Sermon 2-19-2017; ‘Christ has come to teach his people himself’
Wilmer Cooper, The Gospel According to Friends, Friends United Press
Last Sunday we spoke about being weird… about holding onto the essentials – the real Truth of God, with a capital “T”. I shared that “In this time of feel-good, fake news, we need to hang onto real news, good news. We need to hang onto the Gospel. And that’s weird. We need to live into what was said in Olde English, “godspell.” I like to think of the Gospel as ‘God’s spell’, that mystical thing that happens when God’s power, the power of the Holy Spirit, overtakes the world… when we allow the Gospel, the good news of God to run freely, unfettered, through our lives. The good news! When we allow God to sing through us. When we allow God to sing the truth, to speak the truth, through us, through our meeting, through our churches, through our lives.”
A young man named George Fox did this in the 1600’s and his song – his good news of God’s power and love continues to move through us – those of us who call ourselves Quakers – when we allow the Gospel to run freely through our lives. What is our good news? What is your good news? What is your gospel? Your godspell? Your mystical, prayerful, deep sense of God? Your understanding of God?
Friend Wilmer Cooper, once the Dean of Earlham School of Religion, helps us discover the basis of our common faith as Friends through the study of George Fox’s Journal writings. Underlying the message of good news that George Fox held was that ‘Christ had come to teach his people himself.’ No priest, no pastor, no interpreter, no teacher, was necessary in order to communicate with any person what Christ had to give, share, instruct, or teach. Christ could and does speak directly to each one of us. This was the heart of the gospel for Fox. Christ was come to teach his people Himself, by His power and Spirit in their hearts, and to bring people off from all the world's ways and teachers, to His own free teaching, who had bought them, and was the Savior of all them that believed in Him.’
How does this understanding of God’s direct ministry in and to our lives affect the Good News – the Gospel – according to Friends? Cooper has found five distinctives, and I’ve pulled them into an insert for your bulletins today. Let’s take a look.
1. Personal Experience: ‘But as I had forsaken the priests, so I left the separate preachers also, and those esteemed the most experienced people; for I saw there was none among them all that could speak to my condition. And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, oh, then, I heard a voice which said, "There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition"; and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy.’ George Fox, 1647
Fox ends this passage saying, ‘This I knew experimentally.” “The Jesus of history and the Christ of faith mean nothing unless they are internalized and known inwardly in the experience of the heart,” says Cooper. Like a scientist working with a problem to solve, after so many experiments, Fox had experienced and known God’s presence. Fox had that direct encounter with God, and it set him on his great spiritual pilgrimage.
The next distinctive is incredibly powerful, and continues to sing out through the faith of Friends. Fox was convinced that this experience of knowing God’s presence was not meant for some, but for all who would respond to the transforming power of God. There were some who professed Christ, Calvin was one - who would have said that only the elect, the chosen, were acceptable to God. Fox’s insight ‘that every man was enlightened by the divine Light of Christ’ is taken from today’s reading in the first chapter of John’s gospel… ‘The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.’ [v.9] Friend Robert Barclay, in his ‘Apology’ refers to this as ‘the Quaker text’. A doctrine of universal grace versus limited grace came as a boon and a blessing to those who had lived under the threat of failing election, or being chosen by God. Hear what Fox discovered:
2. Universal Experience: Now the Lord God opened to me by His invisible power that every man was enlightened by the divine Light of Christ, and I saw it shine through all; and that they that believed in it came out of condemnation to the Light of life, and became the children of it; but they that hated it, and did not believe in it were condemned by it, though they made a profession of Christ. This I saw in the pure openings of the Light without the help of any man; neither did I then know where to find it in the Scriptures; though afterwards, searching the Scriptures, I found it. George Fox, 1648
Please find Reading #3 in your bulletin insert, and let’s read about Corporate Experience, together.
