Bishop’s Address of 2002

FEBRUARY 7th, 2002

Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

What is the purpose of God becoming man – for Jesus’ life and ministry – for us, his disciples in Georgia, this February in the year 2002?

The Rt. Rev. Henry I. Louttit, Jr.

Most stories or books move toward a conclusion – a purpose – a message.  If that is so it would seem reasonable that we look at the closing of the written stories of Jesus, the Gospels, to see the purpose of Jesus’ life among us.  Today, the feast of St. Thomas Bray, we have as our Gospel the closing story in the Gospel according to Matthew.

The eleven (12 – 1) went to Galilee (obeying a message given the women by an Angel at the Tomb, who had told them that Jesus had been raised from the dead and that Jesus had gone ahead to Galilee where they would see him).  So the eleven go to Galilee (with the women?) to a mountain – there is a no identification of the mountain, but remember mountains are the place God often appears to people he has called: Moses on Sinai, Elijah on Horeb, Jesus and his transfiguration, Jesus teaching . . .

When they see him they worship him.  (But some hesitated? Doubted? – Thought he was a dream? As good Jews they could not bring themselves to worship a man?  Terrified by seeing Jesus their friend who was clearly dead now alive?  In any case believing was no easier for the original disciples than for disciples in 2002.  Jesus says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given me!”

Contrast that with the Devil’s offer back at the beginning of Mathew’s account of Jesus’ story “The devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor, and said to him “All these I will give you if you will worship me.”

Remember also the vision of Daniel about the Son of Man coming to the Ancient of Days (it’s in Chapter 7 of Daniel.)

“I saw one like a human being
coming with the clouds of heaven
and he came to the Ancient One . . .
to him was given dominion and glory and kingship
that all people and nations and languages should serve him.
His dominion is everlasting . . . and shall never be destroyed.”

The close of Matthew’s account of the story of Jesus shows Jesus being worshipped as God – and announcing his authority in heaven and earth.  This wonderful man: Friend, teacher, companion of the twelve (now eleven) this friend who seems to have God’s power and to work healing miracles, this friend is God, but still fully their human friend.

And what does our friend – our teacher – our healer – OUR GOD – tell us – tell the eleven?

“Go” having seen me – known me – recognized me: as God becomes man because of my love for you – “Go and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”

Make disciples:” Baptism is the statement of having met, seen and committed oneself to Jesus (what many Christians would call conversion.)  Teaching all that I have commanded you.  Note Jesus is asking us two different but connected things: To bring people to see him – to know him – to confess him (to be Baptized).  To nurture people by teaching them how to live as a sister or brother of Jesus.  A sister or brother who brings Jesus’ love and healing to individuals and to communities in our world!

Jesus always meets us as we are and where we are.  Thus what the people of God hear in a given culture and time from the same Jesus differs though it come thru the same words in the same Bible.  That is also true of individuals.  I can’t tell you how many times when I have studied the Sunday scriptures everyday for at least a week preparing to preach and a lay reader gets up and starts one of the readings and my immediate reaction is the lay reader is reading the wrong lesson only to recognize that no, it is the right lesson I just never have been touched or caught by the verse I heard, even though I have read it dozens of times! Scripture is very rich.  God uses it to speak to his people what individuals need and what the community needs in very different situations.

If you were a Christian in Iran or the Sudan or Pakistan – where your life, because you are a Christian, is in constant risk – the message may well be: to endure – nurture one another – accept the occasional person converted by God, brave enough to risk their lives, who may have seen God through your life’s witness.  Nurture them to live Christ- like lives as best you can under constant danger.  So survived Japanese Christians for some 250 years. So survived Chinese Christians under Mao.  So survived Christians of the East and the Armenians for hundred’s of years under oppressive rulers in the Middle East.

Now English Christians at the time of the Reformation lived in a very different world from these Christians who we have been talking about and from our world.  From about 1290 when all the Jews were expelled until the 17th century everyone in England was a Christian, dead, or in jail.  There was to the casual view no one to convert.  Thus, the Church in England, Anglicanism, and our mother majored in nurture.  Some of our critics in the 16th century, the Baptist’s forbearers, believed Christians made by law or the sword or social coercion made many fake disciples and they began to major in what they called conversion.  In the U.S., we Episcopalians continue to major in nurture.  Our critics are so focused on conversion that they sometimes fall into forms of coercion not too unlike the medieval and reformation sword of government to make disciples: peer pressure – the threat of job lost – the pressure to belong are very powerful motivators.

We Episcopalians majoring in nurture taught people how to pray, how to grow in God’s love, how to live as Jesus would have us live.  This was a welcome and wholesome alternative for people worn out or manipulated by some processes of “conversion.”  Thus we became a place of healing for those wounded by manipulative evangelism. And we became as a church ever more suspicious of “evangelism” (The word is Greek. Translated it means sharing the good news of Jesus).  The problem was people might grow up living by Jesus’ teaching, but never seeing him.  Many of our children knew how they were supposed to live but they did not know the healing and forgiving and life-giving presence of God.  Some discovered Jesus in the churches of their in-laws leaving us – others just dropped out – but we did continue to be a welcome haven for those who had seen Jesus but been wounded by Christian evangelists and also by those who wanted to look like a Christian but at very little cost.  But note, God can use even our very bad reasons to get his hook into our heart and to bring us to Jesus, the source of truth and life, and thus some of the people who came for wrong reasons were gradually converted to be very serious Disciples of Christ.

