Date: 61st Anniversary of the United Church of Christ
Scripture Lesson: Mark 2:18-3:6
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
“The Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth from his holy word.” Listen to that again. “The Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth from his holy word.”
These are the words of John Robinson, pastor of a separatist congregation that left England seeking religious freedom. Having been harassed and scorned in various European locations for their “expression” of Christianity, Robinson’s congregation decided to send a group to the shores of North America hoping to find a place where they could practice their version of Christianity in peace.
As those heading to the New World left to join the Mayflower, Robinson gave a farewell speech to his congregants. It included these words: “I charge you before God and his blessed angels that you follow me no further than you have seen me follow Christ. If God reveal anything to you by any other instrument of His, be as ready to receive it as you were to receive any truth from my ministry, for I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth from his holy word.”
Lest there be any misunderstanding, Robinson continued: “The Lutherans cannot be drawn to go beyond what Luther saw. Whatever part of His will our God has revealed to Calvin, they [Lutherans] will rather die than embrace it; and the Calvinists, you see, stick fast where they were left by that great man of God, who yet saw not all things. This is a misery much to be lamented.”
Robinson encouraged his followers to expect new leadings from God in the way of Christ as they faced new circumstances. As heirs of the Reformation, Robinson encouraged his flock to keep growing and changing in ways that were consistent with the ministry of Jesus. He foresaw that new situations would require new responses and he wanted his people to feel free to be completely faithful to Christ and not be limited by certain human teachings of the past. And so he adjured them, “The Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth from his holy word.”
John Robinson and those who came over on the Mayflower are our forebears in the United Church of Christ. This is part of our heritage. And the UCC has taken Robinson’s perspective very seriously in its 61 year history. Most recently his sentiments have been promoted in the Gracie Allen quote widely used in UCC: “Never place a period where God has place a comma.”
This way of looking at matters of faith is not new to Robinson or the UCC. It is clearly evident in the Bible. Many times in scripture, God is portrayed as promising to do something new, a new thing. The prophets speak for a God that is very willing to try new approaches to help humanity live into the fullness of joy and peace. [See Jeremiah 31:22, Isaiah 42:4, 43:19, and 48:6]
Jesus is an example of this; of God doing a new thing. One way we see this is in Jesus’ role in salvation history. Many people were expecting a king-like, political, military messiah on the order of King David. There is much to point to this expectation in the Hebrew Bible. There are also verses in Isaiah about a suffering servant but that was the decidedly “minority” opinion. [See Isaiah 53] The more dominant view was that God would send a classic, powerful ruler who would garner the support of all the people and boot out the Roman invaders. Jesus was not this messiah. To those who saw Jesus as messiah, they believed that God was doing a new thing through a suffering servant.
We also see God doing something new in the teachings of Jesus. Jesus does not establish a new religion. He does not condemn the heritage of Judaism. He is born Jewish and remains Jewish, fully and completely. But he offers new understandings of what had become core assumptions in the Judaism of his day. In some cases, his teaching is actually going back to the original intentions. We heard several examples of this in the scripture that was read this morning. Regarding fasting, the old rules don’t apply. Jesus is known as a glutton and a drunkard. There are times to celebrate as well as to fast. Sometimes you need to let the fasting go. The story of picking grain on the sabbath and the healing of the withered hand show the humanitarian intent of the law. Doing good is more important than being legalistic. Jesus is challenging the current interpretation of the Law. As one commentary points out: The Pharisees and Scribes have no concerns for God’s will. They substitute human traditions for the truth, which comes from God.” [Pheme Perkins, in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 7, p, 422] This is always a temptation in religion. So Jesus does a new thing. He rocks the boat. He is helping people see the truth. And truth is sometimes upsetting, especially new truth.
So when John Robinson declared, “The Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth from his holy word,” he knew that he was part of a long standing stream of faithfulness in the Judeo-Christian tradition. He knew that he was standing on solid ground in terms of scripture and tradition within Christianity.
This idea, that God is doing something new, that faith continues to evolve and emerge, has continued to be an important part of the history and identity of the United Church of Christ.
