Loving the World God Loves

Matthew 28:19-20 is often called the Great Commission, and most Baptists probably know it by heart.  As Jesus sends his followers into the world he says: “Go and make disiciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (NIV).  But there is another commission in the Gospels that is also pretty great.  In John 20:21 Jesus tells his disciples: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”

If that were the only commission we had we might spend more time asking, “How was Jesus sent?” and, “What was he sent to do?”  But as I thought about it recently I was reminded of the best known verse in the Bible, John 3:16, which says: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  The word gave is not exactly the same as the word sent, not even in Greek, but the ideas are closely related.  God loved the world.  He loved it so much he gave/sent his one and only son.  When Jesus tells his disciples that he is sending them as he was sent we can assume that it is for a similar purpose—to love the world God loves.

I was thinking about this recently as I walked around the block I’ve “adopted” in the church neighborhood.  I was praying for the people who live inside those houses and apartments, but not sure I was making much of a difference.  If only one of them would come outside so that I could make a disciple out of him, so that I could baptize him in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and teach him to obey all that Jesus commanded!  But no one did, leaving me with no alternative but to pray for those people.  As I passed a motorcycle parked outside an apartment I said, “Lord, bless whoever sits on that seat.”  As I passed a house with a porch swing I prayed, “And bless the one who swings on that swing.”  As I turned the corner and saw a half-open garage door I said, “And bless the one who comes in and out of that door.” 

As I made my way around the block I began to feel for those people I was praying for, those invisible people.  I wouldn’t say it was love I was feeling for them but it was something like it.  I was moving in the right direction.  And that’s when I began to think about John 3:16, and how God had given his one and only son because he loves the world, because he loves the person who sits on that motorcycle, and the one who swings on that porch swing, and the one who goes in and out of that garage door.  I made a connection in that moment, between John 3:16 and John 20:21, and it came out like this: “I’ve been sent as Christ was sent to love the world God loves!”

I got so excited about it that when I went back to my office a little later I typed it in as my screen saver.  Now if my computer is inactive for more than a few minutes these words begin to scroll across the screeen: “Sent as Christ was sent to Love the world God loves.” 

It’s not exactly the Great Commission, but it’s a good one, isn’t it?  Loving the world God loves?  If I keep it up I may eventually meet the person who sits on that motorcycle seat.  He may come out of his apartment one day with his helmet in his hand, just as I’m walking past, and I’ll say, “Oh, there you are!  I’ve been praying for you.”  And he’ll say, “What?”  And then I’ll have to explain.

It will be embarrassing, but when I’m finished telling him that I’ve been sent as Christ was sent to love the world God loves, and that I’ve been praying for whoever it was that sat on that motorcycle seat, he might get an odd little smile on his face, and strap on his helmet, and ride off thinking about it.  But that might be the first step in the twenty or thirty steps it would take to make a disciple out of him.  And it would be for the right reason: not because I’m trying to recruit church members, but because I’m trying to love the world God loves.  And if he parks his motorcycle in front of the sanctuary one Sunday morning, and comes inside to take a closer look at this strange church where they pray for people they don’t even know, well,

That would be for the right reason too.

157 yes, 6 no

When I was a pastor in Wingate, NC, we took a vote on building a new fellowship hall.  Our old hall was a 40 X 40 foot room, and the new program we had started on Wednesday nights was bringing in well over a hundred people for supper.  There just wasn’t room for them all.  I can still remember the day somebody came into the church office and slapped down a check “for the new fellowship hall.”  “What new fellowship hall?” I asked.  “The one we need!” she said.

And so we started talking about it.

Just a few months later the church voted on a new fellowship hall estimated at $492,940, a staggering amount of money for that congregation.  But with the architect’s rendering on an easel at the front of the sanctuary and a surge of optimism sweeping through the pews the recommendation passed, 157 to 6.  The chairman of the deacons stepped down from the platform triumphant, the victory had been overwhelming, but all I could think about was those 6 people. 