An example of the Episcopal fear of the word “evangelism:” As rector of Christ Church, Valdosta, I once recruited and taught a class of about 30 of our leaders, very committed and wonderful people, what I thought was an introductory course in the Anglican way of Evangelism. My major point was that we have ways of bringing people into God’s presence and to know him different than the major Protestant and Baptist model of revival.  At the end of the six-week course I asked the class: “for how many people was the word evangelism a bad word?”  To my surprise all but two raised their hands!

I have reviewed our history to give us, the leaders of the Diocese of Georgia, some understanding of how we came to be and why it is hard for us to know how to grow our congregations.

We live in a time of great social change:  A lot of Protestant and Baptist folk have come to see the need for serious nurture – our specialty – and are doing it better than we do!  We Episcopalians cannot even agree that Jesus asks us to share the Gospel by bringing others into his church.  Liberals believe the Church has so sinned that it dare not share its blindness and sin with others.  The Conservatives believe no one else has the background to appreciate our wonderful worship.  We often pretend that everyone in our world is already a Christian who knows and serves Jesus.  In some cases that may well be true of our close friendship circle, but it is not true of a great portion of the population in any county in our state.

The new cultural situation in which we live does not attack Christianity, but it has rendered it a powerless nurturer of the private religious needs of citizen consumers.

The Church of England and the Episcopal Church for a great portion of history saw themselves as the nation’s guide to a moral and just society.  Of course Christians have had blind spots.  For instance we did not see the immorality of slavery. We put Galileo in jail and killed other inquiring scientists.  Today we live in a culture that believes neither Government nor business entities are bound by the Ten Commandments.  The attack that has pushed the Church into the “private choice” arena of human life was fought in terms of religious freedom.  But the result is: who can judge the management of Enron.  They were doing their best for the company or at least for management weren’t they?  They may even have been acting legally!  That will certainly be argued in the courts.  Or, who can judge a state that decides that those who don’t agree with it and are not its citizens have no rights to the same legal protection as citizens?  Of course, “legal protection” is suspect to many because it is often means the use of the law to protect those with money, power, or a bright lawyer.

We have heard a serious argument on a major TV program that torture by U.S. operatives is a perfectly acceptable means for obtaining information from terrorists and suspected terrorists if it is done by the government in the best interest of the security of our country.  I think the assumption here is that our government will always operate in the best interest of all Americans in foreign policy and not be biased by self-interests.  Yet the American public does not readily accept the belief that the same political leaders are as free of self-interest as to be unbiased in the case of domestic policy!  Policy affecting us!

So today we are in a new world situation: Many cultures living intermixed side by side: People migrating on an unprecedented scale across the globe.  No longer are there areas like Afghanistan that we didn’t have to be concerned about because they couldn’t possibly affect our political life!

The Judeo-Christian values, the source of and the contents of the bulk of American values for almost 200 years, are now seen as a private matter for individuals if they make them feel “religious.”  We cannot expect our neighbor or our teachers to have Christian values.  We have a value free market, science, social science, foreign policy; or is it not we have only one value: “what pays me the most” no matter what it costs you?

What are we to do – we Christian leaders of that small part of the Christian community in East and South Georgia called the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia.

Jesus said make disciples.  One way or another Christians have done that for 2000 years or we would not be here in Church tonight.  “Of all nations” – well God did that to us.  We have been slow to move out from the idea that we were the Church of the English or perhaps the British Isles – or worse the Church of those with high social standing and elite English University educations – but God raised up thru the work of his word a few of us who evangelized a world wide Church speaking many languages.  The migration of people has brought many Anglicans from Africa, Asia, and Latin America to the U.S.  Some were accepted in some parishes – some stood firm against being frozen out of their church/our church in the US.  The good news is that we have grown to intentionally reach out to neighbors different from us in many of the congregations in Georgia.

Jesus said “teaching all that I have commanded you.”  We sometime did that better than we knew as that was the way our missionaries were empowered and sent both overseas and into the slums in the 19th century and begin to fulfill the “to all the nations” part of Jesus’ instruction for you and for me.   It has empowered many of us in this last generation to move into servant ministries with those in need regardless of who they are, serving them in Jesus name but without ulterior motives of requiring them to become Episcopalians or anything else but just showing God’s love for them.

“Teaching all that I have commanded you” I have suggested our context determines what God says to us thru the same words in the Bible fulfilling Jesus’ story in our time and place.  What do they tell us today?  Rememberremember the big word in the Great Thanksgiving in the Eucharist our central act of worship.  Remember Jesus says, “I am with you always.”   Jesus is with us. He helps us who pray and listen to his word in scripture hear how we should live for him in this our world in its current situation.

Some Christians call us to form disciplined closed communities prepared to endure to the end.  Some Christians call us to speak before Presidents, Kings and Legislatures for justice and love before it’s too late. Some call for us to witness to Christ’s healing and empowering by living lives of personal integrity and sacrifice in the middle of a selfish culture.

I know that as we pray and listen recognizing that the Body of Christ is bigger than just our congregation – or my ideological group in this Church – or the Episcopal Church – I know that Jesus tells the truth: He is with us now!  He has the way to life.  Making disciples is his mission.  He actually converts people, not us. He gives people love and life.  I know that he has given that to you and to me.  I know that he has given this diocese and our constituent mission stations (which we call congregations or parishes) unimaginable talent and ingenuity among our leaders.  Through him and with him we can do his work!  Teaching – discipling – healing – reconciling!  Each individual has a unique role to play as a disciple – each mission station, (congregation) has different opportunities to make disciples and teach all that Christ has taught us about living in and for Him.  He is with us – we have seen him – let us worship and serve.