Friday, July 23, 2010

What do you say?

This sermon was preached at Wise Baptist Church, Wise, NC on June 27, 2010; and at my home church, Heritage Baptist Church, Wake Forest, NC on July 11, 2010.

I attended Meredith College for my undergraduate degree, and I majored in religion because I knew that I would be going to divinity school for my masters. If I had it to do all over again, I would choose a different major, maybe English or more likely history. You can blame my parents for the history buff I am. For as long as I can remember, they took my brother and I to various historical sites all over the country, and so many museums that I can’t begin to name them all. There were even two cross country trips to California to visit my grandparents; and if there was something historical to see along the way, we saw it. And it was fun. It was interesting to me. Couple that with all the PBS I watched since our television only picked up 7 channels—2 of them PBS; and my brain was so full of stuff, I don’t know how I ever sorted it out or kept it all straight.

But there is a trick to learning history that I picked up in my US Government class in ninth grade—it is all related. For every event, there is something that came before: a movement, a trigger, a revolt. And as my classmates in that Government class struggled to write every word out of the teacher’s mouth, I just kept track of the whys and hows and I did just as well on the tests without injuring my hand.

The whys of history. Do you know why you are attending a Baptist church today? I am Baptist because my mother is Baptist. And her parents, and their parents. It’s what I know, even if I never knew the history of Baptists—what they stood for and how the beliefs came into being—until I was in my early 20s in divinity school at Gardner-Webb University. There must not be very many Baptist historical sites for my parents to seek out. I only knew the obvious belief that separated us from other denominations—we dunked not sprinkled like that Methodist church down the road.

So this sermon is about the all-so-important Baptist belief of soul freedom. And it is part history lesson—maybe you won’t fall asleep on me. Even if you are not Baptist (and that’s fine! I am very ecumenical these days) there is the story of decision and confession that is something that all Christians have in common. And for that story, I direct your attention to Matthew 16, verses 13 through 20.

13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say the Son of Man is?"

14 They replied, "Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets."

15 "But what about you?" he asked. "Who do you say I am?"

16 Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."

17 Jesus replied, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, b]">[b] and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of death c]">[c] will not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be d]">[d] bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be e]">[e] loosed in heaven." 20 Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

Imagine this scene: a young man is working in his parent’s business. He is a young man, about 21 years old. I’ll call him Bill. When he was a young boy, Bill thought that he would become a teacher. This was due to his fourth grade teacher, Mr. Roberts who was the first male teacher that Bill had ever seen. But that year in Mr. Roberts’ class made a strong impression on young Bill, and from then on Bill told everyone that he was going to become a teacher. But fourth grade isn’t all that difficult, and by the time Bill got to high school where the learning was more difficult, he was an average student. Bill managed to get into one of the state universities, but college is a lot different from high school. Sometimes Bill had trouble completing assignments and managing his time, he sometimes got the words all mixed up when he read—possibly dyslexia that went undiagnosed. Some concepts were too difficult for Bill to learn. After a year, Bill was frustrated with being in college. He managed to get Cs, but it had taken a lot of work.

Bill had always helped his parents in their hardware shop. He could practically run the business himself—even down to the bookkeeping—he was always good with numbers. So, Bill decided that he would just drop out of college and help his parents. After all, they were getting older, and Bill had a girlfriend that he was planning on marrying. But in the back of his mind, Bill wished that he had a second chance at being a teacher.

One day a man showed up in the store. He was dressed in a suit—and his face reminded Bill of Mr. Roberts who had moved away some years before. Even before Bill heard the man explain he was a teacher to another customer in the store, Bill had already had this guy pegged. He knew he was a teacher. As the man came up to the cash register where Bill was working, he stopped and looked Bill square in the eye. He said, “I know you’ve always wanted to be a teacher. Come with me. I’ll teach you what you need to know.”

And just like that, Bill removed his work apron and stepped from behind the counter, and left the store with this man.

Now put this Bill in first century Palestine and change his name to Peter. Peter started school like all the other Jewish boys in his community—at religious school, being taught by a rabbi. Peter and his classmates learned about God and the history of their people and the law. It was fascinating stuff to young Peter as he finally realized why they made sacrifices and kept the Sabbath holy and celebrated festivals. Peter looked at his rabbi and knew there was no other thing he wanted to do with his own life. But it was not to be. The rabbi only took the smartest of his scholars into more difficult teachings beyond the pre-teen years. So Peter finished religious school and went out to learn a trade instead. Along the way, Peter got married and worked to support his family.

Peter was a fisherman, and no one knew the waters of the Sea of Galilee better than Peter. He hated for anyone to tell him how to do his job. Peter was good at fishing. But in the back of his mind, Peter wished he could learn more about the God of his Fathers: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Was there something new he could learn?

One day, a man comes up to Peter, and Peter realizes that this is a rabbi. Rabbis were always walking around Palestine with a group of followers, but this man, this rabbi, had no followers with him. The rabbi looks at Peter and says, “Follow me. I will help you fish for people.” And Peter sees his chance. He immediately gets up and goes with this man; the man that we know is Jesus. Here is Peter’s second chance. And from the gospels, we know that Peter sure did learn a lot in those few years with Jesus.

