Thursday, June 27, 2013

Why Religious Freedom Matters

             As we approach Independence Day 2013 here in the United States, I think a word about religious liberty is in order, especially in light of current events in our country.
            What most church historians consider the first distinguishably Baptist congregation was established by a group of English Christians in Amsterdam, Holland in 1609. They were dissenters from the Church of England, and like the Pilgrims who came to America in 1620 on the Mayflower, had fled from persecution in their homeland to Holland, which was something of a haven for dissenters. In fact, these first Baptists had significant connections with the Pilgrims, but when they began to insist on believer’s baptism, a division arose between the two groups.[1]
            The two leaders of this little band of Baptists were John Smyth and Thomas Helwys. They would later have their own differences, but they launched a Christian movement that would find a variety of expressions all over the world.
            In 1920, the Southern Baptist Convention met in Washington, D.C. Prior to the start of the meeting, George W. Truett, the famous pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas, preached a sermon on religious liberty from the steps of the Capitol Building to a crowd estimated to be between 10,000 and 15,000 people. In that sermon, Truett said:

Baptists have one consistent record concerning liberty throughout all their long and eventful history. They have never been a party to oppression of conscience. They have forever been the champions of liberty, both religious and civil . . . . Our fundamental essential principles have made our Baptist people . . . to be the unyielding protagonists of religious liberty, not only for themselves, but for everybody else as well.[2]

Indeed, this is one of Baptists’ greatest contributions to the world—religious liberty. And in the United States, that passionate belief in religious liberty led to Baptists’ advocacy for the separation of church and state at a time when most of the original thirteen states still had established churches that were supported by taxes paid to the state governments!
            But why does religious freedom matter?

A different situation
            Things were very different in colonial America. At that time, Baptists were a relatively small Christian denomination scattered throughout the thirteen colonies. Their minority status often made them religious outsiders. Their somewhat radical views on issues like believer’s baptism by immersion (thus rejecting infant baptism), a regenerate church membership (that a church should be composed only of persons who had made a conscious faith commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior), and liberty of conscience (that each individual was responsible directly to God in matters of faith, rather than to a church hierarchy or the state) often led to their persecution.
Roger Williams, who left his Anglican roots and became a Baptist for a brief time on his way to becoming a Seeker, was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony because he had come to believe and teach that government authority could neither dictate nor nurture faith. He thus advocated what he called a “hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.”[3]
Williams was only one of many persecuted Baptists. John Clarke, pastor of the Baptist church in Newport, Rhode Island, was arrested by the civil authorities in Lynn, Massachusetts along with two members of his congregation, Obadiah Holmes and James Crandall. They were charged with holding an illegal worship service in the home of William Witter. They were given the option of paying a fine or being whipped. Someone anonymously paid the fines for Clarke and Crandall, but Holmes wouldn’t allow payment of his fine. He received thirty lashes—one lash for each pound of the fine. In the southern colonies, where the Church of England was the established church in Virginia, Georgia, and in parts of South Carolina, Baptists were regarded as illiterate and ignorant. They were often required to register their meeting places and to help support the Anglican clergy financially. Refusal to baptize infants was a punishable offense. Baptists and other dissenters weren’t allowed to preach freely; after the 1689 Act of Toleration, they could obtain a license, but only to preach in certain places, leaving them subject to persecution if they preached elsewhere. [4]
            All that happened here, not in Russia or China or India or Saudi Arabia or Iran—here in America!
            These Baptists in early America were persecuted and oppressed because of their beliefs. The attitudes and actions they were persecuted for grew out of certain fundamental theological convictions based on their understanding of the Bible, particularly the New Testament. Their views led them to the conclusion that there must be religious liberty for all persons. Like their British Baptist brothers and sisters in England, they were convinced, as Thomas Helwys had expressed it in his handwritten dedication to King James I,  A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity, that “the king is a mortal man and not God, therefore has no power over the immortal souls of his subjects, to make laws and ordinances for them, and to set spiritual lords over them.”[5] 
In Book II of this work, Helwys put it even more bluntly:

For our lord the king is but an earthly king, and he has no authority as a king but in earthly causes. And if the king’s people be obedient and true subjects, obeying all human laws made by the king, our lord the king can require no more. For men’s religion to God is between God and themselves. The king shall not answer for it. Neither may the king be the judge between God and man. Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure.[6]

Helwys was imprisoned by King James for his views—the same King James that sponsored the beloved Bible translation that bears his name. Helwys later died in Newgate Prison sometime before 1616.[7]