I stepped up to the microphone and tried to say something comforting.  I don’t think I did a very good job.  When I stepped back down the deacon chairman said, “Jim, you don’t need to apologize.  The vote was 157 to 6!”  As if those six didn’t matter.  But they did matter, and I went looking for them.

I found one of them in the church annex as the crowd was dispersing.  He approached me and said, “Jim, don’t worry about it too much.  I voted against it, but only because I moved my membership here from a church that had just finished building a new fellowship hall.  It took us three years, and it was all anybody could talk about, and so, when my wife and I came here we were happy to be done with all that.  Now it looks like we’re right back in it.  But it’s all right,” he said, smiling.  “We supported that effort and we will support this one, too.”

“Now that’s the right spirit,” I thought, and frankly that’s my hope for Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  691 people voted on Sunday, and while 464 were in favor of the change in our membership policy, 221 were against it—a solid third of the voters.  Today it’s those 221 I’m thinking about.  They came and cast their ballots.  They did it on the strength of their convictions.  And yet the thing they didn’t want to happen happened: the motion carried.

I’m hoping that they will be able to see they weren’t alone in their views, not by a long shot.  But I’m also hoping that they will be able to accept the outcome of this vote, and recognize that some of the people they respect most in the church may have voted the other way.  Jesus didn’t tell us we all had to think the same way, he only told us that we had to love one another (John 13:35).

Today, even though we don’t all agree, I’m hoping we can all do that.

The Motion Carries

On Sunday, September 19, the members of Richmond’s First Baptist Church voted to change their membership policy to allow committed Christians from other denominations to become full members of the church without having to be re-baptized.  The meeting took place during the Sunday school hour.  One amendment (requiring believer’s baptism but not immersion) was considered but not approved.  691 people voted on the main motion by secret ballot.  464 of those (67.15%) were in favor of the change,  221 (31.98%) were opposed, and 6 ballots could not be determined either way.

Senior Pastor Jim Somerville commented:

For Baptists, membership is a matter of local church autonomy.  No pope, or bishop, or even the pastor gets to decide who can be a member of a local Baptist church.  And although the deacons can make a recommendation, in the end it is the congregation that gets to decide.

Today the congregation of Richmond’s First Baptist Church did just that.  The answer to the question of whether committed Christians from other denominations could become full members without having to be re-baptized was yes.

At the beginning of this process I expressed my hope that, no matter what the outcome, we would spend some time thinking deeply about what it means to be baptized and what it means to be a member.  We have certainly done that.  Now it is my hope that we will be the kind of members who can accept the outcome of this vote and go forward together.  While a two-thirds majority is decisive, it is not a landslide.  We were closer to the same mind on this matter than we knew.  Now it is my hope that we can share the same heart, and get on with the crucial work of putting God’s love into action. 

I am grateful for the spirit in which this decision was made, and for the remarkable body of believers that is Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  I learned today that there are Baptists in the world who can disagree without being disagreeable—who can speak their mind, vote their conscience, and move on to more important things.

God bless them, every one.

—September 19, 2010

Like Water Out of a Tub

Recent comments on my blog and conversations in the church hallway have convinced me that there is another line of reasoning in our current debate about baptism and membership, one that I haven’t fully understood.  As these people have explained to me (gently, patiently) our membership requirement doesn’t imply that people from other denominations are not Christian, it only points to the fact that they are not Baptist.  And if they want to be Baptist they must submit to believer’s baptism by immersion. 

So, let me see if I’ve got this right: believer’s baptism by immersion is what makes you Baptist?

Maybe that’s where I’m confused.  I’ve always thought that baptism was a symbol of entering the new life in Christ.  I thought that’s what Paul was talking about when he said in Romans 6 that it’s like dying with Jesus, and being buried with him, and then being raised from the dead.  I thought it’s what Jesus was referring to in John 3 when he told Nicodemus that in order to enter the Kingdom he had to be “born again.”

