How often do we stop to recognize that God’s covenant interaction with humanity starts with the simple command, “Go”? God says to Abram, “Go! Go from your country and go from your kindred to the land that I will show you.” God says to Moses, “Go confront Pharaoh and tell him to let my people go!” After God has liberated the Hebrew people from bondage, and they find themselves seemingly blocked by the Reed Sea and pursued by Pharaoh’s chariots, the people cry out to Moses, and Moses cries out to God, and God responds, “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go, go forward!” Then God proceeds to create a way out of no way. When Moses dies on the cusp of the Promised Land and Joshua looks down from Mount Nebo across the Jordan River, God says to Joshua, “My servant Moses is dead. Now proceed to cross the Jordan.” “Forward!” God urged him, “Go forward into the land I will give you!” Should we be surprised then when Christ gathers his friends around him for a final word of encouragement that his final instructions begin with that same verb of movement? “Go!” Christ tells his friends. “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. . . . And know that wherever you go, I am with you always, even unto the end of the age!” So it is, as Paul concludes his letter to the Romans, he confesses his intention to pay them a brief visit and then go on to Spain where he can, as he phased it, “preach the Gospel in places where it has never been heard.” Paul intends to go to Spain, because he understands that the natural movement of God’s Kingdom is to take the Good News to places where it has never been and to incorporate a people into God’s family who have never been included before.
This forward movement of the Christian faith is not only geographic and territorial in nature, but also thematic, societal, and transformational. The Christian Gospel moves forward to address situations that need changing, applying God’s Good News in new ways. Our God is not a God of stasis, but a God of movement, of change, transformation. Indeed, we cannot understand God’s disclosure of God’s purpose and values unless we recognize that the revelation of God’s nature in our Scriptures is progressive. Sure, Abraham and other revered Hebrew patriarchs practiced polygamy. But, by the time of Jesus, that practice had long been discontinued, a practice once countenanced in a bygone age, but truly contrary to the will of God. Mosaic Law allowed a man to divorce his wife simply by giving her a written certificate. Jesus replied, “Yes, but Moses wrote this commandment for you because of the hardness of your heart. God’s true intent is for two people to be joined together and become one flesh for life.” We read of how Joshua implemented the will of God to go forward by assaulting towns and slaughtering every man, woman and child. We recoil in horror and shame. Why? Because we hear clearly our Lord’s corrective statement: “You have heard it said of old that you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” You can search the Bible high and low, but you will find no overt condemnation of slavery. The practice was so engrained in the Biblical culture that everyone accepted it as a societal given. But the day would come when God raised up Christian voices like St. Patrick and William Wilberforce and Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth who testified that what was an accepted practice in the Biblical era was absolutely contrary to the will of God. Slavery was practiced for thousands of years with its legitimacy unquestioned. But over time consciences were raised within the Christian church to denounce the practice of one person owning another. The church does not always see clearly how her ideals of love and justice should be applied to society’s ills. And even when she sees her duty, the church does not always apply her ideals immediately. But over time the church applies its vision in ways that move society forward. As Martin Luther King Jr. famously observed, “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.” While the Christian church may be slow to apply its values to societal problems, once Christianity moves forward, it does not retreat!
Of course, virtually every movement forward within the Christian church has been resisted by some within the Christian church. While some have been energized by the dynamic Spirit of Christ, others have practiced a faith blinded and dulled by fear and suspicion of progress. Think about it: there have been Christians who opposed the use of anesthesia, who opposed sending missionaries overseas, who opposed translating the Bible into a language that people could read. Every act of progress within the Christian church has been resisted. I think of one of my old ministerial friends, Bob Lasater, now gone to glory, who was state BSU director at North Carolina State University in the late 1940s. He and a few other state BSU directors thought it would be fabulous to challenge the segregationist norms of North Carolina by holding a joint meeting involving the black and white Baptist Student Unions of their state. Bob went to his superior with this idea and was told, sure, they could hold an integrated meeting – but only if they could find a Baptist church in the state willing to host such a gathering. Bob’s superior had supreme confidence that no Baptist church in North Carolina would be brave enough to allow black and white students to worship together. One can only imagine his dismay when the First Baptist of High Point granted Bob permission to allow the black and white BSUs in North Carolina to worship together. So, in 1947, students from the predominantly black BSUs in North Carolina met with the students from the predominantly white BSUs! The step was just a small one. But it was a step forward. And having taken it, there was no going back!
Years ago, in another pastorate, I received a call from a minister in Oklahoma who had heard that we had an opening in our church for the associate minister position. (We didn’t, but I took his call anyway.) “Good buddy,” he asked heartily, “how many deacons do you have?” “Thirty-six” I said proudly. He said, “Ooh, Brother Pastor, that sounds good. Er, I don’t suppose any of those thirty-six are women?” We actually had several women deacons serving at the time, but, I confess, I lied for effect and said, “Just our chairman.” A long silence ensued at the other end of the line. Then he said, “Good buddy, I’ll be gettin’ back to you.” While pastoring in Charlotte I was also the Director of Missions for the United Baptist Association, and I received numerous calls from fundamentalists berating me for encouraging women to serve as deacons and ministers. I listened with as much patience as I could muster, then I would say, “This church and this association have been acknowledging the giftedness of women in church leadership roles for thirty years. We have been going forward for three decades, and we are not going not backward.”