Biblical and Theological Foundations
Now Baptists didn’t arrive at this understanding of religious freedom willy-nilly.  They pointed to some key biblical passages as the basis for this conviction . . .
  • Genesis 1:26-27, where the first creation story portrays God as creating humankind (both male and female) in his own image; 
  •  Luke 4:16-21, where in the synagogue service in his hometown of Nazareth, Jesus read the lesson from the prophets (Isaiah 61:1-2a) about being sent “to proclaim good news to the poor . . . . to proclaim liberty to the captives . . . to set at liberty those who are oppressed . . . ,”[8] and essentially claimed this passage as his mission statement; 
  •  John 8:36, where Jesus said: “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed”; 
  •  Galatians 5:1, 13, where Paul stated: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery . . . . For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters . . .” (nrsv); 
  •  Romans 13:1-7, where Paul urged appropriate submission to the governing authorities in civil matters, arguing that government is instituted by and entrusted with authority by God to preserve order and administer justice; 
  • 1 Peter 2:13-17, which we read earlier, where Peter offered a similar understanding as Paul’s, and called on Christians to live responsibly as free people, fearing God and honoring the emperor; 
  •  Acts 4:13-22 and 5:27-29, where Peter and other apostles responded to the Jewish council (the Sanhedrin), which had a degree of civil as well as religious authority, by saying that if the two conflicted, they were bound to obey God rather than human authority; and 
  •  Matthew 22:15-22, where Jesus responded to an attempt to entrap him in his answer to a question about whether to pay taxes to Rome or not by declaring that since the emperor’s image and inscription were on the coin used to pay the tax, they should “therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
The themes of freedom, responsibility, and ultimate loyalty to Jesus Christ as Lord permeate these texts.
            In his book The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms, Walter Shurden argues that Baptists “have anchored their passion for religious liberty to (1) the nature of God, (2) the nature of humanity, and (3) the nature of faith.” [9] 
So the historic Baptist argument runs something like this.[10] God is the sovereign and free Lord of the universe, the Creator of all things, and has revealed himself most fully in his Son Jesus Christ, whom God has made both Lord and Messiah. God has created humans as he chose, and has created them with the power of choice. He created human beings in his own image, with the ability to think, reason, relate to him and one another, and make conscious moral choices.  Throughout history, God has chosen to act toward people in liberating ways, particularly in delivering the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and in sending Jesus Christ to free people from their sin. Because humans are created in God’s image, each individual has dignity and worth. A key aspect of this dignity is the right to make one’s own decisions in matters of religion. Since God has created individuals with the power of choice, genuine faith must be voluntary, not coerced. God forces himself on no one. For this to be true, humans must have the freedom to accept or reject God, to have faith or to refuse to have faith.
            So from the biblical text and careful theological reflection, Baptists have from our earliest days distilled two fundamental principles that form the twin pillars of the theological foundation for religious freedom: the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the liberty of the conscience. The affirmation that Jesus is Lord means that the Christian’s first and ultimate loyalty is to him. The principle of liberty of conscience means that no human authority (civil or religious) can force religious opinion, conviction, or faith. Religious toleration isn’t enough; only religious liberty will do. Toleration implies that only a certain church or churches are legitimate in the eyes of the state; all others are simply tolerated. Toleration is a concession by an established church; liberty is a God-given right. So as Baptists, we have insisted on liberty, and not just for ourselves, but for every person—as John Leland, a Separate Baptist from Massachusetts and one of religious liberty’s strongest advocates put it:

Let every man speak freely without fear, maintain the principles that he believes, worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods, no God, or twenty Gods; and let government protect him in so doing, i.e., see that he meets with no personal abuse, or loss of property, for his religious opinions.[11]

That’s why Leland and Isaac Backus and a host of other Baptists worked so hard and partnered with political leaders like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and others—some of whom were not traditional Christians, if Christians at all—to establish the separation of church and state through the Bill of Rights as a means of guaranteeing religious freedom.

Why it matters
            But why does religious freedom matter? It’s simple. God has created us in such a way that faith can never be forced. A forced faith is no real faith at all. It’s not what God wants from us.  Dave Ramsey, the Christian financial adviser, sometimes quotes his grandmother who often said, “He who is persuaded against his will remains unpersuaded still.”
            God has revealed himself in his Son Jesus Christ, who is Lord. He demands our ultimate loyalty and submission. But he does not force it. For those who refuse, there will be eternal consequences, but he forces no one into faith. It must be a voluntary personal commitment to Christ.
            And when the Son sets us free, we are free indeed!

