We Gather Together
By Rev. Heidi L. Barham | August 13, 2023
Click here to listen to the service.
Read Romans 10:5 – 15
My time at the General Assembly was phenomenal. One of the highlights was seeing our General Minister and President, Rev. Theresa Hord Owens, get re-elected for a second term in office. And while they did not announce the total vote count, the level of support she received from everyone who got up to speak on her behalf was overwhelmingly positive.
The opening rollcall provided an opportunity to showcase each of the regions within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada. Each group that came forward found creative ways to introduce themselves and highlight some of their recent accomplishments as well as to extend a warm welcome to the Assembly attendees. Of course, those of us from the Christian Church in Ohio had to join in with the infamous O-H-I-O!
During the business sessions of the Assembly, reports were presented by each of the general ministries of the church that highlighted the great work that is being done locally, nationally, and globally. It was extremely heartening to bear witness to all of us who were voting delegates as we affirmed our denomination’s call to denounce Christian nationalism and to oppose anti-transgender legislation.
We heard about the concern for food waste, and the need to respond to the cries of our Palestinian siblings as well as the call to recognize a Truth and Healing Council to honor our covenantal relationship with Indigenous peoples.
In addition to conducting the general business of the church, the General Assembly was also a time for all of us to gather together for worship, Bible Study, and plenty of fellowship.
We heard an inspirational message from the Governor of Kentucky, Andy Beshear, a lifelong Disciple as he brought greetings on Saturday morning. And then on Sunday, many of us had the opportunity to worship at Beargrass Christian Church which is the church where the governor and his family are members. As part of the General Assembly tradition of inviting visiting pastors to preach in the local congregations, the Rev. Dr. William Barber was the guest preacher at Beargrass.
For those who may not know, Dr. Barber is a Disciples pastor and professor as well as the co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival… He is also the president of Repairers of the Breach… an organization that is “committed to building and supporting moral movements for social change and training a fusion group of people, activists, artists, and interfaith leaders to organize and mobilize around a moral policy agenda that prioritizes love, truth, and justice.”
Dr. Barber’s sermon that Sunday was entitled, “We Are Called to Be a Challenge to the Challenges of This Life, This World, and This Culture.”
And while that title is a bit of a mouthful, it does contain the essence of who we are called to be as disciples of Christ… both from an individual standpoint as well as what it means for us as a denomination. We have been called to challenge the status quo and to speak out against those things that create brokenness and division.
This calling to challenge systems of inequity is borne out to some extent in our denomination’s identity statement which says, “We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one Body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.”
Dr. Barber’s sermon on Sunday encapsulated much of what we were hearing and voting on during the business sessions of the Assembly.
Throughout our time in Louisville, as each resolution was brought forth… as each report was read… as each sense of the Assembly was presented… there was a consistent thread that was woven through everything… we are called to be followers of Christ and to do as Christ would do… to live like Jesus lived… to love and serve others like Jesus did… and often times that requires challenging the systems of oppression that cause harm to our brothers and sisters.
At its core, to be a disciple means to be a follower or a student of someone, and for us as disciples (both little “d” disciples and big “D” Disciples) …that someone we follow and learn from is Jesus the Christ.
And our text for this morning lets us know just how simple and straightforward it is to become a disciple… a follower of Christ… all it requires is accepting the gift of salvation that God gives to us freely.
Verses 9 and 10 of the text state:
If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.
I particularly like how these verses read in the Message Paraphrase:
Say the welcoming word to God—“Jesus is my Master”—embracing, body and soul, God’s work of doing in us what he did in raising Jesus from the dead. That’s it. You’re not “doing” anything; you’re simply calling out to God, trusting him to do it for you. That’s salvation. With your whole being you embrace God setting things right, and then you say it, right out loud: “God has set everything right between him and me!”
That’s all there is to it… there is not some complex process that has to be followed. Salvation is as close as our own heart and mouth. It’s right here… literally on the tip of our tongue. All we have to do is believe it and speak it.
So why do we spend so much time trying to make things so complicated?
Why do we waste so much energy on things that cause division and separation rather than learning to live in unity with one another? Psalm 133:1 says, “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!”
The Psalmist David did not include in any qualifiers or disqualifiers in this statement. The verse says, ‘God’s people [period].” And the reason for that is pretty simple… because in spite of reports to the contrary… no one person or group of persons has an exclusive claim to God. We are all God’s children… and Jesus gave His life for us all… without exception.
Keep in mind what it says in John 3:16, “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.”