Jesus called the common people of his day to follow him—not the rabbis, not the Pharisees, not the ruling Roman leaders. Jesus called his disciples from their ordinary lives. Those disciples learned a whole lot more about God that is for sure. Who would have ever guessed that a group of common men and women would walk with the greatest rabbi of all time? Not the brightest, not the smartest, not the richest, but everyday people. Those are the ones Jesus called.

Jump forward a century and a half to the 1500s; there was a man by the name of William Tyndale. Tyndale was an Oxford educated scholar and one day he saw “at first hand the ignorance of the local clergy.” It is reported that Tyndale declared to the ignorant priest, “If God spare my life, ere many years pass, I will cause a boy that driveth the plough [to] know more of the Scriptures than [y]ou.” And Tyndale’s life’s work was to see that the bible was translated into English. You see, before the invention of the printing press a century before Tyndale lived, there was no chance that an individual outside of academic institutions would have read the bible in their own language. All bibles were hand-printed in Latin. The priests in the churches all used Latin for the mass. Sometimes the common people in the church during service would only know parts of the bible from the artwork they saw in church or what their priest told them after confessing their sins. In school we would call that kind of learning “not from a primary source,” and it would be frowned on in our research papers. Tyndale changed that.

After the bible was translated into English, a literate person could understand its words. An illiterate person could learn to read from that bible. And so, a whole new world was opened to the common people. Men and women, boys and girls could read the stories and lessons of the bible and learn about God. This let the boy think about spiritual ideas while driving the plow. Suddenly, the bible was not just a book that only a priest or scholar could use.

Almost 500 years ago—a decade or so before William Tyndale, there lived a German priest by the name of Martin Luther. As you may know, Luther challenged the medieval theology of Roman Catholic Church—a theology that said that God’s grace was only accessible in the church and mediated through the sacraments by the priests—a little clearer stated: you had to go to church and take the sacraments given to you by the priest in order to have salvation. However, Luther said that grace is gained by an individual’s coming before God directly and personally and voluntarily. While this idea began the Protestant Reformation, if you add the translated bibles, it was a radical idea—suddenly the saving grace of God was personal, an individual act from an individual heart because the common people could read the Bible for themselves.

When Baptists came around a century later in the 1600s, they affirmed the individual over the institution, the personal over the sacramental, and direct access to God over an earthly mediator—the priest. This belief is still one of the foundations of the Baptist faith, and it is called by any number of titles: individual competency, the competency of the soul before God, personal faith, soul liberty, spiritual religion, believer priesthood, etc. It is Freedom of the Soul. Soul Freedom. And it gives you the right to answer Jesus’ question in Matthew 16:15, “’What about you?’ [Jesus] ask[s], ‘Who do you say that I am?’”

The writer of Matthew had a purpose in this gospel. The book is written to create a link between the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah and this Jesus of Nazareth who is responsible for the New Testament. That is why we have the genealogy as the preface to this gospel so that we can link Jesus to the history of the Israelites. Peter’s confession in Matthew 16:16—that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” is the key to the entire gospel. It is the hinge upon which the gospel swings; in artistic terms, it is the focal point. The reader of the gospel is supposed to say, “Aha! There it is!” After all, don’t you look for the writer’s purpose when you read? If you were a first grader, I would say yes because my son’s first grade Tuesday night homework was to read a children’s picture book and figure out the writer’s purpose—that is something I don’t remember doing until I was in high school, if then.

Anyway, Peter knew how to answer Jesus because Peter had been learning. Peter had followed Jesus. He heard the lessons taught—you know, the ones Jesus taught on the mountain—the Sermon on the Mount with all of those Beatitudes I had to learn as a teenager, and the stuff about loving your enemies, and being the salt of the earth, and how to pray to God, and storing up your treasures in heaven. Also, Peter had seen Jesus heal the sick, the demon-possessed, the paralyzed, the leper, and Jesus had brought a girl back to life. And Peter heard the stories—the parables that Jesus taught. Boy, those stories just suck you right in and then hit you upside the head with what you are supposed to learn from them. Also, Peter had been sent out to preach in the towns by Jesus, and Peter never took a preaching class and been critiqued by his peers. Oh the things Peter had witnessed! Peter had seen a whole crowd of people eat from one person’s lunch—and not just once—that had happened twice in Jesus’ ministry! Peter had even seen Jesus help a Canaanite woman, a person any other rabbi would have shunned. We won’t even mention all that Peter learned from the walking on water incident. I think that Peter would have learned by chapter 16 of Matthew’s gospel that Jesus was limitless. Jesus was divine. Peter confesses that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” For all of Peter’s rash statements later to come in this gospel: the fussing at Jesus when Jesus says he is going to Jerusalem to be killed, the whole misunderstanding of the transfiguration in the very next chapter, and even the denial of Jesus during Jesus’ trial—it didn’t change the significance of Peter’s answer to Jesus’ question. I guess this moment of Peter’s answer is the moment of his salvation— when he declared Jesus as the Son of God, Peter was saved.

