Today as we worship, we are mindful of the providence of God, God’s hand in human history advancing the missio dei, God’s great reclamation project of God’s beloved creation. For the events we celebrate this weekend, cannot be understood apart from the heart of God and the love among Father, Son and Spirit that overflows into the life of the world in order that a broken, degraded and fallen, yet beloved creation, might be redeemed, restored, and reconciled through God’s own sacrificial love. Henry Nouwen reminds us that no word in all of scripture is as sweet and poignant as the title Beloved which God bestows upon us in Christ Jesus.
It has been said that big events turn on small hinges. The sailing of a small ship out of Salem harbor two hundred years ago this day with its human missionary cargo of Adoniram and Ann Judson, and Samuel and Nancy Newell, was such. A revolution was underway.
There are certain moments in history which forever change the frame of reference by which we view the world.
Columbus’ voyage to the New World in 1492 was one such moment. The world would no longer revolve exclusively around Western Europe as the center of the earth. The world as flat bounded by precipitous edges and looming leviathans was a world view forever shattered. Revolution was underway.
In 1543, the publication of the the work of Copernicus in the field of astronomy would shatter the belief that the universe revolved around the earth. A helio-centric model of the heavens displaced not only a geo-centric but a anthropo-centric view of the universe. Rather than being the center, humanity now became the inhabitants of but one small planet in a vast universe. Revolution was underway.
In 1776, the divine right of kings to rule subjects was forever shattered with this declaration: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed . . .” Democracy would forever shatter the worldview of absolute monarchy. Revolution was underway.
Revolution was underway as well in the church. Her frame of reference had long been bounded by twin fault lines as impermeable as those which geographically hemmed in the world before Columbus. One was the concept of Christendom, the other the theological worldview of high Calvinism. Christendom was a fortress formed by the unity of the political, cultural and religious aspects of European civilization. Within her walls all was safe. Outside her walls all was lost. Christendom, though, was not only a fortress, it was a prison. And the church lived comfortably within the walls of this fortress/prison.
The other fault line was high Calvinism whose theology of predestination was prominent in the life of English Baptists and other Reformed Protestant bodies of the early 18th century. The high Calvinists in the Baptist fold were known as “particular” Baptists – I guess because they felt God was pretty particular about those God chose. Such a theological worldview ruled out any necessity for evangelism or mission – twin hallmarks of Baptist life as we know it today – for God had already determined one’s eternal destiny. High Calvinism was another fortress within whose walls the church comfortably lived.
Do you get the picture? It is one of the church living comfortably within the walls of Christendom and High Calvinism a cultural home that was as fitted to the church as a glove to the hand.
But revolution was underway! In the person of a Baptist shoemaker, named William Carey. Carey was a gifted man with deep spiritual sensitivity who became a Baptist through the influence of the family to which he was apprenticed. Carey was also a voracious scholar reading widely for his self-education. As he read scripture and writings of the day, the Spirit began to chisel away at the fortress walls of Christendom and hyper-Calvinism. There was still more light to break through from scripture!
Revolution was underway.
Wikipedia describes the events this way. “In 1785, Carey was appointed the schoolmaster for the village of Moulton. He was also invited to serve as pastor to the local Baptist church. During this time he read Jonathan Edwards’ Account of the Life of the Late Rev. David Brainerd [a missionary among Native Americans] and the journals of the explorer James Cook, and became deeply concerned with propagating the Christian Gospel throughout the world. His friend Andrew Fuller had previously written an influential pamphlet in 1781 titled “The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation”, answering the hyper-Calvinist belief then prevalent in the Baptist churches, that all men were not responsible to believe the Gospel. At a ministers’ meeting in 1786, Carey raised the question of whether it was the duty of all Christians to spread the Gospel throughout the world. J. R. Ryland, the father of John Ryland, is said to have retorted: “Young man, sit down; when God pleases to convert the heathen, he will do it without your aid and mine.”
In 1789 Carey became the full-time pastor of a small Baptist church in Leicester. Three years later in 1792 he published his groundbreaking missionary manifesto, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens.
Carey later preached a pro-missionary sermon (the so-called Deathless Sermon), using Isaiah 54:2-3 as his text, “Enlarge the site of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes. 3 For you will spread out to the right and to the left, and your descendants will possess the nations and will settle the desolate towns.”