[1] Pamela R. Durso and Keith E. Durso, The Story of Baptists in the United States (Brentwood, TN: Baptist History and Heritage Society, 2006), 14-15.
[2] The full text of Truett’s sermon can be found at Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty, George W. Truett, “Baptists and Religious Liberty,”
[3] Roger Williams, “Mr. Cotton’s Letter Lately Printed, Examined and Answered,” in The Complete Writings of Roger Williams, vol. 1, ed. Perry Miller (New York: Russell and Russell, Inc., 1963), 108, quoted in J. Brent Walker, Religious Liberty and Church-State Separation (Brentwood, TN: Baptist History and Heritage Society, 2003), 10.
[4] Durso and Durso, The Story of Baptists in the United States, 58-60.
[5] Thomas Helwys, A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity (1611/1612), ed. Richard Groves (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1998), xxiv.
[6] Helwys, Mystery of Iniquity, 53.
[7] Robert G. Torbet, A History of the Baptists, Third Edition (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1975), 37-39.  Walker, Religious Liberty and Church-State Separation, 9-10.
[8] Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®.
[9] Walter B. Shurden, The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 1993), 49.
[10] Similar arguments are presented in: Jim Spivey, “Separation No Myth: Religious Liberty’s Biblical and Theological Bases,”; Walter Shurden, “How We Got That Way: Baptists on Religious Liberty and Separation of Church and State,”; Walker, Religious Liberty and Church-State Separation, 7-9; Brooks Hays and John E. Steely, The Baptist Way of Life, rev. ed. (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1981), 191-192; John Leland, The Rights of Conscience, in Robert A. Baker, A Baptist Source Book with Particular Reference to Southern Baptists (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1966), 40-42; and George W. Truett, “Baptists and Religious Liberty.”
[11] Quoted in Hays and Steely, The Baptist Way of Life, 195.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

"In the Name of Love" Reflections on Matthew 26:6-13

I do not normally post sermons on this blog site, but was asked to post this one by a friend that read it on my personal blog site.  So, I share it with you as a point of encouragement and a word of challenge.   Grace and Peace, Tom 

This week we begin a sermon series that will carry us through Easter, all the way to Pentecost Sunday.  This series comes with an unapologetic agenda.  I believe that we have become so comfortable worshiping Jesus the Christ that we do not know Jesus. I do not know if Jesus would be comfortable in most American evangelical congregations. I believe he would expect something much more from them and from us.

It is easy for us to embrace the Jesus with the flowing white robe, the light complexion, the pleasant smile, and the bright hallow just behind his head.  But, honestly this is not the Jesus of Scripture.  Jesus walked in the highways and byways among the spiritually frustrated, the social outcasts, the diseased, and the desperate. Jesus was soundly rejected by the religious leadership and those comfortable with the status quo.  Jesus came to heal, renew, and restore.  He ate with sinners, talked to a questionable woman in the middle of the day at a well, and invited tax collectors and others that the culture would have pushed away to come and follow him.  I fear the clean, comfortable, religiously predictable and socially acceptable Jesus is an unreasonable creation of the Church.  The Jesus of Scripture came to seek and save the lost, not to bless the religious.  The Jesus of Scripture is the incarnation of God who came to walk among us to make the way for our salvation so that we might be called the “children of God.” “At one point Gandhi was asked if he was a Christian, and he said, essentially, ‘I sure love Jesus, but the Christians seem so unlike their Christ.’”[i] So, over these next weeks I want us to walk so closely with Jesus that we can smell the sweat on his brow and feel his breath on our skin.  I want us to walk so closely with Jesus that his words echo in our ears and his teachings resonated deep within our hearts. I want us to take time to know Jesus so that we can feel the pain of cross, know the joy of Easter morning, and relish in a walk with a living and loving God.

This week we begin our journey toward Easter in just miles outside of Jerusalem.  The passage we heard earlier in our service brings us to Bethany, where we find Jesus eating dinner in the home of Simon the Leper.  As they ate, unexpectedly and uninvited a woman entered the room. The passage does not provide a single word of dialogue. It simply reports; a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table.

This scene is remarkable on so many levels.  First, Bethany is no ordinary town to Jesus. It is the home town to some of his closest friends. It was also the early version of the suburb, located just outside the action of Jerusalem. This small town would be the launching pad for Jesus’ journey into Jerusalem and toward the cross. Second, The banquet occurs at the home of Simon the Leper.  Simon the Leper is not known outside of this story told in Matthew and Mark. Jewish law would have prohibited a banquet at the home of someone with leprosy so biblical scholars have speculated that this is the home of someone that Jesus has healed. And third, there were only two kinds of woman who would have access to expensive perfume. One would be a woman of great wealth. But, a woman of wealth would not have come to a house like Simon’s and would have never anointed one like Jesus.  The other choice is an uncomfortable one. The only other kind of woman that would have had perfume like this would have been a woman of a questionable lifestyle.

Let’s pause right here.  Remember that no one in that room, save Jesus, knew what was ahead.  This makes this moment – this act of this unnamed woman even more powerful.  Her anointing of Jesus’ head would have had a profound symbolic impact.  When she anoints Jesus’ head it is an act of preparation of burial, an act of service and an act of worship all wrapped up in one. She does not interact with others at the banquet. She is singly focused on her task.  Can you see her moving through the crowd to Jesus – not speaking – coming to Jesus – anointing Jesus?  Can you imagine how we might react if someone did something like this in the midst of our worship service here this morning or in a more formal environment like a wedding reception or retirement banquet?