The language of resurrection and re-birth is powerful language.  I sometimes refer to it as “transfer terminology”: it’s about making the move from one way of life to another.  And I can see how, if you have come out of a life of sin and selfishness, you might want to drown the “old man” (as Paul calls him) in a watery grave, and let God raise up the “new man” just as he raised Jesus.  You might want to be “born again,” in the way Jesus described it to Nicodemus, if that really meant you could make a fresh start of your life.  The waters of baptism—to me—have always been a place where people entered the new life in Christ, where they were raised from the dead or born again, but they have never been—to me—a place where you make a Methodist into a Baptist.

Is that what Paul was talking about?  Is that what Jesus meant?  I cannot find any scriptural support for the idea of making Christians from other denominations into Baptists by baptizing them.  To me it empties the meaning of baptism; it drains it out of the baptistry like water out of a tub.  Instead of doing it “to fulfill all righteousness” (the words chiseled in stone above our baptistry) we do it to fulfill a membership requirement. 

That’s not even in the Bible.

I don’t want to empty baptism of its meaning.  I don’t want to use our baptistry to make Methodists (or Presbyterians, or Episcopalians, or Lutherans) into Baptists.  I want to use it to symbolize that moment when someone becomes a Christian, when they rise up from that watery grave or take the first breath of their new life in Christ.  That’s when the angels rejoice in heaven, that’s when the Hallelujah chorus begins.  Transferring your church membership from one denomination to another is not the same thing at all.

And shouldn’t be.

“I just can’t accept infant baptism”

That’s what people often tell me after they’ve heard all my arguments for welcoming Christians from other denominations into our membership without re-baptizing them.  To them baptism is believer’s baptism by immersion, and therefore infant baptism is no baptism at all since it isn’t (usually) by immersion and since an infant is incapable of making a profession of faith.  They say, “We’re not re-baptizing these people; we’re baptizing them!” 

And the argument starts all over again.

But at the end of it I rarely have the feeling that I have been understood.  So, let me see if I can put it another way, a way that would make sense to lifelong Baptists, and let’s talk about those people Baptists often place at the opposite end of the Christian spectrum—Catholics. 

  1. Baptists baptize believers by immersion; Catholics baptize infants by pouring water over their heads three times in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. 
  2. As Baptists, we do not believe that infant baptism is sufficient (as some Catholics apparently do).  We do not believe that it “saves” the child or “washes away the taint of original sin.”  We believe that salvation requires our faith as well as God’s grace.
  3. This is why we wait to baptize until a child is old enough to profess his faith.  Then baptism becomes a celebration of salvation in which the gift of God’s grace is received through the believer’s faith. 
  4. This is why we believe that infant baptism—on its own—is unacceptable.

But (and you knew it was coming), when infant baptism is followed by an extended period of Christian formation, by a confirmation process in which children learn what it means to believe in Jesus and belong to the church, and by a public opportunity to claim their baptism and profess their faith, then it becomes one piece of a process whereby the grace of God that was celebrated in baptism is received through faith.  As Paul might put it: grace + faith = salvation (Eph. 2:8).

What I’m trying to say is that I can’t accept infant baptism either, not on its own, but I can accept it as part of a process of authentic Christian discipleship.  Understood in that way it is almost identical to our own practice of baby dedication, and I don’t think any of us want to do away with that.  What we mean when we say “I can’t accept infant baptism” is that we don’t believe water, by itself, does anything for that child, but we need to carry that thinking all the way out.  Water, by itself, doesn’t do anything for the person who gets into our baptistry, either.  It’s just water.  We use it as a symbol of God’s grace and our surrender to it. 

Which makes me think that being a Christian is a matter of the heart, and not a matter of how much water was used or when it was applied.

What do you think?

One Sunday in September

Today at church we celebrated “One” Sunday: a big, happy unity rally intended to pull us together before a vote next week threatens to pull us apart.  That’s right, next Sunday—September 19—we are voting on whether Christians from other denominations can become members of First Baptist Church without having to be re-baptized. 

