Text: John 1:43-51
Last week, I asked the question with our youth and with the entire congregation exactly what the ritual of baptism means to us today as a community of faith. More specifically I posed the question of whether baptism is essential to our commitment together in the form of membership. That question, as questions tend to do, has snowballed, and has led me to feel the need to talk in even broader terms about what it is that makes us who we are here at 1801 Hillsborough Street. This morning I begin with the question “What defines us, Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, as a Christian church?” I hope next week to carry the theme forward and talk about what defines us as a Baptist church.
I had already made the decision to focus on this question of faith identity when the week’s events handed me a sermon starter. This week we have observed a private university here in our state grappling with precisely this kind of question of identity. For two years, almost every Friday, Muslim students have gathered in front of Duke’s chapel steps to offer their midday prayers. Last week, Duke University officials announced a plan to sound the Muslim prayer call from its chapel bell tower every Friday at 1:00 p.m. as a gesture of the school’s commitment to religious diversity. In response, a prominent Christian religious leader, Franklin Graham, rallied enough Christians around the notion that Christianity is doomed if a Muslim call to prayer is heard once a week from the monumental, 210-foot Gothic Christian chapel to the point that university officials reversed their decision. Now, school officials say, the call to prayer will sound from a speaker system set up in the quad directly in front of the chapel steps. In defense of the university’s sudden about face, Michael Schoenfeld, Duke’s vice president for public affairs and government relations, said, “The chapel is a very powerful symbol to anybody who has been at Duke or is connected to Duke. We have to be very thoughtful and deliberate in the way that it is used and presented.” One could surmise that, at least for some in the conversation this week, bell towers and buildings define what it means to be Duke University. It is ironic to me that the school cited credible security threats as a reason for reversing their decision. If we assume those threats were not from Muslims, we must ask the question, “Were they coming from Christians?” What defines us as Christians and specifically as a Christian Church?
Jane Goodall is quoted as saying, “My mother always used to say, ‘Well, if you had been born a little girl growing up in Egypt, you would go to church or go to worship Allah, but surely if those people are worshipping a God, it must be the same God’. The same God with a different name.”
Indeed, culture is one slice of the pie that defines us as a Christian church. The very fact that we were born in America which has been a culture dominated by Christianity greatly defines who we are as people of faith. To make this point today in 2015, we only need to look at the newly elected 114th Congress. More than nine-in-ten members of the newly elected 114th Congress identify themselves as Christian. With that said, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has just completed an extensive new survey detailing statistics on religion in America and explores the shifts taking place in the U.S. religious landscape.
Based on interviews with more than 35,000 Americans age 18 and older, the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey finds that religious affiliation in the U.S. is both very diverse and extremely fluid. More than one-quarter of American adults (28%) have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion—or no religion at all. The survey also finds that the number of people who say they are unaffiliated with any particular faith today (16.1%) is more than double the number who say they were not affiliated with any particular religion as children. The Landscape Survey confirms that the United States is on the verge of becoming a minority Protestant country; the number of Americans who report that they are members of Protestant denominations now stands at barely 51%.
Remember I said just a moment ago that more than nine-in-ten members of the newly elected 114th Congress are Christian? That statistic represents a significantly higher share than is seen in the general population. So it would seem that one of three things is happening – Christians are more likely to run for office, Christians are more likely to get elected to office, or people are more likely to say they are Christian in order to get elected. But it is also true that many other major religious groups are represented in the body of Congress, including Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and the unaffiliated. Pullen still sits within in a larger culture that self-identifies as Christian, but we are a nation that daily is becoming more religiously pluralistic—with the fastest growing groups being the “non-religious” and unaffiliated groups. There is a religious cultural shift in America and how we answer the question of What defines us as a Christian church? will determine how we experience and live into this cultural shift. Will we ignore it, deny it, fight it, or embrace it?
Another slice of the pie that defines us here at Pullen as a Christian church is our history. Some 130 years ago, a group of people who identified themselves as Christian decided to begin a mission church near downtown Raleigh. On December 17, 1884, the Biblical Recorder—the state-wide Baptist Journal—reported that:
The third Baptist Church in Raleigh is an established fact. A number of the most active and useful members of the First and Second churches have taken letters and will be organized into a church at an early day. The church is located on the old Palace ground near the buildings of the Centennial Graded School.
Approximately one week later, the minutes of the First Baptist Church for December 28, 1884, indicate that:
On Sunday evening, Dec. 28, 1884 the Fayetteville Street Baptist Church was organized…Rev. T.E. Skinner, C.T. Bailey and Alvin Betts constituted the presbytery. Thomas W. Blake and J.T. Pullen were made deacons. Trust in God and do its duty is inscribed upon the banner of this little church.
From our humble beginnings, we, by the very nature of those who brought our church into existence, have been defined and identified as a Christian church. In large part, our very specific history defines us as a Christian church. But I want to look underneath that layer of nominal identity. Is that title what holds us together? I found it interesting in lectionary group this week that someone wondered out loud that if some of our members decided to start a new church would they call it a Christian church. There was a moment of silence and we continued our conversation in a different direction.
Culture and history are two slices of the pie that define us, Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, as a Christian church. But with a shifting culture and an ongoing history we must continue to ask “What defines us and what will continue to define us as a Christian church?” It most certainly will not be that those who come to us in the future will necessarily come to us from any particular Christian background. It will not be because our nation and culture remain a predominately Christian nation. And so it is becoming more and more critical that we be able to articulate what it means for us to be Christian, and why it matters—if, indeed, it does.