This unnamed woman was a woman on a mission. She gave the best gift that she could imagine. She gave Jesus her undivided attention. This was an unapologetic, extravagant act of worship and sacrificial love. We have to wonder what Jesus had done for this woman for her to choose this grand act of devotion.  Had he healed someone she loved?  Had she listened to his teachings in the crowd?  Had he offered her redemption or had his word brought her hope? Had Jesus stepped into her brokenness and helped her find her way to the feet of God?  What brings you to Jesus? What do you bring to Jesus?
Jesus disciples could not deal with what they were seeing.  The passage tells us; When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.”  The disciples were shocked!  They were shocked to see this kind of woman come to Jesus.  She was outside any and every boundary.  BThey were shocked that she would do what she did? They were shocked that she would use the expensive perfume. We can imagine a grand act of generosity that points back to the giver like naming a football stadium, a hospital wing or a church building for them but, the idea of money being poured out – wasted – is more than we can put our minds around.  It was the same for them. They were shocked at the sense of waste.  They we shocked that Jesus would allow it.  But Jesus was in the habit of welcoming those others would reject.  Let's be clear, anytime we try to define who can come to Jesus we are on the wrong side of the gospel.  Jesus welcomes people to his side regardless of what they may have done in their past, what addiction that defines them, what failures that shape them, what sexual orientation that identifies them, or what brokenness makes them weep. Only Jesus can decide who is welcome at his side and his life and ministry teaches us that his boundaries are bigger than our and his love is greater than ours.  Jesus was in the habit of taking moments like this one to teach those around him - and us - what it meant to really follow him.

The disciples offered a veiled act of piety to explain their reaction.  Rather than pour her perfume out, she should have sold it and the money given to the poor. But the passage makes that the poor had been invited to share the evening meal with them.  None of them had offered their food – their shelter – their resources.  Their comment is a shallow shot –a religious thought with no action or relationship to sustain it. We hear them and like Jesus, need to be able to disregard them.  Do you think maybe our wallets and how we value things sometimes get in the way of service and worship? Does money become so important – so valuable to us – that we are more focused on its value than the value of others?  Are we eager to recommend how others might best spend their resources, while holding tightly on to our own?

Jesus does not let the quiet whispers continue.   Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 11 The poor you will always have with you,[a] but you will not always have me. 12 When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. 13 Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”  Jesus affirmed the act of the woman and acknowledged what would lie ahead.  The disciples could not hear it.  They were too consumed to with their own thought and fears to understand what Jesus was say.  Don’t miss it. Jesus was not minimizing the call to love and serve the poor.  He had articulated this need, this call, this command over and over again throughout his ministry.  They would have the poor with them and the work among the poor would continue to shape their ministries.  But in Jesus’ acceptance and blessing of the act of the woman we see his embrace of the journey to the cross. The death that awaits Jesus is not something that happened to Jesus.  While we will see many players involved in how the story plays out, in this moment we see that Jesus chooses to move forward, always knowing the outcome.  Jesus will walk to the streets of Jerusalem with purpose.  Jesus will walk into the streets of Jerusalem knowing that the pain and the agony that awaits him.  Jesus will walk into the streets of Jerusalem smelling of the perfume that would prepare him for his death and burial, but that would also make the way for salvation and the joy of Easter morning.

It is important for us to remember that the story of this selfless act by this woman is set against two scenes of brutal duplicity.  The passage just before our story we hear the priest and the elders plotting Jesus’ death. Those that were to represent God among the people saw Jesus as a threat to the established religious order. They wanted to make sure that no one challenged the culturally acceptable religious rituals and routines.  Jesus called people to a very different kind of life and a very different kind of walk with God.  On the other side of our passage we find the story of Judas commitment to betray Jesus.  Judas the Zealot, the one among the disciples with the best religious pedigree, the one that was supposedly most devoted to the way of God, rejected Jesus because Jesus did not fit his preconceived religious understandings. Instead of being conformed to the Way of Jesus he wanted Jesus to conform to the way he expected – no, that he demanded.  Do we come to Jesus seeking for Him to bless our comfortable faith, or do we seek Jesus and shape our lives to his Way? Are we ready to know and to walk with Jesus no matter the cost?

Our journey to the cross begins.  Our journey toward Easter begins.  Our journey with Jesus begins.  Draw close and smell the perfume and celebrate this woman’s grand act of worship.  Draw close and see Jesus rise from Bethany and begin to move toward Jerusalem. Draw close and see the sweat on Jesus’ brow as he moves forward for your sake and mine. Draw close and walk with Jesus that we might embrace Jesus as he seeks to embrace us with his love and grace.  Draw close and walk with Jesus and never settle for less.