When I was a child, I was astonished to learn that most Baptist churches of that era would not allow divorced people to serve as deacons. Then I learned most Baptist ministers of that era would not even perform marriages for divorced people. As I entered my own ministry I naturally assumed that Christians had outgrown that kind of narrowness, but about ten years ago I received a call from a stranger, a young woman, asking if I would perform her marriage. I asked, “Why me?” She answered that she and her fiancé were both divorced, and their church would not bless their union because they had both failed in their previous relationships. I said to her, “If you and your fiancé will come for counseling with me, I will perform your wedding.” I couldn’t help but wonder, how could any congregation think the Christian faith was advanced by practicing that kind of judgmental exclusion? If God has blessed these people with the grace of a second chance, surely those of us who claim Christ as our role model can do likewise!
I confess to you, occasionally ministry entails weeks like this one, full of sorrow and pressing duties that keep me working until midnight for days in a row. Sometimes, you just have to have a little fun in your job to keep your sanity. Years ago, I had such a week when I attended the state Baptist Convention in North Carolina, where the Convention had publicly refused to receive money from a Baptist church that had baptized someone who was gay, behavior, the state convention noted, that Paul denounced in the first chapter of Romans. As soon as I got home, I wrote the state convention and said, “Dear sirs, as Director of Missions of the United Baptist Association, honesty compels me to say that you need to return our funds, too. For I know for a fact that several of our churches, including my own, have baptized women who gossip, and men who gossip, too — and Paul also explicitly denounces gossiping as a sin in Romans chapter one, too. Moreover, Paul says that God does not distinguish between sins, and shows no partiality toward sinners, which in fact we all are. So, I added, I believe you should investigate all of the churches in our state who have baptized gossips into their fellowship and you should expel them. Then, next year, you won’t have to rent a convention center. You can hold the state convention at the local McDonald’s.” I never heard back from the state convention. They never sent me back any money, either. But when we start talking and singing, as the choir did last week, about drawing wide the circle of Christ’s love, you never know who God’s grace might net into the fellowship. But the Spirit of Christ is always moving us forward.
Christ called Paul to go be an apostle to the Gentiles. That was not Paul’s life plan. He didn’t particularly like Gentiles. For that matter, for part of his life, he didn’t like Christ! But he answered the call to go forward with that mission. When most original leaders of the Christian church learned of Paul’s mission to the Gentiles, they didn’t like it either. Early in his ministry they actually sent representatives from the Jerusalem church to discourage Paul’s preaching to the Gentiles and to tell those pagans that they weren’t welcome in the fellowship – unless they adopted the Jewish culture. They thought that including the Gentiles in God’s fellowship was contrary to God’s will and word. But eventually the Jerusalem realized the implications of Jesus’ commission, “Go! Go into all the world and baptize in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.” They came to realize that answering that summons meant allowing Christ’s representatives to preach the Gospel to those who shared nothing of their culture and heritage. Paul may not have originally embraced Christ’s call to be an apostle to the Gentiles, but he came to see this calling as the high privilege of his life. As we enter a season of Thanksgiving, we do well to examine Paul’s sublime prayer of blessing and gratitude to and for the Gentile church at Ephesus, for all they had meant to him:
“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, before whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with might in the inner man, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” That’s the testimony of a man who answered the call of God to ‘Go! Go to people you don’t really want to go to! Go and take the love and redemptive Christ to people and places where it has never been before. Go and allow God to make a way out of no way.’
All of us are called to be evangelists, proclaimers of God’s Good News. That doesn’t mean standing on a street corner and haranguing people, but it does mean living our faith with an integrity and consistency that communicates through our very demeanor that we are fed by a Spirit that provides us invisible means of support, a Spirit that fills us with a joy and encouragement we can share. Our faith should shine through our lives as an invisible yet perceptible resource that informs our behavior, our language, our ethics, our relationships, our attitude, and our fundamental approach to life, the way we arrange our priorities. We must never forget that we have a message of love, of encouragement, of inclusion, of peace, of reconciliation, of hope, of goodness to speak a world that desperately needs to hear God’s Good News.
I close with a story that always brings me a smile when I think of it. For several years I was blessed to serve a church with a perky, vivacious young woman who served as my associate pastor, and she was scheduled to deliver the closing prayer at that North Carolina State Convention I mentioned earlier. The only person who seemed not to know this fact was the very man tasked with introducing her, the man who had delivered the convention sermon, a sermon whose main theme was that men needed to be Godly men – nothing wrong with that. But when he finished preaching, he asked, “Where’s Blythe?” Into the spotlight stepped this perky, vivacious young woman. The stunned man looked at her as if she was a porcupine. He stuttered, “Uh, I thought you were a man.” Of course he did! Blythe said, instantly, perfectly: “Surprise!” Then she prayed. Our God ceaselessly surprises us. Our God is constantly challenging us, ‘Go! Go and take the love of Christ in places where it has not been received before. Expand your imagination and go forward, trusting that I will make for you a way out of no way.’ We must hear God say to us, ‘Trust that I will make a path for you, as surely as I did for those Hebrews staring at a body of water that seemed to promise no exit. Trust that I will make a path for you as surely as I did for the early church to take my Word to people and places that they never imagined.’ We are called to carry God’s news where it has not yet been. That might mean some dark corner of Timbuktu. It might mean some dark, obscure corner of Macon. It might mean some dark corner of our own hearts. But know this: the God of this universe since the time of Abraham has been surprising human beings with this irrepressible challenge: “Go! Go forward!” And we must answer. We must move, knowing that God is with us always, even until the end of the age.