Baptists like to use that word “saved” an awful lot. I’ve been in Baptist churches all my life, and I wish I had a nickel for every time I have heard it in a sermon—I would already have a couple of nickels here now. Yet, being saved is not the same experience for all Christians. Some have direct and dramatic encounters with God like Saul did on the Damascus Road. But not everyone. Some may sit in a congregation in a worship service and suddenly understand that they need to belong to God. But not everyone. Some may not know the exact moment they were saved. But not everyone. The common denominator in Baptist life is that our salvation is something that we choose—no one chooses it for us. My experience of salvation at age eight was of understanding that I needed to make a decision to follow Jesus. I walked down the aisle at the close of the service on the last night of the week at South Mountain Baptist Camp near Morganton, North Carolina. I later went down the aisle in my small country church as a demonstration of my decision—what Baptists usually call the public profession of faith. And I was baptized a few weeks later. What can a child of eight understand about salvation? I understood as an eight year old and as I matured physically, emotionally, mentally; so also I grew spiritually to understand better what it meant to follow Christ. But I think that my own decision was just a part of the journey of my faith. I think that I had decided to follow Jesus long before that—it was more of a process in my life. And so I am a bit unsure of the exact moment salvation came to me. Never believe that you have to know the exact minute and place you were saved—cause some preachers use that line. I’ve heard that and seen the reaction, and it just isn’t a Baptist principle to force a person to have the same experience of salvation.

Back to history, and I’ll tell you another Baptist thing that happened because of soul freedom. In 1609, John Smyth, the founding father of the Baptist faith, introduced a radical concept to the world--it was that baptism should be administered to believers only. Not many people of Smyth’s day would go that far. You see, baptism was something done at birth. The Catholic Church had infant baptism. The Church of England kept infant baptism after splintering away from the Catholic Church. Even the Protestant Churches of the Reformation kept infant baptism. Only a handful of Anabaptists believers—a sect in central Europe—had rejected infant baptism as a tenet of belief. John Smyth did a radical thing when he defined believers’ baptism and baptized himself and other members of his congregation in the early 17th century. It was a dangerous thing to do, too. You see, when a baby was baptized into a congregation, that boy or girl was placed in the church rolls, their membership. The church had a record of everyone since all had been baptized at birth, and those records were a great resource for the tax collectors who came around. If a congregation decided to not baptize infants, well that is pretty threatening to a government. This new-fangled Baptist faith had already messed enough with the status quo when it let its members call for freedom from the Church of England. The Church of England and the ruler of England were one in the sense that they controlled people’s lives. The King of England was even considered the head of the Church of England. These early Baptist affected the king’s treasury AND demanded freedom from the state—the king of England—which sounds all too familiar this time of year—last week was the 4th of July. And once again, these Baptists were standing on the principle of soul freedom. They felt they had a measure of authority about their religious life. And no other person on earth could take that from them.

Declaring our salvation in Christ does give us authority according to our passage in Matthew 16. After Peter’s confession, Jesus said:

Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of death will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

Authority—Peter’s got it. The Catholic Church uses this passage to show that Peter was the first pope, as if Peter is the rock himself because Peter mean “rock.” Although it could just mean a rock—in the Holy Land where this exchange is reported to have taken place there are a lot of rocks and there is a church there. What “this rock” means, I don’t know. However, I do know that the intention here is to say that this confession of Peter comes with authority. The early Baptists would have said that it is an authority to share this message—that Jesus is the Messiah the Son of the living God. Perhaps it also gave them that authority to defy the spiritual leaders of their day—maybe even defying the King. That kind of defiance can mean imprisonment and hardship and torture and maybe death. Those are some strong beliefs from this little minority of believers called Baptists.

There is authority in your story—your story of salvation. It may not seem impressive, maybe a simple declaration, a little push from the Holy Spirit. Your story doesn’t have to be Baptist. But it is the story of how you answered this question, “Who do you say Jesus is?” Your answer is your authority.

One of the best things I have done recently was last October when I went on the Heritage Baptist Church ladies’ retreat to Emerald Isle. As the mother of three young children, I can honestly say that a full night’s sleep is a wonderful thing. And being responsible for just yourself—no one else—is a great feeling from time-to-time. During the retreat at our last devotional time together, we were asked to say what we were thankful for—not including family (because that is the obvious choice). Now being an introvert, I just can’t come up with answers so quickly. I had to think about that one for a while—even beyond our devotional time. But the answer that came to me was freedom—probably because I experienced some freedom that weekend. I am thankful for freedom. I have the choice to believe in God, to serve God, to worship God as I want, to read the bible and interpret it myself. I don’t know why that thought popped into my head that day. But I have remembered it. And today, I’ll say that I guess I am thankful to be Baptist because to be Baptist is to be free. No one is forcing me to believe in a certain way. No one is forcing me to preach today. No one is forcing me to worship God in a certain way. No one is forcing me to give up my TNIV bible in favor of a King James Version. As strange as it is to say this in church, when it comes to salvation, it is all about me...and God. I have to make up my own mind. My faith is an individual decision as I answer the question of who this Jesus is to me.




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