Carey stirred the hearts of his listeners as he urged them to, “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.” Carey who would himself serve in India became the father of the modern missionary movement.
Here in the United States, the Spirit was at work breaking down those same walls that were imprisoning the church from her true call as a missionary people. And here, God would use a pastor’s son who had rejected the faith, Adoniram Judson, as the hinge to turn the Baptist churches in America outward in mission to the world.
After reclaiming his faith and rededicating his life Judson, in 1809 during his first year of theological studies at Andover, would read a sermon by Dr Claudius Buchanan of England entitled, “The Star in the East”. Drawing upon Matt 2 and the account of the Wise Men who came seeking the newborn king of the Jews because they had seen “his star rising in the East,” Buchanan laid out his case for a missionary effort in Asia. Judson’s imagination would be forever changed, and through him Baptist churches in America would rise to the forefront of the revolution in mission that God had set in motion.
The sailing of the tiny brig, “The Caravan,” with its tiny cargo of four missionaries 200 years ago was the beginning of a long line that stretches even into the present of those who would offer themselves in service to the spreading of the Gospel to all the nations, for “sacrifice or service” as the seal of the American Baptist Foreign Missionary Society states.
The revolution God was leading centered not just upon the sending of missionaries. It was even more profoundly a re-defining of the nature of the church as a missionary body. Prior to this revolution it could not have been said that “the church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning.”
God is at work today in a new revolution in the life of American Baptists and the church at large in the United States. Speaking afresh through texts such as Luke 10, the sending of the Seventy, the Spirit is beckoning us outward beyond the crumbling cultural walls that defined the life of the church in the 20th century, that locked us in upon ourselves in the “Christendom” that was the United States.
We no longer live in that world. We now live in a religious landscape where the Christian faith is but one option among many, or for an increasing number of our fellow citizens where the option of choice is “none of the above.” In a recent poll reported in USA Today, 41% of those interviewed said that matters of religion did not occupy them at all. God does not show up on their radar screen. Faith is not the reference point for their lives. Church is not their home.
In our context, what would missionary Adoniram Judson say to us?
I believe he would first say, “move beyond the walls that separate you from the people to whom you have been called. Like me, learn their language; speak in their accents; enter their culture; live among them.”
It is clear friends, the church cannot live as gated community. We must enter deeply into the lives of our communities, of our neighbors, into our world. In a religiously plural society and as those who respect conscience in matters of faith, we share as the Indian theologian, D.T. Niles has said, “as one beggar telling another where to find bread.”
Secondly, he would say, “Persevere. Be faithful. For six years, 72 months, 2190 days, 52,560 hours he labored for his first convert. And his first convert was not of the nobility, nor of the wealthy, nor of the learned. As with the early church, God chose what is foolish to put to shame the wisdom of the world, for God first moved on the heart of a thirty-five year old who was poor and without family, Maung Nau. Even in the face of fierce opposition the church in Burma grew and today that church is part of God’s revolution within our churches today. The face of the church in the US will not be that of our past. God’s disruptive Spirit is profoundly reshaping us into a missionary people, into subversive colonies of heaven who live as the hands and feet of Christ for the world. Old forms are passing, new ones are rising up within us as we struggle as the people of God to live and share the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Persevere.
Finally, he would remind us that “the future is as bright as the promises of God.” For the ministry of reconciliation which has been given to us is not first and foremost ours. It is God’s work. Around the world, the church is growing, even in the face of persecution and trial. God is at work in amazing ways, his Spirit transcending human barriers of law and custom, drawing people to Christ. A pastor in North Africa was describing the amazing work of the Spirit in his country. Their church regularly holds medical clinics in needy villages. They had chosen one such village after much prayer though they had been discouraged from visiting there. After they had set up their temporary clinic, they opened the door to discover a line had developed that was blocks long. When the first person entered, the medical staff asked, “What is your problem?” “I have no problem,” was the reply. “Then why are you here?” was the puzzled response of the doctor. “Because each night in my dreams Jesus is coming to me asking me to follow him, and I thought you as a Christian could tell me what it means.” Fully the majority of others in line that day were there for the same reason. No human walls can block the work of the Spirit. The mission of the church is God’s mission. Therefore, “the future is as bright as the promises of God.”
Revolution, God’s revolution is underway.