agape love. In this body, it is not unthought of for one to sacrifice for others. In this community, the redemptive power of love and forgiveness are to be lived.
When I speak with younger adults what they seek most is an experience of genuine community. They yearn for community where they are loved, accepted, nurtured and cherished. They yearn for community that is healthy and generous in spirit. They yearn for community where relationships are whole and wholesome. They yearn for a community that does good, respects the earth, and works for peace. They yearn for a church that is inclusive. That speaks of “we sinners” and not “you sinners.”
Let us confess what is true about us, yes, us. On this side of glory we will always be a church, a people, that is broken and flawed, a church that struggles to understand and live the fullness of the message we share. A people that are often at odds with one another. A people that is both profane and sacred. A people, a church that is in need of forgiveness. That is why this table is so central to our worship, our community, our lives. It reminds us that forgiveness is offered even as the perfect love represented in this table judges us and calls us to a higher level of love in our walk with others.
We began with the story of dry bones. We end with a story of life. The gospel lesson we heard this morning, is a powerful story of Christ’s call from death to life. Of Christ stripping away from Lazarus the old grave cloths that bound him, and raising him to life. I believe in the seditious power of the gospel to undermine walls of separation, to break through cultural narratives that oppress, to create what Paul describes as a new humanity, a new and fuller form of community.
Through the gospel declared and lived human hearts can change. Human hearts can be stripped of their prejudices and hates, the grave cloths of an old way of life. Old bones can have new life breathed into them. The gift of God to us the community of Jesus followers—as blemished and as broken as we often are—is the power of the One who is love incarnate to breathe new life into old bones, to unbind the human spirit, to change the human heart. Why do I bother with the church? Because of the story of this table, a story of love and redemption, a story of life triumphing over death, a story of old bones and old hearts being offered new life and new ways.