That word “whoever” means just that… whoever… regardless of age, race, gender, gender identity, socio-economic status, political affiliation, faith tradition, height, weight, eye color, hair color, or even favorite sports team… that word whoever means simply that any and all of us have been offered the gift of salvation through Christ’s sacrifice on that cross at Calvary.
And if we look back to our text for this morning, we find further confirmation of that in verses 11 – 13:
“Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
God did not intend for us to live within some set of artificial structures that would prevent us from living in unity and gathering together as followers of Christ.
In Ephesians 4:4-6 we find these words in the Message Paraphrase:
You were all called to travel on the same road and in the same direction, so stay together, both outwardly and inwardly. You have one Master, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who rules over all, works through all, and is present in all. Everything you are and think and do is permeated with Oneness.
Now, one of the many things I love about the General Assembly is the recognition of our ecumenical partners who are gathered there with us… representatives who come from across denominational lines… people who share a genuine love of Christ and have a desire to walk together, on the same road, as His disciples.
That is the very foundation of our denomination… people who gather together out of a genuine love for Christ and a desire to be His followers. It is at the heart of what the founders, Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell, had in mind when they came together… to be Christians only but not the only Christians.
It was just about two years ago, that the denomination worked through the Covenant Conversation curriculum which is based on our Affirmation of Faith.
The Affirmation reads:
As members of the Christian Church, we confess that Jesus is the Christ,
the Son of the living God, and proclaim him Lord and Savior of the world.
In Christ’s name and by his grace we accept our mission of witness and service to all people.
We rejoice in God, maker of heaven and earth, and in God’s covenant of love which binds us to God and to one another.
Through baptism into Christ we enter into newness of life and are made one with the whole people of God.
In the communion of the Holy Spirit we are joined together in discipleship
and in obedience to Christ.
At the Table of the Lord we celebrate with thanksgiving the saving acts and presence of Christ.
Within the universal church we receive the gift of ministry and the light of scripture.
In the bonds of Christian faith we yield ourselves to God that we may serve the One whose kingdom has no end.
Blessing, glory, and honor be to God forever. Amen.
This time of intentional study that we undertook was designed to allow us to engage in deep reflection of what it means to live in a covenantal relationship with each other, with the church, and with God.
This time of study was just one part of what is known as the Covenant Project. And one of the outcomes of the Covenant Project, were proposed changes to the Design of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) which were voted on at the Assembly… changes that will allow us to work even more closely with one another in covenantal relationship as WE GATHER TOGETHER more often virtually and live fully into the call to be the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
However, these changes also call for us to gather together less frequently in person… moving to in-person gatherings every 3 years instead of every 2 years.
These changes are being implemented, in part, to help address the concern over declining attendance at the General Assembly which started happening prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. But it was actually the opportunity to move to a virtual platform during the pandemic that brought about the realization that the access and availability of a virtual format made it possible for more disciples to engage in the work of the church.
There will be more to come about this over the course of the next two years. These changes will not actually go into effect until the close of the 2025 General Assembly which will be held in Memphis, TN. So, mark your calendars now!
But in the meantime, there is still much work for us to do as disciples of Christ (and by us, I mean both small “d” as well as big “D” disciples). We have been commissioned by Jesus and have a responsibility to fulfill.
It is in Matthew 28:19 – 20 that we find these words of Jesus:
Therefore, 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 I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
There are so many hurting people out in this world that need to know about Jesus. And they need to know that His promise to be with us always is trustworthy and true.
And this dovetails nicely with the closing verses of our text for the morning that I want to read for us from the Message:
But how can people call for help if they don’t know who to trust? And how can they know who to trust if they haven’t heard of the One who can be trusted? And how can they hear if nobody tells them? And how is anyone going to tell them, unless someone is sent to do it? That’s why Scripture exclaims,
A sight to take your breath away! Grand processions of people telling all the good things of God!
Seeing those roughly 3,000 disciples gathered together there in that Convention Center in Louisville was like seeing a grand procession of people… and it really was enough to take your breath away… just to think that we were gathered together to tell of the good things of God… to celebrate what God is doing in each of our lives as well as in the life of the church… and to ask for God’s blessing to continue to be with us on this journey.
And so, this morning, I want to invite us to reaffirm our commitment to be those disciples of Christ… the ones who gather together to share the good news about the goodness of God.
And if you’re ready, willing, and able to do that, I want to invite you to stand and join in singing our Hymn of Discipleship: We Gather Together #276.