We’ve been talking about it for almost two years.  We started with some “Holy Conversations” in October of 2008, where the congregation shared its views, both pro and con, and then the matter was referred to the deacons.  After some initial study and prayer the deacons formed a sub-committee that studied the issue for more than a year.  They brought their report back to the deacons who eventually agreed (in an 80 to 20 vote) to recommend to the church that we change our membership policy.  Next Sunday we’ll find out what the church thinks. 

I’ve been told by some who are against it and by others who are for it that this issue has the potential to “split the church.”  I hope not.  I don’t want that to happen any more than they do.  But I was encouraged by an episode from the church’s history that I stumbled across only this afternoon.  I was reading The World in His Heart: the Life and Legacy of Theodore F. Adams (one of the church’s legendary pastors), and found a description of the church’s 150th anniversary.  Dr. R. H. Pitt, in an address delivered on that occasion, took note of some of the characteristics that had marked the church in its history.  After observing that there had been “no taint of radicalism from its pulpit,” but rather “a fine spirit of high adventure,” Dr. Pitt observed that the congregation had evidenced a substantial unity and had settled “vexing, disturbing, and divisive issues of doctrine and practice” without permanent rifts in its fellowship. 

I’m hoping that we can live up to that reputation next Sunday, and that the day will be remembered not only for the decision we make, but for the spirit in which we make it.

Fear Itself

In recognition of the anniversary of September 11, 2001, I wanted to post an excerpt from the sermon I preached on the Sunday just after.  Reading through it again reminded me what it was like to look out the window of my office at First Baptist, DC, on that day and see smoke rising from the Pentagon on the other side of the river.  It was terrifying.  By the time I wrote the sermon a few days later I was grappling with the deeper issues of what fear does to us as a people and called the sermon “Fear Itself.”

Nine years later I’m distressed by how our lives, policies, and public discourse continue to be shaped by fear, and how a terrorist attack orchestrated by a few Muslim extremists has resulted in something called “Islamophobia,” where we regard the entire Muslim world with suspicion.  Maybe in reading through this excerpt you will be led to reconsider your own relationship to fear, your relationship to God, and the way one can cancel out the other.


It was Franklin D. Roosevelt who said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  But Franklin D. Roosevelt wasn’t speaking on Tuesday morning of last week, when hijacked airliners were bearing down on New York and Washington at full throttle.  He wasn’t one of the 266 passengers or crew aboard those doomed planes, or any of the thousands in the World Trade Center who would soon be praying for their lives.  When he said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” he didn’t know what we know.  In the past few days we have come to believe that there is plenty to fear, and if the truth be told many of us are still afraid.

You know the facts: 

At about 8:45 a.m. on September 11 an airplane slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.  We thought it was an accident:  a malfunction in a navigational computer that had resulted in the unthinkable.  But then, twenty minutes later and while many of us were watching it live on television, a second airplane slammed into the South Tower, erupting in a ball of flame.  At that moment we realized it couldn’t be an accident.  We realized that this was a deliberate act of aggression, an attack on the United States.  Thirty-five minutes later we heard that a third plane had crashed into the Pentagon, just across the river, and then the rumors began to fly.  The telephone in my office rang with a report that smoke was pouring out of the Old Executive Office Building.  In the hallway someone said that a car bomb had exploded outside the State Department.  One of the teachers in our Child Development Center asked, “Is it true that the Washington Monument is . . . gone?”  It seemed that the whole city, the whole nation, was under violent attack. 

When things got a little quieter we opened the church to those who might want to pray and watched as streams of people headed up 16th Street from downtown.  Traffic was snarled, the Metro was jammed, and so they walked.  Some stopped in to say a brief prayer but most of them hurried by with their heads down, determined to get home to their families and to get away from the threat of danger.  By 3:00 Washington looked like a ghost town.  We closed the doors and started home on empty streets, in eerie silence.