The UCC was formed in 1957 from two predecessor denominations each of which was formed from two previous denominations. While both were Protestant, the merger of the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the Congregational Christian Church was in some ways an unlikely match and it took many years of discussion to come to the point of actual merger. One big difference was polity. The Evangelical and Reformed Church was “connectional.” That means there was a carefully constructed hierarchy and churches were under the authority of the hierarchy and they were bound to comply with the hierarchy. The Congregational Christian Church had congregational polity. Each congregation was responsible for its own affairs. There was a wider church structure and churches were in fellowship and mission together but the final say was within the congregation.
The denominations differed in another important way. The Evangelical and Reformed church was a creedal church. The doctrine of the church was contained in the Heidelberg Catechism, Luther’s Catechism, and the Augsburg Confession. The Apostle’s Creed was regularly recited in worship. The creed was the test of faith. The Congregational Christian Church did not use a creed as a test of faith. The content of belief was left up to the conscience of the individual believer.
We can see potential problems with two such differing expressions of Christianity coming together but they had a very strong bond. As each was a merger of previous denominations, they had already shown their commitment to the unity of the church. They really did believe that the church was the body of Christ, one body, and not a dismembered body. They believed that God wanted one church working together for the good of the world. Thus the motto chosen for the newly formed United Church of Christ was, “That they may all be one,” from Jesus’ prayer for the disciples in the gospel of John. This was a church that would be united and uniting. The anticipation was that other Christian communions, like the Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, etc. in the US, would also join the UCC and it would be something like the United Church of Canada today.
Obviously we know that this did not happen. But those who were part of creating the UCC in 1957 wanted to create a communion that was open; open to welcoming other churches, open to working together with other churches, and open to God doing a new thing for the good of the world.
To create this openness, the new United Church of Christ incorporated congregational polity. Each church was responsible for its own affairs and for discerning its ministry. You could keep using the same hymnal and financially supporting the same mission projects and using the same curriculum in Church School that you had been using. You could keep your church organization and structure. Or you could change it all. That was up to the congregation.
While making the UCC open and welcoming to additional communions, congregational polity also gave churches the freedom to adapt and change according to how they felt called to serve. We see this in the history of Lakewood United Church of Christ. Through the years this church has functioned in different ways depending on the times. And we take seriously the responsibility to be always evaluating what we are doing and to adapt so that the way we are organized and how we make decisions facilitates our mission and ministry rather than obstructing it. We appreciate the freedom to worship and teach and serve in ways that are relevant to our circumstances. We take seriously the responsibility to discern our calling and to respond with generosity and love. We have embraced the flexibility and openness that is a hallmark of the UCC.
Along with this practical openness the UCC has also embraced theological openness. With the merging of a creedal denomination and a non creedal denomination, the decision was made not to require a creed, a test of faith, for being part of the UCC. If you look in your hymnal at readings 881-887 you will see the Nicene Creed and the Apostle’s Creed. Churches are welcome to use those creeds if they so choose but they are not required to do so.
The newly formed UCC decided to create a Statement of Faith for use in churches if they so desired. We read one version this morning. The Statement of Faith conveys a way of understanding God and God’s activity in human history and in our lives. It is not a test of faith.
In the original form, as was accepted for the time, God was referred to with male pronouns. As the church evolved and became aware of the negative effects of gender specific language for God in the church and in society, a new version of the Statement was created which uses the second person, You, instead of He. Given the character of the UCC we can expect to have new forms of the statement in the future, or other statements of faith. In the back of the hymnal, you can see that not only are there several historic creeds and the UCC Statement of Faith, but there are also several other affirmations of faith from other communions. The idea is that no one statement is the be all and end all for all time.
And this brings us to LUCC today. The church has a constitution and by-laws. Some of the organizational arrangements in the document are no longer fitting for our current situation so the advisors have undertaken conversations about updating this document. While we may have thought that the discussion was going to revolve around practical arrangements for our life together, the conversation took an unexpected turn. There was an involved theological discussion, this stemming from the fact that the constitution leads off with the Mission Statement of the church and the statement of the core assumptions of belief associated with the church: “This church affirms God as Creator, Jesus Christ as Savior, and the Holy Spirit as our strength. This church recognizes the United Church of Christ Statement of Faith.” What we discovered is that it is important to the church today to have these foundational statements be truly inclusive of the congregation today and into the future. These foundational statements in the constitution convey religious and theological language that implies certain understandings of faith. Given that the church is evolving, today these statements may be perceived as limiting. Can we say something that includes a broader spectrum of Christian understanding and expression?