Whether we have been heirs to it through culture or history or have freely chosen it, we begin with a story—the Christian story of the Bible. For some of us, it has been the only story of faith that we have ever known. This story, the story of the Bible, has defined and shaped us in ways that have both blessed and cursed us. We fuss with it, we read it over and over again and again, we affirm it and question it, at times we love it and at other times we despair of it. There are times when we read it and it gives us life and breath and other times we can read a passage from it and we can feel its words sucking the life and breath right out of us. But it is the story of our faith—this Christian story. We stand rooted in it, not at the exclusion of other stories of faith, but rather from a place of belonging and beginning. And it is this story that defines us as Christian.
But how this story defines us as Christians is the great point of tension within Christianity. Does the story teach us “the way” or “one way?” Does it teach us that all are equal in God’s eyes or that some are more deserving than others of God’s love? Does the story teach us that God favors some or that God shows no partiality? Does it tell us of a God whose love has limits or whose love is boundless—who offers grace upon grace?
The fact that this is our story does not, in my opinion, define us necessarily as a Christian church. How we read and understand and live out this story of our faith will be what ultimately defines us as a Christian church or as simply a religious institution more focused on bells and buildings and protecting an ideology and theology that no longer has relevance for today.
As I understand the story of our faith it is a story of drawing the circle large enough to include everyone. Remember Edwin Markham’s little poem, “He drew a circle that shut me out, heretic, rebel a thing to flout. But love and I had the wit to win, we drew a circle that took him in.” That is the story of our Christian faith and it is what defines us as a Christian church—drawing the circle large enough to take everyone in who wants to enter—Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist, humanist, socialist, believer, non-believer—anyone who comes to our door looking for a place of belonging and acceptance.
What defines us as a Christian church? In part, it is the witness of those “most active and useful” members of the First and Second Baptist churches of Raleigh who in 1884 risked venturing out to do something new.
And since that time, what has defined our church as a Christian church? I say to you it is our willingness to teach our children and youth that it is okay to question their faith, to ask tough questions of the Bible, to raise questions about baptism; to teach them that love is bigger than hate, that peaceful non-violence is better than vengeance, that difference is to be celebrated not feared.
What has defined and continues to define us as a Christian church? I say to you that it is our commitment to partnering and building relationships with other people of faith whether in Cuba or the Republic of Georgia or in Nicaragua or in Zimbabwe or at our own back door with the Hope Center to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.
What defines us as a Christian church? I would say to you that it is our courage to invite Muslims into our church on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and to have them stand in our sanctuary and read their holy book, to pray their prayers, to sing their songs as we read our holy book, pray our prayers and sing our songs of faith. It is the courage to stand in solidarity with Muslims when a Christian preacher in Florida is calling on Christians to burn the Koran.
What defines our church as a Christian church? I say to you it was our love that 23 years ago said “yes” to blessing the commitments of same-sex couples. It was our ongoing “yes” to the LGBT community to say to them that they are welcome here as first class citizens of God’s kingdom. That we want them teaching our children and youth and being leaders in our church. That we expect no less than for them to be exactly who God has created them to be—same-gender loving people.
What defines our church as a Christian church? I say to you it is our commitment to feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, clothing the naked, giving the thirsty a drink of water, and welcoming the stranger. On Friday, it was one of our office volunteers not hesitating to give a scared and lonely transgender woman $50.00 so she could travel to take care of her dying uncle. When I asked this woman how she had found Pullen she said, “Someone at the Salvation Army told her to come here that we would help her.”
What defines our church as a Christian church? I say to you it is our openness to stretch our hearts and minds in such a way that challenges us to practice the theology we preach—whether that is in the hymns we sing, or the kinds of programs we offer, or the art we design for our sacred space, or the courage to agree to disagree with one another when it comes to questions of theology and ecclesiology. Our theology by itself will not define us as Christian. But how we practice the theology we preach will or not.
What defines our church as a Christian church? I say to you it is taking a risk to partner with a coalition called HKonJ to fight racism and the injustices of poverty; to stand hand-in-hand with people who don’t look like us or speak the same language that we speak or use the same name for God that we use or have the same nationality that we do to stand up for the common good of all people regardless of their skin color, or their nationality, or the faith they profess, or what side of the tracks they live on.
What, though, ultimately defines our church as a Christian church? I say to you, it is our willingness and our courage rooted in humility to answer the call “follow me.” The writer of the gospel of John is still telling the story. Listen. “The next day Jesus decided to go to Raleigh, North Carolina. He found the people of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church and said to them, “Follow me.” “Follow me.” Every time we answer that call, we are defining ourselves as a Christian church.
Since 1884 the good people of this church, Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, have been following Jesus. If there is a defining aspect of what it means to be a Christian church, I believe it is how one answers the call to “follow me.” That call is not about narrowing the boundaries of God’s love, it is about widening them. It is not about limiting how God works in the world, it is about expanding our vision of God beyond what the generations before us could imagine. It is not about creating God in our image, but rather about being a people who live as though they actually believe that they are created in the image of God. It is not about a conditional love, but an unconditional love. And the only limit that I can imagine placing on this truth is that of killing in the name of any religion.
On Sunday evening, Dec. 28, 1884 the Fayetteville Street Baptist Church was organized…Trust in God and do its duty is inscribed upon the banner of this little church.
Trust in God and do its duty. Our duty and what defines us as a Christian church is our “yes” to trust in God and follow the way of Jesus with an ever expanding vision that what that means is that God’s kingdom is big enough for all of us. In a swiftly shifting religious culture may we hold closely to what defines us as a Christian church for the call is ongoing, “Follow me.”