3. Corporate Experience: As we went I spied a great high hill called Pendle Hill, and I went on the top of it with much ado, it was so steep; but I was moved of the Lord to go atop of it; and when I came atop of it I saw Lancashire sea; and there atop of the hill I was moved to sound the day of the Lord; and the Lord let me see atop of the hill in what places he had a great people to be gathered… So I opened to the people that the ground and house was no holier than another place, and that the house was not the church but the people of which Christ is the head… George Fox, 1652
Friends, Quakerism was never meant to be a singular religion. George Fox did not mean for us to spend hours alone, meditating in private, and never with others. His vision on Pendle Hill, was one of a gathered people, meeting together, bringing that of God in each one of us to the other, collectively. Gathering in God’s presence, in the power of God’s presence, Fox intended for us to be a people who shared the Good News of our experience of God with each other, and then with the world. Early Friends met in homes, under trees, in meadows, in meetinghouses, in jails… the people themselves were the gathered church – not the building or place where they met. Their corporate gatherings gave them strength, as did their own private meditations. I believe that to be true for us as well, and that’s why gathering for Meeting for Worship is so important.
4. Holy Obedience: So the keeper of the house of correction was commanded to bring me before the commissioners and soldiers in the market-place, where they offered me that preferment, as they called it, asking me if I would not take up arms for the Commonwealth against Charles Stuart. I told them I knew whence all wars arose, even from the lusts, according to James' doctrine; and that I lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars. George Fox, 1651
Quoting Wilmer Cooper: ‘A fourth great discovery of Fox was that we may not only know experientially the living Christ, but we can obey him. This means that the power of the living Christ enables us to live in obedience to him as the inward teacher of the heart. This constitutes a central ethical dimension of Fox’s teaching and led to his doctrine of Christian perfection, or what Friends have called ‘holy obedience.’
Holy Nelly! – What does that mean?! It does not mean that George Fox was a perfect person. It meant that he lived in the power and strength of the Lord now, and that we can too. We can endeavor to live a virtuous life, through the grace and strength of God, and the power of God’s Spirit, and that through this, Fox was able to live as if the Kingdom of God had already come. He did not have to wait until the Kingdom arrived at some future time or in its fullness before he could begin to live a Christ-like life here and now.
Remember that many people are waiting for Christ’s return, for life with God in heaven. Fox turned this upside-down. We can live with God right now, in the kingdom of God at hand, as Christ preached. We can endeavor to live a life that takes away the occasion for all wrong doing – not just war, but prejudice, injustice… all manner of evil. Fox once said he had passed back through the flaming swords securing the entrance to the Garden of Eden, and was in fellowship with God. This is the communion that comes in holy obedience.
Many of us are familiar with George Fox’s lovely image of the ocean of light flowing over the ocean of darkness. It’s not only lovely – it’s needful. Fox was writing out of despair, and wasn’t sure how to move forward. The world was collapsing in on him, as it does and has on so many of us. How do you explain Hiroshima? How do you cope with the death of a loved one? How do you deal with plagues, with civil wars, with betrayal, with beheadings, with loss?
5. Message of Hope: And the Lord answered that it was needful I should have a sense of all conditions, how else should I speak to all conditions; and in this I saw the infinite love of God. I saw also that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness. And in that also I saw the infinite love of God; and I had great openings. George Fox, 1647
If Fox was going to minister to all people, he had to understand the condition of all people. If the understanding of the Gospel that Fox had been given was to be shared, he had to be fully prepared to share it. It was not out of despair that Fox saw the ocean of light. This came out of a sense of love and hope. And this is what Quakers bring to the world… that despite the darkness of sin and evil, there is something that overcomes it – that literally flows over it – light and love. And in that is the infinite, immeasurable, endless, unlimited, unbounded, never-ending love, of God.
A Quaker’s faith in God is meant to be experienced personally, universally, corporately, obediently, and hopefully. Our faith is a direct experience with God, with one another, and with the world we live in. Its unique to each one of us, and its meaning is as deep as is our communion with the one who has come to teach us himself.
What do these truths, this good news, mean for Quakers today? For the world today? For you and me today? How does this gospel shape our future?