In the days since then we have been trying to assess the damage, both physical and emotional.  We know that the Pentagon has a gaping hole in its side and the World Trade Center is gone forever.  We know that thousands of people have died in this attack, most of them horribly.  And we know that we feel shaky and scared, straining our ears for the sounds of airplanes, jumping at every strange or sudden noise. 

It is an evil thing that has happened, and it is a particular kind of evil.

Theologians speak of the suffering that human beings experience as a result of earthquake, famine, fire, and flood as natural evil.  The other kind, which Daniel Migliore describes as “the suffering and evil that sinful human beings inflict on each other and on the world they inhabit,” is called moral evil.[i]  The evil we have experienced in this attack on America is of that latter, darker kind.  It has been inflicted upon us.  As much as we might suffer from natural evil this other kind of evil is worse, because it comes not from the violent yet innocent forces of nature, but from the evil intentions of the human heart.

Some people have asked me how God could allow such a thing to happen.  Why did he not divert those planes at the last moment?  It is the same sort of question people ask when a hurricane pounds the coast but the answer is different.  In cases such as those we say that we live in a world where hurricanes happen, and that sometimes populated coastlines get in the way.  It doesn’t mean that the hurricane itself is evil but only that the meeting between high winds and fragile buildings can produce tragic results.  Houses can be flattened.  Lives can be lost.  When people ask why God didn’t divert the hurricane God might well ask why they built their houses in its path. 

But in cases like this one from last Tuesday we have to say that we live in a world where God has given people freedom.  The same freedom that allows us to choose God and serve God allows others to hijack planes and bring down buildings.  The freedom itself is good.  The use some make of that freedom is evil.  So, why didn’t God intervene?  Why didn’t God divert those airplanes and save those lives?  Because freedom itself was at stake, and God cannot take away our freedom to choose evil without also taking away our freedom to choose good.  He would end up with a world of grinning puppets, dancing dumbly at the end of their strings, capable of neither love nor hate.  God doesn’t want children like that any more than you do.  And so—like a mother who sobs as her son is convicted of murder—he watches buildings collapse while his own heart breaks, and wraps his arms around a broken nation.

Franklin D. Roosevelt said the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, but he wasn’t talking about what happened last Tuesday.  He wasn’t talking about what happens when people use their God-given freedom to rain down horror on others.  And yet there is a sense in which he was right.  Fear isn’t the only thing we have to fear but it is the most formidable of the weapons that have been turned against us in recent days.  While a terrorist might use an airplane or a bomb to accomplish his purpose, his purpose, ultimately, is to terrify, to bring a nation to its knees by means of fear itself.   And to the extent that we are terrified, he has succeeded.

I don’t know who is behind last Tuesday’s attacks, but I picture him rubbing his hands together, cackling with glee, hoping you and I will become too afraid to function.  He wants us to tremble with fear every time an airplane passes overhead.  He wants us to jump at every strange or sudden noise we hear.  He wants to bring us to that place where we will not go to work in the morning or send our children to school.  That is why I doubt that the attack on America is over.  The nature of terrorism is to keep us off balance, to make us think that death could be waiting for us around the next corner or behind the next tree.  The goal of terrorism is to overthrow a nation by paralyzing its people with fear.  When we reach that point the terrorist has won and I, for one, don’t intend to give him that satisfaction. 

I refuse to be afraid.

The writer of Psalm 23 claims that even as he is walking through the valley of the shadow of death, he will fear no evil.  Not natural evil.  Not moral evil.  Why?  Because God is with him.  In these familiar, well-worn words we have the antidote to fear.  God’s presence is what will make it possible for us to walk through this shadowy valley without being afraid.  That doesn’t mean we won’t listen for the sound of airplanes passing overhead.  It doesn’t mean we won’t jump when we hear a strange of sudden noise.  It only means that we will hold tight to God’s hand and go on with our lives—that we will refuse to be afraid.


[i] Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: an Introduction to Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), p. 101.