The statements in the LUCC constitution specifically portray a traditional theistic view of God. But some people in the congregation have found themselves growing toward a non-theistic understanding of God. The desire of the church leadership is to explore ways to describe our faith in the constitution that include the theistic as well as the non-theistic. Are there ways to state our faith that are inclusive in this way? Can we open the door wider in our language and portrayal of our faith? Can we let more light and truth break forth into our church constitution and our church life and language and worship? Will this help us as a congregation to welcome more people who need the church and who are needed by the church? Can this help us to grow in ways that increase the love we are sharing in the world? Is this an extension of our ministry that is needed going forward? There will be more conversations about this in the weeks to come and the advisors hope that you will want to participate.
I think this is well worth exploring. Many people today in our culture feel that Christianity is irrelevant or hypocritical or regressive. Some of the traditional language and theology is contributing to this. There are issues around some of our traditional Christian views that are at odds with currently verifiable scientifically proven reality. Heaven is not “up” there. Space is out there. God is not “out there” somewhere. The Cosmos is out there. Our universe may be floating in a sea of universes. The church talks about Jesus as God. Was Jesus categorically, genetically different than the rest of humanity? The church talks about Jesus resurrected and ascended into heaven. Then where is he? Orbiting in space somewhere? We already see these ideas ably expressed by the evangelical atheist movement. When I hear their voices, I agree with much of what is said. But they are confronting a traditional view of Christianity. And they are telling us that that expression of Christianity is going extinct.
So, going forward and into the far future (beyond the next election cycle), is Christianity viable with these claims that are at odds with science? Can there be an expression of Christianity that respects science as it continues to unfold? And can the understandings and concepts of Christianity continue to function in figurative and metaphorical ways so that the teachings of Jesus continue to inspire faith communities to offer love and peace to the world?
I hope so. Because when we look at the world today, at what is going on in our times, it’s clear that the message of Jesus is badly needed. The world is crying out for his vision of unconditional, universal love which leads to relationships that are just and communities that are anti violent; a world characterized by peace and joy. Look at the families divided at our southern border. Look at the treatment of those lost children. Look at an administration forming a space force, taking the use of military force out into space, beyond the confines of Earth’s atmosphere, spreading the cancer of violence. We have a president that wants new nuclear weapons that are easier to use. That is completely at odds with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Then there is the increasing abuse of the environment and economic arrangements that continue to abuse workers. The world sorely needs a church loudly proclaiming the values and world view of Jesus. And the people who share those values need a church, a community of inspiration and support, that doesn’t require them to suspend their rational intellect when they come through the door.
The teachings of Jesus remain very attractive to many people who are not part of a church because of some of the archaic ways of talking about things in church. Yes, there are those who think of God in theistic terms – think of God as a You, or a He, or a Creator, or a something, somewhere, an entity, with power to influence and control human history and individual circumstances. People with understandings along these lines need to feel welcome in church. There are also those who are moving toward thinking of God in non theistic terms. No “You,” no anthropomorphism, no entity somewhere. Instead, the non theistic believer may think of God as a principle, as an idea, as a concept of unity and love and life and relatedness or as the “ground of being” to quote 20th century theologian Paul Tillich. Some are thinking about God as a foundational precept. The core of reality. And new ways to think about Jesus are emerging. He may be seen as a manifestation of the full embodiment of universal, unconditional love. The fullness of humanity. The journey of faith then is to live in ever greater alignment with these concepts of love and unity and life. Can we as one congregation embrace all of these views and more in the faith statement of our LUCC constitution?
We can see how these newly emerging theologies and understandings are an extension of those prescient words of John Robinson: “The Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth from his holy word.” Robinson well understood, that as humanity evolves and develops and confronts new challenges, new ways of conveying faith will be needed or it will be left behind as anachronistic, archaic, and irrelevant. It will go extinct. And what prevents extinction? Adaptation. So we are right to hearken back to Robinson. This is our moment to let more light and truth in; to revision how we speak of our faith, to expect new wine and new wineskins, because the world still desperately needs the healing love of Jesus. Amen.
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.